Biodiversity and Ethics

Printer-friendly versionPDF version

The science section noted a number of human actions that are accelerating the decline of Earth’s biodiversity. Here is a review of some of those mentioned:

  • Extensive deforestation primarily for land conversion to agriculture is destroying habitats that nurture the health and diversity of soils, plants, insects, and animals which are necessary for human life.
  • Loss of forests due to expanding agriculture, mining, road building, and urbanization is increasing the rate and extent of global climate change, which adds further stress to species survival.
  • Human induced habitat fragmentation and animal poaching is amplifying the extinction of plant, insect, and animal species.
  • Intended and unintended human introduction of invasive species into natural habitats is breaking down the delicate species balance and diversity of healthy ecosystems.

The Planetary Boundaries chart displayed in the science section (Figure 24) showed that declining biodiversity is today’s most acute threat to sustaining the Earth’s environmental health. The rate of species extinction far exceeds the pace of new plant, insect, and animal speciation that requires tens of thousands of years. The main driver of this extinction rate is the choices human beings are making over land use.

Land use choices influence the well-being of the natural world as well as human society. In the Healing Earth Introduction, you learned that ethics is the study and practice of actions that contribute to the well-being of humans, human societies, and the natural world. Land use choices are, therefore, moral choices. In this section, we explore the ethical challenges involving biodiversity. We begin by returning to the ethical questions posed in the Kakadu and the Mirrar case study that opened this chapter.

  • What ethical challenges do we face in protecting and improving Earth’s biodiversity?
  • What moral principles, goals, and virtues should guide our decisions for improving biodiversity?

Looking Back:

To review the foundations and norms of Healing Earth’s environmental ethic, return to the Healing Earth Introduction.

To address the ethical challenges of Earth’s declining biodiversity, we return to the three foundations of Healing Earth’s environmental ethic:

  • The natural world has intrinsic value.
  • The natural world has instrumental value.
  • Environmental sustainability balances nature’s intrinsic and instrumental values.

These are the moral footings for the ethical norms that guide our decisions about biodiversity. These norms are further specified in a set of moral principles, moral goals, and moral virtues.  

Moral Principles and Biodiversity

The primary ethical challenge we face in protecting and improving Earth’s biodiversity is the human tendency to modify land to benefit human development with a disregard for the value of biodiversity. As you learned in the science section, biodiversity is essential to the well-being of Earth’s human and non-human inhabitants and is the manifestation our planet’s incredible variety. These characteristics help us understand and appreciate the intrinsic value of biodiversity. From an ethical perspective, we are called upon to respect and care for this intrinsic value.

The rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has slowed in recent years due to restrictive government policies, improved frontier governance, and pressure from environmental groups. However, most environmentalists believe that as global demand for soy and beef continue to grow, new approaches will be needed to prevent another rise in deforestation. 1

One farmer draining a wetland to cultivate more land is a small intrusion on biodiversity when compared to the 584,300 hectares of Amazon rainforest cleared for cattle ranching in 2013. Yet, both choices trade the intrinsic value of biodiversity for the financial benefits of exploiting the land’s instrumental value.

Looking Back:

The Ecosystem Services chart shown in the science section (Figure 3) clearly outlines the use value of Earth’s natural resources.

This is not to say that using land is always unethical. In fact, putting the instrumental value of land to use is essential for the well-being of present number of people on the planet. Without using land, Earth’s human population would be reduced to a tiny fraction of today’s 7 billion. Biodiversity enables the land to deliver the provisioning, supporting, cultural, and regulating services needed for human life on Earth.

Closer Look

Using a ‘Biodiversity Barometer’, the Union for Ethical BioTrade surveyed consumers in 17 representative countries around the world and found that consumer awareness of the ‘ethical sourcing of biodiversity’ has increased from 28% to 45% since 2009. Read more about the Biodiversity Barometer.

