An Ethics of Biodiversity: Christianity, Ecology, and the Variety of Life

By Kevin J. O'Brien | Go to book overview

Chapter 2
Valuing Life and Ecosystems

The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro was a milestone in the work of conserving global biodiversity, when leaders from 150 nations for- mally embraced the idea that the variety of life is both important and under threat. By signing the Convention on Biodiversity (Convention, hereafter) these leaders affirmed an incredibly broad list of reasons that biodiversity matters, with the preamble noting that the Convention's signatories were “conscious of the intrinsic value of biodiversity and of the ecological, genetic, social, economic, scientific, educational, cul- tural, recreational, and aesthetic values of biodiversity and its compo- nents.”1 This long list of biodiversity's values hints at the many reasons humans should commit to conserve it: the variety of life is valuable in and for itself, is necessary for healthy ecosystems, provides biologi- cal resources, helps create healthy societies, has monetary worth, in- spires significant research, has much to teach us, is essential to many cultural traditions, and makes the natural world more enjoyable and pleasant for human activity and appreciation.

This wide-ranging list of values from the Convention on Biodiver- sity was no doubt meant to inspire commitment from leaders around the world and encourage cooperation from diverse cultures with di- verse interests. This is an essential step for any ethics of biodiversity: to establish a broad consensus that the variety of life is worthy of con- sideration, that it has significant value, and that human beings have good reason to acknowledge and respect that value.

In the next chapter I discuss one of the qualities of biodiversity not included on the Convention's list: spiritual value, which I dem- onstrate by making a Christian argument about biodiversity's sacra- mental importance. Before moving to that constructive work, however, I here analyze four arguments included in the Convention's list that have also been developed and expanded by ecologists and conservation biologists: that biodiversity is essential to healthy ecosystem function- ing, that it has economic value, that human communities can learn from it, and that it has an intrinsic value beyond human interest.

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