Who’s Endangering the Endangered Species Act?

The capitalist drive for profit is posing a looming threat to a landmark environmental law.

Mexican wolf, the most endangered subspecies of the North American gray wolf, at Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. Jim Clark / US Fish and Wildlife Service

Former US Congressman Richard Pombo (R-California) is happy this week. His political career took a nosedive in the mid-aughts amid criss-crossing corruption and influence-peddling scandals, but in 2015 he returned to Beltway politics as a lobbyist for mining and water-management companies — and now is his moment to shine.

Pombo is pleased because the Trump administration and Republican lawmakers have initiated an unprecedented offensive against the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which he has been trying to eviscerate since 2005. (The Sierra Club called Pombo “the most dangerous member of the House;” one critic said, “Having Pombo represent a district that includes Yosemite National Park is like electing Godzilla as mayor of Tokyo.”)

“It’s probably the best chance that we have had in 25 years to actually make any substantial changes” to the ESA, Pombo told the New York Times of the current offensive. These substantial changes include a proposed provision to “allow the economic consequences of protecting plants or animals to be considered when deciding whether or not they face extinction.” If this amendment passes, species could be removed or disqualified from the list because their habitats are desirable to the oil, mining, logging, ranching, and development industries.

Democratic politicians, liberal commentators, and environmental leaders are rightly outraged over the assault on the ESA, which is credited with saving species including the bald eagle, the grizzly bear, and the gray wolf from extinction. But in their haste to condemn Republicans — who no doubt deserve every ounce of acrimony — they’re missing a crucial piece of the puzzle. “This bill is all about politics,” said Bob Dreher of the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife. “It’s not about science. It’s especially not about better ways to conserve endangered species. It’s a partisan bill.” That’s true, but the politics themselves are about something else: capitalism.

Species are not ambiently “endangered.” They are endangered by industries made up of specific corporations that are motivated by one thing above all else: the compulsion to maximize profit. From the Florida panther to the California condor, species’ populations decline as their habitats become unlivable primarily due to the economically driven activities of private companies, be they timber cutters, oil drillers, coal miners, or real estate developers. It’s not partisanship that drives this process, but the logic of capitalism itself.

The purpose of the ESA, which was signed into law in 1973, is to keep development and extraction from wiping endangered species off the face of the earth forever. There is an implicit recognition in the law that private corporations will naturally seek to destroy wildlife habitats and must be prevented from doing so by state intervention. This is why the original text of the law specifies that determinations about which species’ habitats will become protected must be made “without reference to possible economic or other impacts of such determination.”

The current amendment to the ESA strikes that clause, and it’s no mystery why. Just as workers are in competition with each other under capitalism, so too are corporations. As a rule, they must turn a profit or else they will perish. The easiest and most common way to ensure that they turn a profit is to keep labor costs down, but there’s one trick that’s harder to come by and has an even bigger payoff, and that’s opening a new market. Corporations are always on the lookout for opportunities to breach a new frontier, chart an undiscovered territory, create a new niche out of thin air, or — especially under late capitalism when the map has been covered many times over — to privatize something that’s public or protected.

If you’re a logging, mining, energy, or real estate company, the biggest imaginable gold mine (sometimes literally) is land that was formerly off-limits to private enterprise, suddenly made available to you. If you’re successful in opening and staking a claim to this land, you can guarantee yourself enormous profits that will eclipse the competition and ensure your survival — and the prosperity of your executives and shareholders — for years to come.

As for Republican politicians, the problem isn’t that they’re cruel or ignorant, it’s that they’re captured. Capital has so saturated the political sphere that lobbyists (like Pombo today) have no trouble buying lawmakers (like GOP lawmakers today, and like Pombo circa 2005) whose mission becomes to deregulate industry and facilitate corporate expansion into new markets. In dedicating themselves to this mission, Republican legislators — and plenty of Democratic ones as well — make influential friends and secure much-needed funding streams that are necessary for winning expensive elections, which are always just around the corner. Thus the will of corporations becomes the prerogative of the government, and the state ceases to be accountable to the majority of people — 90 percent of whom support the ESA, for example — and instead becomes a blunt instrument of capitalists to maximize their profits.

This is an example of what socialists mean when we say that under capitalism, the profit motive is the dominant or governing principle of society. Given the systemic nature of the problem, the Left’s political task in situations like the current ESA assault is not simply to assert the value of precious things against the politicians whose bad bills threaten them. We must go one step further and name the antagonist driving the process: the capitalist class. We must argue not only that things like public lands, biodiversity, and the health of the planet are important, but that they are more important than private profit, for that’s the calculus being worked out in the halls of government.

The dividing line in this new ESA battle is not just Republicans versus Democrats. As ever, it is private profits versus the common good — and to win the game we must name the stakes.