You learned in the Healing Earth Introduction that the moral precept of environmental sustainability must guide how we approach the instrumental value of our planet’s natural resources. Sustainability is a central element to Healing Earth’s environmental ethic. As applied to the relationship between biodiversity and land, sustainability requires that we make every effort to use land in a way that does not exceed the ability of the land’s accompanying ecosystem to maintain its diverse plant, insect, and animal life.

For example, millions of hectares of the Earth’s tropical rain forests have been replaced with monocultures of palm tree plantations for the oil that palm produces. The enormous loss of biodiversity for the cultivation of a mono-specific plantation has moral implications that we must address.

Palm oil is found in everything from fuel, food, and household products, to cosmetics. It is estimated that one in ten products on super- market shelves around the world contain palm oil, with only a small percentage coming from a sustainable source. Read more about this at the Deforestation Information website. 1

Applying the moral principle of sustainability to the problem of declining biodiversity highlights the importance of environmental education. Although awareness about issues involving biodiversity is growing, most people do not understand how land use decisions can degrade Earth’s delicate ecological balance. With greater knowledge of biodiversity and its importance for life, more people will understand that land choices are moral choices. This is a necessary step toward healing Earth’s biodiversity.

Because people often make land use decisions with economic gain in mind, biodiversity education must extend beyond those who use the land to produce goods to those who consume good. Your athletic shoes, for example, are likely made of leather that has been supplied by a Brazilian processor. This processor probably gets the leather from a cattle rancher who raises cattle on a deforested section of the Amazon rainforest. This means that the type of athletic shoes you purchase is connected to the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest—and the beef from these same cattle may well be in the burger you eat at your local fast-food restaurant.

Similarly, the cosmetics you wear often contain palm oil, the extraction of which has accounted for the destruction of over 3.5 million hectares of forest in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Papua, New Guinea since 1990.1

Finding the material source of the products we buy can be very difficult, as many industries do not disclose the environment costs of their products. Fortunately, environmental groups have developed resources to help consumers make good choices. One example is This website lists hundreds of businesses worldwide that sell everything from clothing and food to cleaning materials and health care products made in an ecologically safe and socially just manner. Another example is the Better World Shopping Guide that evaluates everyday products for their environmental, human rights, and social justice responsibility.

The EKOenergy label is one among hundreds of ecolabels that exist today to raise awareness of environmental issues. 1

Ecolabels have also grown in recent years to help consumers determine the ‘ethical sourcing’ of a product. However, with over 400 different sustainability certifications and ecolabels around the world, it can be confusing to know which labels are reliable. Here is a list of some of the most well-known and trustworthy ecolabels. All of us committed to healing the Earth must help producers and consumers understand the intrinsic value of biodiversity and the impact our choices have on this essential element of the natural world.

Returning to the case study at the beginning of this chapter, we see that biodiversity ethics is also a matter of human rights. The Mirrar way of life depends on the diverse plant and animal varieties found in their Kakadu homeland. This is true of many of the approximately 370 million Indigenous People living in 70 countries worldwide. The right to life of Indigenous People is violated when their land and its biodiversity is degraded by deforestation, mining, pollution, animal poaching, and biopiracy. This latter term refers to the commercial exploitation of biological material (such as medicinal plant extracts) without compensating the Indigenous People from whom knowledge of the material was obtained.

Closer Look

In Catholic social teaching, the common good is defined as “the sum total of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment.”2 Take a look at this excellent summary of the moral principle of the common good.

The problem of biopiracy highlights the important link between biodiversity and human cultural diversity. Human communities around the world differ in their agricultural practices, food habits, knowledge of local plants and seeds, and uses of natural resources for medicinal purposes. History has taught us that such knowledge has not only been a local good, but also a common good for the whole of humanity.

For example, quinine is an ancient remedy for malaria used around the world. It comes from the bark of the cinchona tree in the tropical Andes forests of Western South America. It is estimated that the native Quechua Indians of Peru used quinine for malaria long before it was noted by Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century. Sometimes known as "Jesuit Bark," quinine was a local good that came to serve the common good.

