6 Oct 2016

Tony Juniper: It's time to change strategy

© tonyjuniper.com
© tonyjuniper.com
By Luca Bonaccorsi

A conservationist (with a severe passion for Spix’s Macaw Cyanopsitta spixii), passionate campaigner, writer and a sustainability expert, Tony Juniper is one of the most prominent environmentalists in Britain - and beyond. We met him in his very “biodiverse” house in Cambridge, following the presentation of his new book What’s Really Happening to Our Planet? (a true encyclopaedia of infographics on threats and solutions for Earth’s problems, that would make a great text book for secondary schools ). A convinced advocate for ecosystem services, we have dragged him into our ongoing dispute:  what should be the basis of conservations: morality value, or financial value?


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So, Mr. Juniper, can we, or should we, give a dollar value to nature?

Yes, we must try to understand the economic value of nature. Sometimes we can see it clearly, sometimes it’s more difficult, sometimes impossible. It’s about spotting when it’s the best tool, and exploiting it to the best we can. For example: working with water companies has allowed us to show very clearly the value of conserving and restoring blanket bogs to have clean water, reducing costs in chemicals and engineering for water treatment. Winning the economic argument in that case allowed us to restore habitats for Golden Plovers, rare insects and plants with the support of the water company. Because it made economic sense to them.

But it's not always that easy.

There are cases where it’s very hard to see an economic value, saving the rare Blue-eyed Ground-dove  might be an example. In these cases I would rather go for the moral, intrinsic, scientific argument we’re very familiar with.

Blue-eyed Ground-dove © Rafael Bessa

So all conservationists must become economists?

Environmentalists must understand the way politics and the public discourse work. We have not lost the argument of nature being beautiful, or important. We have lost, time and time again, the argument of the "choice” between economic growth and the protection of nature. If we don’t win “that” narrative we will continue to lose. We have to locate economics inside ecology in order to win the big battle that lies ahead.

Isn’t it dangerous to even just concede to the argument that either the “rare bird” has a clear economic value, or it is not even worth considering? By accepting this framework are we not drawn into the logic that is causing the problem in the first place?

No. We must be pragmatic: if you don’t have a clear economic argument then don’t make it. The arguments we have been using until now (beauty, intrinsic value, irreplaceability etc.) sometimes are just not enough. I’ve just returned from a trip to the Ivory Coast for a project on cocoa farming. The farmers are the main drivers for forest loss in that region, but now we have a new argument: water. In the past we have been saying: the forest is great, with its White-necked Picathartes, the elephants and chimpanzees; but it hasn’t worked. Now policy makers have finally realised that rain, from which their export cash-crops depend, is affected severely by deforestation. Saving the forest has become the twin argument of saving the countries’ crops, we have a much stronger argument and things are changing. We are not abandoning our previous values, we are just “adding” tools to achieve our conservation goal. Some of us are sceptical about this, they see it as “either/or”. It is  not like that at all.

Hence your passion for ecosystem services? Pricing the oxygen produced by a tree?

Absolutely: carbon capture, water purification, soil nutrients recycling, flood protection, pollination they all have clear values that deliver benefit to the economy. For decades politicians have been blind to this. They have seen the destruction of nature like the inevitable price for progress. That’s why we’ve continued to lose even when we had very strong scientific information.

So science is not the answer?

We keep losing nature. Not because we do not have strong scientific evidence or because we have not won the moral argument, but because we have failed to win the economic one.

Some argue that the big advances in civilisation were achieved in the name of values, not economic convenience, like the abolition of slavery.

It is one reading of history. Ten years ago I was running a campaign for Friends of the Earth in the UK on setting national carbon targets to fight climate change. In Parliament, the stronger argument was that limiting carbon would have produced innovation, new technologies, jobs, a competitive advantage for our economic system. This was used together and successfully with, for example, the moral argument of our “legacy”. Also in the Abolitionist fight economics played a big role. For one slave owners had to be compensated, and secondly the abolition was great because instead of slaves we had motivated workers, part of a wage economy, who contributed hugely to economic growth and progress. The parallel with climate change works: the slave owners used to say “if we lose our slaves we will be less competitive” just like those who now refuse de-carbonisation at home. If you do not win the economic argument you simply… lose.

You are saying that people respond more to the economic argument rather than the value one?

This is based on clear evidence.

And children in factories? Did economics play a role too?

Probably. There had to be an economic alternative to child labour or it would not have happened. At the time we had mechanisation, new technology, labour being replaced by machinery: the system could afford it. In Ivory Coast I spoke to one of the companies that buys cocoa. They are very concerned with child labour because, on top of feeling it’s wrong, they have a business argument: without the next generation of farmers properly trained and educated, they will not have secured cocoa supply in the future. Children in school, future farmers able to read and write and understand technology makes economic sense to them.  

Do you not see a risk from this “supremacy of economics”?

Of course I do. There are risks with every strategy we pursue. But I see the isolation of ecology from economics a far bigger risk. It is foolish to put ourselves out of “the question”, ignoring the economic dimension of choices, whether it’s about nature, health care, education, housing. Furthermore, in this era of rising population and booming demand, “human progress” will always trump conservation unless we link them.

