Interview With Tony Juniper: 'No Nature, No People'
Tony Juniper is a campaigner, writer, and “by popular consent the most effective of Britain’s eco-warriors.” He’s currently a special adviser to the Prince of Wales Charities’ International Sustainability Unit, a senior associate with the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership (CPSL), and editor-in-chief of National Geographic Green Magazine.
We caught up with Juniper to chat about climate change, sustainability, and how nature is actually the basis of economic activity.
You’ve been fighting to create a more sustainable society at local, national, and even international levels for three decades. What people or organizations were on the front line with you then?
The people at the front line of sustainability have been, and still are, a very mixed bunch with pioneers and leaders from all walks of life—from campaign groups, in politics, people working in businesses, in academic organizations, and in different kinds of specialist and scientific bodies. There are very notable members of Royal Families involved, too. I draw a lot of optimism from this, because if we are to succeed with sustainability, we’ll need system-level change, and that will require action, partnerships, and innovation everywhere.
What were the most pressing issues now, and how have they changed?
For a long time, effort was necessarily devoted to gaining some agreement as to the scale of the challenge at hand, while making the case for what with hindsight looks like relatively narrow action to address some of the symptoms of it, such as pollution control laws and protection for some areas of especially important natural habitat. Today, the job at hand still embraces this kind of work, but is now also about making the case for completely new ways of looking at business, and indeed the economic system that determines which ones do well and those who don’t. There are also big questions of culture on the table, for example about what follows ‘consumerism’ as a viable and sustainable way of meeting people’s needs and desires.
What was the inspiration for championing sustainability, your “moment of clarity,” and what are you working on today?
I came to sustainability via conservation biology, and I came to that through a fascination with nature that was with me at a very early age. In that work, and looking at the pressures on the natural systems that sustain life, you soon realize the very same systems sustain humans, too. All our food, our water, the air we breathe, and many other essentials come from nature.
The more nature is under pressure, then the more the basis of human needs is imperiled. Ultimately, it comes down to a simple truth: no nature, no people.
This realization contrasts somewhat with the prevailing view in most of politics, economics, and boardrooms, where it is held that the degradation of nature, while regrettable, is the price we must pay for ‘progress.’ Worse even than this is the view that looking after natural systems is actually a drag on growth and competitiveness. Far better, some say, to deregulate and reduce environmental controls, so as to enable development. These are for me among the gravest misconceptions in history, and very much the driving force behind much of the work I am doing now.
Nature is the basis of economic activity, and showing how that is the case is at the core of my work, including through activities with the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership, The Prince of Wales’s International Sustainability Unit, and my writing.
There’s a growing body of research that suggests that when we fail to protect nature we end up with long-term losses, despite potential short-term gains. Why is that not only difficult to understand and accept, but also to act on?
One big reason why we fail to act in the face of overwhelming evidence is because of our human propensity for short-termism. This is a well-known psychological phenomenon and is manifest in politics, economics, and the media. Politicians have short terms of office. Economics works in part on quarterly financial results, while the profile of stories in the media is generally fleeting and very much about events, rather than the trends that shape the long term, such as climate change and ecosystem degradation.
On top of this is the fact of uncertainty. For while we know that there are long-term risks inherent in unsustainable behavior, no one can predict how they will unfold in the real world. Various skeptical voices have focused on this to create doubt as to the need for any action, nevermind decisive moves in the short-term so as protect more distant interests. Despite the blockages toward longer-term thinking, a lot of people are seeing the need for it and finding ways to do it.
It seems like a bigger, more coordinated global push toward sustainability has happened over the last 10 years. It isn’t too late, is it?
I hope not, although for those animals and plants that have already been made extinct by deforestation, pollution, and climate change, it is already too late. How much of nature’s incredible diversity we can hang on to, the extent to which we can limit climate change, conserve resources, and build a new economy—while at the same time as helping everyone to have a good and rewarding life—remains to be seen. The extent to which we will succeed with all this will be in large part determined by choices made in the very near future.
With rising populations and continuing economic growth, the challenge is considerable and working on many different levels at once. It is solvable but requires us to do things very differently. While there is a lot of incremental change going on, the paradigm shifts that will be needed to align the demands of nine billion people with what the Earth can supply have so far eluded us. It can be done, in my opinion, but will need some positive disruptive interventions, including those based on new business models and new technologies.
The world’s climate scientists have explained how to avoid drastic global warming and … well, it’s not easy. But what is working best, and what do you consider to be our best hope for sustainability?
One thing we need to realize is that sustainability is not only about climate change. That is a big part of it, but there is a whole lot more. It is also about society and the economy, and how we can share the productive capacity of our Earth between even more people than we have now. That is a big political issue, and political issues tend to get resolved when voters demand that solutions are provided by the people they elected. This leads me to believe that a very big part of what is needed relates to the rather neglected subject of awareness and how to spread it. The more people know about what is happening, the more likely they might be determined to see solutions to protect them and their children. The fact that sustainability issues are rarely debated properly in the media is a serious cause for concern.
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