Figure 36: A 17th century engraving depicting a Peruvian native offering cinchona bark to a representation of European science. 1

This is an example of how important it is for the common good of all to protect local communities that depend on biodiversity for their survival and have intimate knowledge of the plant and animal life within their environment. The survival of one depends on the survival of the other. Destroy the community that protects the natural diversity on which its life depends and you degrade Earth’s biodiversity; destroy the natural diversity on which the life of a community depends and you degrade the diversity of human cultures.

Indigenous People often do not hold legal deeds or titles to their ancestral lands. Rather, national states claim legal domain over lands within their borders. As states sell land to businesses and private citizens, these landowners in turn claim rights of private property and free trade to produce and sell whatever they choose from the land. In the process, Indigenous People are often marginalized to smaller, less productive sections of land.

The Healing Earth environmental ethic takes an alternative view on private possession of natural resources. The right to private property is not absolute; rather, it is linked—like all rights—to human responsibility. The moral validity of the right to private property depends upon the exercise of this right in a manner that respects the intrinsic value of biodiversity and the moral principle of sustainability.
eviction notice [photo]

Biodiversity is threatened when private property is considered an absolute right. The sign reads “Eviction Notice: New Address To Be Considered”1

Private ownership of land also runs up against the moral principle of the universal destination of goods. This moral principle holds that the availability, or "destination," of goods necessary for life is "universal"; that is, basic goods such as land, water, food, and air should not be used by one in ways that destroy the resource or threaten the survival of others. According to the universal destination of goods, land use that destroys biodiversity cannot be morally justified by an appeal to the rights of private property and free trade. In fact, it is quite the opposite: landowners themselves violate the rights of private property and free trade when they exercise responsible actions that destroy or threaten biodiversity or human communities dependent on it.

Another moral principle pertaining to biodiversity is the preferential option for the poor. As Pavan Sukhdev et al. explain in their study “Biodiversity and Poverty,"

Because three quarters of the more than one billion people living on less than one dollar a day live in rural areas, the poor often depend on a wide range of natural resources and ecosystem services for their well-being, and are therefore potentially affected by their degradation.3

Over one billion people worldwide live day to day on natural resources drawn from forests, rivers, and lakes. People living in poverty depend on these resources for food, health, income, and cultural activities. The moral principle of the preferential option for the poor requires that land use decisions take special steps to protect biodiversity that enables poor people to survive.

Questions to Consider

Imagine you are a member of a town council that must vote on granting permission to a local business for expanding their production facilities. This expansion would create 100 new jobs at a time when your community has been declining due to unemployment and poverty. However, construction of the production facility would destroy the last natural habitat in your area for a rare and endangered bird species.

  • How would you vote on this issue?
  • How would the moral principles you have just studied shape your decision?

Follow the arguments in this real life conflict about this issue.

Moral Goals and Biodiversity

Decisions that reduce deforestation and fragmentation, care for endangered species, guard against invasive species, and stop animal poaching and biopiracy move us toward the moral goal of protecting and preserving biological diversity.

The major Marine Protected Areas in the world’s oceans. 1

There are many hopeful signs around the world of people imagining Earth with an enhanced biodiversity and acting to build what they imagine. One example is the creation of  Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). Nations around the world have created MPAs to preserve biodiversity within inland lakes and adjoining oceans and seas. For example, with 20% of the world’s coral reefs irreversibly damaged and the remaining 80% under high risk of destruction, nations with coral reefs in their waters such as Australia have established MPAs to protect these incredibly diverse natural structures. Although this is a hopeful activity, today’s MPA’s cover only about 1.17% of global ocean areas.

Closer Look

The World Wide Fund produced the first compilation of sacred sites in their 2005 report Beyond Belief: Linking Faiths and Protected Areas to support Biodiversity. Download this fascinating study to learn more.

