The impacts of biodiversity loss is not a well-researched topic in EA. A small group of us have begun doing some research into the impacts of biodiversity loss (including mass extinction and its connection to ecosystem collapse) as a potential cause area that deserves more attention and resources. 

After preliminary research we found very little active research within the EA community about this topic and only minor explorations from core EA organizations. If you know of substantial, recent research on this topic we would love to read it.

As a quick way to help our community by contributing to an under-explored topic, we invite you to fill out this 3 minute survey or respond in the comments to the question: 

What is the strongest argument you know of for & against biodiversity loss as a cause area?

We also want to acknowledge that we have seen substantial research into climate change. We believe biodiversity loss warrants its own targeted research as a separate but related trigger for compounding devastating risk for life on Earth.

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I don't believe biodiversity is an important cause area, for basically two reasons:

  1. Species themselves are not inherently valuable. The experiences of individual conscious animals are what's valuable, and the welfare of wild animals is basically orthogonal to biodiversity, at least as far as anyone can tell—even if biodiversity and wild animal welfare are positively correlated, I've never seen a good argument to that effect, and surely increasing biodiversity isn't the best way to improve wild animal welfare.
  2. You could perhaps argue that loss of biodiversity poses an existential threat to humanity, which matters more for the long-run future than wild animal welfare. But it seems like a very weak x-risk compared to things like AGI or nuclear war.

Most people who prioritize biodiversity (IMO) don't seem to understand what actually matters, and they act as if a species is a unit of inherent value, when it isn't—the unit of value is an individual's conscious experience. If you wanted to ague that biodiversity should be a high priority, you'd have to claim either that (1) increasing biodiversity is a particularly effective way of improving wild animal welfare or (2) loss of biodiversity constitutes a meaningful existential risk. I've never seen a good argument for either of those positions, but an argument might exist.

(Or you could argue that biodiversity is very important for some third reason, but it seems unlikely to me that there could be any third reason that's important enough to be worth spending EA resources on.)

A third reason to prevent extinction would be to preserve option value.  This could be because of moral uncertainty.  Or it could be because understanding these species in the future may provide some other benefits to medicine, wild animal welfare, or some other use yet to be found.  

As an illustrative example, if Japanese Dwarf Wheat had gone extinct prior to Borlaug the impact on welfare would have been large and bad.

2Jonas Kathage2mo
Option value does not inherently favor biodiversity conservation. Conservation without apparent or rationally expected benefits is a costly gamble that can be won but also lost (if it turns out that conserving had less value than not conserving). Imagine you spend resources on conserving a species that will never turn out to be beneficial, or at least less beneficial than having spent the resources on other, more valuable things.
3Aleksi Maunu5d
To the extent that moral uncertainty pushes you to give more credence to common sense ethical views, it does point towards prioritizing biodiversity more than a consequentialist view would otherwise imply, as "let's preserve species" and "let's preserve option value" are common sense ethical views. Probably not enough to affect prioritization in practice though.

Even if the only point that matters at the end of the line is an individual's conscious experience (which I think is highly debatable), species themselves are inherently valuable in that the complex interplay of species, which we do not fully understand, is a huge part of the whole system that allows any individual consciousness to exist.

We know bees are critical and valuable because of their role in pollinating plants we eat. We know whales are critical and valuable because of their role in fertilizing the ocean so that phytoplankton (who produce most of ... (read more)

