I Lost My Job to an Owl


NO ONE WANTS to be accused of driving a species to extinction. In a culture where diversity is highly valued and any adjective ending in "-centric" is an insult, someone who believes that human interests such as jobs and property rights may be more important than preserving an endangered species is likely to be branded as an "anthropocentric" enemy of biodiversity.

The common perception is that the only people who oppose environmentalist laws are greedy industrialists and arrogant Darwinians convinced of Homo sapiens' innate superiority. In fact, the dissenters are more likely to be working-class Americans, like the loggers in the Northwest who are losing their jobs because virgin forests they cut are the habitat of the endangered spotted owl.

The Endangered Species Act, passed in 1973, unequivocally protects all endangered species from any human activity that would push them closer to extinction. This applies not only to cute little shore birds caught in oil spills, but also to rare species of beetles and other less cuddly creatures that happen to live on private property. The development of many small businesses has been halted by the government because the land in question is a rare bug's natural habitat.

IN 1986, FOR EXAMPLE, a middle-class man who had worked hard to afford a piece of land that he meant to develop into a golf course was suddenly told that he had wasted his money and effort. The land was the habitat of a rare butterfly. Other small property owners are prohibited from developing their own homes for similar reasons.

Big deal, you might say. Who needs more golf courses and sun porches cluttering up what's left of the American countryside? But whatever your opinion of the aesthetic value of their development plans, these people's constitutional rights have been violated.


The Fifth Amendment clearly states, "nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." These property-owners have invested substantial amounts of their savings in projects that the government has halted without any compensation whatsoever.

If the government can freeze citizens' investments on the basis of suddenly discovered ecological data, it should reimburse the affected parties, who had no way of knowing they were breaking the law. If (as is likely) there are insufficient federal funds to do this, the government should think seriously about restricting the scope of species protection laws.

In addition to property rights, a cause that may not be dear to that largely liberal environmentalist groups, people who believe that biodiversity is worth the human cost should consider how it affects the common welfare.

I already noted the plight of the loggers. Moreover, government projects like dams which would provide ecologically sound hydroelectric power have been stopped midway--after millions of taxpayer dollars had been spent--when an endangered fish species was discovered in the water. When does our solicitude for other species become the self-destruction of our own?

MY INTENT IS not only to point out some of the excesses of our current environmental policy, but to urge that we re-examine the presuppositions of the biodiversity cult itself.

The condemnation of "anthropocentrism" resembles the condemnation of "ethnocentrism" in that both begin by criticizing real forms of arrogance and short-sightedness, but quickly degenerate into a paranoid from of self-criticism based on the notion that valuing one thing over another--be it a culture, an ideology, or species--is nothing but blind prejudice. Every living being by nature belongs to a particular region, species and lifestyle, yet in our case we treat this particularity as something to be ashamed of and vigorously denied in the hope that it will go away.

You can't have it both ways. Either human beings are metaphysically and morally different from all other species (in which case our first responsibility is to other humans, not rare beetles), or else we are no better than other forms of sentient life and shouldn't give ourselves airs (as environmentalists believe).

If the latter is true, however, we should cease imposing on ourselves moral duties that are the exact opposite of other life forms' guiding imperatives: instead of accepting our part in the evolutionary struggle like our brothers the insects, we mistakenly act as if we should exterminate ourselves (or at least curtail our survival-oriented activities) for the good of all species except our own.

We have to realize that whether we prefer to think of ourselves as biological creatures or unique moral beings, a self-sacrificial attitude towards our own species is absurd. Otherwise we might as well just hand over our bodies to viruses, our lawns to beetles and our jobs to spotted owls.