Michelle Nijhuis

Conserving the Majesty of America

Air Date: March 8, 2021

The Atlantic's Michelle Nijhuis discusses her new book, "Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction" and environmental policy during the pandemic.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind, I’m delighted to welcome Michelle Nijhuis to the program today. She is the author of “Beloved Beast” Thanks so much for being here Michelle.

NIJHUIS: Thanks for having me Alexander.

HEFFNER: Michelle, can you tell our viewers about the origin of this project, what inspired you to write this book?

NIJHUIS: Well, I’ve been working on this book for a couple of years, but you could also say I’ve been working on it for about 25 years. I started out as an itinerant biologist working on wildlife research projects and had the good fortune in the mid 1990s to work on a project in Southwestern Utah, on desert tortoises, which are a threatened species, still are a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. And I, my job was to spend my days out in the desert, following tortoises around, but I also had the chance to go to public meetings where people were talking about how and why the species would be protected. And ostensibly, they were talking about, you know, which off-road vehicle trails would be closed, and which housing development projects would be curtailed. But I was really struck even back then, by how profound the questions were that they were talking about, you know, in coffee shops and in meeting halls, they were talking about, you know, why are we responsible for this species? Why is it important? Who really cares? And at the time I had this vague sense that people had thought about these questions and come up with some answers. But I think like most conservation-minded people, I didn’t have a sense of how those ideas fit together and how they shaped a movement. And so I’ve continued to think about that. And this book is really an effort to bring those ideas together and show how they’ve developed over the past century and a half since we, as, as a global society have recognized that humans can drive other species extinct through their own activities.

HEFFNER: As you concluded the book, the pandemic was probably front of mind. And I wonder how it affected what you had already composed. You probably were largely complete, but in terms of thinking about the pandemic through the lens of conservation?

NIJHUIS: That’s true. It was, I was just about finished with the book when, last March, when the pandemic changed all of our lives. And it did, I think like most people who think about climate change and conservation, it did strike me that it made our relationship with other species impossible to ignore. I mean, while we’re still figuring out the exact origin of the coronavirus, we know that it came from another species. We know that it came from our, you know, that it was in its spread was encouraged by our exploitation of other species. So it really brought a lot of those issues home to me in a very dramatic way. But it also struck me how quickly the world could, that we as humans could change our behavior. When, when, you know, when we’re faced with an urgent demand, I think a lot of people especially who think about climate change were struck by that. Obviously, a lot of problems with how we’ve adapted. But, but we did change our behavior on a large scale very quickly. We still have a course yet to do the same on when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions.


HEFFNER: When you think of one theme of the book and, and a person who is central is Darwin, it pops up and again and again. You know, we’ve had a limited amount of our history conscious of Darwin and Darwinism, right, and then there’s a whole period of conservation pre-Darwin. So how do you think of it? I kind of found myself considering kind of the pre- and post-Darwin of conservation.


NIJHUIS: Yeah. I mean, it’s, it’s striking to, once you start reading about the history of conservation, it’s striking to realize that the Darwin in a sense was a bit of a latecomer. It wasn’t that long ago that Darwin proposed this radical idea that we were not separate from other species that we were not, as people had thought before Darwin, that we were not a special species sort of divinely crowned to take care of all the others. And that we were also not a, not a static species. We were subject to the same forces of evolution as every other species, as he so eloquently argued. I, in, in a sense Darwin was the beginning of modern conservation. Before Darwin. As I said, there was a sense that species were these static entities that never changed. And people certainly practiced conservation in the sense that they, you know, communities rationed their hunting activities, their consumption activities, so that they would have a long-term source of food or shelter or whatever it was that they needed from other species. But there wasn’t a sense, there was certainly wasn’t a global conservation movement and there wasn’t really an interest or an active effort to ensure the survival of other species that you didn’t live next to. And that you didn’t depend on for resources. And Darwin and his acknowledgement that yes, human activities can drive other species extinct, yes. you know, we have this incredible power that we didn’t realize over the fate of other species, but we’re also kind of less important than we thought we were. We were part of this world and it affects us and we affect it. I think that, that mindset, he wasn’t, he wasn’t an active conservationist, but that mindset was really a huge part of the birth of the modern, what we think of as a modern conservation movement, when it got started about a generation after Darwin.


