ISBN 978 1 84668 560 6. “What has Nature ever done for us? How money really does grow on trees” by Tony Juniper was published by Profile Books in 2013. Tony is best known as Britain’s foremost environmental campaigner and former director of Friends of the Earth. He is a very serious and popular environmentalist – and normally we would not read his books… But when a big serious environmentalist writes (or attempts to write) a book on the economic failings that destroy nature, even we sit-up and take notice. Does he do the subject justice? Almost certainly YES, but with some minor caveats. You cannot take the environmentalist out of Tony nor should we want to. Hence this book is what you would expect from him.
This story rightly opens with the comment in 2011 British Government Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne MP who stated that:
“We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business.”
It is this attitude that Tony has chosen to take on. On thing that makes this author so popular is that, despite these obvious pops at what he calls “remarkably old-fashioned” views on economics, he is very non-aggressive. He is the environmentalist that it is OK for everyone to love. Indeed he is so ‘mainstream’ it hurts. The book starts with a comment that I can certainly relate to:
“There are some who seem to think that only when times are good should we afford the cost of nurturing the natural environment, as if it is some kind of adjunct to the leisure industry.”
However these are not the words of Tony Juniper. They are from the foreword by HRH the Prince of Wales. It is a measure of the standing of Tony that the heir to the throne should chose to write a foreword. Certainly the plaudits for this book are NOT the ones we are used to. The front cover is emblazoned with praise from one ‘Nick Crane’. Nick Crane? Precisely, we had never heard of him. It was helpful of the publishers to inform us that he is a BBC TV presenter. Right. Elsewhere there is praise from the RSPB and the Wildlife Trust. This is reflected largely through about two-thirds of the book: it is thoroughly mainstream and should appeal to people who like green spaces, bees and fluffy bunny rabbits. It seems that no economist was actually asked to read this prior to publishing… Was this deliberate? We are sure Joseph Stiglitz could have supplied a glowing review…?
So, does it fail to deliver a message on the state of our economics? No, it does not. Look closely on the inside cover and you will also see praise for this book from one Jose Lopez. Who-he? He works for Nestle. This gives you an inkling that there is more to this than just fluff to keep Daily Mail readers, Royalty and BBC personalities happy. There is real substance. Substance yes, but maybe also a subtle contradiction that I will come to later. Of course if you like your environmentalism ‘green’ with trees and wildebeest then the first eight chapters read like Tony’s travel diaries. Indeed it resembles a James Bond novel as the author flits from one hot, exotic, country to the next. Odd that none of this travelogue goes anywhere cold like the Arctic. But there you go. Or rather there goes passenger Juniper who sure racked up some air miles for this one.
We admit that our coffee table does not groan under the weight of the works of Bill Bryson nor do we have well-thumbed travel section from numerous Sunday-supplements. If you are an eco-tourist (an oxymoron if ever we heard it) and like to jet off somewhere warm to nurse sea turtles, who have eaten a bit of plastic in the Pacific Ocean, then you may well just love vast sections of this book. The challenge for Tony is to keep THIS audience’s attention through to the SERIOUS message that he largely delivers at the end. Thankfully the first two-thirds of the book are inoffensive enough to the rest of us (who seriously wanted a work on economics) that we managed to read it without turning comatose at another colourful anecdote about sea otters and kelp.
Indeed the first half of the book is so inoffensive that we get to page 142 before Tony dares asks this books BIG QUESTION. When describing the decline of Vultures in India he laments:
“Have we become blind to the obvious? Or is it that there is more money to be made from selling pesticides than nestboxes. Or perhaps we have approached economics wrongly, in for example being able to put financial value on the chemicals, but not that of birds?”
Thus far Tony has been flying deeply under the radar and largely he keeps his raw emotions to himself. He is no street fighting anti-capitalist. But occasionally, just as in the section above, he pops up for air. We share his anguish but it isn’t the death of some birds that cause us pain. Indeed, who can love a Vulture? Truly? It is maybe in the Vulture section that it is appropriate for Tony to start raising the ugly spectre of economics and what it is our culture values. It fell to the Bird Charity RSPB to come to the rescue of the Indian Vulture. The maker of the anti-inflammatory drug that killed the vultures paid not a penny for their restoration. This matter passes with comment from Tony but no real emotion – he lets the readers be the judge.
Shouldn’t we be more angry? Shouldn’t Tony Juniper environmentalist by more angry? Well, he is playing a subtle game here. If you want the heir to the throne to write your foreword it is probably best not to explicitly trash the name of any major pharmaceuticals companies. This maybe wise as it delivers the central message right inside the territory of the public mainstream who would normally be so unresponsive to angry denouncements of big pharma. As you will see throughout this book Tony is very keen (rightly so) to partner up and advise large transnational organisations. He wishes to alienate nobody. Even-so he does name-names. Again, rightly so. The offenders do need to know that they offend – even if the gloves are on. Tony is to be commended for this difficult balancing act.
So, what the heck are we doing wrong?
