Charles Darwin, the epoch-making natural historian, seems to have been a perceptive observer of the two-legged species, in addition to those that soar and squirm. “So profound is our ignorance,” Darwin wrote, “and so high our presumption, that we marvel when we hear of the extinction of an organic being; and as we do not see the cause, we invoke cataclysms to desolate the world, or invent laws on the duration of the forms of life!”
Invoking cataclysms has been the day-to-day operation of the environmental movement for many years now — and inventing laws the means by which to do it. There is a strong conservative case — for reasons theological, philosophical, political, and economic — for preserving and cultivating the beauty and variety that we find in our natural surroundings. Adam was, after all, given the garden to tend, not to pillage and plunder. But what Darwin sagely identified was the related and radical impulse to subordinate human flourishing to the preservation of what we take to be the natural status quo.
With that in mind, the recent decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to grant California’s Shiloh IV Wind Project a permit to unintentionally kill up to five golden eagles over the next five years is a surprisingly balanced compromise between the needs of the alternative-energy industry and the desire of preservationists and other Americans to protect species that are of particular significance to our nation.
As Véronique de Rugy observes, there is probably a double standard at work here, because the federal government is otherwise zealous about protecting the nation’s bird. According to the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940 (and golden eagles were appended to this act in 1962), if you “take,” or in any way disturb or molest members of these species, you will be hit with a $250,000 fine or sentenced to up to two years in prison. The federal government takes this law seriously: Two 15-year-olds who shot and killed a bald eagle in Iowa in February are set to appear in juvenile court. If those teens had been in the “green energy” business, fending off the sinister forces of coal and oil, they probably would have been acquitted by now.
Still, what is remarkable about this Shiloh decision — all suspect motivations aside — is its pleasant submission to common sense. News Flash: Birds are likely to be killed when you hoist giant spinning blades into the sky. What ought to ruffle our feathers is the money, time, and labor devoted to denying that fact.
Whoever would have thought that birds were in such dire need of human shielding? They are threatened by utility lines and automobiles, by tall buildings and communications towers, by Boeing 747s and the United States Air Force. The American Bird Conservancy sponsors a “Cats Indoors” program — “Better for Cats. Better for Birds. Better for People” — and no doubt Canada’s “FLAP” will migrate south of the border soon. FLAP, the Fatal Light Awareness Program, seeks “to provide birds with the visual cues they need to alert them to the presence of glass.” At the top of the FLAP homepage is a running bird-o-meter estimating the “number of migratory birds that have died in window collisions across North America since your visit to FLAP.org.” Last I checked, the number was 600,000 and counting.
These are, of course, well-intentioned private efforts, and if private citizens want to put avian traffic lights in their home and office windows, more power to them. The problem occurs when private enthusiasm metamorphoses into public diktat, as has been the case with much environmental policy. Consider the the small, moneyed fringe of anti-coal environmentalists that, by means of the Environmental Protection Agency, now threaten the energy supply of 60 million American homes. Or take a gander at the bird-brained restrictions on economic opportunities — even when the opportunities are environmentally prudent — that we tolerate on behalf of this owl or that little-known three-inch-long fish.
The source is, as Darwin suggests, nothing more (or less) than our own hubris. We are certain that, despite 4.5 billion years of precedent to the contrary, the delicate order of nature will collapse altogether without our painstaking management. Everything must be preserved and protected, catalogued and cordoned off. From sea to shining sea, nothing may live or move or have its being not subject to the Department of the Interior.
But we issue our predictions about environmental changes and consequences from behind a veil of ignorance. The “polity of nature,” to use Darwin’s pungent phrase, is a hierarchy of which we are only a part, and it is governed by laws that still remain obscure. Mother Nature has borne herself quite competently for a long time without our micromanaging. What we can know, historically, is that the eagles will probably be just fine. Free, flourishing citizens, on the other hand, are looking more and more like an endangered species.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.