Profile Books, 2019, 271 pages
£14.99 Hardback, ISBN 9781788161596
Review by James Robertson
After a decade working as an environmentalist in the water industry Jeremy Purseglove wrote Taming the Flood and presented a TV series of the same name. It became an instant classic. He showed that there was a better way to prevent flooding than turning every watercourse into a concrete drain. That was over 30 years ago, but there has been a succession of revised and expanded editions, most recently in 2017. Yet the follow-up book has been a long time in the making. It was worth the wait.
In 1989 Purseglove left the water industry to apply the same principles to major engineering projects around the world. Working with Nature distils this experience to arrive at a truly global take on the business of conserving nature and meeting human needs together. Whether battling to save a rainforest in Belize, working on a dam to save a shrinking sea in Kazakhstan, surveying for a power line in Mozambique or assessing the impact of a reservoir in Pakistan, Purseglove stands in for all of us who are on the side of local people and nature. He does not spell out the discomfort that this role must have caused him, with its inevitable failures and often only partial successes, but he provides the lines for us to read between.
What emerges from this satisfyingly global reach is the wisdom of experience. Much of the damage which we inflict on our planet is avoidable, if we chose only the right schemes and carried them out with care and sensitivity. Not that Purseglove ignores the follies of humanity’s war against nature, the destruction of forests and wetlands, the way that monocultures rob land of its life-sustaining ecology. There is plenty to shock even the most hardened environmentalist. The great African land grab, with Britain at the forefront, is a truly wicked example, leading to the destruction of Africa’s beautiful and diverse landscapes. Yet these are always set against a positive narrative, often in the most unlikely places such as the sophisticated gardens of Bangladesh’s Bay of Bengal, where paddy fields are also fish ponds and the landscape is a woven polyculture of bamboo and rice.
Alongside his account of a life searching for practical ways to bring nature and development into balance, Purseglove journeys into his own past. Born in Uganda, his childhood is hauntingly vivid. He captures the sights, sounds and sense of awe of a child growing up in Singapore, Kent and Trinidad… “those cool cockerelling dawns when huge velvet butterflies, known for their punctuality as ‘Six o’clock Blues’, blundered out of the dusk into the lamplight”.
The destruction of nature is a terrible tragedy to witness, but Purseglove’s irrepressible sense of wonder at the natural world is never far below the surface. He reminds us that there are numerous examples of ways in which the interests of nature and human needs can be brought into relative harmony. With creativity, engineers can solve the riddle of human demands and a fragile, finite planet. There is hope.
There has never been a better time to read such an eloquent, passionate but essentially practical account of the front line between nature and human development. It puts some of the sillier reaches of British nature conservation practice into perspective. I thoroughly recommend it.