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Re-examining Biodiversity as a Global Public Good

By Frederick Hemans | April 25, 2017

The Western Black Rhino took its last steps as a species in 2011, the latest victim of poaching, deforestation, and habitat loss. The difference between the Western Black Rhino and countless now-extinct species that preceded it is that we watched its extinction unfold almost in real time, as the population dropped from double digits, to single, and then to zero.

Human greed and indifference play a large role in extinctions of large ‘trophy’ species like the rhino, as well as the destruction of whole ecosystems across the globe. However, it was also a larger failure of local and global governance and policy. It was a failure to recognize biodiversity as an important global public good and cornerstone of positive future outcomes for the planet.

We can establish biodiversity as a global public good alongside a clean environment because of its power to transcend national boundaries. It is possible for critics to point out that the benefits of these goods lack equal distribution or marginal benefit for different human groups, as nations with a cleaner and more biodiverse environment may have higher levels of these public goods. However, cumulative global biodiversity at the core meets the criteria of non-rivalry and non-exclusivity across ecosystems.

Biodiversity is in a strange and unique position as a global public good because it has been falling precipitously as the levels of other goods rise. While this relationship is not directly causal, growing economies and their demands for inputs is the key driver of biodiversity loss. Biodiversity is key for the delivery of ecosystem services we as humans count on for survival, such as the creation of oxygen or pollination of plants. Recent comprehensive studies show that the levels of biodiversity have a direct correlation to the ability to support all life on the planet.

When speaking of the provision of global public goods, biodiversity on the global scale can often be lumped in with a clean environment that aids human life. However, it deserves greater consideration on its own merits. Cases such as the poaching of the Western Black Rhino or using the global use of the pesticide DDT show the potential to deliberately or unintentionally target specific species and trophic levels of ecosystems. This can be separate from environmental degradation (direct versus indirect causality) by human industrial or agricultural activities, thus warranting separate consideration.

Speaking just in economic terms, the gains to intact ecosystems across the globe are large and undoubtable. Ultimately, we can assess their value based on what would be the cost of a technical replacement. We can imagine the possibility of some sort of dystopian future where ecosystem services such as the production of oxygen or plant pollination are performed by machines rather than the natural world.

Provisioning of public goods is deemed to be beneficial to humans on a global scale because of ethical considerations, more specifically because we believe in the intrinsic value of increasing humanity’s cumulative well-being by providing these goods. However, the costs of losing intact ecosystems are large and frankly terrible to contemplate.

Moving away from an anthropocentric argument, arguing for the rights and representation of natural organisms and whole ecosystems in public law and policy is not a new or extreme idea. The late U.S. Supreme Court William O. Douglas argued repeatedly that natural objects and locations themselves had agency and value, and that they should be considered in policy and law. From Kant to John Stuart Mill to the present day, we have an ethical and philosophical tradition of protectionism for both individual organisms as well as the environment itself.

Biodiversity as a global public good is not a new concept, and much recent work details how we should apply this knowledge into policy and governance. They argue that consideration of biodiversity should be important in choosing public policy globally and expanded to all parts of government, not just environmentally focused agencies and organizations.

I would build on this argument by adding that we also have an ethical imperative as individual actors and in private governance of firms and industries to adopt policy and actions that work alongside public initiatives. If we fail to adopt methods of preserving global diversity in public policy and private governance, the sun won’t only be setting on the Western Black Rhino, but on the Earth’s core ability to support life as we currently know it.


Frederick Hemans is a first year MIA student at UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy, and is the Director of Content at JIPS. His area of study is on international environmental policy and global common resources.


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