Green Money: Does Money Really Grow on Trees?

January 30, 2014

Eco News Network is pleased to feature portions of an article titled, What Has Nature Ever Done for Us? How Money Really Does Grow on Trees by Tony Juniper, author of the book by the same name, as part of our series on Green Money. The article is reprinted in part with the permission of Green Money Journal Tony-Juniperand it’s founder Cliff Feigenbaum. Cliff has been covering sustainable business and investing since 1992. He is the founder and publisher of GreenMoney Journal and GreenMoney.com.

When a catastrophe like the recent typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines draws public attention towards the sublime power of Nature to wreak havoc in human affairs, we can see clearly how our livelihoods, both existential and financial, depend upon a healthy relationship to the environment that surrounds us. But these momentary large-scale epiphanies do very little to fundamentally transform cultural habits. Instead, the dogma of the “bottom-line” driving global free-market capitalism and the myopic habits of consumerism continue, as if our thinking were veiled by an omnipotent and unconscious force. But what if I told you that the “bottom-line” isn’t really what we think it is, and that money really does grow on trees?

Hard line economists don’t need to reject fundamental capitalist principles to reconcile human values with environmental concern. What’s needed is to lift the veil that currently blocks our perception of the complex interactions between living systems and human economies. Then we can begin to see the true, sometimes indirect, but very real costs of our actions. Once we acquire a concrete understanding of the substantial role that ecosystems play in providing the services upon which human culture thrives, we can accurately assess the tremendous value inherent in maintaining the health of living systems, as well as the high-price paid by ignoring them.

So, you might ask, “WHAT HAS NATURE EVER DONE FOR US?” Well, vultures – and, to be specific, Indian vultures – provide an example. These birds are today virtually extinct across the subcontinent, a fact that has been barely reported in the West, and yet has had huge implications. For when India’s vultures were almost gone, it became apparent that they had been supporting the wellbeing of hundreds of millions of people.

For centuries, India’s vultures performed an essential cleaning function, eating the flesh of the many dead animals that littered the countryside. A hungry flock would clean up the carcass of a dead cow in a matter of minutes, leaving only bones. So when the vultures disappeared, and the putrefying fly-ridden corpses were left to rot under the hot sun, the effects were disastrous and wide-ranging. The Indian vultures had been inadvertently killed off by anti- inflammatory drugs injected into cattle and buffalo. When these farm animals died, residues left in their carcasses were ingested by vultures – and proved lethal to them. This soon became a problem, not least because India’s forty million or so vultures were between them eating about 12 million tons of flesh each year. Without vultures to clean up, there was an explosion in the population of wild dogs, which now had more food. More dogs led to more dog bites, and that caused more rabies infections among people. The disease killed tens of thousands; in the process costing the Indian economy a figure estimated in excess of $30 billion.

The example of the vultures are just one among thousands natural services that are (or were) provided for free by Nature, and which are being removed to our cost. That cost is now the subject of a new branch of economics, whereby researchers are beginning to put financial values on Nature. The hope is that through knowing more about the value of Nature it will be possible to create the tools needed to reflect that value in economic transactions. Should this happen on a sufficiently large scale, then the impacts could be profound, for the numbers being generated are huge – in many cases dwarfing the value of more traditionally quantifiable economic activities.

Looking forward, is there really any debate as to the extent that we will need Nature to provide all this? And, indeed, that it is needed now more than ever, with our rising global population? But all too many of the people who run our world – finance ministries, presidents, bankers, the CEOs of global corporations – behave as if this is some kind of mythology, not real economics at all, and a merely marginal question. Better, they argue, to promote growth and development and our problems will be solved.
The simple conclusion I reach is that we need to take a different approach to how we look at Nature and the earth. If we can do that, then Nature can be maintained and enhanced, for the benefit of people and the rest of life, indefinitely into the future. We need to garden the earth, to nurture and husband its assets, aware of the implications of our decisions. We need to produce food and develop cities in ways that keep natural systems intact and capable of discharging their essential functions.

Key to making this happen is the realization that Nature is not separate from the economy, a drag on growth or an expensive distraction. We know all we need to do things differently. The Biosphere still works and we can keep it that way, if we wish to.

The alternative is to carry on as we are now. After all, what has Nature ever done for us?

Article by Tony Juniper, his recent book “What Has Nature Ever Done for Us?“ was published by Synergetic Press in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Mr. Juniper is one of the top ten environmental figures of the last thirty years; a campaigner, author, and sustainability adviser to the Prince of Wales and various NGOs; and former executive director of Friends of the Earth. For more information on the author go to www.tonyjuniper.com

This article is reprinted in part with permission from GreenMoney Journal, the award-winning sustainable investing and business publication. Read the entire article at www.greenmoney.com.

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