Tony Juniper is one of a handful of environmentalists that barely need an introduction. He is a campaigner, writer, and sustainability adviser and has long been involved with Friends of the Earth.
More recently he has worked as Special Advisor with the Prince’s Charities International Sustainability Unit and is a Senior Associate with the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. Zoë Arden talked with him about his latest thinking on the vital connection between nature and economic development.
ZA: Your 2013 book ‘What Has Nature Ever Done For Us?’ made the link between natural ecosystems and economic success. Now you have published a book on what nature does for Britain – can you tell us a bit more on the thinking behind your current book?
TJ: With the first one, I was pleasantly surprised how it struck a chord with so many people and helped to dismantle the mythology that exists around nature. Nature contributes enormously to our economy; it underpins it. It was good to see people got the point. I thought if there was a book more focused on the UK, I could provide examples for people trying to make a case here.
What interesting facts did you discover when working on the book?
Many, as you can imagine. Quite a few were counter intuitive. For example, I came across research from Canada looking at the relative profitability of oilseed rape and how farmers who leave a third of their land unplanted make considerably bigger profits than those who used the whole lot for crops. The difference was in part down to how land left uncultivated increased pollinator populations that in turn supported greater yield. The value of pollinators to Great Britain is enormous too: £430 million is added per year to the value of farming through wild insects. But we’re still putting 30,000 tonnes of pesticides on the land. There are so many tensions in modern agriculture. The way we cultivate soils causes not only long term risks to agriculture but causes damage that is estimated to cost us up to £1.4 billion per year, for example as a result of increasing flood risk and so on.
Did you discover any unlikely heroes when you were researching the book?
In Somerset, I met the people that run Thatchers Cider. It’s a business with a £60 million turnover, a very strong brand and good supplier relations. And it’s bumblebees that enable its existence. They pollinate the owers to create the fruit, which is then turned into cider. The company is putting effort into restoring the bees’ habitat. The company understands that wild insects are better pollinators and much cheaper.
Another superhero was Clive Faulkner who lives in Mid Wales. He’s spent the last 20 years restoring native woodlands, blanket bogs and other habitats to bring a range of benefits for wildlife and society, including helping to reduce flood risk downstream.
Another hero is the beaver. I went to see the reintroduction project in Scotland. These animals bring a range of environmental benefits, including reducing flood risk by building dams and channels.
Can we expect to see a sequel to the book?
I would like to encourage other authors to write an equivalent book for their country, as they will be closer to the information. What nature does for Germany, for Canada, France and so on; I think that would help to generate more debate and understanding at the national level where so many policies are decided.
There are a handful of companies that are now beginning to get a handle on valuing ecosystems and nature – but this still feels fairly strategic and conceptual. What are the top three things you would like to see all companies doing?
Top of the list is a full assessment on where businesses are dependent on nature and to understand business impacts. Companies like Nestlé and Unilever are making a lot of effort. It’s starting to become more mainstream to think outside the box and consider how different types of products and services can work with nature rather than damage it. I was personally very inspired by some water companies who are restoring wetlands and blanket bogs, so as to make their businesses more secure and resilient while delivering a cheaper public service.
What about local governments or regional administrations – are they getting it?
Sheffield Council is working with the local Wildlife Trust in housing estates where a range of social challenges are in part being addressed through the restoration of natural areas, such as ower-rich meadows. It is having a transformative effect, from cutting crime rates to elevating house prices. It demonstrates incredible social value if you think that the alternatives are more money on policing or more strain on the health service. Instead they are applying a much more modest cost and restoring very good quality natural habitat and that has all kinds of social benefits.
Why do you think we have become so disconnected from the natural world that sustains us – and how can we reestablish this connection?
Partly its the way public discourse has been conducted since the last economic crisis where the narrative has assumed that looking after nature is too costly and against the national interest. We need to move beyond the idea that nature is getting in the way of development and recognise that nature is an essential pre-requisite to the health, wealth and security of the UK. That is what this book and my last one are trying to challenge, and to do that based on a lot of evidence.
Policy is central to all of this – what has been your experience of working with policymakers and politicians?
For the most part they don’t understand the value of nature and for some they don’t want to, even when the research base is compelling. The situation is not helped by how the whole environmental discussion has become politically polarised. Some, especially on those who take a right of centre perspective, regard being ‘anti-environment’ as a badge of political identity – Owen Paterson and George Osborne are among them. This is a big change. Many people forget that it was Margaret Thatcher who first put climate change on the agenda here.
You have been a campaigner and adviser on nature for many years now – what energises you?
One thing that quite excites me is the opportunity we have to come up with a different economic story. If the current economic narrative were to change, we’d have a very different set of outcomes. We need a more sophisticated contribution coming from economists who have a big influence on business and government. Fortunately, there’s an increasing number of companies and organisations like the Natural Capital Coalition who know that it’s the way to sustain business continuity. I’m very confident about the story that I’ve told and think economists will shift their thinking.
Originally posted on Radar, Issue 6