Author of a new book on our environment, Simon Lamb talks to Fergus Byrne about an alternative way to deal with the economy and our fragile planet.
Before presenting his seven stages of man, Shakespeare wrote: ‘All the world’s a stage and all men and women merely players’. It’s an observation that might describe how we live within the world around us today. But there’s a problem with some of the players. We may well be actors on a grand stage, cogs in the wheel of our planet’s journey or bit players in the game of life on earth, but – in the ecosystem that is our world – we’ve been playing dirty. So dirty, in fact, that we’re ruining the game.
But that doesn’t mean the game’s over. After decades of highlighting the damage our species has been doing to our environment the debate is no longer about whether we are having a detrimental effect on our planet – at last the debate is about how to deal with it. Nonetheless, like all debate, there are different points of view, and whilst some believe we need a harsh form of environmental austerity, others think that technology will come to our aid. In a new book just published, West Dorset’s Simon Lamb sets out the fundamentals of his vision of how we might develop solutions to some of the major problems facing our planet’s future.
Junglenomics. Nature’s solutions to the world environment crisis: a new paradigm for the 21st century and beyond, takes a holistic approach to our world, placing us as key players in a huge ecosystem. Using this fundamental premise, along with the observation that market economies are no different to natural ecosystems, Simon has focused on looking deep into Nature for guidance on dealing with the pollution, degradation and destruction of our natural environment.
With great patience and obviously exhaustive research, he has traced the origins and growth of our environmental problems from the birth of farming to the development of modern money-based economies. He argues firstly that, just like species in ecosystems, we humans are genetically programmed to seek out new resources, what he calls ‘resource hunger’. And secondly, that we inhabit a worldwide ‘economic ecosystem’ in which people act out roles that are the exact equivalent to species in natural ecosystems. The only real difference is that ours is a ‘virtual’ ecosystem, where rather than needing to evolve physically to occupy a new role, we are ‘avatars’ who can step in and out of roles as the opportunity arises. In the economic world, technology is the equivalent to evolution, and the roles of money, innovation and markets have combined to evolve a vast array of niches where none previously existed; for example in electronics, energy and financial services.
The great difficulty is that, whereas nature moves slowly and normally finds ways to deal with the mess that different organisms leave behind, we currently don’t. Think dung beetles cleaning up waste to their own advantage, or the respiratory coalition between plants and animals that ensures each provides the other with oxygen on the one hand and nitrogen on the other. Put us into the picture – with our ability to speed up the process of utilising resources using technology – and the resultant waste grows so fast that we haven’t found a way to clean up before finding new resources to exploit. Like children rushing to open the next Christmas present before appreciating the one they have in their hand, the march of technology allows us to exploit the world around us faster and faster, with little notice of what we have just done.
It was after reading about Thor Heyerdahl crossing the Atlantic in RA ll in 1969 and the floating mass of waste that he came across, that Simon began worrying about what was happening to our planet. He began to read various stories of environmental issues and was especially struck by the damage done to rainforests. ‘I came to realise that behind it all is a drive to colonise new resources’ he explained. ‘Not just your everyday resources but new resources.’ He began to get more and more agitated by what was going on in the world. ‘Why are we, the most intelligent species in the world, steadily, inexorably destroying the thing that we depend on?’ he asks. ‘There is something deeper going on besides economics, there is something much deeper behind it all. Because it is suicidal. Does it happen in nature? Yes it does happen in nature. You do get bursts of invasion by species. They always die back because other characteristics in the ecosystems tend to damp them down. We have a balanced ecosystem with checks and balances in it. Once you see that – working out the chain that actually developed from when we started as hunter gatherers – you can see that we’re living in an economic ecosystem exactly like natural ecosystems. The thing that’s different about it is the speed that it moves at and the fact that we’ve unified resources which might otherwise be nutrients; magnesium, carbon, whatever it is that the said species need to live off. We’ve unified all those into one resource called money. And that translates into anything – it could be a tree, a flower pot or it could be a house or whatever, it is the universal resource.’
Junglenomics uses the principal of ‘symbiosis’ or ‘beneficial mutual dependence’ to suggest a more focused approach to how we deal with our ever growing pile of detritus. This includes nurturing and fast-tracking “good” technology and environmentally benign markets to control or eliminate “bad” ones; by establishing economic symbiosis to clear up behind polluters; by enlisting powerful economic actors in pursuit of “green” profit to conserve and restore vulnerable wilderness; and by re-valuing environments.
‘In nature’ says Simon ‘species co-evolve, so when a creature starts producing waste – and it’s all a very slow process – other creatures come to feed off that. They’re not doing anyone a favour, they’re not doing a service. They actually find that waste profitable. So everything is profitable in nature – that’s why there’s nothing wasted.’ Organisms in nature have evolved in order to colonise the ‘golden opportunities provided by the detritus of others.’