You make it sound very reasonable. Why the opposition then? Is it a “chip on the shoulder”, a sense of moral superiority, ideology in the environmental camp, or can we save something of the argument in favour of the “rare bird”?

Of course I will fight for the conservation of that bird. But I will also insist on the economic arguments for forests, bogs, soil. And I think that it is more likely that we save the forest if we win the economic argument for forests. And that, ultimately, our beloved bird will live there: in a forest we have saved using an economic argument.


Could it be a language issue? Calling trees, macaws and rivers “capital” doesn’t make you uncomfortable?

No. “Natural capital” is a very powerful idea in a capitalist economy. Capital generates returns and the same goes for a tropical forest. You have an asset - the forest - that you can you can either cut down into timber (liquidation of the capital) or enjoy the dividends this produces: fresh water, oxygen, soil, carbon storage, biodiversity. These are the precious flows of incomes coming from an intact capital. It is a very neat parallel: if we can locate natural assets into economic strategies we can show that an ecosystem has more value when intact, rather than when destroyed for the production of goods. Our scientific arguments for biodiversity must be reflected in how the economic system works. It is not the case now.


White-necked Picathartes © Guy Shorrock/RSPB

So you’re an environmentalist that decided to use, mimic, the language of economics only to better convey ecology, not because you “buy into” the logic.

Exactly: it’s a “utilitarian” strategy, one that works. I saw it when speaking in Ivory Coast to ministers, farmers, multinationals. Forest protection, if linked economically to rain, hence dams and hydroelectric and crops was suddenly a powerful argument, more than rare White-necked Picathartes. We must make this argument to economists, who must include it in their models and strategies, that are currently deficient because they are missing the fundamental underpinning of it all.

Contemporary economics is clearly not equipped for that. Lord Stern’s report on climate change, severely criticised in the Academia is a good evidence of that.

Ours must be a long term strategy. It took some 40 years to the people who invented the free market myth and the neo-liberal ideology to become mainstream. The job of locating economics inside ecology is not going to happen with one book or one lecture, it will take decades of hard work to convince the right people that our economy is very vulnerable and ultimately unsustainable, because it’s destroying the very things that keep it going: fresh water, soil, climate, air, ecosystems.

So you would use instrumentally the “economic consequences” of the collapse of our ecosystems as an argument to save those ecosystems. But what if it was theoretically possible to have a world with only three species of animals, say chickens, pigs and cows, and yet have a thriving economy… what would happen to the “economic argument”?

The fight to win the economic argument does not diminish one bit the argument we have been making until now for biodiversity. I do not understand why it is so hard to see for some conservationists. I think that ideology is not only an issue among those policy makers who destroy nature, but also among ourselves.  We must step back, take a cold look at what tools and opportunities we have, and use them all. Instead we are trapped in a mind-set that sees that as “selling out”, going in dangerous territory. We have done great science and advocacy and we’re still going down very fast. We are on the brink of a mass extinction and catastrophic climate change: carrying on doing what we’ve been doing for the last 40 years does not seem like a good strategy to me. And if we do change, what do we do? For me the problem is the economy, and economics.

Economics and the “demographic bomb”: in your new book you show the clear relationship between a girl’s education and the number of children she will have. Isn’t putting a little girl into school in a developing country the best “conservation measure” there is, then?

Who would disagree that young girls need an education? Why is it happening now? It is the example of the Ivory Coast again: if governments and corporates see the economic rationale of an educated workforce they will oppose child labour and send children to school. Which of course would produce smaller families in the future.


Women’s (and little girls’) rights depending on economics alone? And patriarchy, culture, misogynist values?

Economics and values go together. Some economies are doing well compared to those were half the workforce is excluded, they not drive a car, must sit indoors etc. I cherish cultural differences but by doing so they are hampering their country’s success by excluding or limiting the ability of half the people to contribute.

We must come to some conclusion: which is best, moral value or dollar value to achieve nature conservation?

I am not being elusive: I am increasingly convinced that there is no one conservation strategy. It’s a very complex world and we must win the argument at very different levels simultaneously. Use all tools. This might require organisations having multiple competences. Or, maybe, for them to specialise, one in ecosystem services/economic arguments, one in the “moral” argument, etc.


Well actually the large NGOs are somewhat “specialised”: Greenpeace has a younger, adventurous narrative, WWF has the “positive”, politically measured, business- friendly one, BirdLife is very science and civil society based, Friends of the Earth more grass-root and somewhat anti-capitalist, and so on.

True, we have all looked for a nieche in the marketplace, but we are still missing a combined strategy towards the “big outcome”. We are still working too much in isolation, in competition. The conservation community has yet to develop a strategic view that embraces the whole movement. Ideally we all agree on what the “big jobs” are and who is going to do them: educate the public, change investments, get multinationals to see the business case for conservation. Who’s best placed amongst us to do it? Which arguments need to be technical, which moral, or emotional? We have not worked that out as a community.