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Thomas Lovejoy, ‘godfather of biodiversity,’ dies at 80

© flickr/Creative Commons

The conservation movement has lost one of its giants. 

Renowned ecologist Dr. Thomas Lovejoy died Dec. 25 at the age of 80, National Geographic reported

Lovejoy, who coined the term “biological diversity” — and was widely considered “the godfather of biodiversity” — was a member of Conservation International’s Leadership Council. Having held numerous posts in a career that spanned more than a half-century, he was most recently a fellow at the UN Foundation and a professor of environmental science at George Mason University in Virginia.  

His loss reverberated throughout the conservation world. 

“I am terribly saddened to hear about the passing of Tom Lovejoy,” said Conservation International CEO M. Sanjayan. “He was a giant in conservation, a champion for the Amazon, and above all a kind and generous scientist. Tom was a mentor and a friend to many. We will miss him greatly.” 

Lovejoy made numerous and profound contributions to environmental science and policy. 

In 1984, Lovejoy proposed the “debt-for-nature swap,” in which a portion of a developing country’s foreign debt is forgiven in exchange for commitments to environmental protection and policy measures. Since the first debt-for-nature swap between Conservation International and Bolivia in 1987, the idea has become a mainstay of conservation, with billions of dollars in funding being made available for environmental protection. (These swaps took on added significance during the COVID-19 pandemic, as many debt-vulnerable countries weathered economic troubles while shifting their funding priorities away from environmental protection.)  

But Lovejoy’s legacy went well beyond game-changing conservation tools — most significantly, he is credited with helping to focus the world’s attention on perhaps its most important biome and on the links between climate change and the loss of biodiversity. 

"It's time for biodiversity to come out of the shadows of the big environmental problems," Lovejoy said last year. "It needs to come into its own for a period of remarkable achievement." 

His prolific research and writings reflected this view. A 2019 book that he co-edited with Conservation International scientist Lee Hannah, “Biodiversity and Climate Change: Transforming the Biosphere” — a sequel to a seminal work released in 2005 by the same authors — is being used as a teaching text in universities, providing an invaluable foundation for the next generation of scientists and decision-makers. 

The next generation that will carry on his legacy remembered Lovejoy not only for his immense scientific contributions but for his good-natured generosity.  

“Tom was a giant, in all of the best ways,” said Rachel Golden Kroner, an environmental governance fellow at Conservation International who earned a Ph.D. at George Mason University while studying under Lovejoy. “Not only was he a pioneer of conservation science, but was also a generous connector and keen diplomat. His work will continue to inspire all of us working for our planet.”  

Lovejoy’s optimism — and his view of the Earth as a living entity unto itself — suffused his work. 

“We still have time to act on the recognition that our planet is an intricately linked biological and physical system that holds yet-to-be-understood capacity to heal and clean itself,” he wrote with Hannah in 2018. “We still have tools and opportunities to effectively manage the living planet and its biodiversity for the benefit of humanity and all life on Earth.”

One of his last writings, published just last month in The New York Times, provided a poignant summation of the guiding philosophy of his life’s work.  

“Finding our way through the climate crisis also requires that we remember how our home planet works — as a linked biological and physical system with a beating, photosynthesizing, rainmaking heart of wild woods.” 


Bruno Vander Velde is the senior communications director at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Donate to Conservation International.

Cover image: Thomas Lovejoy speaking on a panel. (Flickr/Creative Commons)