“…natural capital in the form of forests, soils, fisheries and all the rest is being liquidated to make profits, and the process is being treated as a stream of dividends rather than the spending of capital…”
…You have to wait until page 272 (right at the back) to read these words. But this description is perfect; THIS is the fundamental problem. Our economics fails us (and environmentalism does too)..
It is almost impossible to say anything bad about a book that borrows its title from a well-known Monty Python movie. So, what has nature done for us? This book leaves you in no doubt. We may well wish to control pests and diseases with chemicals and concrete but, in the end, nature adapts and all our control-freakery comes to nothing. You cannot fool nature for very long. It will have the last laugh on us.
“Given what we know about the value of nature and natural systems in dealing with waste, helping to manage disease and control pests, we need to ask why we find it so difficult to protect assets that are so evidently valuable.”
Quite. This first two-thirds of the book builds this case for the reader. It is well written, readable and colourful. If it has one failing it is in the fact that it all sounds a little “gosh! WOW! Nature! Awesome!”. Tony is, after all, an environmentalist and it colours his judgement in all things. Whereas he is quick to calculate the costs of some man-made intervention in nature he sometimes lapses by ignoring the benefits to humans. This will, of course, open himself up to criticism from a minority who will seek any opportunity to justify their deeply held stereotype about environmentalists; ie, they care more for nature that people. Occasionally Tony address this, sometime not. It must be very hard for him to control his natural sympathies.
So we have to wait for Chapter 9 “Insurance” for Tony to get to the economics bit. In describing the costs and benefits of the Thai shrimp industry he reveals:
“…when all of the economic benefits and costs were taken into account, instead of providing overall economic gain, the industry was found to be generating a net economic loss of $262 million annually.”
Of course this is a global cost. The benefits accrue to the local economy of Thailand. It is easy to see how their books balance. Economics has borders unfortunately. Externalities really are someone else’s problem. Worse than this we now have to cope with the fact that our economic degradation of the biosphere is reducing our ability to cope with the consequences of that degradation. It is a double whammy:
“…this combination of factors will lead to reduced resilience, in other words will diminish our ability to cope with shocks, to absorb them and to recover from them.”
A case in point are the extensive mangrove swamps and reed beds that, when diminished, no longer offered any resistance to storm surges in New Orleans of the Boxing Day tsunami off Indonesia. We are literally removing our insurance policy. Tony’s first economic lesson for the reader: maybe we should, at least, treat nature as our safety net, as our insurance policy, lest nature bites back.
“We are entering a period of consequences, and we will need all the protection we can get.”
Yes, agreed. It is time to plant trees in our cities, not just because they look pretty or supply some extension of the “leisure industry” but because a “10% increase in tree cover would reduce the surface temperature of Manchester and London during heatwaves by 3 – 4C“.
By Chapter 10 “Natural Health Services” you would think that Tony is back in his comfort zone: nature feels good! However even here he pulls together sparse data to present an economic case.
“Obesity, depression, you can’t deal with those through cutting someone open. […] Drugs in the form of statins cost about £9,500 per year, while exercise-based activity costs about £440…” (Quoting Oxfordshire-based Dr William Bird.)
However we think we would draw short of peddling the concept of “Nature Deficit Disorder” as Tony does. His personal philosophy bubbles to the surface:
“Certainly my own personal experiences of exposure to nature are very positive. Perhaps because the connections made are at a biological and even spiritual level, the experience is difficult to articulate.”
Difficult to articulate and hence difficult to price. Most people interested in the economic case might be forgiven for rolling their eyes to heaven. Thankfully Tony’s brief excursion into mumbo-jumbo doesn’t last long. Even so he makes a grand statement that is entirely subjective:
“Through my years of campaigning I learned the hard way how science and statistics take arguments only so far, and that in order to gain support for pro-nature policies they need to mean something at an emotional or personal level.”
Again we would disagree. The answer is NOT to hug a tree. If that is the best we can come up with then the war is already lost. It is unfathomable of Tony to write a book about the economics of natural capital only to then recommend that everyone goes roll in a hay field. He is only applying his own personal preference for nature to an argument that is NOT about nature. We don’t need “pro-nature policies” at all – we need pro-human policies. It isn’t our disconnect with nature that is the problem. It is our disconnect from reality that is. We need true-cost, reality-based, economics. We need a way of connecting the cost of nature to the price of humanity. We only have to compare the above comment from Tony to the opening words by HRH Prince of Wales. Should we nurture “the natural environment, as if it is some kind of adjunct to the leisure industry“? In fact Tony is dangerously close to saying YES when the answer is NO. Tony goes on to muse that:
“The progressive distancing from nature that has taken place in recent decades is one reason why so many people switch off when they hear about environmental issues.”
Yes, “one reason“, maybe a trivial one. The problem with environmental issues are that they are peddled by environmentalists who preach of their connections to nature at a “spiritual level“. We do not live in spiritual times. We live in a time of myth created by our economics. We live away from nature only because nature is nasty, brutish, dirty and discomforting. We like to see it, not be in it. If the opposite were true we wouldn’t live the way we do. We must stop telling people that they have made the wrong choices. We have to give them better choices. Environmentalism failed to deliver this. Hence it failed. It won every battle yet lost the war because somebody else gave our culture a better narrative, a better myth to live by. So we all suffer the consequences. But it was our choice.
