Global Justice and the Biodiversity Crisis

by Chris Armstrong on March 18, 2024

My new book is out this week (in the UK at least – but those elsewhere can read it right now online). I very much hope it will stimulate debate and discussion. Something that’s really struck me over recent years is that whereas a really rich literature exists on the global justice dimensions of the climate crisis (the term “climate justice” has pretty wide currency, right?), the same thing is just not true of the biodiversity crisis. But the biodiversity crisis seems to me to be at least in the same ballpark in terms of seriousness, and responses to it (“mitigation policies,” if you like) will, if policymakers (continue to) do a bad job, exacerbate all kinds of existing injustices. Thinking carefully about how we can respond fairly to the crisis seems to me to be one of the best uses we could find for our time. Or so I hope to persuade the potential readers!

As it happens I’ve been working on a paper on that strange inequality in attention between the two crises, with a couple of co-authors. I hope to update you all on that someday – but if anyone wants to speculate right now about why we’ve so badly dropped the ball on the biodiversity crisis, please do so here. For everyone else, a succinct description of the book is on the link above, and hopefully you’ll hear more in podcasts or book reviews in the months to come.



Carl D 03.18.24 at 3:50 pm

Here in Sweden, we (=academics, consultants and others) are working on a pedagogical approaches to try to outline how the three crises of climate, resources (=the Circular Economy), and biodiversity are linked. Corporations, and most people, understand the climate crisis – and its causes – somewhat. Companies are also starting to integrate resource concerns in their strategies (though they are mainly still related to climate, and resource use is often translated into climate effects), but there is yet no tool to translate this into effects on biodiversity (extraction and refinement of resources are a main contributor to both biodiversity loss and GHG emissions). Over time, we need to integrate chemicals use as well, as its a main contrinutor to biodiversity losses.

However, its probably time to accept that many species (plants and animals) will go extinct. And possibly humans too…


Alex SL 03.18.24 at 8:38 pm

I have not read the book, of course, and therefore it may not be surprising that I am puzzled by this post. I generally understand “climate justice”, despite the misnomer “justice”, which strongly implies that somebody has had a crime committed against them and now seeks redress in front of a court, to be about the unequal effects of climate change: poor people are much more badly and immediately affected despite having contributed less to carbon levels, e.g., because they are the first to find food unaffordable, have no air conditioning, may even be exposed to heat as they live on the street or in a refugee camp, etc.

What is the equivalent in the area of biodiversity loss? If a species of beetle dies out, or even a species of whale, how does that affect a poor Somali citizen unjustly more than a wealthy Norwegian citizen?

There is mention of mitigation measures, but the same problem arises. If we have a species recovery program for a rare plant, perhaps involving ex situ conservation and seed orcharding, how does that unjustly affect a poor person negatively? Or is this is about setting aside nature reserves on land that poor subsistence farmers would like to occupy and clear to grow food for their families? Without further information, it just isn’t clear to me in what sense biodiversity ‘justice’ parallels climate ‘justice’, because nobody is as directly affected by the extinction or conservation of an orchid as by dying from heat stroke or by being unable to insure their home against flood.


Chris Armstrong 03.18.24 at 9:16 pm

Alex, the 2019 IPBES report gives lots of illustrations of how, if current trends continue, the loss of biodiversity will threaten the future of human society. As Robert Watson put it, “We are eroding the very foundations of economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

How is this an issue of justice? Well, in exactly the same way climate change generates justice issues: some of us are greater contributors to the problem compared to others, some of us are more exposed to the threats, some of us have lower adaptive capacity, and so on. Much the same burden-sharing problems arise when it comes to mitigating the crisis, adapting to it, compensating people for its effects, etc.


Alex SL 03.19.24 at 12:15 am

I see, thanks.

Must honestly say, however, that despite being a biodiversity researcher with extinction grief myself, rationally, I don’t see how biodiversity loss is anywhere on the same civilisational level of threat as global warming and resource depletion (e.g., freshwater overuse or arable soil erosion and salination). If Bangladesh is underwater, the home of hundreds of millions of people is just gone. If heat waves create conditions where the planet can grow food only for 70% of its population, or if Spain entirely runs out of freshwater to irrigate and to provide household water and drinks for its people, those are society-ending events.

Conversely, outside of a few narrow ecological groups like soil biota and pollinators, I find it difficult to understand how even biodiversity loss that I would describe as catastrophic from the perspective of evolutionary biology would significantly affect the amenity of humans who simply don’t care about biodiversity. For example, if tomorrow a quarter of all wild plant and animal species on the planet disappeared, and if they are randomly chosen as opposed to e.g. coincidentally all pollinators disappearing in one go, would that really significantly affect food security, livelihoods, health, and quality of life except for, well, nature lovers like myself?

