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

Kevin J. O’Brien
Published by Georgetown University Press in 2010

Writing in the January 2010 issue of Diversity,1 Ferdinando Boero declared that, “…the study of biological diversity is a mission from God.” I must admit that on first reading, this declaration and Boero’s use of quotes from the book of Genesis was a bit unexpected in the opening paragraphs of a serious commentary on the loss of biodiversity, especially one that was published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. In his paper, Boero, a highly regarded Italian oceanographer and zoologist, makes it crystal clear that he believes that responding to the loss of biodiversity will require an ethical as well as a scientific dimension and that those of us on a quest for solutions are indeed “on a mission from God.” Kevin O’Brien’s recent book, An Ethics of Biodiversity, also invites people of faith to join in that mission as he explores some of “the moral and theological lessons” (3) that can be learned from the study of biodiversity and as he offers some modest suggestions as to what Christian theology might contribute to the process.

In the introduction, O’Brien addresses five overarching questions: “What is biodiversity? Why does biodiversity matter? Why should we conserve it? How should we conserve it? What does the conservation of biodiversity have to do with human diversity and with social justice?” (13) These questions form both the physical and the philosophical framework of O’Brien’s book, and the answers he offers prompt him to suggest Christian ethical “tools” that might be used in an attempt to develop an ethics of biodiversity. These tools include using Christian ritual to recognize the importance of biodiversity, invoking the story of Noah to emphasize the urgency of the issue, and using the theology of dominion to discuss the extent of and limits to humanity’s authority over the created order.

While O’Brien offers a good review of the science of biodiversity and an interesting integration of that material with the issues of moral formation, as a reader I found the text to be a bit difficult to follow in places. It almost seemed as though the author had made many changes to the manuscript, perhaps to accommodate mentors or reviewers, causing the original flow of the text and the crispness of his arguments to lose clarity. I also noticed that with each major topic, especially the ethical ones, I found myself waiting for the most powerful concept or problematic issue to emerge, and they never did.

For example, in O’Brien’s discussion of “seeing biodiversity in Christian ritual,” he accepts Lynn White’s nomination of St. Francis of Assisi as the patron saint of ecologists. Then, citing the example of the blessing of the animals at the annual celebration of St. Francis Day at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, he recognizes that Francis blurs the boundary between humans and the other creatures of the Earth. In his analysis of this and other similar examples of the ritual blessing of the animals, he concludes that these activities help emphasize that God and the Church love the animals and thus teach that we should care for them as well. This is certainly a useful lesson, but it does not really address the need for the protection of biodiversity. Here the problematic issue left unaddressed is the fact that the animals involved are domesticated: personal pets, farm animals, or other human chattel that are “captive” and objects of human ownership. Even the wild animals (camels, elephants, and so on) paraded before the parishioners are most likely borrowed from zoos. Here we have a wonderful “teachable moment” that O’Brien seems to miss. At this point we should be asking if the lessons taught and learned through these rituals are really effective in calling Christians to sacrifice in order to preserve the property of the Creator God, property that we identify as “biodiversity,” or whether the rituals are merely a gentle call for us to take good care of creatures (objects?) that we own. 

O’Brien’s recognition of the significance of the Noah story certainly echoes the interpretation of a long line of Christian environmental ethicists. It is clear from the story that when the sins of man threaten the creatures of the Earth, it is the job of the righteous man to take action to protect the Earth’s biodiversity. It is a powerful image, and O’Brien is right to have chosen it. But there is more to the ethical implications of the story than the need for urgent action. I wish O’Brien had gone one step further and emphasized the implications of God’s command to “take two of every kind,” in effect, telling Noah that he did not know enough to be selective. One imagines the conversation: Noah asks, “Even the pit viper and the cockroach and the tsetse fly?” And God answers, “Yes Noah, the ones you do not like… even the ones you think are evil. Every creature is important. Take them all.” What a powerful answer from Christian ethics to those who would argue that in these tough economic times we cannot afford to save them all.

O’Brien nominates “dominion theology” as the third of his Christian ethical “tools” that might be used in an attempt to develop an ethics of biodiversity. Unfortunately he fails to include some of the seminal work of scholars outside of his own Catholic tradition. In his assessment of the dominion question, I believe he is too quick to cede ground to those who argue that Scripture teaches only that God has given man total authority over the created order. O’Brien correctly focuses on Genesis 1:28 as an important piece of the puzzle, but seems to be unfamiliar with the work of evangelical Protestant scholars (among them Wes Michaelson, Loren Wilkinson, Fred Van Dyke, and others) who have linked the interpretation of the harsh dominion of Genesis 1:28 (from the Hebrew; radah and kabash) to the gentle dominion of sacrificial stewardship and servant hood as portrayed in Genesis 2:15 (from the Hebrew; abad and shamar).