2Jonas Kathage2mo
There are hundreds of bee species and most of them contribute very little to crop pollination, see here [https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms8414]. So pollination is not a good argument to support bee diversity conservation.
2Noah Scales2mo
Interpreting the paper's claims [https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms8414]: 1. threatened wild bees are not observed on crops because those wild species are threatened, and so are less common and less likely to appear on crops. 2. choice to conserve the more common wild species will be cheaper because those wild species are not threatened and do well in agricultural environments. 3. the authors of the paper believe: 1. protecting common wild species that pollinate crops is cheaper than protecting threatened wild species that no longer pollinate crops. 2. other arguments than protecting pollinators should be made to protect biodiversity because threatened pollinator species don't do much for crops. 3. if no ecosystem service can be clearly identified for most threatened species, the only argument available to protect biodiversity is a moral one. It's a clean argument but I it presumes that we can ignore the impacts on our ecosystems of species extinction in general (biodiversity loss). The function of pollinators is to pollinate plants. Some pollinators have exclusive relationships with plants, for example, the few species of chocolate midge [https://www.nps.gov/articles/chocolate-midge.htm]. Unfortunately, pollinator habitats require biodiversity. Without the health of the habitat, which biodiversity ensures, the function of the wild species that provide the known ecosystem service will halt. The end result will be the loss of the pollinator and its plants from the planet. This is the fundamental problem with relying on wild species in the first place. How many threats to chocolate midges exist because of biodiversity loss within their habitat? If we lose the wrong rainforest species, we would then lose chocolate midges, and then we will lose chocolate. Returning to the bees, though..., the articles's authors seem to think that biodiversity declines are irrelevant to food crop p
1Jonas Kathage2mo
"Ecosystem services" is not a useful frame and does not support biodiversity maintenance (read my summary [https://jkathage.substack.com/p/whats-so-good-about-biodiversity] or the relevant section [https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-94-007-3991-8_6#Sec3] in Maier's book). Biodiversity comes with many disservices (think of pollinators of noxious weeds, crop pests, diseases...) and its conservation can stand in the way of services. Any unbiased assessment of the question whether biodiversity is valuable on ecosystem grounds must include those disservices and the context of non-ecosystem services. More importantly, it is not diversity (of species, functions or other categories) that performs valuable services, but particular species or populations. It is a category mistake to confuse biodiversity with individual species.
2Noah Scales2mo
To let you know, I don't believe ecosystem services matter beyond the fact that we depend on those services, directly or indirectly, and don't have readily available substitutes. Nature can be inconvenient and messy, but I think humanity has to protect it in order to get any good from it. Biodiversity supports provision of services through protection of habitats of known service providers and through additional services from unidentified (or poorly known) service providers. The acknowledgement of services that ecosystems provide is an act of intellectual honesty or of using the scout mindset. We don't have a way to replace services if we judge them imperfect or even inadequate, thus the inconvenience of having to accommodate demands to protect biodiversity. For example, once bees stop pollinating crops because of heat waves destroying crops and the rest of bee habitats, we will suffer lackluster service from those few wild bee species that we acknowledge as direct ecosystem service providers. I could then criticize the lack of value of wild bees in general (for example, accuse bee species of being costly to maintain and fickle providers of pollinator services) or wish humanity had protected them better. Rainforests are another inconvenient part of Earth's biosphere. I could make appeals to protect the habitat of the Chocolate Midge or discuss the benefits of moisture provided by rainforest local climate or the carbon sink service provided by rainforest biomass or the undiscovered rainforest plants that could have medicinal value but the truth is I don't eat chocolate and I don't live near a rainforest and I'm not sick with any dread disease and I believe that climate change is self-amplifying now. Plus the only thing that would happen to me in a rainforest is a bite from some poisonous animal. I'd like to stay as far away from rainforests as I can. But do I think rainforest biodiversity provides services and has obvious value? Yes I do.

Species themselves are not inherently valuable.


Doesn't this depend on assuming negative utilitarianism, and suffering-focused ethic, or a particular set of assumptions about the net pleasure vs pain in the life of an 'average' animal?

> The experiences of individual conscious animals are what's valuable

Are you saying it's the ONLY thing that has value, and that everyone who thinks otherwise is wrong? (For example, I imagine this doesn't hold in preference utilitarianism, and maybe not in longtermist thinking.)

> the welfare of wild animals is basically... (read more)

3Aleksi Maunu5d
I don't think it depends on those things, what they meant by species not being inherently valuable is that each individual of a species is inherently valuable. It's a claim that the species' value comes from the value of the individuals (not taking into account value from stuff like possibly making ecological collapse less likely etc). (I only read the beginning of your comment, sorry for not responding to the rest!)

How is value is derived from conscious experience? Don't you mean capacity to suffer is determined by degree of conscious experience , which in turn makes individual animals important/having value. This does not mean that species are valueless which then begs the question of, how are species valuable. 

