|Abstract||I argue that the current extinction crisis offers profound and unprecedented challenges to democratic theory. Other environmental problems, such as climate change, are fundamentally collective action problems of a familiar type. By contrast, the case of extinction has several unique implications for democratic theory. First, for fragile species whose medium term preservation is technically possible, democratic policy flux over time effectively reduces the scope of policy choice to one—extinction. This is the case because the normal policy flux that follows from alternation in power will drive a ratchet effect in which each win for the development side is permanent, while each win for the preservation side is temporary. Second, uncertainty about the value of endangered species, even considered from the point of view of the narrowest market-driven utilitarianism, calls into question the democratic legitimacy of policies allowing potentially essential species to go extinct. Such policies reduce the scope of future democratic decision-making irreversibly. This presents a paradox for democratic theory, since decisions that do not undermine democracy itself should always in principle be available for democratic decisionmaking. Third, beyond questions of democratic scope, the on-the-ground rulemaking processes in the case of species preservation policy exhibit possibly unique rhetorics of collective incapacity that undermine political agency at nearly every stage of decision. Fourth and finally, extinctions, even technically preventable extinctions, present a possible limit case to democratic politics: democratic polities find themselves constitutionally unable to achieve the policies that democratic theory suggests they should consider.
Methodological note: this is a work of political theory, but it is based on both philosophical and empirical research. As part of my current book project, I am conducting case studies and a general survey of habitat conservation plans (HCPs) in the United States, to determine how these democratic dynamics are exhibited in practice.