What has nature ever done for us? by Tony Juniper: Most important book for the future of our planet I’ve read

UnknownSo, I’m making a big call here. I was planning to blog about two important books today, Tony Juniper’s What Has Nature Ever Done for Us? How money really does grow on trees, just published, and Alistair McIntosh’s Soul and Soil: People versus corporate power, published in 2001. But Juniper’s book has so seized my imagination, seems SO IMPORTANT to me, that I’m devoting a whole blog post to it.

Why? Because he expresses clearly and comprehensively what I believe is the key challenge facing human beings in the 21st century:

‘The simple conclusion I reach is that we need to take a different approach to how we look at nature and the Earth … Key to making this happen is the realisation that nature is not separate from the economy, a drag on growth or an expensive distraction.’

Given the power of the language of economics, money and numbers, realising that nature is not separate from the economy really is KEY. It is also an idea which seems obvious to most non-economists – and utterly heretical to most economists.

In 11 chapters and 296 pages environmental activist Tony Juniper sets out just how valuable the Earth – ‘Biosphere 1’ – is for human life. The chapters move from soil (‘probably the least appreciated source of human welfare and security’), to light, plants and animals, pollination, water, oceans, human health (mental and physical). In the process he builds a picture of the rich and complex interrelationship of the many elements that compose and sustain life on earth. And of the many things nature does which cannot be replaced by technology, including ‘the carbon storage functions of natural forests and soils; the productivity of the oceans; the work done by microorganisms in soils; the primary production carried out through photosynthesis; the protection of property by coral reefs; and the design solutions created by natural evolutionary processes’.

And as Juniper says, these invaluable services provided by nature 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.’

Juniper believes that this vast and rapidly accumulating body of research ‘signals an emerging new era of debate’. I agree.

As he says, while much recent environmental discussion has been about climate change and carbon emissions, a new ‘wave of attention’ is breaking which focuses on ‘what nature does for us (and, crucially, finding ways to keep it doing what it does)’.

‘From the coral reefs that protect many coasts to the pollinating insects that help enable much of our food to grow, awareness and attention is switching to the economic value of nature, and crucially how to protect that value.’

Chapter by chapter Juniper examines the work nature does and makes clear its economic value – or, its value in the most powerful language of our day, money. Costa Rica’s former energy and environment minister Carlos Manuel Rodriguez discovered the power of this language when working to conserve his nation’s forests. When the finance minister told him that nature was not a priority, he found a way to value the forests in economic terms. Here’s what happened when he returned with this new information:

‘When we had this work completed I went back to the finance minister, but this time with some economists. When he saw these guys with me, he began to talk to them and they were speaking the same language. This was a turning point, and now the economics of nature is institutionalised in Costa Rica.’ Not only were natural areas protected, but degraded land was restored.

Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2

Juniper starts his book with a discussion of the ambitious experiment Biosphere 2, dreamt up by the remarkable John Allen – and it’s worth reading for the lessons of this story alone. Biosphere 2 was built between 1987 and 1991, constructed to study ‘the complex web of relationships and interactions that sustain the Earth’s life systems, while at the same time supporting eight humans’.

‘It was a project that threw into perspective just how complex, elaborate and linked is our own natural biosphere – and just what it would take if we had to try and replicate or recreate it.’

The scientific knowledge and technical expertise required for this experiment were vast. And fascinating. For example, the glass complex had to be totally airtight: it was 30 times more more tightly sealed than the Space Shuttles then being sent outside the Earth’s atmosphere by NASA. It set records as the most tightly sealed large-scale system ever constructed.

The lessons learnt from this experiment inform Juniper’s book. He quotes ‘Biospherian’ Mark Nelson about his experience of spending two years in Biosphere 2:

‘One of our tasks was to intervene when the natural diversity was threatened. The interventions were quite satisfying because it wasn’t us and the environment it was us in the environment. We had a role in looking after it. Once we were in there we realised we were in the same lifeboat.’

As Juniper argues, this is what we must now do with our economies (and ourselves): place them in nature. Which will require new institutions, laws, policies and culture. And new long-term thinking, which is foreign to the major players in modern economies: governments and corporations.