I am no ecologist or environmental scientist but I see  biodiversity loss as a process not an outcome. The outcome is increased vulnerability  of ecosystems to collapse.

You say you haven't seen a good argument for (2). What argument's have you ... (read more)

My basic answer is no, and there are some reasons for this:

In the ITN framework, the N is very bad for biodiversity loss. Many organizations and a lot of money is done for this problem. There is a lot of attention given to it already, we don't need to do more work.

Similarly, for the I condition to be anything other than very little, it requires essentially stagnation right now for tens of thousands of years in order to be import. Evolution is slow with multicellular organisms, and environments change slowly unless perturbed. Needless to say, that's not impossible, but very unlikely, even if you don't agree on the most important century series by Holden Karnofsky (I do.)

Finally, the tractability is actually medium, so won't talk about that much.

Thus biodiversity loss has very low priority, and the only thing we should do is own a gene bank and try to get species endangered in the gene bank, similar to seed banks nowadays.

environments change slowly unless perturbed

But they're perturbed by humans all the time. That's half the issue (with the other half being climate change).

Thank you for doing this, very important and potentially it helps undo a mistake I made in my 20s: prioritising climate and neglecting biodiversity. (Sorry!)

I'd like to encourage this on grounds of:

A. Long-termism, life extension and ultimate value: 

  • Climate will eventually be stabilized, but biodiversity, once lost, is gone forever*. 
  • Certain species may have within them the compounds/RNA/DNA needed for life extension. 
  • More prosaically, imagine if cats, coffee, chocolate and vincristine** had gone extinct before we realised we liked or needed them! 

B. Beauty:

  • This is non trivial, even in classical utilitarianism. 
  • Minor example: think of the pleasure we can all have from nature documentaries knowing that those animals and plants are still doing fine.
  • With preference utilitarianism or Maslow's Being Values it becomes even more obvious that this matters a lot.

C. Neglectedness-within-EA 
(compared to climate change and non biological cause areas)

Both philosophy and IT/mathematics/computing tend  to attract people with a particular group of interests. If we continue to have less attention to biological fields than AI and suffering, we'll over time have fewer and fewer EAs with an interest in life sciences.

* especially those species we haven't even identified! Also, gene banking or even seed/gamete banking is notoriously unreliable, so there is no sure and easy hack.

** a fungus that is the basis for many cancer treatments

I sort of agree in general, but I feel compelled to reply:
A. I agree with that, except I wouldn't miss cats that much... and we'd at least have more little birds around without these cute utility monsters. But I guess one can extrapolate your argument to dogs, too.
B. I totally agree with that, and it's the first thing that comes to my mind when I think about nature... But I suspect we should try to keep aesthetic and ethical values apart - especially because some people (including me) often prefer deserts and icy mountains to things like rain forests.

C. to... (read more)

New here! I don't have deep knowledge on these topics, but I would say yes.

From my limited research into permaculture/regenerative agriculture, it sounds like biodiversity and climate change aren't just linked in a 'climate change will devastate many species' way, but rather they impact one another in a feedback loop.

For example, deep root systems provide channels for water to seep into the earth. Shade from trees cools the ground. Some methods of regenerative agriculture, including animal agriculture, claim to be carbon sequestering rather than carbon emitting.

I've heard many people in Mexico say that the Mayan civilization likely collapsed due to overfarming, deforestation and drought, the idea being that the first two actually caused the latter. Projects like Greening the Desert in Jordan (not so long ago the fertile crescent!) add credence to this idea.
https://www.greeningthedesertproject.org/

On X Risk: the majority of oxygen on earth is produced by phytoplankton in the ocean, and we know that whale migration patterns are an important part of this system, their poop acting as fertilizer. Is it possible that if we lost whales, maybe due to overfishing, the phytoplankton population could collapse rapidly and cause earth to be unliveable for those of us who need to breathe???

Idk! That's scary.

Finally, I would make the case that beauty isn't just some arbitrary aesthetic thing that only merits preservation for however human enjoyment fits into a utilitarian calculation. Our aesthetic tastes evolved over millions of years, and they are powerful drivers. Clearly they were selected for.