Emotionally, I would like to respond with yes, because I believe we have a moral duty to preserve biodiversity, but I am not certain that is actually the case. Apart from fish, we pretty much only feed on domesticated or cultivated life forms, and there is presumably some redundancy and fungibility in ecosystem services such as pollination and decomposition, where one species of fungus can take over the role of another that went extinct.


KT2 03.19.24 at 1:45 am

“HSBC Pollination: Nature is capital” .
Nature itself is finally financialised.

Sustainable. Markets.
Justice after bracket creep.

Your book “Global Justice and the Biodiversity Crisis” concludes with …”Having mapped the territory, it also aims to encourage others to develop their own visions of global justice as applied to the biodiversity crisis.” OUP

Another territory “Nature is capital” –
has been mapped, staked and given Royal assent. By none other than … “the former Prince of Wales announced the ‘Terra Carta’ – a charter that puts sustainability at the heart of the private sector.”

King Chuck. A useful fool with ‘good’ intentions weighed down by 1,000 years of baggage.

Unlimited $’s policy lobby. Struggle ahead? Yes. Orwellian cashed up opponent? Yes. No insurance? Then losses go to the people, not the market.

“Terra Carta
“Lloyd’s is proud to support the Terra Carta from the Sustainable Markets Initiative

“As part of the Sustainable Markets Initiative, the former Prince of Wales announced the ‘Terra Carta’ – a charter that puts sustainability at the heart of the private sector. The urgent appeal comes as the former Prince of Wales marks 50 years of campaigning for the environment.

“Deriving its name from the historic Magna Carta, which inspired a belief in the fundamental rights and liberties of people over 800 years ago, the Terra Carta aims to reunite people and planet, by giving fundamental rights and value to Nature, ensuring a lasting impact and tangible legacy for this generation.
lloyds – our-impact-on-society/environment/terra-carta

“HSBC Pollination: Nature is capital”
“HSBC Asset Management & Pollination launch partnership to create world’s largest natural capital manager

“In natural capital, we’re accelerating investment in an asset class that can help combat climate change and build biodiversity, whilst also generating long-term returns for institutional investors. Investing in the resilience of nature is investing in the resilience of the economy. Nature is the most fertile investment we have.Martijn Wilder AM, Co-founding Partner, Pollination

Sustainable investing represents a growing need and has demonstrated continued growth in recent years, with capital invested in sustainable infrastructure projects increasing by c. 3x (from 2010 to 2018) to c.USD31tn globally1. This announcement follows soon after HSBC Asset Management announcing its private investor close for its emerging market HSBC Real Economy Green Investment Opportunity GEM Bond Fund in partnership with the IFC, part of the World Bank Group.
hsbc institutional-investor news-and-insights climateassetmanagement-au

“HSBC Pollination Climate Asset Management, Lombard Odier and Mirova, an affiliate of Natixis Investment Managers, are the three founding partners of the Natural Capital Investment Alliance (‘The Alliance’), established by His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales under his Sustainable Markets Initiative.”

Resulting in this ‘Pollination”…
“They talk in high English and we don’t understand. They need to talk in a way that we understand, not white man way,” the person said.

“”They need to break [the rules] down for us.”

“”It was very disturbing. It was a very sickening gut feeling,” she said.

“”We knew it was wrong … they were going against the rules of the constitution. I don’t think the Garralyels fully understood their rights and responsibilities,” the current Dawang representative said.”

Apologies for being a negative messenger. Yet reading this morning -“”They talk in high English and we don’t understand. They need to talk in a way that we understand, not white man way,”, I found above “Pollinators'” and “Nature is capital” . Your book (and Limitarianism +Economics in Two Lessons) will be sorely needed Chris. And whiteanted at every opportunity. These need to be translated for aboriginal custodians too.

We just need to change “Striving for social justice is the most valuable thing to do in life.”
Albert Einstein

to… Striving for capital justice is the most valuable thing to do in life.
Thanks Chris,


Chris Armstrong 03.19.24 at 10:41 am

Alex, I agree that, conceived in terms of supports for ecosystem services, there is undoubtedly a fair bit of redundancy / fungibility. But the numerous warnings from scientists price this in. Honestly, I don’t get the sense that the claim that large-scale biodiversity loss threatens human well-being on a massive scale is especially controversial in scientific circles. (That’s not to say that the loss of any individual species will trigger ecosystem collapse – I think that’s a red herring).

I don’t want this to derail the discussion – the 2019 IPBES review, which I already mentioned, suggested biodiversity loss risks widespread ecosystem collapse. So I’d suggest having a read of the summary for policymakers. As with climate change, these reviews are cautious and consensus-driven, and they take the credibility of their claims very seriously.