Juniper quotes Indian economist, former banker and green economist Pavan Sukhdev on the power of economics, which has arguably become a religion, ‘economism’. Sukdev says: ‘There is an unstated religion in economics, to the point where it is believed that everything can be resolved with free markets. The ghost of neoclassical economics and a few leading thinkers in that field continue to exert their influence on generations of young economists who go to work in national treasuries and who don’t understand what natural capital is all about. The question is, how do we address this legacy?’

A good question, as Juniper says – ‘and one that begs another, which is about where our values come from, especially those that have the potential to generate longer-term perspectives’.

The Earth, economics and where our values come from. This is what Juniper’s What Has Nature Ever Done For Us? is about. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

Biosphere 1

Biosphere 1

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14 Responses to What has nature ever done for us? by Tony Juniper: Most important book for the future of our planet I’ve read

  1. Sounds like an important book, Jane. As an ex-economist, I could never really get why prevailing economic theory didn’t, even in a cursory way, attempt to explain ‘real life’ and by that I mean including all those ‘externalities’ as economists like to call them.. the things that are essential in delivering the true cost and price of something. A new model is required… John

  2. How fascinating John, I didn’t realise you were a bookish (ex-)economist. I couldn’t agree with you more about externalities – I avoided using the word on the blog, because it’s so outrageous, as an idea, but used to question my economics profs about it all the time. You can’t just assume away the planet! I’m very thrilled to find you’re a former economist. Yes, a new model is required. cheers, Jane

  3. joe says:

    Interesting post, Jane. I checked out the Biosphere 2 project and found this video by one of the scientists involved. http://www.ted.com/talks/jane_poynter_life_in_biosphere_2.html

  4. Dear Jane, I am reading and enjoying your book tremendously. I am a bookkeeper and a history student (long time ago time now.)….. And a trainer in the Nurtured Heart Approach (www.childrenssucessfoundation.org) and I am pretty much obessesed right now with the connections I’m finding between these rather unlikely bedfellows. (In a nutshell — how we can use this double entry system to inform our personal and family decisions using the HEART!) … Naturally the connections with the planet are part and parcel with the connections we must make with each self.

    My brother sent me your book –he came across it on Amazon – and knew i would love it. it’s beautifully written, easy to follow, so informative and interesting. I;m preparing to give a talk In June about these connections and your book verifies so much of my thinking and has taken it to a much deeper level of understanding. Thank you so much! I look forward to reading your blog very much Jane!

  5. Dear Erica – What a lovely message, thank you. I’m fascinated to hear about the connections you’re finding between double entry and making decisions using the heart – wow! And that my book has verified so much of your thinking, that’s wonderful. Where are you giving your talk? It sounds like one I’d be extremely interested in. (I love nothing more than connections between unlikely bedfellows …) best wishes, Jane

    • Hello Jane!

      Thank you for your reply. It’s a thrill to receive it. REALLY!

      First, I continue to read and reread your book. I’m hoping to include references to it and some quotes (with your permission) in my talk.

      I’m learning so much about the history of our world and it seems like such a no-brainer (after you’ve made it so easy to see) that accounting is at the root of our problems and solution!

      My mission in life (I’ve only recently figured this out and it feels Fantastic!) is to spread the passion I have for double entry bookkeeping to the individual. Since my first job as a bookkeeper in college, it bothered me that I didn’t understand how all those numbers worked together–so in 2006 much to the bewilderment of my family, I decided to do this for a living and once and for all figure out that daunting Profit and Loss Statement and Balance Sheet , etc…. Instead of just drooling with incomprehension.

      I am certain that if more people (families in particular) understood the basics of double entry, we would collectively make much better decisions about our finances…..AND because it is at the personal level, and therefore so intimately connected to life’s priorities this could have a terrific ripple affect in our world.

      I am working with a number of clients now and interweaving the Nurtured Heart Approach as we go to help get past the emotional barriers that many of us have when faced with numbers and or financial personal history and baggage, etc. Myself included.

      This will be my first presentation for the NHA Global Summit in Albuquerque, New Mexico (USA) June 26-29th. This will be my first “talk” and this summit is only in its second year, so I’m guessing that I was accepted a little bit on a lark.

