What Has Nature Ever Done for Us? How Money Really Does Grow on Trees
By Tony Juniper, book author
When a catastrophe like the recent typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines draws public attention towards the sublime power of Nature to wreak havoc in human affairs, we can see clearly how our livelihoods, both existential and financial, depend upon a healthy relationship to the environment that surrounds us. But these momentary large-scale epiphanies do very little to fundamentally transform cultural habits. Instead, the dogma of the “bottom-line” driving global free-market capitalism and the myopic habits of consumerism continue, as if our thinking were veiled by an omnipotent and unconscious force. But what if I told you that the “bottom-line” isn’t really what we think it is, and that money really does grow on trees?
Hard line economists don’t need to reject fundamental capitalist principles to reconcile human values with environmental concern. What’s needed is to lift the veil that currently blocks our perception of the complex interactions between living systems and human economies. Then we can begin to see the true, sometimes indirect, but very real costs of our actions. Once we acquire a concrete understanding of the substantial role that ecosystems play in providing the services upon which human culture thrives, we can accurately assess the tremendous value inherent in maintaining the health of living systems, as well as the high-price paid by ignoring them.
So, you might ask, “WHAT HAS NATURE EVER DONE FOR US?” Well, vultures – and, to be specific, Indian vultures – provide an example. These birds are today virtually extinct across the subcontinent, a fact that has been barely reported in the West, and yet has had huge implications. For when India’s vultures were almost gone, it became apparent that they had been supporting the wellbeing of hundreds of millions of people.
For centuries, India’s vultures performed an essential cleaning function, eating the flesh of the many dead animals that littered the countryside. A hungry flock would clean up the carcass of a dead cow in a matter of minutes, leaving only bones. So when the vultures disappeared, and the putrefying fly-ridden corpses were left to rot under the hot sun, the effects were disastrous and wide-ranging. The Indian vultures had been inadvertently killed off by anti- inflammatory drugs injected into cattle and buffalo. When these farm animals died, residues left in their carcasses were ingested by vultures – and proved lethal to them. This soon became a problem, not least because India’s forty million or so vultures were between them eating about 12 million tonnes (tonnes are equivalent to 2,304.6 lbs) of flesh each year. Without vultures to clean up, there was an explosion in the population of wild dogs, which now had more food. More dogs led to more dog bites, and that caused more rabies infections among people. The disease killed tens of thousands; in the process costing the Indian economy a figure estimated in excess of $30 billion.
The example of the vultures are just one among thousands natural services that are (or were) provided for free by Nature, and which are being removed to our cost. That cost is now the subject of a new branch of economics, whereby researchers are beginning to put financial values on Nature. The hope is that through knowing more about the value of Nature it will be possible to create the tools needed to reflect that value in economic transactions. Should this happen on a sufficiently large scale, then the impacts could be profound, for the numbers being generated are huge – in many cases dwarfing the value of more traditionally quantifiable economic activities.
Natural services are beginning to attract the attention of not only academic economists and ecologists, but also governments, companies and international agencies. And that is what this book is all about – an explanation of what Nature does for us, why it is so important, and what we can do to ensure Nature keeps on doing it.
This vast and rapidly accumulating body of research I believe signals an emerging new era of debate. For while much of the environmental discussion in recent years has been concerned with climate change, carbon emissions and how to cut them, a new wave of attention is breaking, focused on what Nature does for us (and finding ways to keep it doing what it does).
From recycling miracles in the soil to the abundant genetic codebook underpinning our food and pharmaceutical needs, the coral reefs that protect many coasts and the pollinating insects that enable much of our food to grow, awareness and attention are switching to the economic value of Nature, and crucially, how to protect that value. What Has Nature Ever Done for Us? is a book full of immediate impactful stories, many of which contain warnings, such as the $81 billion cost of Hurricane Katrina that could have been substantially less if the natural wetlands around the levees hadn’t been developed; while others reveal promising and enlightening tales of how birds protect fruit harvests and rainforests absorb billions of tons of carbon released from automobiles and power stations.
In ecological terms, the coming decades are set to be the most momentous for millions of years. The good news is that we can anticipate rising human demands on Nature and manage them with a wide range of tools. Many are already in use, and their effectiveness already demonstrated, while others are in development; the challenge is to refine them and bring them to scale. Crucially this will rely on changes to economics and, equally crucially, on the popular culture and philosophical outlook of societies that shape the choices we collectively make. We must begin to see Nature for what, at one level, it so obviously is – the source of essential services: a provider of insurance, a controller of disease, a waste recycler, an essential part of health provision, a water utility, a controller of pests, a massive carbon capture and storage system and as the ultimate converter of solar energy.
Looking forward, is there really any debate as to the extent that we will need Nature to provide all this? And, indeed, that it is needed now more than ever, with our rising global population? But all too many of the people who run our world – finance ministries, presidents, bankers, the CEOs of global corporations – behave as if this is some kind of mythology, not real economics at all, and a merely marginal question. Better, they argue, to promote growth and development and our problems will be solved.
The simple conclusion I reach is that we need to take a different approach to how we look at Nature and the earth. If we can do that, then Nature can be maintained and enhanced, for the benefit of people and the rest of life, indefinitely into the future. We need to garden the earth, to nurture and husband its assets, aware of the implications of our decisions. We need to produce food and develop cities in ways that keep natural systems intact and capable of discharging their essential functions.
Key to making this happen is the realization that Nature is not separate from the economy, a drag on growth or an expensive distraction. We know all we need to do things differently. The Biosphere still works and we can keep it that way, if we wish to.
The alternative is to carry on as we are now. After all, what has Nature ever done for us?
Article by Tony Juniper, his recent book “What Has Nature Ever Done for Us?“ was published by Synergetic Press in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Mr. Juniper is one of the top ten environmental figures of the last thirty years; a campaigner, author, and sustainability adviser to the Prince of Wales and various NGOs; and former executive director of Friends of the Earth. For more information on the author go to- www.tonyjuniper.com