So, 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.
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.