Tom Lovejoy

Professor of Environmental Science and Policy

George Mason University

Details aside, the Endangered Species Act is based on the principle that all species should be conserved—a true landmark in the history of environment and conservation. This is the first time in the history of life on Earth that a single species has knowingly driven others to extinction and has knowingly dedicated itself to preventing that.

The obligation to prevent extinction implicit in the Endangered Species Act is not just practical and utilitarian in terms of what we now call ecosystems and their goods and services. It is also very much an ethical obligation involving deep respect for all other forms of life, each one of which has a four billion-plus-years’ history, going back to the origins of life on Earth.

Sadly, as we know, this is not just a matter of a handful of species, but rather, the numbers of endangered and threatened species are soaring. This basically obviates any academic discussion of whether humans should prevent a species from going extinct naturally; the odds are a thousand fold to one that any particular endangered or threatened species owes that status to human activity.

In the 1940s, Ruth Patrick demonstrated that the numbers and kinds of species in a river or stream reflect not only the natural conditions of the ecosystem but also the impacts of human activities in the watershed. In other words, biodiversity integrates all environmental problems and provides the single best single measure of human impact. So if one wishes a single measure of environmental impact nationally (or internationally), the number of endangered species is exactly that.

The obligation to prevent extinction implicit in the Endangered Species Act is not just practical and utilitarian in terms of what we now call ecosystems and their goods and services. It is also very much an ethical obligation involving deep respect for all other forms of life, each one of which has a four billion-plus-years’ history, going back to the origins of life on Earth. Beyond that it is quite wondrous.

The choice before us is whether generations to come will have an impoverished planet and future, or whether they will have one on which life flourishes in all its glory. The Endangered Species Act codifies the latter in perpetuity.


Download the entire book A Wild Success here.