What Has Nature Ever Done For Us?

What Has Nature Ever Done For Us? By Tony Juniper, 336pp, Profile 2013, £9.99.

Tony Juniper has an interesting story to tell about how dependent we are on keeping nature healthy, how that also makes us healthier and how nature provide all this for free – the so-called ‘ecosystem services’. He gives many examples of how humans are destroying many of these services provided by nature, at great cost to our societies and our long-term survival.

However, it is not all doom and gloom. He gives many examples of how regional and national governments are now working to stop the destruction of nature and rebuild damaged ecosystem services, while at the same time saving us a lot of money.

Juniper is a great storyteller. He gives concrete examples, backed up by facts and figures, of how this affects our lives, societies, nature and economy, and how there are solutions available. His overarching argument is that if we work with nature we will all benefit, including financially.

Juniper includes case studies from places he has visited all over the world. The book starts with an example from India where around 40 million vultures were killed in the 1990s by medication given to livestock. This led to a drastic rise in wild dogs, 40 million more dog bites and 47,000 additional deaths from rabies. These unforeseen consequences have now been identified and can therefore be addressed by stopping the use of a veterinarian’s painkiller, diclofenac. This has also been an issue in Europe!

In another telling example, Juniper describes how vast amounts of plastic waste ends up in our rivers and oceans, where it slowly breaks down into smaller pieces.

According to a UN report from 2006 this plastic chokes to death or poisons a million seabirds and 10,000 mammals every year, plus countless fish. As the amount of plastic waste increases, so these numbers increase every year and the plastic – which is toxic – ends up in our food chain.

One chapter discusses the importance of a healthy soil, not just for our food security but also for creating clean drinking water. According to the Environment Agency, a single hectare of soil has the potential to store and filter enough water for 1,000 people.

Global food demand is expected to grow by 70% by 2050 but a third of all farmland has been degraded since the 1950s. Our food chain is currently totally dependent on synthetic fertilisers produced by fossil fuel, which affects climate change.

Deforestation is another big killer. ‘Halving the deforestation rate by 2030 would provide carbon capture services worth around $3.7 trillion, and that enormous figure takes no account of the many other economic benefits provided by forests, such as regulation of water supplies and sustaining species diversity. The trees are of course doing it all for nothing’ (p. 57). An area of forest larger than Germany was cleared between 2000 and 2010.

The loss of biodiversity can also be a huge financial loss. Between 25 and 50% of the $640 billion pharmaceutical market is based on natural generic diversity. ‘The rate of species loss is now about 1,000 times higher than the time before the first humans appeared’.

Two-thirds of staple crops rely on insect pollination, a free service that is estimated to be worth $190 billion in a trade that is worth $1 trillion. However, in some parts of the world the pollination now has to be done by human hands, due to the decline of animal pollinators.

These are just a few of the many examples listed in Juniper’s easy-to-read book. Individuals can of course also play a role in the solutions: use less plastic and recycle the plastic you do use (give it to Lidl in Todmorden for example), buy and grow organic food, eat less meat, etc, etc. This book will encourage you to change parts of your lifestyle – without costing the planet.