Michael Brune

Executive Director, Sierra Club

How to value a species—or the loss of one? Giant pandas, which are both endangered and adorable-looking, are surely at the high end of the scale. China will lend your national zoo a giant panda for up to $1 million a year, and it spends far more than that in its attempts to protect the small population of giant pandas that still survive in the wild.

To ask what a species is worth is really to ask what life itself is worth. In this sense, the Endangered Species Act is as great a landmark in American values as is the Declaration of Independence.

If we can prevent giant pandas from disappearing entirely, most people would consider that money well spent. But what of the thousands of species that don’t have the panda’s star power? Every ten minutes, another one vanishes forever. Although extinctions are a natural phenomenon on our ever-changing planet, the current rate is about 1,000 times normal. It shows no sign of slowing, and it’s no mystery who is responsible: We are.

Unfortunately, things are likely to get worse before they get better. Left unchecked, human-created climate disruption could threaten more than a third of all terrestrial species by 2050. In the United States, the first animal to be officially listed as threatened due to climate disruption was a distant cousin of the giant panda—the polar bear. It will not be the last.

Habitats are shifting and pressures on species are increasing. The scramble for scarce resources is intensifying. In such a world, protections like the Endangered Species Act have become more important than ever. The sound, science-based principles that give the Act its strength are exactly what we need to preserve our wild legacy and maintain biological diversity in the face of an uncertain future.

In 1973, the Endangered Species Act put into law what we knew was the right thing to do. Even when what’s right is not what’s easiest, we must not allow greed or politics to cloud that vision. So far, the Endangered Species Act has been tremendously successful, but the work to protect species is far from finished. The jury is still out on how committed we are to helping all living things meet the environmental challenges to come.

To ask what a species is worth is really to ask what life itself is worth. In this sense, the Endangered Species Act is as great a landmark in American values as is the Declaration of Independence. Like that document, the Act states a “self-evident” truth: All life has value—value beyond reckoning. Or, as William Blake put it, “Everything that lives is holy.”