The Anti-Nature Narrative in UK Politics is Hard to Fathom

An absence of positive political debate about the natural world is even more troubling than the decline in the UK wildlife revealed by State of Nature report.

More than half the wildlife species found in our islands are declining, under an assault of development, air pollution and chemical attack. Bumblebees, wildflowers, songbirds and butterflies are among the more obvious casualties.

Perhaps even more troubling than freefall declines in red squirrels, harbour seals, hedgehogs, starlings and all the others, is the fact that the crisis facing the living fabric of our environment is hardly mentioned in politics. And not only have ministers recently turned their attention away from the protection of nature, they have presented efforts to protect it as the enemy of growth, development and business.

George Osborne's claim that laws to protect rare species are a 'ridiculous burden on business', Owen Paterson's championing the cause of Bayer and Syngenta in opposing the moratorium on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides and Michael Gove's attempts to downgrade education about our relationship with the natural environment are recent cases in point. With this in mind we can confidently guess that the government's on-going review of EU environmental laws is not intended to strengthen the protection of nature in these islands.

And when it comes to how we approach specific decisions that affect the natural environment, it seems we must doubt the extent to which we can rely on evidence-based policy. Today, policy-based evidence gathering is more common, seen for example in the proposed cull of badgers. And so-called Zombie infrastructure schemes, such as the proposed M4 motorway extension across the Gwent Levels, killed more than a decade ago because of its unacceptable environmental cost, are now back on the agenda.

All of this is predicated on the idea that looking after nature is somehow against the interests of people and the economy. It would be sad, rather than bad, if they actually had a point, but the evidence says the opposite. Material presented in the UK National Ecosystem Assessment, a major study commissioned by government, is a good place to start.

Among many other things, this comprehensive stock-take of nature in our islands found the benefits derived from improved river water quality (mostly down to EU rules) were found to be about £1.1 billion per year, while the value of coastal protection provided by wetlands was estimated to be about £1.5 billion per year.

The amenity value of inland wetlands added a further £1.3 billion per year. Upland peat bogs were assigned multi-million pound value, seen in their contribution to flood risk reduction, water purification and huge carbon storage. The 2012 report of the Independent Panel on Forestry (established in the aftermath of doomed forestry privatization proposals) found that the value of the publicly-owned forestry estate in England was about £400 million per year, delivered on the back of an investment of £20 million. All these values have conservation benefits too.

As politics has gone into reverse on conservation, there are glimpses of good news, in the work of The Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and other conservation groups behind the State of Nature report, who through practical work on the ground support nature's recovery and help people deepen their contact with it, and in ways that leaves us all the better for it, including economically.

But the positive impact is being overwhelmed, as nature is sucked into an ideological vortex based on a fundamental lack of understanding of our dependence on it. The deeply misjudged anti-nature narrative that has become embedded in political discourse is hard to fathom. Not only is it unscientific it is hard to see whom it is meant to appeal to. It's certainly not progressive and forward-thinking companies.

Most ministers lack any serious scientific education, but perhaps they could at least use their classical training to compile the Latin names of the species declining on their watch.

Tony Juniper is a campaigner, writer and environmental advisor. His latest book, What has nature ever done for us?, is published by Profile Books.

This article was first published by The Guardian, 22nd May 2013.