Being a modern-day conservationist, particularly here in the United States, can feel like fighting an incessant legal battle for the planet. Laws and norms protecting nature were not baked into the American experiment — they arose only after we finally began to understand the impact of their absence, and we are still paying for that lack of foundational clarity.
We now know just how vulnerable norms and even statutes can be. It has been a bludgeoning few years for the environmental movement, waged in courts of justice and public opinion, leaving us battered — yet at the same time even more resolved to strengthen the laws that prevented our movement from unraveling. To this challenge we bring the lessons of recent political history, a time when lawmakers and voters in both parties saw “conservation” for what it really is: The expression of our dependence on and connection to this shared Earth.
We extol the cornerstones that were laid in the 1960s and 1970s, for good reason: The Endangered Species Act (ESA), the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act, all passed unanimously by the Senate and signed into law by President Richard Nixon, a Republican. Superfund, the law that targets toxic sites, also passed with overwhelming majorities and the signature of President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat. President Lyndon Johnson, also a Democrat, penned his name to the Clean Air Act after a voice vote in the Senate, meaning that there wasn’t even enough opposition to force an official tally.
The unity of purpose evident in those proceedings — the fact that they sailed through Congress with all the friction of a proclamation honoring the troops — is nearly as noteworthy as the laws themselves.
Suffice to say we are largely past the age of voice votes. Yet, even in this era of legislative log-jamming, animal welfare and conservation efforts have strong supporters on both sides of the aisle. Take the ESA, which polls off the charts: it’s approved by three quarters of conservatives, moderates and 90 percent of liberals — more than 4 in 5 Americans overall, despite decades of assaults from well-funded opponents. You can see more plain evidence that conservation transcends party lines in bipartisan-led IFAW legislative priorities ranging from the Big Cat Public Safety Act to the SAVE Right Whales Act, Eliminate, Neutralize, and Disrupt Wildlife Trafficking Reauthorization Act, Preventing Future Pandemics Act and the Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act. It should be noted that I work as senior legislative manager at IFAW.
Conservationists are not naive. We know that for every member of Congress who works to protect animals from inhumane conditions, there is another who, for reasons of political expediency or failure of critical thought, is blinkered against the need for strong federal environmental protections.
And yet, conservation measures continue to attract support from Republicans, Democrats and independents. There are many explanations for this dynamic, but in my mind the simplest one is the most compelling: No matter how far removed we are from the wilderness, the human connection to animals and nature still resonates deep in our bones, deep in our DNA. We are literally hardwired to care.
We may argue over how the government ought to protect animals, but few of us believe that society shouldn’t protect animals at all.
How we view conservation
I understand that our hierarchy of needs often places safety, money and health above our duty to animals or their habitat (though I would argue that our own wellbeing is inextricably tangled with that of our fellow creatures). And we must admit that not everyone feels the same fundamental wonder towards an elephant, let alone towards the endangered minnows that so reliably trigger performative outrage against the ESA. Even hardwiring can be damaged.
But history has proven that conservation matters, that it is a winning political issue because so many of us do feel that wonder and with it, a sense of responsibility for our actions and the way they touch other species.
As I noted above, we can also acknowledge that such a responsibility is one consideration among many, which is why our environmental laws were and are designed to be flexible, to allow for reasonable exemptions and alternative pathways to success. In recent years, the definition of “reasonable” in that context has unfortunately been twisted for the benefit of a very few corporations and individuals. One of IFAW’s major priorities is to correct this imbalance, reassert our nation’s common environmental and animal welfare values and, in doing so, create space for amity and cooperation between political opponents.
The case can be made that the political siloing of American discourse along party lines is the single greatest threat to our democracy: reflexive disdain, disbelief and distrust only serves to dehumanize our supposed opponents. Conservation efforts, because they appeal to so many of us, give both sides the rare chance to interact on a human level and see each other as allies — if only occasionally. A dialogue that elevates conservation will make a material difference for our planet’s animals and may even open the door for wider-reaching measures that protect the rest of our biosphere.
A solid body of research shows that once people take action on an issue, they are then invested in that position and adopt it as their own. In other words, if we can get people to words, if we can get people to take action for wildlife — sign a petition, protect wildlife habitat in their community, educate others — they actually care more about wildlife.
Our present duty and challenge is to reenergize that virtuous cycle, so that we don’t lose, forever, the richness and beauty that our fellow creatures bring to this shared planet — and our world.
-Kate Wall, IFAW Senior Legislative Manager