Over the next half-century, human beings will drive so many species to extinction that we will essentially “set back the clock” on earth’s biodiversity by three to five million years. The Union of Concerned Scientists predicts that 67% of currently endangered species, and 99% of those already critically endangered, will be lost to us within 100 years.
With stakes this high, there’s only one question we need to ask ourselves, as individuals and organizations, when we think about what we’re doing to our one and only home:
“Am I helping, or am I making the problem worse?”
This is the question now in front of the Trump White House and our Corporate Congress. There is presently no reason to think this administration’s environmental legacy will be anything other than a dark mark on our recent history — and a blow to a living planet that can’t take any more bad news right now.
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The Endangered Species Act and the Trump Administration
When the president (or republicans or centrists or a lot of democrats) talk about regulations, it’s usually between gritted teeth. The ugly truth is, there are lots of human activities that are great for profits, and okay for consumers, but absolutely devastating to the environment.
Regulations are a very thin bureaucratic line, and one of the only real reasons why “advanced economies” haven’t already totally abandoned the pretense of eco-mindedness.
This is especially true of the Endangered Species Act. If a species has made its way onto this list, it’s because human activity has compromised the habitat or the food supply of a higher animal and has put it on a fast-track to permanent erasure.
This seems lost on the Trump Administration, which in August 2019 implemented some of the most sweeping changes in decades to the Endangered Species Act. The response from environmental groups, liberal and progressive lawmakers, scientists, and attorneys general in several states, was both swift and comprehensive in its condemnation.
The objections can be summarized roughly as follows:
- Putting a literal economic cost on the preservation of a species is morally repugnant.
- Gutting the Endangered Species Act will likely put several plant and animal species on an even faster track for extinction.
Again, remember that a species has to be in very bad shape already to be named Endangered or especially Critically Endangered. Biologists and environmentalists are sounding the alarm that changing this Act will cut our response time even further when it comes to helping species recover.
The question is: “Are we helping or making things worse?” As of August 2019, the White House and most of Congress have chosen to continue making things worse.
It’s ironic and tragic, but the bald eagle — the chosen symbol of American ideals — owes its very existence to the Endangered Species Act.
Forging a Legacy: Trump and Wildlife
The “Trump Effect” as it pertains to the Endangered Species Act, according to Brett Hartl of the Center for Biological Diversity, is “an open invitation for political interference [with the preservation of species].”
He continued: “You’d have to be really naïve and cynical and disingenuous to pretend otherwise. That’s the reason Congress way back … prohibited the Service from doing that.”
And by “that,” he means allowing the price tag for species recovery to prevent governments and corporations from doing the responsible thing: namely, clean up their own mess.
Having honest discussions about humanity’ influence on species and the climate of the planet has been made more, not less, controversial under this leadership. The Trump Administration regularly removes publications on these topics from public government websites and has removed the protected status of public lands on a grander scale than any previous president.
Barack Obama spent his presidency establishing an enviable legacy on the environment. His administration rejected the Keystone XL Pipeline, worked to raise emissions standards for automobiles, established some of the largest natural wildlife preserves the world has seen, and embarked on a conservation mission the likes of which we haven’t seen since President Teddy Roosevelt himself.
As for Trump’s legacy? He has presided over and encouraged the regulatory capture of every public institution tasked with keeping the environment, and the many species there, safe from harm of our own making.
The entities, businesses and otherwise, that are in most desperate need of policing, are now instead in charge of writing the very rules that keep our air and water clean and threatened species from collapsing into ruin.
Seeing the Forest for the Trees
There’s a familiar saying that goes something like this: “We sometimes miss the forest for the trees.” What this means is that it’s easy to let myopia take over. We fight the wrong battles or choose the wrong focus. We look before we leap. We don’t account for the bigger picture.
Or, we concentrate on short-term profits or comfort at the expense of gains we might’ve had further down the road. Research suggests that failing to help endangered species recover, and allowing further extinction events on our watch, could shave 18% off humanity’s total economic output.
Myopia manifests in other ways apart from selfishness. When the subject of a threatened or endangered species comes up, many individuals, including those who speak for corporations, are quick to suggest that the loss of a species is an isolated event and not worth fretting about.
This is not the case. Species can be entwined with one another, and with their environment, in thousands of ways we can’t easily see or appreciate right away. One species may use another for food or shelter, meaning the loss of one could lead to the loss of the other, or even to wholesale habitat collapse.
Donald Trump says he is an environmentalist. He is not. Neither is he a scientist. And yet the destinies of thousands of species hang on his words and deeds. He speaks for people who, when faced with the permanent loss of one of earth’s species, asks: “What would it cost me to help fix this?” But what we need more than ever are people who ask, “How can I help?”