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Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee

The Endangered Species Act must protect all species, not just those where the costs of doing so are less than their economic valuation.

william schlesinger
President Emeritus, Biogeochemist

The Trump administration claims that it is committed to providing clean air and water for all Americans. Here, the operative word is “for,” as if humans merely take from the environment and are not part of it. This view is emblematic of why “the human” seldom appears in field guides to the mammals, as if we sit above nature. If the human—Homo sapiens—is sapient, we need to move beyond this self-centered view of our position in the world. We will not survive with only clean air and water. It is not realistic to think that we are apart from nature.

Within the past few weeks the administration has proposed rolling back the protections of the Endangered Species Act, and vacating the Clean Water Act to allow a copper and gold mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska. These go in the face of our understanding that nature must be protected and not simply managed for human use.

More than seven billion of our numbers exist on this planet because of nature, which provides our food, fuel, and fiber, supporting our persistence each minute of each day. Thank a plant somewhere for every breath of oxygen you take. The collective effects of life on Earth result from its diversity—not just the few species of economic value, but all species that share the planet with us.

Everywhere, species of nature are intertwined in food webs that underlie the stable conditions on our planet. Some species are abundant; some are rare. The Endangered Species Act was designed to protect species that are scraping at the bottom of their continued persistence among life on Earth. Small and rare species are not merely the pursuit of a few nature freaks. The pollinators that we overlooked in developing neonicotinoid insecticides are now recognized as essential to the perpetuation of many crops. The krill in Antarctic waters form the basis of a food chain that extends to the largest whales of the seas. The Endangered Species Act must protect all species, not just those where the costs of doing so are less than their economic valuation.

Each species on our planet plays a role in the healthy functioning of natural ecosystems, on which humans depend. As John Donne wrote 400 years ago, “no man is an island;” when we lose a species, the bell tolls for us. The science of ecology has numerous examples of higher productivity, lower nutrient losses, and greater stability in natural communities of greater species richness. Habitat is essential for the continued persistence of biodiversity. Why should it be acceptable to allow an Australian gold-mining company to destroy Bristol Bay, Alaska, and not worry that we have destroyed one of the most important salmon fisheries that has supported Native Americans in Alaska for the past 18,000 years. In corporate office buildings thousands of miles away, those who stand to profit don’t seem to care about fish habitat or Native Americans.

With many species showing diminished numbers and vulnerable to extinction, we should be increasing our protection of critical habitats—not offering them up to further mining, oil and gas exploration and land development. The EPA may speak for humans, but someone must speak for nature.

And we all need to know the difference.

william schlesinger
President Emeritus, Biogeochemist

William Schlesinger is active in communicating science to policy makers and media. He has testified about environmental issues in Congress and in state houses, and has been featured in media including NOVA, the Weather Channel, Discover, National Geographic, and the New York Times.

He discusses a range of environmental issues in his weekly blog, Translational Ecology.

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