President Emeritus, Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis
When, as young teenager, I stood in early spring on a windswept hillside above Baker Beach in San Francisco and discovered a single bush of a sprawling, nearly prostrate manzanita—I had no idea that I was looking at the only surviving individual of its kind. I enjoyed finding it, but failed to understand that it was one of many kinds of organisms on the brink of extinction. To me, plants and animals were where they were, farms were in their place, and cities were cities—that was that. There were about 11 million people living in California, 158 million in the United States., and 2.6 billion in the entire world. Now the corresponding figures are 38 million in California, 320 million in the United States, and 7.2 billion worldwide. Consumption levels have risen even more rapidly than population levels, and we are using our resources much faster than they can be replenished, thus driving species to extinction at an ever-increasing rate. The problem of extinction has become obvious to everyone who cares!
In the 1960s, the need for conservation started to rise in our collective consciousness, and we began to understand that we were dealing with a problem that would ultimately affect us all. By the early 1970s, this realization led to the enactment of basic environmental legislation by Congress, and its signing into law by President Nixon. Among these laws, the Endangered Species Act stands out as being of fundamental importance, providing a means for federal registration of species on the brink of extinction, and then mandating the formulation of plans to protect them. The Act remains unique globally.
Throughout the world, species are now disappearing at thousands of times the historical rate; as many as half of them may be gone by the year 2100. In the United States, however, the Endangered Species Act, along with our other fundamental environmental legislation, is helping to protect many species. We base our livelihood on biological species—obtaining all of our food, most of our medicines, our ecological services of incalculable value, and the beauty that enriches our lives—from the species that surround us. Throwing them away in exchange for an explosively growing population, impossibly high demands for consumption, and our continuing use of destructive technologies is not only morally indefensible, it is incredibly stupid.
Will our domestic conservation programs survive the pressures of the future? We do not know, but we do know that we will be able to continue to save only what we have already saved. Our strong support of the Endangered Species Act will allow children to continue to enjoy the personal wonder of their own discoveries in nature, and it will help us all survive so that we may enjoy the wonderful gifts that our civilization has produced in ways that can be maintained and improved forever.