Animal extinction is not a new phenomenon. Even ancient cultures appreciated the fragile balance of life and practiced sustainability while hunting and fishing. But as The Atlantic project editor Michelle Nijhuis stresses in her new book, Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction, the Industrial Revolution and its many technological innovations significantly ratcheted up the impact of environmental devastation caused by human activities.
By the late 19th century, environmentalists had begun to realize that unless preservation laws and regulations were introduced to help protect endangered species, many of those species would cease to exist. With candor and authority, Nijhuis focuses on the intertwined relationships, backgrounds and paths of the fervent scientists and activists who spearheaded the conservation movement. She goes into great detail about the movement’s origins and evolution, as well as the unrelenting passion of its advocates. “The assumption that species were static and enduring was not easily dislodged,” she writes.
Conservationism was also “infused with racism” and the narcissistic, egotistical behavior of many of its campaigners. As Nijhuis uncovers and examines these aspects of the movement, her reporting skills shine. For example, although co-founder of the New York Zoological Society Madison Grant is known for successfully championing laws restricting commercial and “unsportsmanlike” hunting, his agenda was drawn from the belief that hunting was “an elevating pastime for the wealthy and white.” Nijhuis also contextualizes the near extinction of the American bison with a reminder that “the rescue of the bison had nothing to do with the people who had depended on the species [the Native American population]—and a great deal to do with [conservationists’] own illusions about themselves.”
Throughout the book, Nijhuis conveys her thorough research with colorful prose, such as when she calls conservation writer Aldo Leopold “dangerously eloquent.” She also segues into the challenges facing conservationists today, such as climate change, organized crime and corporate interests. But the main takeaway from Beloved Beasts is a sense of hope for the future.