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Biodiversity, ecosystem functioning, and the environmentalist agenda


Jonathan Newman, Gary Varner, and Stefan Linquist’s Defending Biodiversity: Environmental Science and Ethics is a critical examination of a panoply of arguments for conserving biodiversity. Their discussion is extremely impressive though I think one can push back on some of their criticisms. In this essay, I consider their criticisms of the argument for conserving biodiversity based on ecosystem services; specifically, ecosystem functioning. In the end, I try to clarify and defend this argument against their criticisms.

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Fig. 2


  1. 1.

    Following Newman et al. (2017, 3–5), we will focus on biodiversity as species richness (and evenness) since the experiments we will discuss focus on it. There is a great deal of debate about what properties characterize biodiversity.

  2. 2.

    NVL note that premise (1) focuses on human well-being and non-anthropocentrists would want to enlarge the scope of benefits and burdens to include some non-humans (Newman et al. 2017, 48–49). NVL note two issues. First, the empirical studies they examine focus on human well-being. Second, if we note that species richness matters for ecosystems services to humans, this doesn’t imply that other species are not benefiited as well. Third, by focusing on humans, we can avoid questions about how to prioritize human versus non-human interests at least temporarily.

  3. 3.

    One complication is that they added fertilizer to reduce diversity and this might mediate the relationship between species richness and ecosystem productivity.

  4. 4.

    The term “leads to” is ambiguous between one causing the other or simply being correlated with it.

  5. 5.

    Cardinale et al. (2011) is important for NVL’s analysis since it aggregates lots of information regarding BEF experiments.

  6. 6.

    This later decrease in the covariance is called the “portfolio effect.”

  7. 7.

    If one has 14 species, then possible combinations of those species is 16, 383.

  8. 8.

    The information discussed here about ecosystem services is taken from Daily et al. (1997) and Daily (1997)).

  9. 9.

    As NVL point out, medical arguments for preserving biodiversity are not terribly strong. They only apply to a few species and sometimes artificial replacements are found. But, they are one of many ecosystem services provided.

  10. 10.

    I live in the Pacific Northwest and so this is an important issue for people in my region.

  11. 11.

    The information on salmon and their life history along with the ecosystem services they provide are taken from Gende et al. (2002), Quinn (2011), Trout (2001) and Woody et al. (2003).


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Correspondence to Jay Odenbaugh.

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Odenbaugh, J. Biodiversity, ecosystem functioning, and the environmentalist agenda. Biol Philos 35, 16 (2020).

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  • Ecology
  • Biodiversity
  • Ecosystem
  • Function
  • Ethics