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An Ethics of Biodiversity

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

Kevin J. O’Brien
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 242
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  • Book Info
    An Ethics of Biodiversity
    Book Description:

    Life on earth is wildly diverse, but the future of that diversity is now in question. Through environmentally destructive farming practices, ever-expanding energy use, and the development and homogenization of land, human beings are responsible for unprecedented reductions in the variety of life forms around us. Estimates suggest that species extinctions caused by humans occur at up to 1,000 times the natural rate, and that one of every twenty species on the planet could be eradicated by 2060. An Ethics of Biodiversity argues that these facts should inspire careful reflection and action in Christian churches, which must learn from earth's vast diversity in order to help conserve the natural and social diversity of our planet. Bringing scientific data into conversation with theological tradition, the book shows that biodiversity is a point of intersection between faith and ethics, social justice and environmentalism, science and politics, global problems and local solutions. An Ethics of Biodiversity offers a set of tools for students, environmentalists, and people of faith to think critically about how human beings can live with and as part of the variety of life in God's creation.

    eISBN: 978-1-58901-664-4
    Subjects: Philosophy, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. Introduction Christian Ecological Ethics and Biodiversity
    (pp. 1-16)

    In the Pacific Northwest, the corner of the world where I live, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposes to shoot owls in order to save owls.

    The birds to be shot are barred owls, a species native to the eastern side of the continent that has expanded its range, becoming particularly numerous in the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s. The birds to be saved are northern spotted owls, one of the most famous subspecies protected by the Endangered Species Act and an icon of environmental conflicts in the Pacific Northwest and across the nation. Spotted owls make their homes...

  6. Part I Defining Biodiversity

    • Chapter 1 The Variety of Life
      (pp. 19-38)

      One of countless subjects to ponder at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City is the changing role its scientists and curators understand for themselves. Older exhibits tend to feature specimens and models in cases, with descriptions that offer fascinating insight into how scientists ask questions about the world. Newer exhibits intersperse artifacts the public is encouraged to touch along with interactive computer programs and attention-grabbing films. This generational contrast is particularly clear when walking from the North American Forests exhibit to the Hall of Biodiversity. In the former, visitors see models of leaf patterns and greatly...

  7. Part II Why Biodiversity Matters

    • Chapter 2 Valuing Life and Ecosystems
      (pp. 41-57)

      The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro was a milestone in the work of conserving global biodiversity, when leaders from 150 nations formally 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, cultural, recreational, and aesthetic values of biodiversity and its components.”¹ This long list of biodiversity’s values hints...

    • Chapter 3 The Sacramental Value of the Variety of Life
      (pp. 58-76)

      In a frequently told and possibly apocryphal story, a member of the Christian clergy anxious to engage in dialogue asked the early-twentieth-century biologist John Haldane what his studies of the natural world had taught him about its creator. Haldane replied that God seems to have “an inordinate fondness for beetles,” referencing the hundreds of thousands of distinct species of the insect already cataloged and the uncountable others that human beings have never seen. A noted atheist, Haldane was likely annoyed by the question and hoping his answer would shock the clergyman away from a follow-up. From my perspective as a...

  8. Part III The Levels of Biodiversity

    • Chapter 4 Scaling Conservation
      (pp. 79-93)

      An Inconvenient Truth, the book released alongside former Vice President Al Gore’s celebrated presentation and film about global climate change, begins with two pictures of the Earth from space, one of which Gore credited with changing the consciousness of humanity and helping to spark the environmental movement, another of which he identified as “the most commonly published photograph in all of history.” Gore uses these pictures—just as he used one in his earlier book, Earth in the Balance—to call for a global attention, an awareness and concern for the entire planet, and a moral affirmation that all lives...

    • Chapter 5 Multiscalar Christian Ecological Ethics
      (pp. 94-110)

      The scientists and thinkers cited in chapter 4 demonstrate that an ethics of biodiversity should be multiscalar, attending to multiple levels of attention and learning from ecological theory about how to identify and distinguish those levels. Conservationists must be aware of the scales of our attention, recognize the trade-offs inherent in scalar choices, and struggle to nurture a flexible, multiscalar approach to our work. This chapter brings Christian ethics into the conversation about multiscalar morality in order to develop a set of tools with which to address this question: How should Christians make choices between the conservation of the biodiversity...

  9. Part IV Political and Morally Formative Conservation

    • Chapter 6 Regulating Biodiversity: The Endangered Species Act and Political Conservation
      (pp. 113-130)

      Responding to a French naturalist who had dismissed the new world as impoverished and capable of sustaining only “cold men and feeble animals,” Thomas Jefferson wrote a long tribute to the North American mammoth in his Notes on the State of Virginia. He knew this animal only from reports of its fossilized bones but found clear evidence therein of its greatness and therefore of the greatness of his continent. The bones were “tusks and skeletons [that] are much larger than those of the elephant, and the grinders many times greater than those of the hippopotamus.” This suggested without a doubt...

    • Chapter 7 Christian Care for Biodiversity: Moral Formation as Conservation
      (pp. 131-150)

      Scholarly discussions of the relationship between Christianity and environmentalism invariably engage Lynn White Jr.’s famous essay, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” and this book is no exception. White’s essay has served as a source and foil for theologians and ethicists ever since it was published in Science in 1967 because it provocatively claims that Christianity is “the most anthropocentric religion the world has ever seen” and, as such, is a prominent foundation of environmentally destructive social structures. The prevailing Christian mentality, White writes, is this: “Despite Darwin, we are not, in our hearts, part of the natural process....

  10. Part V Social Justice and the Conservation of Biodiversity

    • Chapter 8 Biological and Cultural Diversity
      (pp. 153-172)

      In 1983 Dwight Dion Sr. was arrested for hunting and killing four bald eagles in South Dakota. At the time eagles were a severely threatened species, protected not only by the Endangered Species Act but also by the Bald Eagle Protection Act, passed by Congress in 1940. The earlier act, designed to protect the nation’s symbolic animal long before the extinction of other species was a widespread concern, makes it illegal to take “any bald eagle . . . or any part, nest, or egg thereof.”¹ The protection of eagles is therefore one of the longest-standing conservation commitments in the...

    • Chapter 9 Diversities and Justice
      (pp. 173-192)

      Habitat destruction is a problem for spotted owls, salmon, and polar bears. It is also a problem for human beings, who lose their homes, food sources, and ways of life when the ecosystems around them are degraded and destroyed. Economist Norman Myers has characterized those who lose their homes this way as “environmental refugees,” defined as “people who can no longer gain a secure livelihood in their homelands because of drought, soil erosion, desertification, deforestation, and other environmental problems.”¹ Myers estimated that there were twenty-five million such refugees in 1995 and that this number would likely double by 2010. In...

  11. Conclusion The Work of Conserving Biodiversity
    (pp. 193-202)

    This book offers an ethics of biodiversity developed from a Christian perspective in dialogue with scientific ecology, and its foundation is a set of data about the variety of life. These data are endlessly complex and intricate, but it is nevertheless worth trying to summarize with a few numbers: for more than three billion years, life has evolved on the planet Earth, with countless births and deaths leading to the 10 million or so distinct species on the planet today, 350,000 of which are beetles. Our own single species—which evolved less than two hundred thousand years ago—has almost...

  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 203-214)
  13. Index
    (pp. 215-221)