Book review: What has Nature Ever Done for Us?, by Tony Juniper

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 March, 2013, 4:44pm


What has Nature Ever Done for Us?: How Money Really Does Grow on Trees

by Tony Juniper


Just in case we might have forgotten about the relentlessly draining impact of seven billion humans on the earth's life-support system, this impassioned book reminds us of the key elements in that dismal story.

Tony Juniper documents with ferocious pace and articulacy how the stock practices of hi-tech farming, such as deep ploughing and the ceaseless application of chemicals, have degraded about a third of the world's soils.

In the oceans, about a third of the world's fish stocks have been exploited beyond the limits of their endurance. Our mindless dumping of plastic has built up in sea areas with little current into a slow-swirling gyre of oil-based particles. Every square kilometre of the affected maritime zone contains 50,000 indestructible items and, although they reduce in size, they never diminish in volume. When we eat fish we are, in effect, ingesting our own plastic effluent.

All the multitudinous donations the earth makes free of charge to human society are known as "ecosystem services". In a tour of these many kindnesses, Juniper presents a detailed breakdown of how they work and what they will cost if we have to pay for them. Consider vultures - ugly and seemingly disconnected from us, it turns out these scavengers are invaluable: in India, for example, they were running a refuse-disposal network that spared that nation from 12 million tonnes of rotting flesh every year.

Indians learned the hard way about the generosity of vultures: in the 1990s they started to kill off 40 million of them and the chain of unforeseen consequences came rapidly. The loss of the birds' sanitary service gave rise to a mountain of cattle carcasses, and triggered a vast increase in the dog population which, in turn, caused 40 million more dog bites and 47,000 additional deaths from rabies.

The total bill for losing the nation's spiralling flock of avian scavengers has been calculated at US$34 billion.

Perhaps even more impressive than Juniper's research on the price of such services is an ability to remain upbeat. In every chapter there are leavening examples of intelligent government planning or commercial best practice so that the book is as full of hope as it is despair.

What is good for nature turns out to be what is best for us. Whenever we manage to preserve nature intact, we are better off.

Guardian News & Media