HEFFNER: And what about the rights, the rights of, outside of the human species in your conclusion, you think of kind of, what is the future of legally acknowledged rights of trees, of and of course, non-human animals and mammals, where, where did the book leave you on that question of, of whether or not we are destined if ever to properly acknowledge the rights of non homosapiens?


NIJHUIS: Yeah. I mean, the idea of non-human rights is very fascinating and, in a sense, very exciting and encouraging there’s, a law professor named Christopher Stone from the University of Southern California tells the story about how back in the seventies, he proposed this radical idea to his, to a class of very skeptical students saying, well, you know, we have changed our definition of, of property over human history. What if we changed our definition of rights? What if we decided that trees have rights? What have we decided that stones have rights or rivers? And then, he laughs about how his students’ sort of rose up and in disbelief and argued with him. No, and that such a thing could never happen. And now, you know, years later, this idea is being taken quite seriously as a way of encoding our inherent dependence on other species. And there are some really exciting examples of the most prominent one being in New Zealand, where there is a river that has been given the rights of a legal person. And so that doesn’t necessarily mean, you know, we can’t swim in the river, we can’t fish in the river. It’s not that it doesn’t have all the rights that a human being might have, but it has the right to be represented in court. So, it’s a way of giving these resources that are so important to us, these other species, what have you, it’s a way of giving, giving them a voice in our legal system. And so, I think that, you know, obviously it’s, there’s so much to be figured out. People are just really at the beginning of taking this idea seriously, but I do see it as a very promising direction because it does bring home that connection with other species that we have. And I think that’s something the conservation movement has not managed to drive home for a whole variety of reasons, tends not to manage to drive home so far to most of human society.


HEFFNER: Well, your storytelling in “Beloved Beasts” is an antidote to that. It’s attempting to correct the lack of connection there between conservation and the stories as you describe of saving charismatic species. And two examples are the American bison and the bald eagle. I wanted you to just speak at length about those two cases. And any others that, that resonate most profoundly with you.


NIJHUIS: Yeah. I mean, one of my, my hopes with this book was I think that conservationists, people who care about other species, as I said previously, don’t have a very strong sense of their own history as a movement. We, people who care about other species tend to be preoccupied with the next emergency or they tend to be thinking about evolutionary time, you know, where these species came from millennia ago. Don’t tend to think that much on the, on the timescale of human generations. And so people forget that there are species that we live alongside today that would not be around where it not for the efforts of conservationists. Sometimes just a couple of people, sometimes a huge mass movement of people, but the conservation movement really has had some significant successes, of course, many losses as well haven’t gotten as far as one would hope, but these successes are, are real and we benefit from them to say, so I just hoped to bring that home. And two of the most prominent examples that I think many people know about, but might not know how significant they are, are the bison and the bald eagle, as you mentioned. And you know, the American bison was driven entirely extinct in the wild, in the continental U.S. due to due to commercial pressure. There was a huge market for hides and people made a lot of money killing bison and just wholesale. And there was not there wasn’t I think because the bison was so abundant, legendarily abundant, it was people didn’t quite believe when they heard about it from a distance. They didn’t quite believe that a species that was so big physically and then so numerous could really disappear off the face of the earth. That seemed like, you know, extinction by human means, by human activities was still a relatively new idea. And so they didn’t take it seriously until it was almost over until it was really, like I said, until the bison was extinct in the wild and, and thanks to the efforts mostly of quite wealthy sportsmen who wanted to be able to hunt bison, people started raising bison in captivity and they were able to reintroduce the bison to the Plains and now a century or so later, there’s a very vital, exciting effort among indigenous people of North America to restore the bison, not only in numbers, but really to restore it ecologically to the landscape and have, because, you know, the bison is what is so numerous is such a physically large animal. It had a very pronounced effect on the Plains. And the effort is to, to not just, you know, bring it back so that we have a few living bison that we can look at, but have it play the ecological role at once did, and the cultural role that it wants to in the Great Plains. So it’s very exciting to see that history, that sort of unfinished business from 150 years ago be picked up again in the current generation and really brought forward in a very promising way. But we wouldn’t be able to do that where it not for the people who, you know, in their imperfect way, did what they did 150 years ago, raising bison in the middle of the Bronx Zoo, what is now the Bronx Zoo and putting them on a train and shipping them out to the Great Plains and setting them free.


