What Has Nature Ever Done For Us?

Hi all! You’ll notice this is my first article for some time.  I’ve been very busy getting a sustainability-focused business project off the ground, but that’s no excuse for slacking. So the PBD returns with another book review (following my April 2017 article on Keith Somerville’s IvoryPower and Poaching in Africa). Just in time for a last-minute Christmas present, I take a look at Tony Juniper’s fantastic What Has Nature Ever Done For Us?  

Throughout its 300-odd pages, Juniper invites us to fundamentally reassess our relationship with the natural world.  A world which acts as an insurance provider, disease controller, waste recycler, health services provider, water utility, pest controller, storage and carbon capture system. We are taken from the mangroves of Bangladesh to the Cambridgeshire fens; from the plains of central India to the streets of New York; from China’s Sichuan Province to the paramo above Bogota.

Paramo.jpg
The paramo above Bogota, an ecosystem found only in the mountains of South America. Sponge-like soils, unique vegetation, wet grasslands, lagoons and lakes capture and retain water, acting as a flood buffer in the rainy season, and as a reliable source of water in the dry season. Photo Credit: Luis Alejandro Bernal Romero

While he touches on the more spiritual and psychological connections we have with nature, it is its economic value on which Juniper focuses our attention.

One of the primary challenges highlighted in this book is that of overcoming the kind of short-term thinking which plagues economics (and politics), from the level of global corporations and governments to smallholders and individual fishermen. Natural systems continue to be degraded due to a prevailing perception that it can lead to “successful” industries, or that the degradation of nature is in some way a necessary price we have to pay for economic growth or “progress”. But this “success” and “progress” is anything but, and certainly isn’t sustainable. Here’s one example which Juniper gives us, worth quoting at some length:

“In southern Thailand, among the islands and intricate coast…there are still extensive areas of mangrove. Two decades ago there was a lot more of it, until large-scale removal got underway to make space for shrimp ponds. Fed on meal made in part with the ‘trash fish’ that includes the young of large, commercially important species, and with ponds treated with copious quantities of fungicides and antibiotics to control disease, the ecological wisdom of this industry has for some time been subject to critical scrutiny. The short-term economic gains have, however, been so great as to discourage most governments from taking decisive action to even properly plan its expansion, never mind limit its growth. In Thailand, shrimp farmers can make ten times the country’s average wage while total industry revenues is nearly $1.5 billion.”

Mangroves.jpg
Mangroves are one of the most important natural flood defences. More than a third of the world’s original area of mangroves has gone. Some countries have lost four-fifths of what they had not long ago. Fortunately, their economic benefits are now better understood, and in a number of locations they are being actively restored, though much remains to be done. Photo Credit/Source: http://mangroveactionproject.org/about-mangroves/

 

“While at one level an economic success story, analysis of the full costs associated with the Thai shrimp industry casts an interesting light on what the real costs and benefits might be. Research carried out by the Prince of Wales’ International Sustainability Unit…calculated that when all of the economic benefits and costs were taken into account, instead of providing overall economic gain, the industry was found to be generating a net economic loss to the world of $262 million annually. The costs that contributed to this estimate were made up of various kinds of ecological damage, including the loss of fish spawning areas, carbon dioxide released as the forests are cleared, water pollution and diminished coastal protection.”

This is just one example of how we have failed to account for the natural capital underpinning our economies. And whilst the free market is often hailed by economists as the silver bullet to all humanity’s problems, it has, to a great extent, left them blind to the reality. As Juniper writes, “no matter how clever our financial systems, impressive our rates of economic growth or sophisticated our technology, there is no place to move to should we degrade our biosphere to the point where it can no longer meet our needs and sustain our economies.”  That is the reality, however disconcerting. What’s more, we’re repeating similar mistakes over and again, continuing to consume finite natural capital as though it is infinite. To that end, Juniper points out the economic (let alone social) value of simply leaving natural systems in place, or restoring them where they have already been degraded.

RETF
An Australian red-eyed tree frog. Researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Centre have found that compounds secreted by this frog’s skin are potent blockers of HIV infection – just one example of natural solutions to human health problems. Photo Credit: Jodi Rowley/Australian Museum, NSW.

Yet nature’s benefits go well beyond this economic value.  One of Juniper’s most interesting chapters looks at health benefits provided by nature.

Not only do trees and open spaces seem to improve our moods and mental health, but natural solutions to physical human ailments are also more abundant than you might realise.  On example used by Juniper is the red-eyed tree frog. Frogs – many species of which are now threatened by habitat loss – are a rich source of potentially useful molecules that might prove useful in fighting human pathogens, such as HIV.  The venom of the Brazilian pit viper was the basis for developing one of the first ACE inhibitors, a group of drugs used to treat hypertension and congestive heart failure.  As antibiotic resistance becomes a more acute problem, maggots may be making a comeback as a wound-cleaning solution.  Some corals – many now threatened by ocean acidification and rises in global sea temperatures resulting from carbon dioxide emissions – may offer treatments of certain cancers. The list goes on.  Our reliance on nature is absolute, yet still too often our mistakes only once the dire consequences of pillaging our natural environment are in stark evidence.

In some cases, though, views are shifting, and Juniper’s book carries a certain positivity. Whilst we are losing out on the services provided by natural processes, there are also ways in which we are helping to restore the balance. Juniper tells us of “eco-cities” being designed in China, of various global conservation efforts, and of economic frameworks which account for natural capital instead of ignoring or undervaluing it.  The trick is fully understanding the potential negative consequences before we act. It is not beyond the wit of mankind to change our ways for the betterment of the natural world, and for the betterment of ourselves. The question seems to be whether we have the will to make that change.

I’ll end with a couple of numbers with which Juniper opens his prologue:

Percentage of human support systems dependent on nature: 100

Number of known planets capable of supporting human needs: 1

***

It’s not often I read something which completely changes the way I look at the world and our place in it. This book has definitely done that.

I was lucky enough to hear Tony speak during a workshop for a postgraduate programme in Cambridge this June. Over the course of that hour, he introduced us to several case studies which you will find in this book. His insights into our relationship with nature were truly fascinating; the next day, I bought What Has Nature Ever Done for Us?, and have read and re-read it. I’d highly recommend you do the same!

Juniper.png
About the author: Tony Juniper CBE is a British environmentalist, campaigner, writer and sustainability advisor to businesses and governments. He is a Fellow of the Cambridge University’s Institute of Sustainability Leadership, Special Advisor to the Prince of Wales’ International Sustainability Unit, President of the Wildlife Trusts, and . He recently featured in a Sustainability Agenda podcast, where he discusses many of the issues which are raised in What Has Nature Ever Done For Us? Photo Credit: http://www.tonyjuniper.com/

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