Nature Has So Many Benefits

What makes a place like Oxford special? History, architecture, people and the local economy certainly all contribute. There is another factor though, and it is one that is often more important than all these in making where we live distinctive. It is what might be called natural character.
I grew up in Cowley and from a very early age was an avid naturalist. I spent much of my youth travelling by bicycle seeking out the surprisingly rich wildlife of the city and its surroundings. From Port Meadow to Otmoor, Wytham Woods to city parks and from the wilds of Shotover to the backwaters and tributaries of the River Thames, I embarked on rambles in search of birds, insects, fish, bats, snakes, wild plants and more.
Over the decades since then I have been involved with all sorts of work to raise the profile of the natural environment in politics and business. Through this I have learned quite a bit more about Nature, and why we would be well advised to look after it.
This is not least in terms of the direct economic value that is provided by natural systems. Wetlands help reduce flood risk, woodlands absorb carbon dioxide, bees pollinate crops, songbirds control pests, green spaces improve health, soils organisms help produce food and beautiful places attract tourism. All that and other natural services make a massive contribution to the economies of places, including Oxford. According to one estimate, Nature is at the global level worth about double GDP annually! I tell the story of how the natural world supports the economy in my recent book called What has Nature ever done for us? Despite the mounting evidence as to the huge economic value of intact Nature, it still takes a back seat to short-term economic growth. This is evident in scheme after scheme in which Ministers and local planning authorities sacrifice Nature on the alter of ‘growth now’. Look around Oxford for evidence. From inappropriate new housing next to Port Meadow to unnecessary infrastructure like HS2, and from the in-filling of Radley Lakes with power station coal ash to the building of housing on former allotments, it is clear all tiers of government remain blind to where real value lies.
Oxfordshire profits massively from its natural assets, of woodlands, rivers and meadows. The trouble is that we don’t tend to realise this because our planning and other development policies assume Nature to be, in an economic sense, largely worthless (or at least with no clear short-term monetary value). The contribution made by bees going about their business is on no one’s profit and loss account, and so they remain victims of our myopic view of ‘progress’. And so it goes for most of the other benefits provided by Nature.
This is bad enough, but recently it has become even worse with some in politics (for example George Osborne) claiming that not only are Nature’s services largely without value in an economic sense, but that rules to protect the natural environment are a drag on development. Liquidating Nature for growth can only ever be a temporary project, however. The economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of ecology and in the end efforts to grow one at the expense of the other will sooner or later have consequences that we don’t like.
Politics might in the end always be local, but so is ecology, with the sum of global environmental degradation arising from decisions being made in countries, regions and cities right across the globe. At the same time as old-fashioned economic ideas degrade Nature, value is lost as distinctiveness is eroded and the green infrastructure that underpins all our needs is run down. One thing we can all do is to point this rather obvious fact out to our elected representatives, because clearly they still don’t get it.
This article was first published by the Oxford Times.