HEFFNER: The bird of the United States, the eagle


NIJHUIS: Our national bird.


HEFFNER: From 1776,




HEFFNER: When Thomas and Benjamin Franklin and John Adams were debating what the bird would be,


NIJHUIS: Right. Right. Benjamin Franklin said that it should be a turkey, but,


HEFFNER: Right, right.


NIJHUIS: But bald eagle won. And you know, the, up until in the early 1900s, 1920s sportsmen, even conservation-minded sportsmen, you know, some of the people who had really worked hard to protect the buffalo thought that the great, that thought that the bald eagle, national bird, though it might be, was a pest, because it’s, you know, it killed animals that they wanted to hunt. They saw it as you know this is, this bird is a scavenger. It’s not, they didn’t necessarily see it as the grand beautiful creature that we think of today. And so, there was, you know, there was, there was internal fights for quite, you know, furious fights within the Audubon Society about whether the bald eagle should be saved, should it be protected from hunting? And then it was finally once it was finally protected from hunting, it started, the bald eagle started to suffer from DDT. And many people may know this story and that, that the widespread use of the pesticide DDT, caused the eggshells of bald eagles and other birds to get so thin that many bald eagles, meant that they would crack in the nest. And so there was a huge drop in the population because birds just couldn’t reproduce effectively. And because of the efforts of birdwatchers, who noticed this decline and then famously because of the efforts over the writer, Rachel Carson, who brought this dynamic to, she, first of all, noticed what was happening, heard about what was happening and brought it to public attention. People were able to say, oh gosh, we really don’t want this bird that we’ve come to care about, that we’ve learned is so important to us. This is symbolically important to our nation. We don’t want it to go extinct. What do we need to do? And that “Silent Spring” didn’t lead to the banning of DDT. It just led to the desire to ban DDT. And it took other conservationists who came after Rachel Carson to fight the battles in court and fight the, you know, gather the science and fight the fight really hard against you know, corporate interests who were determined to continue using DDT, which was of course, a very effective pesticide. But they eventually won. The EPA banned most uses of DDT and the bald eagle populations in the lower 48 States bounced back almost, started to bounce back almost immediately. And, and I, I often laugh that it was, it was rare to see a bald eagle when I was growing up and I have a 12-year-old daughter and I’ll see a bald eagle sometimes where I live in the Columbia River Gorge where they’re not that rare, but I always feel very excited when I see one, oh, look, it’s a bald eagle and my daughter will go you know, great, that’s nice. You know, she, she doesn’t realize how close we came to losing it.


HEFFNER: So, you’re talking about some stories of renewable, but what about the failures, from which we can’t recover at this point?


NIJHUIS: Yeah. I don’t want to, I don’t want to you know, treat those, treat those lightly or dismissively. We have, we’ve lost many species and I think more worryingly, we are on track to lose many more. I mean, we’ve all seen the predictions of the sixth extinction that we are either on the already in or entering the sixth extinction. And there’ve been many estimates about how many species we are, we may lose in the coming decades. So I don’t want to diminish the importance of that or the urgency of that. But I also want to push back against what I sometimes see as an attitude of, oh, well, you know, if that’s happening, there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s over. We have accomplished so much and we’ve learned so much from, the conservation movement has learned so much from its mistakes. I sometimes feel it’s, it’s almost, it’s almost a sense of poignancy. Like, oh gosh, don’t quit now. Not when we’ve had a very productive 150 years. And now is not the time to lie on the couch and think, oh, it’s all over. We are really, I think on the brink of being able to accomplish some important things, given the, you know, given enough public will, which is of course always a challenge, but we know what needs to be done. We know habitat needs to be protected. We have a lot of ideas about how that can be protected in ways that are just for human beings, as well as other species. And there are many opportunities. We certainly can’t solve, save everything. I think sometimes there’s an attitude of, oh, well, if we can’t solve it, save everything, why bother? We can’t save everything, but we can save a lot. And the conservation movement has, has shown that that’s possible. And I hope that, that I hope that learning a little bit about the history of will be inspiring to some people in the sense of we can do that again. We can continue to do that.


HEFFNER: Michelle, is the public perception accurate that over these past several years at the Trump Administration protection for wildlife has been most endangered more rapidly than in any point in recorded American history?


