The trend of species extinction could have unpredictable consequences for human well-being. Liam Glen writes on the economic value of endangered species.
The UN-affiliated IPBES grabbed headlines on May 6 with the summary of a report concluding that nearly a million out of an estimated eight million plant and animal species on Earth are at risk of extinction, mostly due to human activity.
Protection of biodiversity is overwhelmingly popular. But the reason for this is difficult to articulate.
For many, it is a matter of natural heritage. We prefer to live in a world with red pandas and blue whales than one without. We do not hunt them or destroy their habitat for the same reason that we do not tear down the Statue of Liberty for scrap metal or eat the Mona Lisa.
It may sound like a cynical explanation, but for most people, it is enough. It is a logic that was sufficient to justify wide-reaching protections like the Endangered Species Act in the US.
However, problems arise when conservation gets in the way of more tangible human interests. Even as the threat of mass extinction looms, the Trump administration has been scaling back the Endangered Species Act. Free-market organizations like the Competitive Enterprise Institute estimate billions of dollars in losses from the law.
When natural heritage meets economic reality, the outcome does not always favor conservation. But there does not need to be a conflict. Even a cursory look at the issue reveals the economic benefits that come from protecting endangered species.
Deriving Value from Nature
It is not an obscure fact that nature can be a major source of revenue. With endangered species, this is often framed in terms of bioprospecting: deriving marketable products from plants and animals.
This most famously takes place in medicine. The chemotherapy medication paclitaxel came from the Pacific yew tree. More recently, researchers have used peptides the Chinese fawn tarantula’s venom as a painkiller.
Iconic species can also be a boon for local communities. The endangered silverback gorilla is at the center of Rwanda’s tourism industry.
And – ironic as it may sound – we may save animals so we can keep killing them. The recovery of the American alligator has allowed for a multi-million dollar hunting industry.
But this is only a fraction of the benefit that humans get from the natural world. Plants, animals, and fungi decompose waste, purify water, regulate populations, and perform various other functions that scientists refer to as ecosystem services.
The most famous example are the bees, whose numbers face a worrying decline. They play such a crucial role in pollinating plants that are essential to humans and other animals that their extinction would be apocalyptic.
Most of the times, the services that a species provides cannot be determined until it is too late. In the early 1900s, displacement of predators like wolves in national parks allowed their prey to thrive. In turn, these herbivores overgrazed riverside vegetation, allowing the banks and floodplains to erode. The removal of the wolves ultimately changed river morphology.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimated in 2011 that ecosystem services in the contiguous United States contribute 1.6 trillion dollars to the economy per year. The extinction of any species could easily interfere with this contribution.
The Limits of Protection
With such obvious benefits, it is easy to say that the opponents of conservation are simply short-sighted or uneducated. But this is not always the case. There can be cases where the benefits of development truly seem to stack against species protection.
The town of Colton, California was caught in a decades-long legal battle over a hospital that would have destroyed the habitat of the endangered Delhi Sands flower-loving fly.
Even given the unpredictable benefits that can come from endangered species, the fly’s value was minimal. Even its supporters, like the conservationist Xerces Society, cared more about protecting the Delhi Sands as a whole than the fly in particular.
For those who lack a strong philosophical commitment to conservation, the hospital is unquestionably more important than the fly.
The situation can become even more ambiguous when it is not a binary choice between preservation and extinction. In 2017, the Trump administration repealed a regulation to stop endangered species from getting caught in fishing nets, arguing that it was unnecessary for their protection.
It is unlikely that the extinction of the Delhi Sands fly would have grave consequences, or that a single regulation is stopping a species’ extinction. However, if one takes a line of action that deemphasizes conservation, mistakes become more likely over time.
A single fly may not have much value, but allowing the extinction of more species increases the risk of unintended consequences. Throwing out a single regulation may not contribute to the extinction crisis, but a systematic relaxation of protections certainly will.
This is especially true when compromises are possible. The Delhi Sands fly controversy came to a close with the city agreeing to purchase land for conservation in return for developing its habitat.
When such a solution is available, risking the extinction of an entire species is a poor bet to make.