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June 20, 2007

Tony Juniper's Saving Planet Earth is a platitudinous piece of work which doesn't begin to get to grips with what bits of nature matter and what trends and actions will most usefully preserve them, argues Richard D. North

Posted by Richard D. North

Saving Planet Earth
by Tony Juniper
London: Collins in association with BBC, 2007
Hardback, £20

It's 17 years since a director of Friends of the Earth wrote a big coffee table book to go with a TV series about saving the planet. Then it was Where On Earth Are We Going? written by Jonathon Porritt to go with his series of the same name. Now it is Saving Planet Earth by Tony Juniper, though the accompanying series is not fronted by him. It's the same old BBC, though. The message seems to be about the same. Naughty old man had better change his ways and then we can have masses of gorgeous habitat and glamorous biodiversity to populate it. Opinions vary as to whether we would be enjoying ourselves, and the dividing line is the old one between Cavaliers and Puritans. I am a conflicted Cavalier and don't mind who knows it. To be director of Friends of the Earth is to be head Puritan, surely?

It is one of the oddities of this book that it is neither a full-on Friends of the Earth document nor at all nuanced. Its anti-corporate slant is evident but muted; its willingness to deal with complexity non-existent. It is, by the way, a rather shabby production with mushy photographs. It reminds me of the less than gawdy efforts I was involved in for under-funded book packagers in the early 80s. Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth is not a useful book, but it is at least good looking.

Just how committed he is comes across in Juniper's statement about

mammoths, woolly rhinos, giant ground sloths and huge armadillos
being wiped out by our ancestors (assisted by climate change).
The extinction of these creatures was a tragic loss.
Oh sure. Mrs Flintstone may have needed them for the pot, or even dreamed of domesticating them for the day someone invented a plough. Isn't it more likely they were a bloody nuisance whose loss she didn't mourn any more than I do? I hope those millions who watch the TV series and thousands who read this book will ponder how much they need a prehistoric monster at the end of their road and use the thought to give them leverage as they interrogate the rest of this eco-jeremiad.

Nearly everyone who is thoughtful and nice will more or less agree with Tony Juniper, but that will partly be because they can't be bothered to think about what he's saying and have no means of putting it into context. The coffers of a few charities will swell a little as the BBC for I think the first time gets behind conservation fund-raising. A few more or less rabid right-wingers and left-wingers will fulminate that it's all a con. These dissident parties will do so from the point of view that man's ambitions are worth an orang-utan or two - or even the whole darn lot of them if push comes to shove.

Since the problem with greenery is that it hopes its earnestness will trump the need for serious thought, it is worth picking up Tony Juniper's book and strike some warning notes. This is, after all, the commanding orthodoxy and even if in the real world it is largely ignored, it has a certain force.

So here are some complaints. Firstly, the main premise of the book is that mankind is losing a lot of species. This is oddly said, in a way, since Tony Juniper also points out that we have wildly underestimated the number of species there are. We seem to be discovering species at an even great rate than we are destroying them. He supposes, I suppose, that the more species there are, the more we have to try to save. My own sense is the opposite: if species are a dime-a-dozen, perhaps each one is less crucial to the web of life than we suppose. There is in this book no discussion of the peculiar truth that the well-being of a habitat is not usually dependent on the number of species it happens to support. [I argue this point at]

Juniper does note that some places are spectacularly rich in habitat and species:

…. The area containing the highest plant diversity on Earth, with over 40,000 species, is concentrated in just two percent of the Earth's surface in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.
He perhaps naturally isn't drawn to the thought that then arises: why don't we concentrate on saving the places which are quite easy to save and specially rich in stuff? Or try a slightly different tack. Juniper states plainly that Indonesia
has little more than three percent of the world's forests, yet 14 percent of deforestation has occurred there.
From what I hear of them, I am not thrilled about Indonesia's forest policies or lack of them. Still, it's a comfort that they can be as bad as they like and only wreck a small fraction of the world's forest resources. So why not concentrate on dealing with the more reformable or bribable countries?

Perhaps the big thing is to accept that plenty of species are going to go the way of the mammoth and the dodo. The best we can do is decide where the low-hanging fruit is. That is: what can we reasonably save, and what do we most want to save? And what are the best tricks for performing the task?

The point here - and my second major cavil - is that there is absolutely no sense of discrimination or prioritisation in Juniper's thinking. It seems as though he seeks to motivate us by worrying us. So anything which mitigates our sense of disaster is not good for his cause. He refuses anything like nuance on anything. Not on pesticides (whose bad unintended side effects are trumpeted), organic farming (whose downsides are ignored), whaling (all and any of which is equally bad and has nothing to be said for it), or fishing.

Every time we empty a hunk of tuna from a can, order a portion of halibut, swordfish or Chilean sea bass, we are directly supporting the plunder that is driving some of the Earth's most charismatic sea birds towards extinction.
Blimey, and there I was thinking that Waitrose gave me the means to have goody-goody thon in my salad niçoise as well as shopping with ton. And of course, he hates loggers. He misses out the fact that without logging trails hardly anyone would see any rainforest. And he talks of degraded forest with disdain, conveying no sense that re-grown forest often contains a high proportion of the species that were ever there. [see my piece on the Malaysian rainforest:]

Of course, Juniper is trite about climate change. He joins the legion campaigners who insist that we must do something whilst at the same time trying to energise us by suggesting that it may already be too late. He doesn't bother to see the de-motivating mismatch between these two thoughts. Since his beef here is wildlife, it is interesting to wonder whether non-humans will survive climate change better than us, and to wonder whether, if it all goes belly up, many of us will be caring about toads.

Tony Juniper is an intelligent man and on some matters we can agree. I know he knows (he writes it here) that good government is the answer to many of the world's conservation problems. I think he believes as I do that in some cases, thoughtful consumers can exert the kind of pressure which helps bad governments, especially in the Third World, see the point of passing good laws and even of enforcing them. He and I would probably disagree about the obligation of Western governments to bully firms at home and abroad into virtuous behaviour if their own customers don't care.

But he would be right to point out that I am in a complicated and even confused position. I don't like overly or officiously virtuous Western firms, and have limited faith that Western consumers really care. So I am forced to consider the merits of Western government making some moves with their foreign counterparts. I comfort myself by admitting that there are many ways to skin the world's cats and we need to identify those levers of interference which have the most chance of doing good combined with the least chance of making all our lives miserable or not working. And of course, it's affluent citizens and consumers (and producers) who get picky about nature, so provided we stay on course for globalised mass affluence we will also solve many of the tear-jerkers that Juniper cares about.

Tony Juniper hasn't helped us think any of that through. This is a platitudinous piece of work which doesn't begin to get to grips with what bits of nature matter and what trends and actions will most usefully preserve them.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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This posting is more of the usual crass nonsense we can expect from Richard D North.

Posted by: Simon Tompsett at June 21, 2007 08:21 AM

Here is a small letter from someone who knows something about the technicalities. Alas, people who know about the nitty-gritty are generally too preoccupied to read books such as those by Juniper or the author of this article.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at June 26, 2007 10:10 PM

The Malaysia link in this article was quite interesting. Twelve years on, could we possibly have an update?

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at June 30, 2007 01:42 PM
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