Sunday, March 10, 2013

Money does grow on trees

Vultures can clean up a cow carcass in minutes, leaving only bones. In India, considering the resistance for eating cattle, most cows have historically been eaten by vultures. At a certain point, however, vulture population collapsed from some 40 million to just a fraction.  Dead cattle were left to rot with disastrous effects. "There was an explosion in the population of wild dogs," says environmentalist Tony Juniper. "More dogs led to more dog bites and that caused more rabies infections among people." The disease killed thousands and cost the Indian government an estimated $30bn, he adds.The cause for the drop in number of vultures was that Indian farmers began using a new anti-inflammatory drug on their cattle. Traces proved to be lethal for vultures, which were killed in vast numbers.What was done to increase profit by the farmers caused enormous problems for society.

The story of the Indian vultures is one of the most striking stories from What has nature ever done for us?:  How Money Really Does Grow On Trees by Tony Juniper. The book has made quite an impact; three weeks after publication, it's already on its fourth print run. In the book, Juniper explains the immense value of natures gifts to us, what nowadays often is referred to as "eco-system services". He should know. From 1990 he worked at Friends of the Earth and was the organisation's executive director from 2003-2008 and was the Vice Chair of Friends of the Earth International from 2000-2008. He was a candidate for the Green Party in Cambridge 2010.

Through a large number of stories Juniper describes how nature is not only the provider of all our food and oxygen but also the world’s largest water utility, helps us  in the control of pests and diseases, reproduce soils, gives us access to a wealth of genes to breed better crop varieties and develop new drugs soils, oceans store carbon, and coral reefs, mangroves and wetlands protect coastlines from storms and flooding.

Take the soils, not only has it taken nature many thousand of years to build up their fertility allowing them to produce our food. They also play an important role for water regulation and purification; one hectare of soils can store and filter the drinking water for 1000 people. Many examples are of less magnificent scales, but still important. Small crabs are caught in the sea, transported to labs, where they are tapped of blood after which they are released back into the sea. Why? To produce a substance that is used to test the sterility of drugs and vaccinations.  

The book is well written and takes on a very important topic. There is not much new in the various examples, most of them (such as the services of the mangroves in Belize, the value of pollination and the water catchment of New York) have been told in numerous books.  Still, it is an excellent introduction to the understanding of the value of nature, and that money does grow on trees, for the general public, businesses and policy makers.

My main expectation was that Juniper, with his combined experience from Friends of the Earth, business and politics, would have some new insights in the question 'how do we go ahead?'. That is left to the last chapter which I read with special attention.

With some caution he endorses paying for ecosystem services as a tool for changing the business logic. But he warns that some schemes have questionable benefits and that there might be unintended consequences emerging from trading nature. "Making an economic valuation is getting the attention of the policy-makers who don't normally listen." Juniper says in an interview.
Juniper dismisses the symbolic efforts of the "green economy", and he also caution that new technology is also not a cure for all. We need a totally new system: a bio-economy. 'our economy would in effect become a part of nature, rather than as now, where it is not only seen as a separate entity, but is actively engaged in a programme of asset-stripping of natural systems, which in turn we celebrate as growth'. That is in my liking.

After reading this bald statement, I am disappointed that his suggestions are either the same examples of "green economy/green capitalism" (such as changing indicators, selling eco-system services, valuing nature) that have been around for several decades or putting his faith into that religion and advertising (!) could be put into the hands of the good forces to change our behaviour. There is perhaps nothing patently wrong with these suggestions, but they fall short of delivering what Juniper and I both want. 

More reviews of the book: Guardian, WWF, Business Green, Goodsreads, Designs On Earth, Friends of the Earth, New Scientist

Listen to an interesting lecture about markets for ecosystem services by Joshua Farley. 

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