What Has Nature
Ever Done For Us?

It’s been estimated that nature is worth as much as $100 trillion annually to the global economy. Yet we take most of Nature’s services for granted, imagining them to be free and limitless.

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Tony Juniper used to run Friends of the Earth. Now he’s written a book, titled What Has Nature Ever Done For Us? with the aim of changing the way we think about life, nature and the economy. On Jan 10 we went to one of the RSA’s Lunchtime Events to hear him speak, in conversation with Jo Confino.

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The point that Tony gets across in his book is that we’ve lost sight of the dependence we have on nature in economic terms, and that we’re ‘blowing natural capital’ in a way that doesn’t make sense for our long-term welfare. He argues that the global economy is underpinned by natural resources and, rather than ruthlessly exploiting them, we should find a way of putting a proper value on them. Nature does so much for us – and it will keep doing this – but we need to take steps to make sure that it happens.

‘The Habitats Directive’, a piece of EU legislation relating to wildlife and nature conservation, is seen by many of our UK politicians as a drag on economic growth – but we don’t have a choice in considering either nature, or the economy – if we take away nature’s services the economy cannot grow.

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The book suggests we need a different approach to economics, a sort of ‘Bio-Economy’. We must find ways in which we can bring these kinds of values more visibly into how the economy works. There’s all sorts of things we can do, including straightforward solutions, like protected National Parks, or more complex ideas, such as Bio-diversity Offsetting.

This is a book full of stories with impact, containing both warnings, but also positive insights:

Soil, for instance, he says, is crucial, which makes it all the more remarkable that it sometimes has the cultural label of ‘dirt’ – something which we disregard. Across the world something like a third of agricultural soil has been degraded since the middle of the 20th century.

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Holme Post, Holme Fen, Cambridgeshire.

An example is the peat bog of Holme Fen, Cambridgeshire, which is the lowest point in the British Isles, and today is protected. It used to be a massive area of fertile land, next to the largest lowland lake in England. The lake was drained in the early 1850s to make way for farmland. At the time it was being drained, a local landowner, William Wells, expected there to be dramatic changes to the land and inserted a long iron post down to the clay, the top being flush with ground level. Today that piece of metal sticks 4 meters above the ground, due to ground shrinkage and Co2 release. Various studies show that we could be capturing about 5 billion tonnes of carbon a year, by changing the way we manage soil to increase the organic content.

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Rainforest in Guyana.

Another topic on the international agenda is deforestation. We’re spending a fortune on carbon capture and storage technologies, when the technology is already there – it’s called a tropical rainforest! Forests are capturing around 20% of the Co2 coming out of factories and cars.

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Dogs feed with vultures by the side of the River Ganges.

One of the most powerful stories in the book is that of India’s vultures. In the early 1990’s there were 40 million of them, today there’s just a few 10s of thousands. The reason this happened was due to the use of a drug in veterinary medicine, called Diclofenac. Residues of the drug in the bodies of dead cows and buffalo were lethal to vultures and their population depleted quickly and dramatically.

There were several economic consequences to this; very poor people were deprived of their livelihood, which was previously based on gathering leather and bones (for fertiliser) from dead animals. Also, because the meat wasn’t being eaten by the birds, India’s wild dog population sky-rocketed, which led to more dog bites and an increase in rabies. It is estimated that 50,000 additional human deaths occurred as a result of the vultures’ demise.

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Street dogs in India. Photo: M. Govarthan.

We are still at square one in trying to convince people that nature has an economic value. A few economists, scientists and academics are beginning to talk about this. Some companies, such as Unilever, Nestle, Danone and Skanska, are starting to build natural capital into their businesses, but they’re still in the minority. Tony predicts that one of the things that will become apparent quite soon is these companies will be out-performing those who don’t consider nature, because they’re managing risk better.

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Chinese farmers pollinate fruit trees by hand.

There are examples of people already living this, and they’re saving money:

  • Great Tits, rather than chemicals, are being used in a Dutch orchard to protect the apples from caterpillar damage
  • Farmers who maintain their hedgerows are achieving better yields, because they’ve got more pollinating insects
  • City planners are improving the wellbeing of people, by including more green-spaces
  • The conservation of coral reefs and mangroves around Belize is buffering coastal areas from storms and tsunamis, protecting homes and lives
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A band of coral reef in Belize, backed by an area of mangrove.

Nature is our biggest ally in achieving human welfare and poverty reduction. Our economy is not separate from ecology. Once we know that, Tony believes our future can be bright.

And for the sceptics – who think this can’t happen because governments and businesses are locked into short-term profits – Tony gave the example of Costa Rica. This is a country with an elected government, which decided in the late 80s that their national welfare was very much dependent on their forests, wetlands and rivers. They built an approach to economics that was founded on measuring the impact on nature. Since then, not only have they doubled their area of forest, they’ve effectively doubled the national income, showing that it’s possible to build the economy and improve lives, while at the same time supporting nature.

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Mist rises over the rainforest near Gulfito, Costa Rica, helping to keep the planet cool.

Tony states that the great campaign now is for consumers to raise awareness and get behind the types of businesses that have understood this situation and are doing good, at the expense of those who’re still depleting nature’s reserves – then we will see a quick transformation.

Click here to buy at Amazon What Has Nature Ever Done For Us? – or, for further information, including sources and references, visit Tony Juniper’s website.