Life imitates science fiction: how will de-extinction change environmental policy?

By IJReid

Genetic modification and cloning may someday soon allow us to replicate species that have gone extinct. Scientists are already working to sequence the extinct woolly mammoth’s genome, in preparation for resurrecting it.

Responses to the possible resurrection of the mammoth vary. Not everyone, it seems, is excited by the prospect that Jurassic Park may, in the not-too-distant future, be less science-fictiony.

Traditional environmental advocates are concerned that the possibility of de-extinction may undermine the political case for preserving some species in the wild. Perhaps that’s true—although all we can do is speculate. It’s also possible that seeing once extinct species will make people even more interested in endangered species and more willing to support conservation.

But suppose the prediction is right and de-extinction will reduce the political will to conserve all species in the wild. Is that a bad thing?

The answer, of course, depends on what you’re comparing it to. If the alternative is a make-believe world in which all species are protected at no cost, then, obviously, it would be disastrous.

But that isn’t the alternative. Instead, the alternative is the status quo or a realistic extension of it. In the real world, there are tradeoffs between protecting species and all of the other things we value; tradeoffs which force us to decide how much we’re willing to spend to protect particular species.

The idea that every species can be protected through the park/preserve model is unrealistic. There are too many species, spread across too large a globe, and the park model would require harming too many poor and indigenous people for it to ever be a universal solution.

The park model only works for iconic species and places that people value enough to bear the expense of setting them aside. People will travel thousands of miles to see an elephant in a nature preserve. They won’t travel nearly as far to see endangered lichen (an algae or bacteria that has a symbiotic relationship with a fungus).

It’s extremely unlikely that de-extinction will undermine people’s interest in protecting the iconic species that are reasonably well protected by current policy. At most, it would undermine the political will to protect species for which that political will doesn’t exist in the first place.

However, de-extinction would substantially reduce the downsides of a species’ extinction in the wild. One of the greatest costs of extinction is the loss of biodiversity—the loss of genetic material that, for all we know, may hold the secret to medical or technological breakthroughs. Cataloging and preserving that genetic material so that extinct species can be resurrected when they prove valuable would hedge against this risk.

A secondary benefit of de-extinction is that it would be easier to recognize the animals created as private property. Private property rights are the key to turning animals into an asset, rather than a liability. Unfortunately, the Endangered Species Act may ultimately limit the success of de-extinction. A recent law review article argues that members of a resurrected species would likely be listable and subject to most of the statute’s burdensome regulations. This would make resurrection of a species significantly less attractive, since whoever sinks substantial time, energy, and money in this effort cannot be sure that they’ll ever enjoy any benefit from it.

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