GUEST BLOG BY TONY JUNIPER: What has nature ever done for us?

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

GUEST BLOG BY TONY JUNIPER: What has nature ever done for us?

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I am delighted to host a guest blog from Tony Juniper.   Tony is a former Chief Executive of Friends of the Earth, writer and top campaigner.  He has won more battles than he has lost and has always been an inspiration (and fun) to work alongside.  Today, Tony profiles his new book.


One of the gravest misconceptions of modern times is the still widely held view that efforts to nurture nature can be a drag on economic development. Nothing could be further from the truth.

From nutrient recycling in soils to the protection of coasts by wetlands and from carbon capture and storage in forests to the pollination of crop plants by insects, nature is has massive economic value. Without it there is no development, no economy and no prospect to meet long-term poverty reduction goals. The truth is that the economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of ecology, not the other way around.

In my new book called "What has nature ever done for us?" I tell the stories of how natural systems sustain our welfare. Some of the things I discovered left me stunned. A case in point concerns the economic value of India’s vultures – or more accurately their former value.

Across the subcontinent during the 1990s, India’s three vulture species suffered a catastrophic decline. It was caused by an anti-inflammatory drug used to treat farm animals. Residues in the bodies of dead cattle and buffalo proved toxic to such birds and their numbers plummeted from about 40 million to a few tens of thousands.

Each year the vultures were eating about 12 million tonnes of rotting flesh. With the vultures’ gone this became food for wild dogs. Their population rocketed and more dog bites and human rabies infections followed. This in turn led to an estimated 50,000 or so more deaths than would otherwise have been the case. The cost of this and other consequences on India’s economy was (over a decade or so) put at an eye-watering US$34 billion.

Taken together, the loss of natural services is believed to be costing the global economy more than 6 trillion dollars per year, or equivalent to around 11 per cent of world GDP. By contrast, the estimated cost of meeting global targets to avert the impending mass extinction of species is put at about US$76 billion, or about 0.12 per cent of annual GDP.

There are many initiatives underway that set out to restore services once provided by nature. For example, efforts to reverse the decline in vulture populations are being co-ordinated by a consortium of national conservation organisations and multi-national vulture experts, including the RSPB. This initiative, Saving Asia's Vultures from Extinction (SAVE), was launched in 2011 to help coordinate research, advocacy and implementation of the actions needed to prevent these birds from disappearing forever.

This and a whole lot of other work is not only about conservation for its own sake, but also about the practical benefits we all derive from what nature provides. The sooner political and business leaders realize that it makes economic sense to nurture nature the more likely it will be that goals to improve human wellbeing can be met.

What has nature ever done for us? is by Tony Juniper and published by Profile Books.


An SOS - Save Our Species project, implemented by the RSPB, will establish and support four Vulture Safe Zones in India. These will be large areas of 100km radius where diclofenac use will be reduced through local advocacy, awareness raising and the promotion of alternative drugs that are safe for vultures. This builds on a body of foundation work for which the Darwin Initiative has provided key support.


  • As an RSPB member I would be very heartened if RSPB got together with the organisations that I have named and "ran" with this idea. I have committed to appearing in Shakesperaen costume with a placard as to what would he have made of the planetary situation ie tragedy, comedy or farce ? So perhaps we could all dress up in our finest ?

    I am sure that 'The Bard' would have addressed this in "good measure" : I am hoping that some dancers will also come and we can find some "dreamtime"...... but all rather in its infancy and may yet be still born.

  • Hi Tony. How do we resurrect the principles enshrined in Rio 1992 and the key protocols enshrined within that convention ? As a "white boy" who loves Kenya still (although I get there not often) can I draw your attention to the key coming CITES round on March 2 (it happens to be my birthday) . I have decided to spend it outside the Thai Embassy with a placard of Ahmed of Marsabit, safeguarded by the personal edict of Jomo Kenyatta until he died naturally of old age..... not a likely fate for many male tuskers these days outside the southern range states. I hope that this idea might take off.

    I have suggested to WWF, Jane Goodall, Save the Elephants, Elephant Partners, Ecoocide etc etc that this is an opportunity to assert our support of the key CITES convention and somehow I would like to see thought placed as to how we defend the principles of Rio 1992.

    See you outside the Thai Embassy March 2 Tony ?

                                                            Peter Hack

  • Hi Tony - I saw your book reviewed this weekend and will be buying it.

    The review mentioned that one of your examples is the well known New York water supply story where instead of installing an expensive and power hungry cleaning system the city instead reached agreement with the landowners of an entire catchment to supply clean water. It is a classic example of (sorry !) 'going with the flow' - bending our needs to conform with nature rather than taking it head on with bulldozers. It appalls me that so much of our current thinking in the UK is about confrontation & engineering our way through problems - the lack of sensitivity to people's concerns and views has stopped onshore wind in its tracks, Martin recently blogged about the return of the ultimate engineers dream - damming the Bristol Channel and between flooding and pollution we are probably spending £1 billion a year because we only pay farmers to produce food and nothing else, with the result that they get water off the land (and into our houses) as fast as they can and pump fertilisers into what becomes our drinking water.   There are quite simple answers here: we're already spending the money and we might get much better value if, for example, we paid some farmers to farm first for water, second for food.

  • What an excellent blog, and of course the RSPB's coordinated work with the consortium in India to save the vultures from  extinction in the Indian subcontinent is magnificent. The question really is how can  we endeavour to ensure the likes of Osborne and Cameron read this as well as senior politicians world wide. It might stop and make them think a bit and make them less short sighted in their future decision making.