Photo of President Nixon signing the ESA into law

President Nixon signing the Endangered Species Act into law on December 28th, 1973 AP Image

Forty years ago the Endangered Species Act passed with overwhelming bipartisan majorities in Congress and was signed into law by President Nixon. Both its enactment and longevity stand as a shining examples of good stewardship and as a testament to our ability to come together to act in the best interest of what President Reagan called “this magical planet of ours.”

What many people—on both the political right and left—may not recognize is that the Act is a very conservative law.

The fathers of traditional conservative thought—including British statesman Edmund Burke, American political theorist Russell Kirk, and conservative philosopher Richard Weaver—emphasized that prudent forethought, humility, a spirit of piety, and responsible stewardship are core conservative principles.

Just a few years before the Endangered Species Act was signed into law, Kirk pointed out that “nothing is more conservative than conservation.” Years earlier, Weaver lamented humankind’s tendency to disregard nature in the name of progress. He warned that “Triumphs against the natural order of living exact unforeseen payments,” and astutely pointed out:

“…man is not the lord of creation, with an omnipotent will, but a part of creation, with limitations, who ought to observe a decent humility in the face of the inscrutable.”

Conservative poet T.S. Eliot put it more succinctly when he observed that “A wrong attitude towards nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude towards God.”

From the deliberate and cruel efforts to eradicate wolves and grizzly bears, to the more inadvertent actions that drove the bald eagle—our national symbol—to the brink of extinction, history is full of examples of humankind’s intolerance of wildlife and ignorance of its needs. Too often, selfishness causes people to view wild animals merely as an inconvenience to be displaced or destroyed, not as God’s creatures placed on earth for a purpose.

By contrast, good stewardship that respects the design of nature and that recognizes all wildlife species serve a necessary function is both moral and prudent.

Conservatism, at its heart, is about humankind rising above its lesser instincts and leaving the world a better place for future generations. The Endangered Species Act is one of the best examples of this that we have.

As we say goodbye to 2013 and ring in the New Year, let’s consider our own stewardship obligation and meet today’s environmental challenges with the same resolve as those pictured above did back in 1973.

Happy New Year!

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