Not long ago, a new variety of orchid was discovered at the Newmarket racecourse in Suffolk, England. The track’s managers were horrified at first. When an endangered plant is found on your land in England, eco-regulators seize control; and this flower was, apparently, the only one of its kind in the world.
But the Jockey Club came up with an ingenious defense. If the orchid truly was unique, it argued, and if it flourished only on ground that had been churned up by horses’ hooves for the better part of 400 years, then surely the correct course was to maintain that unusual habitat.
The inspectors accepted this logic, and the orchid continues to thrive on the turf upon which, in 1672, Charles II became the only reigning monarch to ride a winner.
I thought of Newmarket when I read the United Nations report claiming that a million species faced extinction as a result of population growth, the exploitation of resources, and capitalism in general.
Although the figure has been uncritically relayed by broadcasters, a moment’s thought should make us suspicious. For one thing, we have been here before. In 1980, for example, the Jimmy Carter administration distributed to foreign governments a report claiming that, by the year 2000, 2 million species would be wiped out. In fact, by 2010, there had been 872 documented extinctions.
It is possible, of course, that additional species are being eliminated before they can be classified, though not on anything remotely like the scale suggested here. There are varieties of bacteria, for example, that exist only in one cave or in one grove. If that is what we mean by “species,” then their extinction, coming about through tiny environmental changes, is presumably a common event, with or without human agency.
That, however, is not what most of us understand by the loss of biodiversity. We think, rather, of species failing to survive contact with homo sapiens. We think of polar bears and tigers disappearing, going the way of Galápagos tortoises and Tasmanian tigers.
That would indeed be depressing if it were happening. But it isn’t, at least not in the way that is claimed.
There are five times as many polar bears now as there were 60 years ago. The number of tigers in India has risen by a third over the past decade. As for the giant tortoises and Tasmanian tigers, modern science is close to resurrecting them decades after the last of their kind perished.
Which brings me to the error that lies behind not only this report but much modern eco-thinking: namely, the idea that economic growth is bad for the environment.
Tigers are doing better than lions but not as well as wolves. Why? Because wolves live in rich countries, tigers in middle-income countries, and lions in poor countries.
The wealth generated by markets gives us the luxury of being able to shoot animals with cameras rather than guns. I wrote here a while back about how Alaska — a state which, in the public mind, is run by anti-tax Republican businesses — has seen an almost miraculous recovery in the numbers of previously endangered species, such as eagles, whales, and sea otters.
You breathe cleaner air and drink cleaner water in Washington, D.C., than in Windhoek, Namibia, or Wuhan, China. Why? Because Washington is a wealthier city.