Perhaps they are there to help us recognize healthy systems as beautiful- whether they be people, ecosystems, rivers, or complex patterns reminiscent of those healthy systems ("sacred geometry," music, etc).

Loss of biodiversity is intuitively ugly and tragic to most people. I think we should listen to that even if we don't currently have good theory to understand the full importance, or we may find out too late.

I would make the case that beauty isn't just some arbitrary aesthetic thing that only merits preservation for however human enjoyment fits into a utilitarian calculation. Our aesthetic tastes evolved over millions of years, and they are powerful drivers. Clearly they were selected for.

 

Hi Katy! I'm not sure I understand your point here--could you clarify? Do you mean that if our aesthetic tastes were selected for by evolution, that's a reason in itself to preserve things we find aesthetic? I thought your next paragraph was arguing that our aesthetic t... (read more)

I enjoy this prompt to add a few thoughts into this thread, it inspired me to think in a new direction.  These thoughts aren't a direct response to the prompt, rather some thinking around the edges.

I already see cause areas as interconnected areas of interest, and as EAs 'define' a cause area, we are creating a distinction that says that this area/theory of change is meaningfully different from others.  This kind of categorical thinking feels less useful for me when describing overlapping fields, which are strongly connected through a myriad of relationships.  The comparisons between the 'cause areas' of climate change vs wild animal wellfare vs biodiversity loss are meaningfully different lenses of (what feels to me) the same territory.

So I mentally rephrase the question into something like: If one cares about life on Earth, what do we see through the lens of biodiversity?

What I'm seeing (as I sit on my front porch in downtown Toronto), is a vast web/network - of inter-related individuals and species, each playing a role in an ecosystem in balance (more or less).  I can imagine over time, more and more of the nodes disappearing, causing many relationships to disappear.  From network theory, this loss of redundancy may increase the fragility of the overall system, and shifting the overall network dynamics in often non-linear and unpredictable ways.

How many nodes can be removed before the autopoiesis* fails?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

What other things do EAs see if we look at planetary health through the lens of biodiversity?  What are the blindspots inherent in viewing 'planetary health' through other "certified EA cause area" lenses?

Shameless plug: I'm interested in helping parts of EA to talk to one another, and in having EA interact with other movements also making the world a better place.  If you like looking at the interconnections between things, and integrating different models into meta-models, feel free to reach out to me!

*Autopoiesis refers to a system capable of producing and maintaining itself by creating its own parts

I think biodiversity loss probably does warrant its own cause area. Animal welfare isn't a particularly compelling cause area for me personally, so I'm making this statement purely based on the risk biodiversity loss could pose to the world economy. 

Is it Important?

Our economy is so heavily dependent on wild ecosystems that last year The Economist ran a special report that claimed "Loss of biodiversity poses as great a risk to humanity as climate change".  People havn't built the models necessary to make that statement quantitatively, but the qualitative arguments and disturbing results from modeling biodiversity loss in smaller ecosystems seem strong enough that we should prioritize building these models to see what we find. For example, in one study discussed in The Economist, scientists studying diverse ecosystems around the world found that once 80% of plant life was gone, entire food chains began to collapse and could not be rebuilt by simply restoring the plants. More than 75% of global food-crop types are pollinated by animals [1]. Could we irreversibly lose a food chain these crops depend on as we dramatically eliminate vegetation to accommodate our growing population and wealth? I don't want to find out the hard way. Perhaps there are ways of replacing the food chains our economy depends on, but perhaps there are not, or the costs of preservation are dramatically lower than the costs of replacement. Scientists still haven't figured out what causes Colony Collapse Disorder despite how important bees are to our economy [2]. This makes me nervous about our ability to promptly find a replacement if it comes back much worse or another ecosystem we depend on collapses.

Is it Neglected?

Lots of people seem to care about biodiversity, but they rarely seem do so using the analytical EA approach. Research and outreach that makes it easier for them to target their efforts towards the most effective options as we've done in global health and development could be very high impact. 

Is it Tractable?

