Geographical review: ‘Working With Nature: Saving And Using The World’s Wild Places’, Jeremy Purseglove (Profile, 2019)

The central message of this book, Jeremy Purseglove writes, is that ‘we may nibble away at the planet, but we cannot afford to swallow the lot’. A career in environmental consultancy has taken Purseglove around the world many times, from one eco-battleground to another; Working With Nature has the feel of a series of urgent, articulate and well-informed bulletins from the front line.

The geographical span of Purseglove’s experience often startles – he has been, it seems, everywhere – but at every calling-point (Trinidad, Russia, Nigeria, Singapore, Uzbekistan, Burkina Faso, Iraq) there are compelling stories to be told and valuable lessons to be learned. Water use, forestry, poaching, oil, agribusiness: this is hands-on environmentalism, a compromised business of trade-off and least-worst options. That using in the book’s subtitle may raise some hackles among green purists, but Purseglove’s love for wild places and wild things is clearly sincere and deep-rooted (and often expressed, here, rather wonderfully). He’s a fascinating guide to the practical realities of engineering development (‘sites are seldom chosen because they are the best option, but more often because the person doing the initial assessment wants to get home in time for tea’), the dangers of unintended consequences (‘there is a dangerous fallacy in the assumption that sophisticated agriculture offers the opportunity of unlimited consumption’), and the snags and glitches in even our best attempts at sustainability (of timber certification, for example, he repeatedly insists that we ask what does it mean, and how do you know?).

As the many basic needs of human populations – space, water, food, work – jostle against the needs of natural habitats, there is limited room for idealism, but Purseglove does light up somewhat when he encounters what he sees as true sustainability: ‘process-led’ land management in the English countryside, cocoa ‘agroforestry’ in Trinidad, self-regulating paddy fields in Bangladesh. A closing chapter entitled ‘creative solutions’ explores other ways forward.

This is an engrossing and eye-opening book, epic in scope, surprisingly enjoyable, astute, wise and profoundly important.

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