Junglenomics provides shocking statistics and forecasts relating to the chief areas of environmental concern, including pollution in land, sea and air, energy reform, loss of primal wilderness, overdevelopment, biomass decline, and extinctions. But Simon points out that with the necessary incentives and conditions, innovators and entrepreneurs will emerge to seize opportunities. They will be drawn to what he describes as ‘the honeypot of profit’ that could come from performing clean-up services that the present economic ecosystem so badly needs. We, as the species that has tipped the balance, have the ability to create systems to deal with our problems, but waiting for technology to catch up may take too long.
Simon highlights the old adage “Where there’s muck, there’s brass” but cautions that although it’s up to us to copy nature we need to interfere and create an ‘ecosystemic, market-based solution’ to environmental problems. Markets require ‘economic stimulation’ and we need to be far more proactive in promoting ‘viable symbiotic economic partnerships.’ A tree in a rainforest needs to become more valuable alive than dead. ‘While economics makes that tree worth more as a piece of lumber than as a rainforest tree, that is what’s going to happen –because of the resource colonising need that is in our genes.’
Amongst the many options highlighted in Junglenomics is the Polluter Pays Principle (PPP) where polluting businesses pay for their clean-up costs. There has been some effort to implement this initiative. However, Simon points out that the receipts from these levies need to be ring-fenced for use in developing technologies and systems to offset environment problems. Contributions being ‘quietly diverted to non-environmental matters’ by cash-strapped governments make a farce of the value of initiatives like PPP. Pollution penalties become ‘cash cows’ for governments short of revenues. These receipts must be used to address the problems they are contributing to.
Junglenomics also highlights other areas where we can become more efficient such as Carbon Capture Storage (CCS), which Simon believes is an important element in rescuing our planet from climate change. ‘Is the world quite mad?’ he asks in relation to the fact that a helpful system such as this is right under our noses and not being properly utilised. CCS takes carbon at source, pressurises it into a liquid and sends it back deep underground to be locked away under impermeable layers of rock. He quotes Tim Bertels, Shell’s Global CCS portfolio manager as saying: “You don’t need to divest in fossil fuels, you need to decarbonise them.” And Matthew Billson, programme director of Energy 2050 at the University of Sheffield, who calls CCS “the Cinderella of low carbon energy technology”.
One very clear point in Junglenomics is the realistic support of businesses to carry on developing and maintaining economies. It’s abundantly clear that energy austerity simply won’t happen. The book points out that legislation against powerful industries and ‘punitive taxation’, without encouragement and incentive to evolve improved sustainability, will only encourage them to invest in public relations spiel. This is one of the many elephants in the room. The use of PR firms and political influence, rather than finding remedies, will always be more palatable than admitting wrongdoing – so the carrot needs to be much bigger than the stick.
Junglenomics doesn’t attempt to offer an exhaustive or ‘sniffy’ tome of academic detail on environmental issues, nor does it pretend to deal only with new ideas. Simon Lamb has taken what nature does best and used it to identify a way ahead for our planet. He has created a focus or ‘blueprint’ to use as a model to work with. ‘We need to carry people forward with a message at this point’ says Simon. He believes we need to settle what, in comparison, are ‘petty’ problems elsewhere, in another arena. ‘This is too big and important’ he says, ‘I cannot see how people can create policies, create a plan that David Attenborough called for at Davos, if you don’t understand the fundamentals. Until you understand the anthropological reasons, I don’t think you can address it.’ From an economic point of view he says, ‘It isn’t not having growth that’s the problem, because you can have green growth. Make that tree worth more standing, make that tiger worth more alive. Not just to people – but to powerful people.’
Simon believes that the ebbs and flows of products and services through markets and the fine balances struck between competing, parasitic and cooperative elements in business, along with the identical nature of underlying motivations, shows that economies are subject to entirely natural laws and protocols. Junglenomics not only puts forward a blueprint for governments around the world to follow, it also investigates real solutions to individual issues. However, Simon is not so naive as to be unaware of how ambitious his suggestions are. The changes he outlines would require ‘understanding, acceptance, consent and action at the highest levels’ if they were to move leaders of the world communities toward a ‘broad unity of purpose’.
So the question is why should they listen now? Because Junglenomics not only eschews a political agenda, it also doesn’t advocate unattainable economic restraints. It is neither anti-capital nor anti-growth, and though not afraid to implement levies where necessary and change habits that are unhealthy, it is utilising a tried and tested model supplied by nature to deal with a real problem.
As we go to press the Government has announced its commitment to net zero greenhouse gases by 2050. Although that’s a step in the right direction, it is no reason to relax. ‘Setting a legal deadline for net zero emissions by 2050 is a legacy Mrs May can be proud of’ says Simon. ‘But important though this is, carbon emissions are but one part of the catastrophe we are inflicting on the environment. We need equally bold moves on conservation, recycling and pollution control to complete the picture. Britain needs to become the world leader in all these things and to devote maximum energy to their adoption worldwide. Only then can we look forward to the future with renewed confidence.”
Shakespeare finishes his poem in, As you Like It, by describing the final stage of man’s “strange eventful history” as “second childishness and mere oblivion, Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” If we are just players on this grand stage and “mere oblivion” awaits us all as individuals, that’s fine. But we don’t have to subject the planet and our grandchildren to the same fate.
For more information or to order a copy of Junglenomics visit www.junglenomics.com