One reason biodiversity models are so far behind climate models is the difficulty of the problem, but researchers do seem to be chipping away at it, so maybe more researchers and funding would chip away at it faster. Furthermore, improvements in AI and sensors have made this problem substantially more tractable in recent years. 

The Economist argues that one of the most important interventions right now would be just organizing all the data we're collecting into central hubs so that researchers and other people interested in using it to help can access it. That seems very tractable compared to many problems in EA.

Whether biodiversity is more high impact than other EA cause areas is beyond my ability to determine. But this special report in The Economist does make it sound similar.

[1] https://www.economist.com/technology-quarterly/2021-06-19

[2] https://www.epa.gov/pollinator-protection/colony-collapse-disorder#why%20it%20is%20happening

Thanks for your thoughtful comment. We definitely view ecosystem collapse as a serious reason to track the state of biodiversity more carefully. While the value of diversity at the species level may not ultimately rank as important, the services ecosystems play in the larger eco-human web are essential in ways few people truly recognize. 

We did a full write up here: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/5iuyqnm2uKcutbaku/resilience-and-biodiversity which captures the most salient points our group wanted to make at the time, though there's so many layers to be considered.

Ask first if biodiversity is valuable. There are good reasons to think it is not, at least if properly understood in terms of "diversity". I wrote a summary of an important but overlooked book  here: https://jkathage.substack.com/p/whats-so-good-about-biodiversity

Thank you for the excellent write up! I will read it slowly over the next few days. This will be very useful to me as I continue to work on forming my own coherent position on "nature" and the source of its value.

2Jonas Kathage2mo
Thank you. Biodiversity is of course not the same as nature. I'll write a follow-up post discussing Maier's proposal to finding unique value in nature (nothing to do with biodiversity).
2EcologyInterventions18d
For the record: Jonas did do that here [https://jkathage.substack.com/p/letting-it-be-instead-of-bioengineering].

I see biodiversity / ecosystem loss as the original environmental concern. Climate change has surpassed this area in importance, and there are legitimate grounds for this. Climate change has the potential to be a major cause of ecosystems/ biodiversity loss. One issue with this perspective is that the less biodiversity we have, the harder it will be for ecosystems to adapt to climate change. (BAppSc: Enviro Management)

I definitely agree that climate change has surpassed biodiversity loss. 

I have doubts that biodiversity loss is dangerous or liable to cascade, but I very much want to know the likelihood and size of expected harm. I want to know how plausible and how large negative regime shifts can be. I am also concerned about the longtermist aspect of losing irreplaceable species.

*I should note that these are my personal views, and don't represent the other people also  interested in biodiversity as a cause area.

2Darren_Tindall2mo
Why not? Out of interest?
1EcologyInterventions2mo
It really depends on the level of danger/cascade we mean here, because several ecosystems already have shifted into states that no longer provide resources which people depended on for their livelihoods. Here are my reasons for x-risk skepticism: Life rapidly takes advantage of open opportunities and is built to do that. Evolution takes place on long timescales and (I think) has some selected-for resilience for 99.9th worst case scenarios. The earth has had 96% of life wiped out and still had large animals make it out. I can't think of an ecosystem that took down adjacent ecosystems with it. I also can't think of cases where an area was transformed into a totally lifeless ecosystem (except chemical spills). To the contrary, I see decimation and "recovery" into ecosystems adapted to decimation. My current model is that ecosystems degrade gradually and its a very very low point when individual species are necessary for survival and sudden collapse is a potential threat. I think we are far from that being the norm. This is all concerning worst-case bottoming out or cascadelike patterns. I think there is a lot of space in-between here and oblivion worth addressing. And on the positive end, biodiversity and ecosystems seem to give high return value and stability vital for civilization and flourishing. Hence I still think biodiversity has lots of value, both now and in the future without it being a source of dire xrisk. *this still is my own perspective and doesn't represent the other people also interested in biodiversity as a cause area.
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I think it certainly deserves an assessment. But I myself have been postponing reading Dasgupta's review for months.
On the other hand, I wonder if it might overlap or conflict with wild animal welfare.

It certainly conflicts with WAW, so it could be an interesting opportunity to see how EA handles direct conflicts between cause areas or worldviews.

