The federal Endangered Species Act requires the government to protect endangered species from extinction. At first glance you might think this is a good thing for an endangered species act to do.

But opponents of the act have been attacking it ever since it was passed on the grounds that this requirement is too rigid. A good, solid, well-balanced endangered species act would recognize that we shouldn’t have to extend our protection to species whose continued existence is threatened by logging, extraction, tourism, or any other activity capable of turning a profit.

In other words, a balanced, thoughtful approach to the protection of endangered species would extend protection only to those species that don’t need it. Creatures prospering in remote comers of the earth untroubled by the intrusions of humanity would have the full majesty of the law on their side. Spotted owls, whose misfortune it is to live in a forest full of salable timber (or, as fanatical environmentalists might say, “trees”), can bend way over and kiss their cloacas good-bye.

The Tribune, inspired by some recent remarks on the subject by George Bush, summarized the balanced, thoughtful approach in an editorial last week. Bush attacked the Endangered Species Act and all but promised that American loggers would have jobs as long as there was a tree left standing on federal land anywhere in the USA. Of course we need to realize that George Bush would sell his grandmother for votes. (In fairness, I should amend that: George Bush would give away his grandmother for votes. ) I suppose we should be grateful he didn’t stand up on the platform and personally wring the neck of a spotted owl.

The Tribune’s beef against the act is “that it does not regard humans as a species in their own right, with their own place in the environment.” Leaving aside the interesting choice of pronouns (“their own place”? why not “our own place”?), just what does that assertion mean? Two hundred years ago humanity’s place in the Pacific Northwest was either along the banks of major rivers or on the shores of the Pacific and its various bays, inlets, straits, and sounds. The indigenous people regarded the forests as dark, damp, and scary places. They entered them only when necessary to harvest modest amounts of timber. They made their living from the waters.

About 150 years ago Americans began to trek the Oregon Trail to settle in favored lowland locations: Oregon’s Willamette Valley or the shores of Puget Sound in Washington. They cut down trees to create farms but left the forests in the mountains pretty much untouched.

The big cut in the mountains began only about a half century ago, just at the time–by no coincidence whatsoever–when the last of the virgin forests of the upper midwest and the southern Appalachians were sawed off. At the rate of cutting that would prevail if Bush had his way, the last of the old-growth forests of the northwest would fall 20 or 30 years from now.

Looking at that brief history of a region, how do you decide where our place in the environment lies? Is it along the shores as it was 200 years ago? In the shores and valleys where it was 100 years ago? Or everywhere as it is now? The fact is that under the present circumstances the human place in the environment is anyplace we want it to be. I am tempted to call us the 500-pound gorillas of earth, but that is obviously an inappropriate figure of speech, since gorillas of all weight classes are just about to lose their place in the environment to human beings.

The only force capable of preventing us from exploiting every square inch of the earth for short-term gain is us. Everything that lives lives at our sufferance. The Endangered Species Act in its present form represents a timid, tentative recognition of that situation. It should be expanded and strengthened, not weakened.

The Tribune has another reason for opposing the act in its present form. The act can, the paper tells us, be used for “mischief,” a means of thwarting “projects–airports, for example–that are opposed for other reasons.”

This argument strikes me as really weird. It seems to say that you can oppose a project if it threatens an endangered species, but only if the project has no other bad features. In other words, it is illegitimate to use the Endangered Species Act to protect a rare species if the project that would doom the species also makes no economic or social sense.

The last refuge of those who oppose the Endangered Species Act is the argument that we have to consider the human cost of protecting rare animals and plants. The basis for this argument is the idea that the natural world has no purpose beyond supplying raw materials for humans. Anything that gets in the way of our grabbing everything we can get right now is therefore a sort of treason against humanity, a perversion of morality that puts owls ahead of people.

But our own national history seems to me to make it quite plain that ecological destruction always leads to the destruction of human beings and the communities we live in. Look at northern Wisconsin or upper Mchigan. When the big cut in the north woods was finished 60 years ago, the economies of those areas collapsed. They have never recovered. The return of a modest forest-products industry in the north woods required decades of public investment to bring back the forests. Look at the southern Appalachians and the Cumberland plateau, where rapacious logging combined with ignorant farming to create a level of human misery that we generally think of as confined to the third world. Look at the dust bowl or the waters of the Colorado Rockies contaminated with waste from a thousand mines.

Closer to home, look at northwest Indiana. Drive through the neighborhoods in Gary where a typical block has 2 occupied houses and 20 boarded-up hulks. The industries–especially steel–that once supported these communities are gone, and economic revival is held back because the land itself is so contaminated with the residue of unregulated production that no one dares to try to build something new.

In the Pacific Northwest we are attacking a forest that took a millenium to grow, and if Bush has his way we will cut it down in another 25 years or so. Consuming at a rate more than ten times the rate of production may be perfect Reaganomics, but it is a long way from careful husbandry or a balanced approach to our relations with the rest of nature. When the last of the old-growth forests fall, there will be an economic collapse in the northwest. Large numbers of people will be thrown out of work. Whole towns will vanish. And the taxpayers will be left with the bill for rehabilitating the despoiled woodlands.

I once heard the German theologian Paul Tillich characterize the Nazis as demonically possessed. Tillich was not the sort of minister given to fantasies about wicked imps with horns and tails, but he did believe in demonic possession. To him it meant raising a matter that is not of ultimate concern to a position of ultimate concern. “Ultimate concern” here means God. The Nazis raised the Volk, the nation, to the position that should be occupied only by God, and that substitution led them to do evil.

In our society the idolaters of the free market are equally possessed. The market must be served. If it destroys human communities (as it is destroying Gary) or devastates nature (as it is doing all over the world) then we must accept the destruction as the sacrifice this God demands. If logs from the forests of the Pacific Northwest can be sold, then they must be cut, regardless of the consequences to nature or to human communities.

A method of doing business in the economic sphere (I tend to think of it like fire–an indispensable tool, but one that must be used with great caution) is elevated to the position of an eternal principle that ought to govern not only all of human society but all of nature as well.

I would suggest that if we are looking for a principle to govern our relations with the rest of creation, we might look for it in the forces that have been operating on earth for at least 600 million years, the forces that made it possible for a species called Homo sapiens to evolve and prosper. We cannot regard these as contingent, disposable, or optional things that we will allow to exist only if they don’t cost too much. If our goal is balance in our relations with nature, then we must recognize that the loss of a species is a clear sign that we are out of balance.

The hysterical right often claims that environmentalists are essentially terrorists. Our usual response is that we are not terrorists. You can negotiate with terrorists. However, in a spirit of compromise I offer what might be called the Daley alternative to a tough Endangered Species Act. Daley said we could destroy a forest to build the Lake Calumet airport because we could build a new forest to replace the one lost. So I would say that anyone who wants to destroy a species of owl can do so as soon as he learns to make a new kind of owl to replace the one lost. What could be more fair or more balanced?