Martin Harper's Blog, One Big Thing For Nature

Following the launch of the State of Nature report, I am keen to stimulate a debate about what else we need to do to live in harmony with nature. Over the next few weeks, people from differing perspectives will propose their One Big Thing for Nature. Today, I am delighted to welcome Tony Juniper, former Chief Executive of Friends of the Earth, writer and top campaigner.

Political and public attention on environmental issues has reached an alarming low point. Simple fatigue, the difficulty of connecting longer-term impacts with decisions now and the perception that taking action for nature is unaffordable have all played a part.

One big thing that could cut through these barriers is to reposition nature as not only as nice to have, but essential for human welfare. For conservationists this might seem so obvious as to be ridiculous to say, but unfortunately it is necessary to make the case in ways that can regain traction in policy making, to the point where at least on-going reversals can be halted.

There are many ways into this, and some are already in play. An emphasis on the economic value of bees helped inspire an EU ban on neonicotinoid pesticides. By demonstrating the value of upland bogs in helping reduce flood risk, land use changes have been made in ways that not only help protect property but also wildlife. Calculating the carbon capture and storage value of tropical rainforests has in some parts of the world helped to reduce deforestation.

This is not to say that the other values of nature are now less important. The intrinsic, spiritual, aesthetic and scientific values of nature remain, but given the difficult straits we have entered, it seems to me that a strategy more focused on nature’s practical values is needed, at least temporarily.

One area where conservation groups could work in common cause with others, and with some potentially major impact, is in relation to public health. This has of course been an important driver of various pollution prevention laws going back decades, but the growing body of research emphasizing the therapeutic and health benefits that can come with increased exposure to green space and nature provides new levers into policy.

The public debate around environmental questions (in so far as it exists at all), assumes at best that nature can wait, and at worse is an impediment to the more important job of promoting economic growth. Until that context changes, it is likely we will remain in reverse gear.

I have found encouragement in the extent to which people see the sense of protecting nature for practical reasons.  Last year I spent a day with a film crew in Bristol randomly posing to people in the street the question in the title of my recent book called What has nature ever done for us?. Here's a flavour of the responses we got.

Many British campaigners have been slow to exploit the space opening around research demonstrating the practical value of nature, the extent to which many people see the sense of it and the demand for political leaders and company executives to reflect this reality in the decisions they make.

First published by RSPB, 28th May 2013.