The quickest way to crush a development, water, engineering, or other similar project is to find an endangered species there.
It doesn’t matter if you are rebuilding your home after a devastating hurricane, breaking ground for a new hospital, using desert land for outdoor recreation, or diverting river water to help alleviate the effects of a drought. If a sand crab, flower-loving fly, fringe-toed lizard, or sheepnose mussel is found nearby, the “keep out” signs go up and human activity is stopped in its tracks.
In Atlanta in 2007, in the midst of a devastating drought, billions of gallons of much needed lake water were deemed off limits. That water was instead sent downstream, for the sake of a particular species of mussel. In another case, concern over the heelsplitter mussel led to a moratorium on river water extraction in Mint Hill, North Carolina, leaving residents without access to clean water for eleven years.
These examples aren’t anomalies. They are an expression of the ideas animating the environmentalist movement: That it is wrong for human beings to impact nature, especially if our actions affect endangered species. They consistently prioritize other species above human beings, regardless of what that means for human welfare.
The goal is not to protect nature for human enjoyment — it’s to protect nature from human beings. Forget about enjoying canoeing, swimming or contemplating a tranquil creek. Environmentalists regularly use the Endangered Species Act to limit or ban such activities. Nature, on their view, is intrinsically valuable and even in the process of enjoying it, human beings inevitably stamp their “footprint” on it.
But limiting human beings’ impact on nature harms human beings. Extracting water, for example, is just one of the many feats of engineering that make our lives happier, longer and better. We no longer have to worry about living near to a supply of freshwater such as a river or a lake, because we have the technology to bring that water to where people need it. But if the environmentalist idea that it is wrong to impact nature had been in vogue a century ago, cities such as Phoenix and Las Vegas would have never become anything more than desert outposts.
Human life and happiness requires that we use and transform the world around us. Sometimes that means building flood walls, dams, or extracting water for use in urban areas, other times it means maintaining waterways to enjoy the wildlife naturally found there. But it certainly doesn’t mean sacrificing people to mollusks.