Additional relevant commentary on the dominion question can also be found in the works of present-day Jewish scholars like David Ehrenfeld and Rabbi Philip Bentley. In their paper, “Judaism and the Practice of Stewardship,”2 they cite the work of eleventh-century French Rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki, or Rashi as he was affectionately known. Born 141 years before St. Francis, Rashi penned the first comprehensive commentary on the Talmud, as well as a comprehensive commentary on the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible). Among Jewish scholars he is considered to be the “father” of all commentaries that followed and he is still widely studied today. Rashi gives us the following commentary on the word “dominion” as introduced in Genesis 1:28:

The Hebrew [yirdu] connotes both “dominion” (derived from radah) and “descent” (derived from yarad): when man is worthy, he has dominion over the animal kingdom; when he is not; he descends below their level and the animals rule over him.3

us to caution and humility in our dealing with the other creatures of the Earth and with their Creator.

Ecologists commonly use a hierarchy of scale to organize their discipline. To understand each level, one must acknowledge its dependence on the levels below it. Thus, an understanding of populations requires understanding individuals; an understanding of communities requires understanding populations; and so on up the hierarchy to ecosystems, biomes, and the biosphere. O’Brian proposes applying a similar “multiscalar Christian ecological ethics” (94) to the development of the appropriate ethical tools needed to respond to the crisis of biodiversity loss. To me this section was one of the high points of the book. O’Brien’s choice of Larry Rasmussen’s Earth Community,4 John Hart’s Sacramental Commons,5 and Michael Northcott’s Ecology of the Parish6 combine to serve as an excellent model of the multiscalar response to environmental issues like biodiversity loss.

There is little doubt that the rapid loss of biodiversity from the Earth’s biomes is a serious threat to the ability of the Earth to sustain life, especially human life, as we know it. There is also little doubt that dealing with the biodiversity question will require more than recycling, changing to compact fluorescent bulbs, and driving a Prius. If we continue on our present course, the mass extinction, which many ecologists believe has already begun, will be both devastating and tragic. Like so many environmental issues, we seem to be very near a tipping point beyond which only the most drastic response is likely to have any impact on the outcome. No matter how well intentioned we are, it will take more than “50 easy things you can do to save the Earth.” Like Dietrich Bonheoffer’s “cheap grace,” “cheap green” solutions will certainly be less than effective. And like “cheap grace,” “cheap green” can also lull us into believing that we have done our part as the system collapses around us.

Developing and actualizing a Christian ethics of biodiversity will require dealing with thorny ethical questions and instituting big lifestyle changes. These changes will be more than a little uncomfortable for most Christian confessions. Catholics, especially conservative Catholics, will struggle when asked to recognize the need to limit the size of the human population, a population that is already too large for planetary sustainability. Protestants from mainline denominations will be forced to recognize that while small “green” steps may make you feel good about “doing your part to save the Earth,” they will not be enough to stem the loss of biodiversity. Evangelicals and fundamentalists, especially in wealthy countries, will have an especially difficult time confronting the issue of over-consumption, limits to personal lifestyles, and their adherence to an economic theory that promotes and institutionalizes greed rather than sacrifice. Advocates of liberation theology will need to confront the fact that when the people in need of liberation achieve it, they immediately begin to exploit the Earth in much the same way as their wealthy neighbors.

O’Brien is certainly correct when he postulates that “our habits, choices, and social structures drive other species to extinction” (3). If we are to develop sustainable answers to the biodiversity question, then we will need a toolkit that contains both science and ethics. With science and ethics as guides, we will also need the courage to alter our habits, choices, and social structures and making the necessary changes will not be easy. O’Brien offers us a window on what is known and what needs to be done. His book adds to the growing body of literature that challenges people of faith to begin to recognize that the loss of biodiversity is a theological as well as a scientific problem and invites us to respond to that challenge by recognizing that caring for the created order is indeed “…a mission from God.”

Cite this article
Edwin R. Squiers, “An Ethics of Biodiversity: Christianity, Ecology, and the Variety of Life”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 40:4 , 480-483


  1. Ferdinando Boero, “The Study of Species in the Era of Biodiversity: a Tale of Stupidity,” Diversity 2 (2010): 115-126.
  2. David Ehrenfeld and Philip J. Bentley, “Judaism and the Practice of Stewardship,” Judaism 34 (1985): 301-311.
  3. A. Cohen, ed., The Soncino Chumash: The Five Books of Moses With Haphtaroth (London: Soncino Press, 1947), 6.
  4. Larry L. Rasmussen, Earth Community, Earth Ethics (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1996), xii.
  5. John Hart, Sacramental Commons: Christian Ecological Ethics (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006),xviii.
  6. Michael S. Northcott, The Environment and Christian Ethics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 24.

Edwin R. Squiers

Edwin R. Squiers, Earth and Environmental Science, Taylor University