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Biodiversity, ecosystem functioning, and the environmentalist agenda: a reply to Odenbaugh


Among the instrumental value defenses for biodiversity conservation is the argument that biodiversity is necessary to support ecosystem functioning. Lower levels of biodiversity yield lower levels of ecosystem functioning and hence the inference that we should conserve biodiversity. In our book Defending Biodiversity: Environmental Science and Ethics, we point out three problems with this inference. (1) The empirical support for such an inference derives from experiments conducted on a very small set of ecosystem types (mainly grasslands and fresh water aquatic) and ecosystem functions (mainly nutrient uptake, biomass production, and decomposition rates). These experiments suffer from a number of largely unavoidable logistical constraints making the generality of their results questionable. (2) Even if the experimental results were unequivocal, their lack of external validity would still raise significant questions about how (if at all) these results apply to real world conservation problems. And (3) even if the experimental results were unequivocal and completely applicable to conservation problems, relying on such defenses implies other rational policy commitments that are at odds with other positions that environmentalists commonly take. Odenbaugh and I disagree largely about what inferences follow from these points rather than about the points themselves. I think that what follows is that if environmentalists want to use instrumental value defenses, then we need to accept that not all biodiversity is useful to us, and parts that are useful are not necessarily more useful than alternatives that might threaten biodiversity. I also think that the unpalatable implied commitments need to be taken seriously. This may mean that we environmentalists have to accept that biodiversity should not always be conserved, and that parts of the environmentalist agenda are little more than strong personal preferences that others need not respect. If environmentalists are willing to accept these conclusions, then there are no problems with relying on these instrumental value defenses, but I suspect that environmentalists are likely to be unhappy with such conclusions.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    Note that throughout I follow Odenbaugh’s convention of referring to ‘biodiversity–ecosystem function’ by the shorthand ‘BEF.’

  2. 2.

    I do not wish to imply by the use of the word ‘shortcomings’ that experimenters are somehow negligent in their research. These shortcomings are largely the result of real logistical constraints on conducting these sorts of experiments. See our Chapter 2 for further discussion.

  3. 3.

    By this I mean that you were nearly certain that x did, in fact, kill cancer cells in petri dishes.

  4. 4.

    Note that Odenbaugh is using the term ‘ecosystem services’ differently than we use it in the book. There we use ‘ecosystem function’ and ‘ecosystem service’ as synonyms for products or services that serve the needs of human beings. Two other terms that get brought into this argument are ‘ecosystem goods’ and ‘ecosystem stability’. ‘Goods’ are simply functions or services for which an exchange market already exists, but in all other ways is also synonymous with function and service. ‘Stability’ can be understood as a particular kind of ecosystem service. Odenbaugh seems to be using the term ‘ecosystem services’ to mean more broadly any instrumental value derived from biodiversity. I am not sure that this distinction is meaningful since the BEF argument is not conceptually confined to any specific units on the y-axis.


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  3. Newman JA, Varner G, Linquist S (2017) Defending biodiversity: environmental science and ethics. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

  4. Odenbaugh J (2019) Biodiversity, ecosystem functioning, and the environmentalist agenda. Biol Philos.

  5. Pimm SL (1991) The balance of nature: ecological issues in the conservation of species and communities. University of Chicago, Chicago

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Correspondence to Jonathan A. Newman.

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Newman, J.A. Biodiversity, ecosystem functioning, and the environmentalist agenda: a reply to Odenbaugh. Biol Philos 35, 17 (2020).

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  • Biodiversity—ecosystem function defenses
  • Ecosystem services
  • Environmental ethics
  • Instrumental value defenses