Macarena Marey 03.20.24 at 12:53 pm

Congrats on the new book! It looks brilliant.


Gar Lipow 03.22.24 at 6:11 am

Alex – a couple of concrete examples. Loss of biodiversity is likely to hurt predator animals sooner than prey animals. Higher on the food chain, so more possiblities for things to go wrong that drive them into extinction or cut their numbers. That leaves room for a profliferation of plant eaters and plant disease carriers, and plant destroyers for the sake of nesting or whatever. Yeah they get hurt by poisions and wilderness fragmentation and climate change too. But lower down the food chain you have more variety. With animal predators reduces, at least some plant predators will thrive. That affects agriculture a lot – food production gets hurt. And if food gets scarcer who loses access first, and how keeps access the longest? And, as with climate change the rich are probably responsible for a lot more of the poisons, the agricultural and industrial pollution. Just one of a million ways that loss of biodiversity is a real threat to humans, and threat hits the poor first. Threats to biodiversity also lead to destruction of mangroves and other storms. So while climate change creates stronger, longer lasting and wetter storms. loss of biodiversity exacerbates this and ensures the storms will do even more damage because some of the protection is gone. In other words given two storms of equal intensity duration and wetness, you still get worse results if the plant life that would hold soil in place, aborb some of the water is gone. I think in the case of the mangroves, where what amounts to mangrove forests are gone, you actually lose something even tempered wind speed a bit. So loss of biodiversity makes storm damage worse. And again while that hurts everyone in the path of the storm, it hurts wores the poorer you are. (And yes that can be died to race and even gender as well, though the latter would be too long to go into in a short comment.) I really am putting the book high on my list to read; but these are examples just from things I’ve enountered doing work on climate change economics and energy economics. They may well be minor compared to what is discussed in the book, but just happen to be examples I’m familiar with.


Gar Lipow 03.22.24 at 6:15 am

Alex: just a follow up to my comment. Don’t wnat to imply that only agriculture and industrialization are responsible for loss of biodiversity. Sprawl is huge – especially when it comes to erosion of topsoil, pollution of watershed, and wilderness fragmentation, where wilderness exists in close proximity to homes or schools or retail or offices or whatever.


basil 03.22.24 at 6:43 am

Congratulations on your book!
Anti-capitalists, troubled by the attention disparity you point out, have taken to using ecological justice as a catch-all shorthand, including overlapping aspects of injustice in spheres like resource shortages, agriculture, underdevelopment, water access, migration, climate crises, pollution, species extinctions, habitat destruction, poverty, even health crises like Covid-19 or our heightened mental distress, etc. These are widely understood as interlinked aspects of the capitalocene, the general assault on our common home.

Today we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. –
Pope Francis: Laudato Si


John Q 03.22.24 at 7:11 am

My rationale for focusing mostly on climate is my belief that global heating is the biggest single threat to biodiversity, at least to the extent that people in rich countries can do anything about the problem. We’ve had some pretty catastrophic extinctions in Australia in the past, but with lots of national parks and programs for threatened species, that process has slowed down a lot. But now coral reefs are being destroyed by bleaching, forest ecosystems by catastrophic fires and all sorts of habitats by new climate extremes. So fighting to reduce CO2 emissions seems like the best way to protect biodiversity.

Is that a defensible position?


Chris Armstrong 03.22.24 at 7:23 am

On land, the biggest driver of biodiversity loss is habitat destruction (chiefly in the interests of industrial agriculture). At sea, the biggest driver is industrial fishing. I think there are ways of doing something about those. But yes, climate change is very important too. Reducing CO2 emissions is as you say actionable by rich people.


engels 03.22.24 at 11:45 pm

There’s a simple story about climate justice: rich people are pumping out CO2 (especially by flying), CO2 emissions are causing climate change and climate change is wreaking havoc on people’s lives, especially the vulnerable and especially in the global south (turn on the news…) I don’t think the biodiversity justice issues are quite so clear but maybe I’m poorly informed. (Gary’s argument seems to be general one that it’s always the poor who suffer most from any catastrophe, which seems true but not as dramatic as the foregoing.)


Gar Lipow 03.23.24 at 7:27 pm

Engels: A fair statement of my argument. There are inherently three general arguments about any course of action likely to cause catastrophe, in addition to those arguments specific to the particular case. One is that we are against catastrophes. The second is that we are against catastrophes happening to us, which by the nature of catastrophes is normally possible. The third is a justice argument that catastrophes are likely to have the worst impacts on those who are poor or who are victims in other ways, which as you say is a justice argument. But please “Gar,” not “Gary.” Not a big deal; just “Gar” is the name I go by and it is not short for “Gary” “Garth” “Garfield” “Garfish” “or any of the other names beginning with the same three letters that people will sometimes manage to get out of that single syllable.

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