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What Has Nature Ever Done For Us? How money really does grow on trees

Margot Hodson

RTonyJuniper.jpgTony Juniper
Profile Books 

What has nature ever done for us? 'More than most of us imagine' is the persuasive argument of Tony Juniper's new book. He begins with the story of Biosphere 2, a sealed world that was created in Arizona where eight people lived for two years in the early 1990s. The experiment provides a demonstration of the delicate interconnectedness of the natural systems of our planet and our complete dependence on them.

Having grabbed our imagination he then begins to outline the value of nature to humans. He calls this approach 'natural services' and seeks to put a monetary value on those things that nature apparently does for us for free. His first example is soil, and he explains that it is one of the most essential and least valued parts of our environment. Juniper describes its value as five 'F's and one 'C': food; fuel; fodder; fibre; fresh water and carbon capture and storage. Soil is under pressure from human abuse and neglect. In many places it is no longer able to provide the full range of services. Where soil is degraded the impact on the local economy is huge - those five 'F's all cost something as does the long term effect of a natural method of carbon capture and storage. Humans damage soil at the peril of our bank balance.

Example after example builds up the evidence. Treating Indian cattle with anti-inflammatory drugs wiped out the vultures that fed on them. The rotting corpses were edible to wild dogs whose populations rocketed - as did the incidence of rabies in humans from wild dog bites. The cost to the Indian economy has been estimated as in excess of $30 billion. This is rather more than the financial benefit of the anti-inflammatory drugs. Mangroves grow in shallow waters and protect coastal areas from tidal waves and storm damage. These have been swept aside in many places to create shrimp farms, which also thrive in shallow water and can bring significant revenue to a local economy. When the storms come, however, there are no mangroves to protect the towns and cities that so often fringe coastlines. Building coastal sea defences could cost 100 times the revenue value of the shrimp farms. The mangroves did the job for free.

Not only is nature essential to the physical lives of humans, there is strong evidence that it helps our emotional well-being. One example given is in Gateshead, which is one of the more socially challenged areas of the UK. Early deaths from strokes, heart attacks and cancer are above the national average, and inevitably these put pressure on medical services. Trees may not seem the answer to these questions, but in 2004 a group of public agencies, decided that they might be and chose 360 hectares of them for an environmental project. Chopwell Wood hosted exercise opportunities from walking and cycling to conservation work. Patents with high blood pressure, weight problems or depression could opt to have an exercise programme in the wood. 99% felt that the visits to the woodland had a positive impact on their health.

Many big companies have seen the drive to protect nature as something that holds back economic growth. In setting out the financial value of nature, Juniper shows that this protection is in reality a sound economic investment. He cites several companies who are investing in nature, including Unilever and Marks and Spencer. He also proposes that faith communities have a part to play in pointing the way toward a more spiritual valuing of nature. Though Juniper does not follow a religious faith, he believes that if these communities led the way, then economics would follow a different path. He sees religion as a rich source of an essential source of values that are needed to reorientate our economics. Moreover he believes that religions could renew a spiritual relationship with the natural world.

Juniper concludes that in ecological terms, the coming decades are the most momentous for millions of years. We need to see nature for what it really is. It is the source of essential services: provider of insurance; controller of disease; waste recycler; health service provider; water services; pest controller; carbon capture and storage facility and the converter of solar energy. If the economic impact of these services were fully grasped, then there would be a strong economic drive to look after the ecosystems that in turn look after the lives and wellbeing of humanity.

Tony Juniper has written an excellent book that builds a powerful economic argument for the valuing and good treatment of the natural world. Perhaps the only sad point is the fact that it needs to be written at all. It shows that the majority of those in power in the world only value nature for its financial value and for what it can do for humans. The concept of the intrinsic value of nature would be completely lost on those people who might dig up a mangrove swamp for a shrimp farm, regardless of the consequences.

I have no doubt that Juniper himself would have a high view of nature's value for its own sake. His book is a pragmatic response to the reality that in the 'real world' nature is valued if we can show that it earns its keep.


Looking for an alternative to Amazon? Every book reviewed this month is available at the Third Way bookshop at a 10% discount. Visit and use the voucher code TW739.