Monthly Archives: April 2015

The most important book you’ll read this year: What Nature Does for Britain by Tony Juniper

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Being on holiday should be about getting away from the pressures of work and the daily routine, and relaxing with an easy novel or some magazines, turning off your brain and recharging ready for a return to reality. So what am I doing writing a book review in a sun-flooded apartment in Nice on France’s Cote d’Azur? A good question that is answered by the fact that this is a book that has been engaging me since I bought it at the airport on the way out. I’d known for some time that What Nature Does for Britain by Tony Juniper was about to be published as I’d received an invitation to the book launch in Cambridge in February. It was an invitation precipitated by the small contribution I’d made to the research for the book, when I was happy to provide some facts and figures on pollinator importance and decline in Britain. Unfortunately I missed the launch due to a prior engagement, and a poorly stocked WH Smith at Luton Airport was my first opportunity to buy a copy.

Tony Juniper is well known for his environmental writing and broadcasting so I had an idea that the book would be readable and interesting. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was just how good the book actually is, and that it’s the most important book you could read this year. Let me rephrase that: it’s the most important book that our politicians, business leaders, bankers and economists could read this year. In fact individuals with any leverage to influence government policies and business strategies should be made to sit down and read this book. But for anyone with an interest in the future of this country (and indeed of the planet) this really is a book worth reading. And, if you are British, preferably read it before the General Election in May.

Over the course of nine chapters, Juniper looks at how nature (broadly defined and including geology and physical processes, as well as biodiversity) underpins our society through its positive contributions to food production, water resources, flood mitigation, energy security, and our physical and mental health. At the end of each chapter Juniper sets out a series of manifestos that he challenges the government of the next five years to adopt and develop. Whichever party/ies form the government come the May election, its MPs need to rise to this challenge. And whichever parties are in opposition, it’s important that they read them too because they should understand where and how the government can get it right and get it wrong.

One of the refreshing things for me was how holistic and connected are the scenarios Juniper develops as he tours Britain to find case studies of where people and organisations are getting it right, working WITH nature, not against it. It’s easy for those of us working in particular fields, as academics or practitioners, to become over-focused on one’s own specialism: for me that would be obsessing about biodiversity, for others it could be energy generation or the economics of farming or infrastructure investment or wastes management. What this book does brilliantly is to bring together all of these elements, and more, and weave them into a single, seamless narrative. For example, large offshore wind farms generate renewable energy AND contribute to reducing CO2 emissions AND create marine nature reserves for sea life AND thereby boost regional fish stocks AND create jobs on the local mainland AND provide investment opportunities for banks and pension schemes AND develop new, exportable technologies. Yes, there may be downsides and Juniper doesn’t shy away from discussing these, for example bird collisions with turbines. But it ought to be possible to minimise these negatives, such as with appropriate design and siting strategies.

Although I was aware of many of the broad arguments presented in this book, it’s been a revelation to see the details set out so clearly and the linkages made so effectively, and with rigour: my word there’s an impressive amount of research on show here. I mentioned that I was consulted, but Juniper and his researcher Lucy McRobert have talked wide and deep with academics, conservationists, business leaders, civil servants, and other experts. The acknowledgements section runs to more than five pages and I counted over 100 names of individuals who were thanked for their contributions. Presumably everyone who was quoted was given the chance to comment on what was being written, as I was.   The sources for the information presented are provided on Juniper’s website (http://www.tonyjuniper.com/). This is a thorough book, all the more impressive because it had to be researched and written quickly in order to be published, and read, prior to the election.

Juniper’s vision of a future Britain is one in which we can have it all: economic security, functioning ecosystems, endless energy, jobs aplenty, and solutions to our most pressing environmental problems, including future effects of climate change. Clearly he’s an optimist. And that’s refreshing in a country where pessimism and cynicism seems to be the plat du jour (sorry, been eating in too many over-priced French restaurants).  If he isn’t right then the worst that will have happened will be that we have engaged in a series of experiments with our social, natural and economic capital that are no worse, and could be a lot better, than some of the experiments that have been foisted upon us by a series of government and private business strategies. But my gut feeling (supported by the evidence) is that he’s right and that this book provides us with a road map towards a virtuous ecological circle with society at its centre.

The sad thing is that the people who really ought to be reading this book, and who would gain most from its vision, are those politicians, business leaders and economists who are least likely to open its pages because either they’ve “heard it all before”, and disagree, or because the momentum of their vested interests and entrenched views leaves no opportunity to redirect the course on which they are travelling.

Although the focus is on the United Kingdom, the proposals that Juniper sets out could apply to any country and the book be renamed “What Nature Does For _____” [insert country of choice].  In truth the issues presented, and their broad solutions, are global. So, this is the most important book you could read this year, wherever you live.  Buy a copy, read it (on holiday, in bed, while commuting, or wherever) and pass it on to the person you know who is least likely to buy it for themselves. Or send it to your local MP.  That’s what I will be doing in the days following the election.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Book review, Ecosystem services

Should biodiversity scientists be campaigners and polemicists?

NPS workshop

Earlier this week I attended a two day research funding workshop intended to develop initial project ideas to address evidence gaps in the recent National Pollinator Strategy.  It was a productive meeting from which will hopefully emerge some important, focused science.  As is so often the case at scientific meetings, many of the most interesting conversations occurred after the end of the day’s formal work, in the pub.  There was a little bar stool criticism of some of the recent published work on the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on pollinator health, and specifically whether or not researchers engaged in this kind of controversial science should be polemicists, stirring up controversy, or even activists with particular agendas that they wish to promote.

Whilst I agree that there is a difficult line to walk between scientist as campaigner and scientist as neutral presenter of facts, I also think that polemicist/activist is quite an admirable position for a scientist to take in many ways, as long as the rhetoric is backed up by sound science. It’s also brave given that perceptions of scientists can change the likelihood of their research being funded or even published – reviews and reviewers are rarely as objective as we would like to believe.

So should scientists, and specifically those, like myself, who are engaged with biodiversity science in all its myriad forms, be also engaged in campaigns and polemics?  Is this what wider society wants from its scientists?  How do other scientists feel about this?  I’d really be interested in your views.

In this blog I’ve made no secret of the fact that I take certain positions on subjects such as the impact of poorly conceived development on nature reserves, the fallacies of political spin, and future developments in UK nature conservation.  Those are positions that are predicated as much by my personal motivations as an “environmentalist” (a term I don’t like but which is widely understood and will do for now) as they are by my professional role as a university scientist who does research and teaches.  I am not a neutral observer, though I hope that I’m an objective one.

There’s a lot of questions that can spin off from reflecting on the role of biodiversity science and scientists in the modern age, which I don’t have time to properly explore but which I hope will emerge in the comments.  I was prompted to write this by a really interesting post by Joern Fischer over at the Ideas for Sustainability blog entitled “Losing humanity and other questions science doesn’t ask“.  In it Joern develops some ideas about the kind of science that we should be doing “for it to be of use in the sense of creating a better, more sustainable world”.  I’d add that what is important is not just the science that we do, it’s how we present that science (the passion and the story telling) to a range of audiences, and also the personal positions we take on the issues that the science illuminates.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Pollination

BREAKING NEWS: Living population of the dodo discovered in Mauritius!

Very briefly, I’m hearing exciting reports over the web that a small population of the dodo has been discovered living alive and well in Mauritius, hundreds of years after it was thought to have gone extinct!  Here’s the source.  More information will be posted as and when I get it.

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