A shorter version of this review was originally published in the Spring 2015 edition of the Warwickshire Wildlife Trust members magazine.
Caring about wildlife and working in conservation is an extremely frustrating, and at times lonely, occupation. You have to constantly fight for attention, pleading for recognition in the crowded sphere of the public realm. This was perfectly illustrated in the build up to the recent UK general election, where wildlife and conservation was scandalously overlooked by politicians, media and the public. It is maddening having to constantly justify yourself and having to explain to people why nature matters. Why can’t people see the beauty and richness for themselves? Why can’t they understand the need to look after it, to keep it?
Someone who clearly does understand this need is Tony Juniper, and in his new book, What Nature does for Britain, he sets out a case for why we should focus our attention on rebuilding our whole society around the natural world. Each chapter targets a specific part of our natural environment, covering soil, species, wetlands, floods, climate change, energy and human health. We’re taken on a journey, starting with the dramatic negative impacts we have had (and continue to have) on Britain’s natural places, taking us through this tale of loss, and then showing us examples of how we can change, bringing us hope for the future.
We are treated to a geographical tour of Britain, visiting places such as the upland peat moors of Dartmoor, fens of East Anglia, chalk streams of Hampshire and the orchards and wetlands of Somerset. The book is packed full of fascinating pieces of information, which enlighten and shock in equal measure. For example, soil degradation is estimated to cost the British economy £1.4 billion every year! We also learn about a pioneering company who are turning human sewage into fertiliser and selling it to farmers. In cider orchards, we discover the value of earwigs, as a predator of aphids, reducing the amount of pesticides used. It is these personal stories, brought to life through Tony’s elegant and evocative writing, that make the book so accessible and engaging.
One of the things I like most about this book is that it feels like a much needed re-packaging of the ‘ecosystem services’ concept. I have never felt comfortable with the term ‘ecosystem services’, it feels cold and corporate, much like the more recent controversial ‘biodiversity offsetting’ idea. The language used in these phrases sanitises the reality of what is being discussed and has always felt to me to be favouring a corporate, pro-development mentality. What this book does so beautifully, is give real life examples of ecosystem services in action, adding emotion and reality to this cold phrase. It also goes beyond the traditional monetary based ideology and shows that working with nature brings more than just financial benefits.
Reading this book did give me hope, as it showed sensible, realistic and pragmatic ways in which we can save nature and make things better for ourselves at the same time. The ideas and solutions detailed in this book are not that difficult, all they require is a bit more care and thought from us. And therein lies the problem, it requires more care from us, something which we humans, as a collective, seem incapable (or unwilling) to do. It is often quicker and easier (and more importantly cheaper – though this book shows how we can save money by working with nature) to run roughshod over the natural world to get what we want. Nature is increasingly becoming marginalised in our world, confined to scraps of green in our concrete cities and oases of life in our intensive agricultural landscape. Therefore, sadly, the hope I have taken from this book is slight, but at least it is there.
This is an essential read for anyone interested in conservation. It is a book for our time, setting out a much needed vision of a world where nature is valued. It sets out sensible solutions and pragmatic ideas of how we move towards repairing our fractured ecosystems. It also gives us a poignant reason to do this; a healthy environment creates healthy minds and healthy people. What Nature does for Britain shows us that things can get better for our natural places and wildlife, we all must play our part, working together as one to change Britain for the better.