There are also organizations working to upgrade Earth’s biodiversity by protecting sacred natural sites and species throughout the world. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUNC) is one such organization. Among its several projects, IUNC identifies sites and species regarded as sacred by human cultures around the world, including the Mirrar people. The plants, animals, lands, and waters of the Kakadu forest have had spiritual significance to the Mirrar for thousands of years--and the IUNC efforts have helped to protect its rich biodiversity. Read more about the work of the IUNC.

Questions to Consider

Imagine you and your classmates want to clean up a row of vacant lots on the edge of town that are filled with garbage and overgrown with invasive weeds and shrubs. Even though this is a relatively small area of land, you want to do your part in increasing Earth’s biodiversity. You would like to apply for funds from your town council to buy tools, plants, and seeds. You have fifteen minutes at the next town council meeting to present your request. Outline and practice your presentation that explains how your project is valuable from both a scientific and ethical perspective.

Moral Virtues and Biodiversity

People tend to admire those who follow moral principles in pursuit of their goals. Such people often stand apart from the crowd, displaying character and virtue as they make sacrifices for what they believe is right. What are the virtues or character traits that make people like this effective leaders?

Inspired People

Larry Gibson [photo]

Larry Gibson [photo]

Larry Gibson was a man of courage. For over 30 years he protested coal company mountaintop removal around his native Kayford Mountain in West Virginia, U.S. He defied the coal companies by remaining in his cabin on top of the mountain. Coal mining supporters shot bullets into his cabin, killed two of his dogs, burned effigies of Larry in his yard, made threatening phone calls, and assaulted him physically. In 2012, Larry Gibson died of a heart attack still saving his mountain. Listen to Larry Gibson tell his courageous story.



People with courage are needed to challenge those who greedily pursue economic gain at the expense of Earth’s biodiversity. In the next section on Biodiversity and Spirituality you will be inspired by just such courage among the women of the Chipko Movement in India. The moral correction for greed is temperance, the moral virtue that counsels one to pursue sustainable economic development, a form of development that preserves and protects biodiversity.

The virtue of temperance is linked to kindness. A kind person with humility realizes how much is yet unknown about the complex workings of nature and approaches this mystery with loving respect. Kindness encourages human partnership with—not domination of—nature.

During her lifetime, the famous poet Emily Dickenson was better known as a gardener than a poet. She spent many hours in her garden where her sense of humility toward nature moved her to write many poems on this theme.

The skies can’t keep their secret!
They tell it to the hills—
The hills just tell the orchards—
And they the daffodils!

A bird, by chance, that goes that way
Soft overheard the whole.
If I should bribe the little bird,
Who knows but she would tell?

I think I won’t, however,
It’s finer not to know;
If summer were an axiom,
What sorcery had snow?

So keep your secret, Father!
I would not, if I could,
Know what the sapphire fellows do,
In your new-fashioned world!4

As Dickinson’s poem reflects, realizing our co-dependence with nature elicits a sense of gratitude for and generosity toward the natural world. Both of these virtues are important for the work of healing Earth’s wounded biodiversity.

Temperance, humility, gratitude and generosity encourage prudence when making land choices where the goods of financial gain and biodiversity have to be weighed against one another. The goal is to bring about justice between the reasonable needs of human society and the environmental needs of our planet so as to use land in a sustainable way for the flourishing of future generations of life on Earth.

We face a serious ethical challenge today in protecting and preserving Earth’s biodiversity. The principles, goals, and virtues we have discussed in this section help us think through the moral choices that confront us.

As we consider these choices, we invariably ask ourselves what we value and what core commitments truly engage our inner depths. When we gather the courage to face moral choices rather than avoid them, we reach into our spiritual lives, just as human beings have for thousands of years. It is to this subject that we now turn.

Questions to Consider

Imagine, again, you are the leader of a plan you and your classmates have developed to restore land in your community. You are now preparing the presentation that you must give to the town council, requesting the funding you need to do this project.

  • What moral virtues will you need to emphasize within this presentation?
  • Do you feel you possess these virtues?
  • Do you feel your community as a whole possesses these virtues?
  • What could you do to strengthen them in yourself and in your community?