Advances in genetics may change aspects of environmental policy in the future.
Protecting endangered species is a legitimate goal for public policy. But we cannot expect that public policy will prevent all species extinctions, because scientists estimate that hundreds of species, if not thousands, become extinct every year, many without our knowledge.
A rational approach to protecting endangered species would balance costs and benefits. Landowners bear many of the costs, because they can lose title to land that is home to an endangered species or be restricted in how they can use their land. Businesses bear some costs, too, as they are sometimes required to alter their activities to protect an endangered species.
Our planet benefits from biodiversity, and there can be a large “option value” to helping an endangered species live another generation. We can change our minds at some later date and no longer try to prevent a species’ extinction. But it would seem impossible to change our minds in the other direction — once a species is gone, it would seem too late to decide that we wish we had protected it.
But technology may be changing the option-value calculation, because scientists are learning how to clone extinct animals. The time will come when scientists will produce living versions of previously extinct animals. With enough time, they would probably be able to do so cheaply.
To the extent that cloning will someday be possible, the option value of preserving an endangered species is a lot less. In some cases, it may be cheaper to save some DNA, and let a future, richer and perhaps more enthusiastic generation make its own copy of the species.
One objection to the cloning approach is that cloning is itself too expensive. That’s true with today’s technology, but future genetic technologies will invariably be more efficient (cheaper for what they produce).
Another objection is that a cloned species would not be genetically diverse enough to survive, because it would be cloned from just a few DNA samples. But that objection also springs from today’s technology. Scientists may learn to save a genetically diverse DNA sample or even to produce genetic diversity themselves.
Yet another objection is whether we would have room in the future to house a cloned species. But it would seem to me more space intensive to protect each endangered species’ habitat for hundreds of consecutive years than it would to store some DNA and find space when the time comes for cloning.
The fact is that species go extinct all of the time, while we incur real economic costs protecting others. By bringing cloning into the set of public policy instruments, we can protect more species, reduce economic costs of protection, or both.