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What Has Nature Ever Done For Us?

How Money Really Does Grow on Trees

by Tony Juniper

How much would you pay for a handful of dirt? How about a lung-load of fresh air? The chances are, nothing. And that, in very simple terms, is what is wrong with the world, according to Tony Juniper.

The former executive director at Friends of the Earth has been at the forefront of the British environmental movement for more than two decades - a period of, to put it charitably, modest progress. So Juniper has taken a different tack: he left frontline campaigning and went into politics. It didn't work out. Running as the Green party's candidate for Cambridge in 2010, he managed to win just 8% of the vote.

Now he has written a book. The premise of What Has Nature Ever Done for Us? is simple: nature is undervalued. Not in the go-fondle-a-boulder sense, but in hard, financial numbers.

Nicholas Stern famously said in his 2006 report on the economics of climate change that the fact that we had never before put a value on carbon dioxide and other earth-altering pollutants was the "greatest and widest-ranging market ­failure ever seen". Juniper goes one better. Carbon dioxide is most certainly a cost to be counted, but it is time to put real ­numbers to all the other amazing stuff that nature does for us. Only then will we start treating it with the due care it deserves, rather than ransacking all around us and ensuring our long-term demise. So goes the argument.

Consider agriculture. The fertilisers and mechanised farming of the 'green revolution' mean that today we make plenty of food for all 7bn people on the planet. But at what cost? Nitrogen-based fertilisers are highly effective, yet the vast amount that is lost via runoff has led to a cascade of pernicious side effects. Suffocating algal blooms have turned swathes of the Adriatic and Baltic seas into dead zones. Seepage of this runoff into drinking supplies has been linked with blue-baby syndrome and other maladies. In April 2011 the European Nitrogen Assessment, a report compiled by 200 experts from 21 countries, estimated that the annual cost of nitrogen pollution could be as high as £261bn annually. In other words, "the cost of nitrogen pollution at the European regional level is about double the economic value of the increased food output achieved with nitrogen fertilisers", Juniper writes.

The nitrogen report received little coverage. Nor have many other assessments that have sought to link economic progress with previously unseen or ignored side effects. This is the blinkered approach Juniper wants to rectify, and he has plenty of ammunition.

In Maoxian county in Sichuan, China, 40,000 people have a ridiculous job. Thanks to the wide use of insecticide, the bees that once pollinated the region's vast orchards are no longer alive. So, every year, legions of field workers have to do their work for them. They clamber up ladders in their thousands to feather-dust fruit trees with pollen. It is the ultimate irony. "While pesticides were deployed to keep yields high in the expanding orchards, the opposite effect was in fact achieved," Juniper says.

Surely it would make more sense to work out a way not to massacre a giant, unpaid workforce so vital to your business. Insects and animals are responsible for pollinating two-thirds of the world's food crops, a service valued by the United Nations at £118bn a year. Repla­cing them is hugely expensive and, on a large scale, impossible. Nonetheless, this connection is often missed.

Not in Yorkshire. The Co-op supermarket is laying out a pair of "bee roads". The hope is that the flower-lined thoroughfares, running east to west and north to south across Britain's biggest county, will ensure that bees - six domestic species are already endangered - stick around to do the jobs the region's farmers so desperately need. Otherwise, they too will have to pick up their feather dusters.

The disconnect between our immediate actions and their dire long-term ­consequences is caused, Juniper asserts, by what he refers to as our 'Pleistocene mind'. Crudely, it's the caveman in all of us. Early humans didn't care about rising CO2 levels or wetland preservation. They simply wanted food and shelter.

We're not that different today. ­Modern city life is only about 200 years old. As Juniper says, "99.9% of human history was non-urban". Which explains, he asserts, why we have such a hard time thinking beyond our immediate comfort. And why we keep ending up in situations where we have to engineer ourselves out of catastrophes of our own making.

The death of India's vultures is a fascinating case study. In the early 1990s there were an estimated 40m patrolling the subcontinent. Then, farmers started using a new drug that promised to keep cattle healthy. It was poisonous for vultures.

The results were astounding. The birds, which consumed an estimated 12m tons of putrefying remains every year, were decimated. The population of feral dogs soared. Fatal cases of rabies, mainly through dog bites, rose by nearly 50,000 a year. The economic loss for the country? About £21bn.

Juniper does an admirable job of bringing such examples together and linking them to convey a singular message, even if, at times, it feels like he is going too far in his claims. (Apparently, there is less domestic violence in areas where there are lots of trees.) Overall, it is a convincing argument. We are asset-strippers, gladly taking nature's 'free ­subsidies' yet doing little to guarantee it will be able to keep providing them.

In 2008, the United Nations commissioned a report that the environmental cost of human activities was £4.1 trillion a year - 11% of the global economy. As Juniper rightly points out: "The specific numbers are not really the point." Indeed, the world's oceans, says Juniper, are worth a cool £13 trillion. Of course they are. Assigning numbers is more about a shift in attitude, he suggests. "Perhaps it would help if we begin to see nature for what, at one level, it so obviously is - the source of essential services. A provider of insurance, a controller of disease, a waste recycler, an essential part of health provision, a water utility, a controller of pests, a massive carbon-capture and storage system, and as the ultimate converter of solar energy."

Our current approach? "A planetary ponzi scheme," Juniper sniffs. It's a fair point, but the potential solutions he offers are woolly and unspecific. In that sense, this is like so many other books in the rapidly growing climate-apocalypse genre. Pointing out the problems is easy enough. It's coming up with the answers where it falls short.

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