On May 26, the Smithsonian Institution convened a group of thought leaders to address the most pressing challenges facing the planet. One theme was the diversity of ways we value other species and ecosystems. Highlights from that conversation are below. 

Steve Monfort

“Everything we require as a species is derived in some way or another from biological diversity. And for that I mean things like the air, and water and food and fuel and fiber, and all of these things.

"The fact is, our society would collapse without biodiversity. … But there are other elements of biodiversity that provide us with value, and that's everything from spiritual and cultural value to entertainment … I think there's an innate connection people have with nature. I don't think you can separate—you shouldn't separate—humans from biodiversity. We're part of that.”

"There's an intrinsic value in nature that sometimes gets ignored. In the conservation community, people are arguing with one another: Should we save nature because of its economic value in a landscape of "in the Anthropocene" or is there a place for just nature as an intrinsic right? Do all other living things on Earth have the right to exist and to function without human interference?"

Jedidah Purdy

“The importance of other species goes to very deep questions about what could make life on Earth worthwhile. … There's this passage in Walden where Thoreau asks, "What greater miracle could there be than to look through each other's eyes, just for a moment?" Think of how true that is as between human beings and other species. We're just beginning to understand what kinds of consciousness, what kinds of experience, what kinds of language and culture and memory we coexist with all over the world. … We don't even understand what we're losing, in that sense. We're just beginning to understand it as it disappears.”

Mary Tucker

“How do the rights of nature come into this? ... It's quite astonishing that several rivers have been given rights of humans, including in New Zealand, thanks to the work of Maori and others, and two of the most sacred rivers in India. The Yamuna and the Ganges River now have rights as humans. So I think we're in this exciting moment of expansion of an ethical and moral sensibility that's grounded in the science that gives us that sense of the intricacy of ecosystems.”

“Some of the wisest traditions in the world have this very long-term sensibility of detachment from the fruits of our actions. We will never know what our particular life work is, the wu wei of taosim. The Bhagavad Gita talks about karma phala. We will never know. This is what Gandhi based his work on for non-violence and Thoreau and King.”

"I study Confucianism, the oldest ongoing culture and civilization in the world, now in its hyper-development phase. But the idea of Confucianism is, even the (written) character for the individual is 'an individual in relationship' to others. And the idea, even for public service, is you're doing this for the common good. It's a completely different way of being human in the world."

"We yearn to be part of something larger, and call to something larger, which is why this conversation is so important."

Denise Fairchild

"We are one, and part of an ecosystem, and we cannot just see ourselves as consuming or producing for me and myself and mine ... We are making decisions for the globe. For the part that we have in the entire ecosystem."


Jedediah Purdy image
Jedediah Purdy

professor of law Duke University and the author of After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene

Catrina Rorke image
Catrina Rorke

senior fellow for energy policy, R Street Institute

Mary Evelyn Tucker image
Mary Evelyn Tucker

co-founder and co-director of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University