So we end this book with Tony’s coup de grace, his tour de force: Chapter 11 “False Economy”. Finally he allows himself to adopt a slightly more aggressive stance on economics. We hope those readers who so enjoyed the earlier travelogue stayed on to read this until the end.
“…when it comes to nature, instead of putting people in prison, the more extreme the ecological version of the Ponzi scheme becomes, the more we celebrate. The people who make it happen are awarded knighthoods and massive bonuses.”
Ouch. Will HRH Prince of Wales change this we wonder? The gloves are off at last and Tony is finally delivering the sort of killer-logic that he cast doubt upon only a few pages before (where he wrote “statistics take arguments only so far“).
“…global environmental damage caused by human activities in 2008 had a financial value of about $6.6 trillion – equivalent of 11 per cent of world GDP.”
We can’t help but wonder if many will read this and think “ONLY 11%? Then it was worth it.” Of course, it isn’t worth it because that is not a one-off cost. It is natural capital we are burning. Once it is gone it is gone.
“…more than 2 trillion dollars’ worth of damage being caused by the largest companies […can be seen as…] a kind of subsidy, because if these costs were reflected in their accounts then a lot of them wouldn’t be profitable.”
And that is exactly WHY, in our economic system, we do NOT put these externalities on the books.
“…at one level the reason for sustaining natural capital is about keeping the economy going, not nature. So why don’t economists get it?”
Now THAT is a good question Tony. We have to jump forward a few pages in the book – right to the end – to see the author quote Pavan Sukhdev (former Head of Treasury at Deutsche Bank in India and leader of the international process called The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity TEEB):
“There is an unstated religion in economics, to the point where it is believed that everything can be resolved with free markets. The ghost of neoclassical economics and a few leading thinkers in that field continue to exert their influence on generations of young economists who go to work in national treasuries and who don’t understand what natural capital is all about.”
Economics as a religion? Where have we heard that before? It has become a theme amongst several economists who have gone into print to say as such. When it ceases to become rational the only driving factor is faith.
So, what to do?
“Mark Nelson, following his experiences in Biosphere 2, has reached this conclusion, too: ‘Conservation and preservation is all very well, but the real question is how to make humans economically viable without running the system down’.”
Humans not economically viable? Maybe that should be the first operating assumption drilled into young economists these days. But there is hope. This hope may not be coming from the prestigious temples – the schools of economics – no, this new hope comes from big business:
“Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giant Unilever has emerged as a leader. In 2010, the company set out a Sustainable Living Plan… When [CEO Paul] Polman launched the Sustainable Living Plan there were questions from financial journalists who wanted to know what the new nature-friendly focus would mean for quarterly profit forecasts. Polman responded by saying that those investors who were interested only in short-term returns should take their money elsewhere.”
Astonishing. Polman is bringing blasphemy into big business. He is not alone. Big brand names like Marks & Spencers and Puma have joined this growing chorus. This is the new economics and it isn’t just big business now, it is also countries such as Norway and Costa Rica. Tony quotes Carlos Manuel Rodriguez at length (Rodriguez was Costa Rica’s Energy and Environment Minister):
“…GDP was around $3,600 per person; now that the forest area has more than doubled, the GDP per person is around $9,000. […] In 1985, Costa Rica generated half of its energy from renewables, and half from fossil fuels. Twenty-five years later we generate 92 per cent from renewables.”
Tony goes on to quote Rodriguez as saying;
“…we have realized that there is no long-term economic growth without protecting the health of the eco-systems. […] we can show that the economic and social health is dependent on the health of nature, then most politicians see the case we are making. This is all about humans, not about nature.”
This is all about humans, not about nature. Maybe they should be teaching that to young Etonians. And maybe a few environmentalists too.
So, does Tony Juniper – the high priest of mainstream green environmentalists-thought, manage to write a book about the economics of natural capital? Yes he does. He cannot help but betray his natural affiliations to some older form of green-thinking but, in the end, this proves no great distraction from what is a fine book. We think that those who came for the economics may well have learnt a lot about ecosystems, whilst those who wanted nice stories about exotic, far-flung, rain forests will have learnt just a little about economics. We have all learnt that big business is not necessarily the enemy, and it is our economics that have let us down.
Can an environmentalist write a book about economics? Yes. Is it the book an economist would have written about natural capital? Maybe not, but this is not a criticism. Tony Juniper should be praised for tackling a very difficult topic and aiming it at an audience who would not normally be open to such arguments. No doubt there will be environmentalists who will sneer at Tony’s cosy relationship with big brands, big companies, big capital and the mainstream. But for this author it is clear that the solutions lie in these areas of our lives – all they need is some encouragement to make those solutions happen. At the end of the day ‘it is the economy stupid’. And THAT is where the struggle is. Recommended.