A group of us braved the floods on 5th December to discuss Tony Juniper’s ‘What has nature ever done for us?’ The following few paragraphs explain what I personally took from the book, and our discussion.
I found a kindred spirit in Juniper. I grew up in awe of nature: I have an early memory catching caddisfly larva in tributary of the Trent, experimenting on them at home, enthralled as they reconstructed their shells from coloured beads. On holiday in Corfu I discovered the rainbow-world of marine biology – an experience that inspired me to study this at university. However, despite an instinctively feeling that nature is priceless, I often find it difficult making a business case for its protection; and that is why I found the treasure-trove of case studies presented in this book so valuable.
Whether it is crop-sustaining soils, coast-protecting mangroves, carbon-storing trees, carcass-scavenging vultures, pest-eating birds, or life-giving bees – nature does it all. Juniper stresses time and time again that these service are valuable, and gives monetary examples of their value. Often nature is cheaper, and better, than man-made solutions. This is why farmers, in areas where habitat has been denuded habitat, or ravaged by pesticides, pay good money for bees to be shipped out in boxes to pollinate their crops.
Shockingly Juniper quotes a Vietnamese business man (the founder of a $1 billion dollar enterprise), who when talking about his interests in relation to land and forests said: ‘natural resources are limited, and I need to take them before they’re gone’. Fortunately however he also gives many examples of both countries, and organisations that are either conserving or restoring ecosystems, and reaping the benefits of natural capital.
One of the many examples that stood out for me are measures taken by New York State to improve their upstream water catchment. An investment of about $1 billion in best practice farming and forestry, avoided spending approximately $6-8 billion in water treatment equipment. This ‘passive’ approach to water treatment also insulates the state from potential increases in energy prices that would have been needed to operate treatment equipment. Presumably the amenity value of a large area of protected natural habitat, close to the USA’s largest city, is a major supplementary benefit.
Our bookclub was attended by two medics, and I was interested to get their perspective on Chapter 10: health benefits of nature. Juniper makes the point that some (not all) in the medical profession look down on low-tech health care, in preference to the latest scanner or pill. The medics present however were strong advocates of the stress-reducing properties of green spaces, and especially woodland.
Our discussion turned to why nature is chronically exploited despite its obvious value, and what can be done to turn this around. Some agreed that putting a value on natural capital is the best way to protect it, whilst others were concerned that this could lead to additional exploitation if natural capital is under-valued.
The reader has to wait to the final chapter for the various examples presented in each chapter to be woven together. Juniper explains that traditional economics does not account for natural capital, and humans are drawing-down natural capital fast globally. He compares this to drawing-down to financial capital, that obviously result in a reduction of financial returns. In a similar way natures ‘returns’ are also diminishing. Juniper concludes that all life on earth depends upon the effective functioning of natural systems, and if these break down the economy will suffer. Ultimately the economy is totally dependent upon nature [nature is not a subset of the economy].
As final thought – whilst we debated the essential services provided by nature, elsewhere houses were washed into the North Sea, and restaurants flooded on Newcastle’s quayside. It seems that as well as sustaining life, nature owes us no favours, so we ought to be careful how our activities affect the planet.
By Marek Bidwell