A year or so ago I spoke with a green consultant who had just persuaded the owner of a huge and destructive Asian forestry operation to shift to a sustainable business model. “You have to show these people how they can make a dollar,” he explained. By adopting sustainable practices they would gain access to European markets, as well as benefitting from a useful PR upgrade; the payoff for the rest of us would be the preservation of a carbon store in our rapidly heating world.
In essence, this encapsulates the message of Tony Juniper’s campaigning book, timed for the run-up to the 2015 election: that it is only by putting a financial value on nature that politicians and businessmen will be persuaded to protect it. This is a direction many leading green activists are deeply sceptical about. We cannot devolve our responsibility to defend the rural landscape to those driven by the profit motive, they argue. Once it is seen as a network of “ecosystem services” that landowners and others can be paid to deliver, nature has effectively been privatised, its fate subject to the shifting winds of the market.
Juniper provides an excellent summary of the UK’s evolving ecological crisis: degradation of the soil and the loss of carbon-trapping peat bogs; the decimation of bees and other insect pollinators through the use of insecticides; the loss of marine habitats through destructive fishing practices; pollution of the water supply through phosphates. Agrochemical intervention is nothing new: 19th-century British entrepreneurs scoured the battlefield of Waterloo in search of skeletons to grind for bone meal and imported thousands of mummified cats plundered from Egyptian tombs to boost nutrients in the over-exploited soil.
Even if David Cameron has told his aides to “get rid of this green crap”, Juniper argues, he is out of step with the times: 4.5 million people in the UK belong to organisations supporting nature. With an election looming, can they be ignored?
Juniper finds heartening examples of businesses working with local communities to address environmental challenges because, like the Asian forestry tycoon, they are convinced it makes financial sense. Meanwhile, the market is shifting towards renewables as research shows that, in order to avoid catastrophic warming, two thirds of remaining fossil fuel resources should be left in the ground.
Where the market leads, politicians of a certain hue generally follow. But, despite the excellent work done by Juniper and his peers making the argument for the benefits that would follow, can they really be trusted to deliver a sustainable future?
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