      The Nurtured Heart Approach (NHA) was developed for “transforming the lives of difficult children.” And today it’s an approach to parenting, classroom management, group care settings, couples, and relationship to one’s self. I am an advanced trainer along with probably a couple thousand other people (mainly therapists and school staff) — many in Australia by the way. http://nhaaustralia.com.au/foundation-leadership/

      I’m also a bookkeeper and have two children (ages 11 and 13).

      NHA is a simple, not necessarily easy approach — Three basic ideas: 1) Don’t energize negative 2) Energize the positive 2) Get Clear. And the underlying point of it all is to build INNER WEALTH (defined as that infinite number of divinely wonderful human qualities – honesty, integrity, artistry, determination….etc) in the child (or whomever) so that they will have the resources they need to deal with whatever comes their way. (For example, a child who needs to resist peer pressure can do so much more easily if they have a reserve of inner strength….)

      The approach is based on how we communicate our energy to each other. When I learned it and when I intuited the rest of it (since it’s really an experience as much as anything else), I immediately thought of the connections I had felt internally when I learned double entry bookkeeping (the beauty of it, the simplicity, the logic, it’s clarity and integrity…)

      In my 75 minute talk I will be giving a short accounting lesson, describing how I’ve used NHA coaching with four bookkeeping client , and then an attempt at describing the similarities and connections I see between the approach and inner wealth building versus bookkeeping and outer wealth building.

      THANK YOU GIVING ME YOUR TIME AND READING this and for being interested…..and for writing your books and blog. This is all very inspirational to me. All the best, Erica

      • Hello Erica – at last I have time to read and consider your extensive thoughts above. Thank you so much for sharing them and your experiences. Wow! I’m so intrigued by the connections you draw between inner and outer wealth and your NHA approach to bookkeeping/accounting/being. Absolutely fascinating to me. I’m not sure I’ve begun to make such connections, explicitly or knowingly anyway. But as someone more naturally interested in poetry and the human soul, in being and becoming and ‘inner wealth’, as you put it, than in outer wealth, economics and accounting, I’m loving these connections you’re making and the possibilities they might open up for my own work and thinking.
        Your 75 minute (!) talk sounds absolutely wonderful. I’m really sorry I can’t get to New Mexico in June to hear it!
        All the best with it and to you and your work. And please let me know if your talk is recorded or reproduced anywhere, I’d love to hear/read it in full.
        Thanks again Erica for your insights and generosity, so inspiring and thought provoking.
        very best wishes, Jane

      • Dear Jane,

        Thank you for your response. it means a lot to me. I am looking forward to completeing my talk, rereading your work and many of the books you mention here which connect so many dots….and I hopefully I will be sending you something further and staying in touch. I think I’ve heard or read somewhere that inspiration is catchy….it literally goes viral as one person’s brain lights up and then lights up another….(money does a similar thing a way, no? — like movement in the stock market ) …I will definitely be in touch with you. Thank you again Jane. Erica

      • And likewise, Erica. And yes, please do keep in touch. I look forward to hearing more. all the best with it, Jane

  6. Dear Jane, Also, thank you for this fascinating review. I am going to buy this book right now. And read it as it is so linked with the heart of your Double Entry tale. Thank you again, Erica.

    • Dear Erica – thank you so much for this message here and your wonderful long message you sent last week about your work. I’m so sorry not to have responded to your long message properly after you wrote it, but I have been racing this week and last with meetings and work and a trip to Tasmania to talk about ‘Double Entry’, so I’ve hardly been at my desk or with my computer. I’ll reply properly to your message about your fascinating sounding work (SO inspiring!) as soon as I have a chance, I hope later today. In the meantime, I send you very best wishes, Jane

  7. Thanks for your kind reply. Congratulations on your trip, I;m sure there are many more in store for you (maybe to Chico, CA to talk to us here? – or some day or to Tuscon, AZ to see Biosphere 2? or both ?). If for any reason you are unable to reply – NO WORRIES – Keep doing your good work and I’ll write again after my talk and let you know how it went. I defintely plan on mentionning your work and on contacting some of the people who’ve written you on the segment directly related to ‘Double Entry’ who live in CA and who have an interest in education, which is related to my work,. I feel so fortunate to have made a connection with you. Thank you Jane! I am very very grateful, Erica

  8. Pingback: And now for a totally different sort of (Easter) Eigg – Alastair McIntosh’s Soil and Soul: People versus corporate power | bookish girl

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