I've just finished reading What Has Nature Ever Done for Us? by Tony Juniper, former Director of Friends of the Earth, UK, and Britain’s best known environmental campaigner. Juniper makes a powerful point about how essential the natural world is to our survival. He also points out nature’s huge, but largely unrecognized contribution to the world’s economy. Juniper gives numerous examples, but I will cite only two here.
For centuries, Indian vultures have, with great efficiency, and free of charge, cleaned up animal carcasses all over the sub-continent, leaving the bones clean of meat and ready for pickup by people who collect and make their living from the bones. In recent years, however, the population of Indian vultures has been decimated by the chemical diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug given to cattle, but which is toxic to the vultures who ingest it when eating the flesh of dead cattle. As a result, vulture numbers have declined by more than 97%. The result is millions of animal carcasses left to rot in the sun, and the added expense of disposing of the carcasses where the capacity exists to do so. In consequence, increasing numbers of wild dogs now roam the country, feeding on dead animals. The dogs don’t clean the bones as well as the vultures, so there is an increase in disease from the rotting meat and the bones are not in as good condition for the bone collectors. Also many more people get bitten by rabid dogs, leading to nearly 50,000 additional human deaths per year. The estimated cost to the Indian economy from decline of the vulture population is more than US$30 billion. India has recognized the problem and has banned the use of diclofenac for cattle. However, a human version of the drug is still being sold and its presence in the environment is retarding the return of the vulture population. Juniper also gives a North American example, comparing hurricanes Katrina and Rita, both category five hurricanes that roared onto the southern shores of USA in 2005. As we saw on our televisions, Katrina caused billions of dollars of damage as well as loss of life in New Orleans. Three weeks later, Rita came ashore 475 miles to the east of where the Texas and Louisiana borders meet, but Rita did far less damage. The difference is that the power of Rita was tempered by the marshy wetlands and salt marshes that extend out into the bay along that coast. In contrast, the flood surge from Katrina was able to follow the channels that had been cut through the coastal wetlands to allow access for shipping to and from the Mississippi River. This shows the importance of leaving natural shoreline buffer zones in place, especially as the climate warms and storms become more severe. There are many other examples in the book that show not only how nature has helped keep the world in balance, but how it can also assist in solving our global warming problem. For example, soil has a tremendous ability to capture and store carbon, something that has only recently been realized. Soil that is degraded or eroded has much less capacity to contribute these benefits. Forests, grasslands, and ocean ecology along our shores also have benefits that are only now beginning to be recognized. Juniper is particularly critical of the way mainstream economics assigns value to nature. Mainstream economics counts the value of a forest as zero until it is cut down and turned into lumber. Yet forests capture and store carbon, maintain biodiversity, hold and control the release of water, cool the climate, contribute to cloud formation, and help regulate rainfall. This valuable contribution, which is done for us at no charge, gets no recognition in mainstream economics. Juniper says mainstream economists just don’t get it. A driving force behind mainstream economics is the requirement to think short-term. The need to show a profit in the next quarter trumps the more strategic need to plan for the medium or longer term, as will be required to ensure nature’s continuing contribution. Our brains are hard wired to worry about the here and now, and Juniper argues that this dates from our hunting and gathering days when we had to provide for and protect our families day by day. Corporations still tend to think that way, and governments, always preoccupied about the next election, are little better. Still, some corporations and some government agencies, particularly the UN, are now pushing the longer view. The recently released UN report by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) stresses the urgency to make the switch from a fossil fuel based energy system to a wholesale adoption of renewables. This is not new, but what is new is that the IPCC says the switch is both feasible and affordable; it should not have a major impact on the global economy. The report recognizes that carbon capture and storage must be included, but says the technology is untested and may be expensive. Juniper’s review of recent scientific findings that show that nature (forests and grasslands and the soil below) can help with this and do it free of charge.
To my mind, this is the most optimistic book about the environment that I’ve read in a long time. Not only does it set out ways to solve the huge environmental challenges we face, but it points to the economic benefits of doing so. As more and more governments and corporations see an economic payoff from preserving and restoring nature, the more likely it will be that the power structure will get on board. There are signs that a new branch of economics-environmental economics-is gaining ground. As more and more people realize that one of the things we have to do (not to minimize the challenge!) is to preserve and restore nature so it can get on with the job of doing all its good work for free, perhaps all hope is not lost after all. I hope others will read Juniper’s book and talk it up with anyone who will stand still and listen. It might even influence the way we vote! Ken Shipley