Giving to get: how taking care of nature saves money
A new book highlights the potential economic benefits of working with nature instead of polluting the environment, writes DICK AHLSTROM
Our mothers – where would we be without them, feeding us, watering us, minding us and providing a host of services we hardly realise?
How appropriate then the use of “Mother Nature” when we describe the natural world around us. Mother Nature provides humankind with an estimated €92 trillion worth of goods and services every year, according to author Tony Juniper.
These include essentials such as clean water and air, plant pollination, natural cleaning services and the riches coming from the oceans. Add to that the soil that supports food production and the bounty that is DNA and the list goes on.
Juniper spent 30 years working with bodies such as Friends of the Earth and the Wildlife Trust and learning just how much we rely on the generosity of Mother Nature. And he brings these experiences together in a book released earlier this month, What Has Nature Ever Done for Us – How Money Really Does Grow on Trees.
The idea that we receive all of these services at no cost and that we can pursue sustained economic growth without looking after the environment represents “one of the greatest misconceptions in history”, he told The Irish Times. “We need to look at economics differently.”
Economic growth is pursued without regard for what impact it will have on the natural world, he says. It is a “false economy” when built on a battleground where it is humankind against nature. “We too often see nature as something that we can plunder for economic advantage.”
There are limits to Mother Nature’s patience, however. We can undermine her generosity but at a genuine cost that burns up real money. For example, more than 90 per cent of our food is grown in soil, yet a third of the world’s farmed soil has been degraded since the 1950s due to bad agricultural practices, says Juniper.
The response is to try and drive more production by adding nitrates and other chemicals, additional inputs that carry a financial cost. But this in turn also delivers a downstream cost, with Europe spending about €70 billion a year dealing with nitrogen pollution, says Juniper.
The benefits – and the potential losses – are also clear when looking at the crop pollination services provided by nature. Annual crop sales dependent on natural pollinators are worth an estimated €770 billion a year, he says, but we are threatening the very source of this wealth.
Changed habitats and urban growth are putting many key pollinators under pressure. Mites and viral infections are also spreading through bee and bumble bee populations, greatly reducing the potential for essential crop pollination.
And it is not just bees. We are also causing difficulties for other important pollinators such as bats, birds and butterflies. Butterfly Conservation Europe estimates that a third of all European butterfly species are in decline and a 10th of the total are at risk of extinction, says Juniper.