Wolves, Bees, Whales, and Us

By Steven Strauss

Threatened, vulnerable, endangered, extinct. In medicine, we describe a hospitalized patient’s chances of survival with the terms good, fair, serious, and critical. Environmental biologists use similar descriptors. Depending on how fast populations are falling, a species can be threatened, vulnerable, or endangered. When fully overwhelmed, it becomes irreversibly extinct.

The Chinook salmon is threatened. The African elephant is vulnerable. The orca whale of the Pacific Northwest is endangered. And with the recent death of the last male northern white rhino, that species is essentially extinct.

Caused ultimately by reckless endangerment of the environment for profit, these slow deaths are unnecessary and preventable. Capitalism should be charged with mass murder.

To address the problem of species at risk, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was passed in 1973. It was a reform reflecting increasing awareness of human invasion of natural habitats.

The law is supported by more than 90 percent of the country. It has even been effective. Ninety-nine percent of the more than 1,600 species designated for protection have so far been saved from extinction.

However, the ESA has always been threatened. Some Democrats and many Republicans have sought exemptions for energy tycoons, land developers, and other profit-driven environmental rapists.

And now, with the Trump administration continuing the rightward trajectory of capitalist politics, “threatened” no longer characterizes the ESA’s status. “Vulnerable” is more appropriate. Its opponents are trying to make it “extinct.”

Recently, Trump appointed former Texas comptroller Susan Combs to a key policy position at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Combs’ qualifications include supporting legislation which would require permission from private landowners before data about endangered species on their property could be collected. Siding with fossil fuel investors, she opposed listing the dune sagebrush lizard as endangered.

Bills currently before Congress would allow the Fish and Wildlife Service to ignore science and instead use economic criteria (read capitalist profit) to deny protections. Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico would risk the very existence of regional black bears, bighorn sheep, desert tortoises, and jaguars. That being the case, we can predict that proponents of the wall will be pitted against defenders of the ESA.

As far back as the 19th century, Herman Melville had a hunch that something might go tragically awry from human plundering. Reflecting on the consequences of global whale hunting, the creator of Moby Dick asked “whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase,” and “whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe.”

Who indeed will be “the last [hu]man?” We already know that capitalist pollution of the planet is making us sick. It could also turn us into an endangered or extinct species.

Why not? Capitalism is destroying ecosystems; the mutually-sustaining complex interactions among life forms. Destruction of ecosystems is why species are at risk. Humans are as much a part of these networks as other living things.

The Yellowstone ecosystem had its last pack of wolves killed off by humans back in the 1920s. As a result, elk had fewer predators. They widened their grazing territory, leading to the degradation of willows and aspens. The soil eroded. Birds lost their nesting habitats and beavers lost their wood. Rabbits and mice lost hiding places and became easier prey. Thankfully, the reintroduction of wolves in 1995 has dramatically improved the balance of nature there.

Similarly, human dam and culvert construction has harmed salmon. Whales now have a shortage of food.

Beehives are disappearing. Scientists think pesticides play a role. Yet bees pollinate the plants that produce more than a third of the human food supply.

Contrary to what capitalists would like us to believe, humans are not exempt from the laws of biology. We rely on the very species and food webs that are being decimated. But capitalism is compelled to find profits even if that means destroying ecosystems.

So let’s threaten capitalism by demanding environmental impact studies on every single project that affects nature. Let’s make capitalism vulnerable by organizing the oppressed. And let’s finally make it extinct by replacing it with the earth-friendly ecosystem called socialism.

Freedom Socialist, June/July 2018