Icons, big animals, and the “cute”: Why environmentalists focus on polar bears

[Continuing Steven J. Allen’s series on the use of deception in politics and public policy.]

This year will mark the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, which passed the U.S. Senate 92 to 0. It  seemed like a good idea at the time.

The ESA was born out of legitimate concern over occasional disappearances of lineages of living things. No one anticipated the ESA would play a major role in American life, destroying countless jobs and giving federal bureaucrats control over large sectors of the economy, because it never occurred to politicians and activists that the ESA could be used to prevent activities that might indirectly harm obscure groups of plants and animals, even those that don’t qualify as species or even subspecies.

In the era the ESA was born, true stories of the extinction of the passenger pigeon and the dodo and the near-extinction of the American buffalo, along with perceived (sometimes real)  threats to iconic animals such as American alligators and bald eagles, were well known. Activists and the media presented these stories to the public as cautionary tales, sometimes magnifying extinction fears into threats to wide categories of life. For example, to obtain a ban on DDT—a ban that, by promoting the spread of malaria, has since killed tens of millions of people worldwide—environmentalists promoted the idea that the continued use of this pesticide would extinguish many bird species and result in the “Silent Spring” that was the title of Rachel Carson’s infamous book.

A series of hoaxes launched the modern environmental extremist movement. At the first Earth Day in 1970, participants complained that corporations were poisoning people with sweeteners containing sodium cyclamate (which, in fact, is safe), that a U.S. Army nerve gas experiment killed thousands of sheep in Utah in 1968 (it didn’t), and that pollution was rapidly pushing the world into a new Ice Age. That last threat, when it failed to materialize, morphed into its own opposite, man-made “global warming”—which, when it failed to materialize, became man-made “climate change”—which, when it failed to materialize, became man-made “extreme weather,” a concept that recently provided convenient excuses for politicians who had failed to prepare for the likes of Hurricane Sandy. Real environmental threats existed in 1970, just as real threats exist today, but those threats were insufficient to spur the political actions that environmentalists wanted. So they made stuff up.

Knowing the value of playing on people’s emotions, environmentalists focus their discussion of endangered species on animals, not plants, and particularly on animals that people care about. Conservation biologists often complain that people’s concern about the extinction of species is limited to certain types of living things. People care mainly about megafauna, i.e., relatively large animals. People care mainly about birds and mammals. They care about icons like the bald eagle, and about game animals (the National Rifle Association supported passage of the Endangered Species Act to protect game). People care especially about animals with large, forward-facing eyes and other characteristics associated with being cute. (It’s thought that humans are biologically programmed to feel empathy toward creatures that, in certain ways, resemble human children. That’s why Disney animators made Mickey Mouse’s head and eyes bigger as he evolved from a mischievous troublemaker to a cuddly lead character.) When told that most supposedly endangered species are insects and plants—“bugs and weeds,” as one Congressman put it—people often react with incredulity and mockery. From a scientific standpoint, there is no reason to fear the extinction of cute animals more than that of plants and ugly animals, but all government action is rooted in politics, and politics focuses on the cute.

The polar bear is a vicious killer, arguably the animal that, given the opportunity, is most likely to hunt a human as food. (When sharks eat humans, it’s because they mistake them for their usual prey.) Yet people see polar bears as cute; they are models for toddlers’ bedmates and cartoon stars of Coke commercials. So, when bureaucrats at the Environmental Protection Agency were looking for an excuse to classify carbon dioxide (CO2) as a pollutant and subject it to EPA regulation, thereby controlling much of the U.S. economy, they claimed absurdly that the polar bear is threatened at some point in the future by global warming, which they claimed absurdly is caused by carbon dioxide emissions. One environmentalist called the polar bear “the species that saved the world” because of its role in expanding the power of the EPA.

Due to its isolation, the polar bear may be the creature whose habitat is least endangered by humans. Besides, under some classification systems, the polar bear isn’t even sufficiently distinct from other types of bear to be in its own separate species. But those things don’t really matter; bureaucrats and pressure groups follow scientific principles only to the extent it expands their power and promotes their ideology.

— Dr. Steven J. Allen (JD, PhD) is editor of the Capital Research Center publications Green Watch and Labor Watch.

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