Earth Day 2019 comes as concerns about climate change mount. Amid an intensifying debate over how to balance ecosystems and economies, environmentalist Tony Juniper offers a different way to think about the Earth: Its natural ecosystems are a crucial partner in the planet’s prosperity.
Nature contributes more to human health and wealth than most of its beneficiaries realize, writes Juniper in his book What Has The Earth Ever Done For Us? The simple answer to the query posted in his title: A lot.
Juniper offers up a laundry list of free services provided by Mother Earth, including soil that grows crops, biodiversity that produces medicines and fisheries that provide food and jobs.
While oceans and mountains get all the glory, less glamorous features like swamps and marshes fill important roles in the planet’s plumbing. Bees and other insects pollinate the plants that provide food. Even the unlovely vulture plays its part by consuming rotting corpses.
Juniper writes about the importance of vultures in India, where a die-off of buzzards led to the deaths of 50,000 humans. He lays out the timeline like this: Farmers began administering an anti-inflammatory drug to cattle. When vultures ate the cow carcasses, the drug poisoned and killed the birds. With vultures endangered, other scavengers filled the void, particularly feral dogs. Dog bites and disease increased; rabies killed tens of thousands of people in a $30 billion public health crisis.
“This is a remarkable conclusion: Nearly 50,000 people are estimated to have died because of the disappearance of the vultures,” Juniper writes.
Despite the obvious costs of ignoring nature, Juniper writes, nations find it difficult to prioritize protecting the earth. But, he argues, staggering sums are in play. The bill for protecting coastlines from rising seas is likely to reach into the tens of billions of dollars in the coming decades. And the global fishing industry was worth nearly $300 billion a year at the time of his writing.
Depleted soil and exhausted fisheries are just two examples of human neglect, he argues. Not everyone will agree with his conclusions, of course, but Juniper makes a compelling case that failing to protect the planet amounts to a short-sighted strategy that will cost us in the long run.
“It is easy to argue about statistics, but one is blindingly clear: there is only one Earth,” Juniper writes.
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