Though I think I strongly support one side. The idea of influencing wild animal welfare keeps seeming terrible to me, having a prior that already knows the effects of similarly-themed colonialism.

How does biodiversity conflict with WAW? I would imagine that there's many  possible interventions which are good both in terms of increasing the wellbeing of animals in the wild, and in keeping species from going extinct.  Are you assuming a suffering-focused view of WAW?

Are you assuming a suffering-focused view of WAW?

That's certainly the only one I've ever seen. Can you give an example of such a view, and such an intervention? Or describe how [an organisation] will find or test one?

It's a complex interaction for sure, and gets into some thorny questions that inevitably run into making evaluations of lived (nonhuman) experiences we can't possibly claim to understand. Using longterm scales makes it clear that this issue will determine whether billions of trillions of individuals get to experience life. It's clear that certain land dynamics lead to more life, so if there's more inhabitable space on Earth's surface it means there's more room for life. 

Then those with decision making power have to take a philosophical stance as to whether to ensure more possibility space for life or make twisted conclusions about QALYs we don't really understand... 

Thank you for doing this, very important and potentially it helps undo a mistake I made in my 20s: prioritising climate and neglecting biodiversity. (Sorry!) Can I clarify: is the topic biodiversity or mass extinction prevention? Both are valid, but strategies and timescales for both actions and outcomes could be very different.

I'd like to encourage both biodiversity protection and mass extinction prevention on grounds of:

A. Long-termism, life extension and ultimate value: 

  • Climate will eventually be stabilized, but biodiversity, once lost, is gone forever*.
  • Certain species may have within them the compounds/RNA/DNA needed for life extension.
  • More prosaically, imagine if cats, coffee, chocolate and vincristine** had gone extinct before we realised we liked or needed them!

B. Beauty:

  • This is non trivial, even in classical utilitarianism.
  • Minor example: think of the pleasure we can all have from nature documentaries knowing that those animals and plants are still doing fine.
  • With preference utilitarianism or Maslow's Being Values it becomes even more obvious that this matters a lot.

C. Neglectedness-within-EA 
(compared to climate change and non biological cause areas)

Both philosophy and IT/mathematics/computing tend  to attract people with a particular group of interests. If we continue to have less attention to biological fields than AI and suffering, we'll over time have fewer and fewer EAs with an interest in life sciences.

* especially those species we haven't even identified! Also, gene banking or even seed/gamete banking is notoriously unreliable, so there is no sure and easy hack.

** a fungus that is the basis for many cancer treatments

I don't think biodiversity is good, in fact it's probably bad. If we replaced natural ecosystems with curated ones, we'd have much less of a problem with zoonotic transmissions creating new diseases and pests, probably better nature aesthetics, and maybe some ability to use ecosystems to remove pollutants that are currently hard to get rid of.

It's important to remember that most of the US population was exposed to a significant amount of environmentalist propaganda as children, before they were able to think critically, and that there were falsehoods embedded in that propaganda. Ecosystems do not spontaneously turn into wastelands when they're perturbed; they mostly turn into boring forests and things like that.

Strongly downvoted.

I think there are so many bad assumptions going into this comment. From thinking the short list of issues you mentioned are the only, or most important, thing diverse ecosystems provide, to thinking we could reliably plan and run them when we don't even know most species involved in them, to the idea that natural aesthetics are somehow inferior to human aesthetics?

Not to mention thinking smart people are only worrying about biodiversity because of claimed partly-false propaganda in one country.

thinking we could reliably plan and run them when we don't even know most species involved in them

This argument seems symmetric to me. If you support decreasing biodiversity, you're claiming that we can reliably decrease it. If you support increasing diversity, you're claiming that we can reliably increase it. So the parent comment and OP are both making the same assumption—that it's possible in principle to reliably affect biodiversity one way or the other. (Which I think is true—we have a pretty good sense that certain activities affect biodiversity, eg cutting down rainforests decreases it.)

We can reliably increase and decrease biodiversity, though not necessarily control the magnitude of change. That's not the argument I was replying to - rather, that we could create curated ecosystems that would do what we expected them to (edit: which I think is false and dangerous).