"Noah's Choice: The Future of Endangered Species," by Charles C. Mann and Mark L. Plummer. 302 pages. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $24
Noah had it easy. To save every living creature, he just stood on the gangplank and his passengers boarded the ark. When all were in place, he closed the doors and waited for the flood.
If only the task of saving the planet's species were as uncomplicated today. Even wise old Solomon would be hard-pressed.
This year, the responsibility will fall to Congress.
The Endangered Species Act is slated for a reauthorization vote. Debate should be lively. A group of Senate Republicans has placed the Endangered Species Act atop its own endangered species list, called the Top Ten Worst Regulations.
Although the Endangered Species Act elicited only four " no" votes in the entire Congress when it was passed in 1973 (House Speaker Newt Gingrich was a co-sponsor), the basic premise of the law to protect every species from extinction regardless of cost or consequence soon ran afoul of reality.
Who can forget the furbish lousewort and snail darter?
How did a law with near-biblical aspirations generate such controversy and rancor?
That's the question authors Charles C. Mann and Mark L. Plummer tackle in " Noah's Choice," a thoroughly researched and dispassionate treatise on this sweeping law.
Despite its lofty goals, the Endangered Species Act's greatest legacy in its two-plus decades of existence has not been the numbers of animals and plants it has rescued from oblivion (even that tally is in dispute), but rather the divisiveness it has created.
As a reauthorization vote looms, an impartial review of the law is long overdue.
The problem, note Mann and Plummer, is that " all the talk of changing the act today boils down to discussions of whether it should be stronger or weaker. Much more important is whether the law can be better."
Does better mean choosing some species for protection and abandoning others to possible extinction? Does better mean easing a regulatory climate that has created what the authors call " ecological mandarins" and relying instead on voluntary efforts to protect habitat? Does better mean finally providing adequate funds and personnel to do the job Congress envisioned in 1973?
Lurking over every decision is a larger ethical question: What right do humans have to decide the biological composition of the future?
That change must occur is not in doubt, according to Mann and Plummer, who co-authored " The Aspirin Wars." The act was flawed from the outset, they contend, because it aimed too high.
" If we want truly to improve the lot of endangered species, we should stop shooting for the stars, because the arrows will fall back to our feet," the authors conclude.
" Noah's Choice" is a thoughtful and readable study. It is devoid of the hyperbole that usually surrounds the subject. Indeed, the authors rely heavily on philosophers and ethicists to frame the debate, not politicians, or even many scientists.
For that reason, the book is disappointing. In the final pages, the authors grapple with how to improve the current process. The case they make for their recommendation -- formation of a national biodiversity trust -- seems naive, fodder for a hungry Congress with extinction on its mind.
Susan Q. Stranahan, author of " Susquehanna: River of Dreams," (Johns Hopkins University Press), is a staff writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer. She has written widely on regional and national environmental issues for more than two decades. In 1979 her news stories about the Three Mile Island nuclear accident were a major component of the articles that earned the Inquirer a Pulitzer Prize.