Wednesday, 11 September 2013

What Has Nature Ever Done for Us? A book review

These days, it seems, it’s all about us. It’s not enough to protect the natural world simply because it’s there, or to ensure our children get to enjoy the wildlife that we can still take for granted. Now, nature has to pay its way, by providing us with ‘services’ and ‘resources’. So, Tony Juniper asks, in a Pythonesque way, “What has nature ever done for us?” And the answer is, like the Romans, really quite a lot.

The chapters take us on a breakneck tour through the natural world, charting how we depend on it and, moreover, how careful management could actually benefit us. After all, why bother to spend millions on carbon capture and storage when the technology already exists. It’s called soil, the ‘indispensable dirt’, as Juniper calls it, that grows more than 90% of our food and recycles our waste into the bargain. Yet more than a third has been degraded in the last 50 years.

After a while, your head begins to swim. Saltmarshes, mangroves, forests, mountains, glaciers, coral reefs, rivers, peatbogs, and even the occasional urban green space are quietly providing us with the essentials of life we take for granted. Species, from coccolithophores to sea otters, by way of vultures, bees, tuna, nettles, frogs and great tits, all provide us with services just by living their lives, which we only notice when they disappear. Did you know that nearly half the oxygen in every breath you take comes from marine algae? No, neither did I.

I half imagine the publisher leaning over the author’s shoulder whispering “Tony, don’t make it too depressing”. So the book is leavened with plenty of positive examples of how careful stewardship has conserved nature and saved money into the bargain. Here, the telephone number financial sums involved can just become bewildering. There are the inevitable tales of ecological vandalism and short-term greed destroying the natural fabric on which we depend, but Juniper’s tone remains admirably positive; it doesn’t have to be this way.

Quite why we seem unable to look beyond the immediate is the subject of the final chapter. Of course, for the very poor, the need for food or shelter can trump long-term considerations. But some attitudes can be truly shocking, like one CEO who commented that, because natural resources are limited, he had to “grab them whilst they are still there”. But, for me, more insidious were those who say, in reasonable tones, that there has to be ‘balance’ between the needs of people and the environment, as if the latter was some abstract ‘other’ to be protected as an afterthought. Marine Conservation Zones anyone?

It’s sad that a simple appeal to do the right thing isn’t enough to protect the environment. But if we have to play the ecosystem services game – and it looks like it’s the only one in town – we have to play it well. With What Has Nature Ever Done For Us Tony Juniper has produce an absorbing and, in the end, optimistic overview of how the economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment, that should be a must-read for economists, planners, and politicians. But I suspect the response from many of them will just echo that of John Cleese’s Reg from the People’s Front of Judea. “Yeah, but apart from food, energy, chemicals, pest control, flood prevention, climate, freshwater and public ‘ealth...what has Nature ever done for us…?” 

This 324 page softback book by Tony Juniper, was published by Profile Books London in 2013 and is priced at £9.99. Book review by ....

Andrew Lucas

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