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What has nature ever done for us?

What has nature ever done for us

By Tony Juniper
Published by Profile Books
Website: www.profilebooks.com
2013, 324pp, ISBN 978 1 84668 560 6 (Pb) £9.99

The question of the title might be deemed a 'no-brainer', the answer seeming obvious to anyone versed in agriculture, fisheries or forestry. Yet it is all too easy to take for granted that our biology-based industries are not just dependent on natural ecosystems but are sustained by them. But, as the majority of the global population becomes increasingly urbanised and dependent on technology, there is an inevitable loss of contact with and understanding of the natural processes on which we depend. As a result, politicians and captains of industry have a world view in which nature is secondary to the economy, overlooking that the economy is a sub-set of and ultimately dependent on the natural world. Even agronomists, foresters and fisheries experts may take for granted the basis on which their speciality rests. Tony Juniper has written this book to awaken those who don't know, and those who should know better, how close we are to irretrievably degrading the foundation on which society and its economy is based. As Prince Charles writes in his foreword, the future looks "frighteningly bleak because the predominant approach is effectively cannibalising its own future by degrading the natural system it depends on."

The multiplicity of benefits provided by natural ecosystems and the plants and animals of which they are comprised go far beyond the food, fibre, fish and forest products that are the most immediate concern of readers of New Agriculturist; we also depend on insect, bird and mammal pollinators for two thirds of our food crops, on pest predators, soil bacteria; forests maintain soil stability, provide measured moisture release; mangroves protect coasts against storm surges and provide nurseries for fish. Yet these and many other benefits reviewed by the author are consistently sacrificed in favour of shrimp ponds and tourism in the case of mangroves, clearance of forests for oil palm and ranching; and pesticide use that compromises the natural systems of pest control. Figures illustrate graphically that when the costs and benefits are compared, nature offers services at far less cost than technology can provide. Eroded soils depressing yields, hand pollination of crops, siltation of reservoirs, and engineered coastal defences cost many times more than the natural systems they replace.

In What has nature ever done for us? the author takes his readers on a varied and fascinating journey to sites and events from his native Britain to the Andes, Bangladesh to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, the US to Kenya, and many others. The message is, of course, about more than agriculture, fisheries and forestry, though it is salutary how frequently the biology-based industries are implicated for both the benefits they provide and the damage they incur. And his message is a hopeful one: despite the dire circumstances that confront us there are many examples of where remedial action and changed policies have reversed practices and transformed situations. The on-going challenge, however, is summed up by the observation that "Conservation and preservation is all very well, but the real question is how to make humans economically viable without running the whole system down." Having very lucidly introduced the challenge, the author hopes that his readers will rise to it and amend attitudes, approaches and priorities to provide the sustainable future that is essential for human well-being.

Date published: May 2013


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