NIJHUIS: Well, I, certainly depends on how you measure it. I would say that some of our most important laws, I mean, the laws that we, that conservationists fought so hard for over the past century have been threatened in the past four years, more than we have seen in the past generation. And, you know, I’ve written about attacks on the Endangered Species Act for at least a couple of decades now. And the things that were accomplished during the Trump Administration were shocking to me. And we’ve also seen attacks on the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which is a less well-known law, but also incredibly important in protecting birds. And those, the, the attacks on that have so far been turned back by the courts. But we’ll see, we’ll see how well that, how quickly and how well the Biden Administration can restore some of the damage that’s been done to those laws.


HEFFNER: Beyond the restoration of those rules or laws that governed during America’s Obama Administration, what forward-thinking legislative action might be appropriate to consider in these next months ahead?


NIJHUIS: I, you know, I’d like to emphasize how I think that there obviously are many legislative opportunities to protect species, but what I think gets forgotten by people who think about conservation is that so there’s so much work to be done at the local level in terms of giving people the resources and the knowledge that they need, the opportunities that they need to protect species that they live nearby. I had the chance to travel to Namibia when I was working on this book in to visits, the what is it extremely long running experiment in community-based conservation there? And I found it really a regulatory experience and I think one that, that we could learn a lot from, because they have found collectively the people who are involved in this now nationwide project, they have found that people want to, you know, people may have fears about predatory animals. They may be annoyed by, you know, pests, but they really, they don’t want their local species to go extinct.

Most people don’t, most people care about the continuous survival of their local species. They also want to have enough to eat. They also want to be safe. They also want to, you know, have the same things that everybody else has. Once those needs are met, once they have the tools, they need opportunities, they need to protect those species, most people are more than happy to do so. And, and maybe it’s not the only place where that’s happened, where species have been very effectively protected from poaching from over-harvesting and they have been given the opportunities to survive. And I think, you know, going back to my experience in t, in the nineties with desert tortoises, I think those principles could be applied in communities where people are very, you know, just very dug in in their opposition to protect any species that they see as interfering with their daily lives.


I mean, those, I think that if you really sat down and talked to most people who are, who are say virulently opposed to the Endangered Species Act, would say, well, do you want this tortoise to go extinct? Well, no, not particularly. It’s not bothering me. It’s kind of cool to look at. I just don’t want, you know, I just don’t want my favorite trail to be closed. I just don’t want my livelihood to be interfered with. When those conflicts can be worked out, I think there can be really genuine, widespread support for the survival of other species. And you know, enforcement, legislation is so important, but enforcement can’t be our only tool. There has to be more broader grassroots support for conservation, and it’s such a universal need. Conservation is such a universal need, if we can, de-politicize it a little bit I think that will mean a great deal to other species.


HEFFNER: Right. Right. You know, as a final question, how much are you thinking about the conservation of water and air as much as other species in the kind of bigger picture of a human existence? We’ve seen a lot of folks taking to the National Parks over this pandemic period to rediscover the beauty. When I asked you that question about new legislative measures, how much of it might necessarily be focused on air and water quality?

NIJHUIS: Well, I think it’s really important. And I think one of the things the conservation movement has learned over the past century is that it’s not just about saving cool animals. It’s, you know, saving the bison was the way of building public support and public understanding of the need to save species. But as the conservation movement has become more sophisticated, I think people have recognized, oh, we can’t just, you know, this isn’t just about raising animals in captivity and plunking them out in their, you know, where they used to live. This is about protecting the habitat, whatever that may look like, whether it’s in the ocean or on land, it’s about protecting their habitat, protecting the clean air and water that they need, that and, that people need. And so I think that that’s become a very integral part of the conservation movement as it should. And I think that there’s, in some sense, the climate justice movement has operated on a separate track from the conservation movement. And I think there’s a lot of need and a lot of opportunity for overlap and for recognition that we really are driving for the same things and driving for the same benefits. You know, we are a part of, we are a part of the assemblage of species. As humans, we’re part of the assemblages of seizes on earth, and we all need the same things.

HEFFNER: Michelle Nihjuis, author of “Beloved Beasts,” thank you so much for your time today.


NIJHUIS: Thank you so much for having me


NIJHUIS: Thanks for having me.


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