After a decade of working as an environmentalist in the water industry, Jeremy Purseglove wrote Taming the Flood and presented a television series of the same name. It became an instant classic. He showed that there was a better way to prevent flooding than by turning every watercourse into a concrete drain. That was over thirty years ago; the follow-up book has been a long time in the making, but was worth the wait.
During this time, Purseglove has applied environmental principles to major engineering projects around the world. Working with Nature distils his experience to arrive at a truly global take on the business of conserving nature and meeting human needs at the same time. Its relevance to our own British conservation concerns may at times seem indirect: battling to save a rainforest in Belize, trying to save a shrinking sea in Kazakhstan, or exposing the great African land grab, with Britain at its forefront. But there are also several chapters which explore conservation battles closer to home, such as close encounters with agricultural intensification in Kent, with the exploitation of peat in Yorkshire and a road scheme in Berkshire.
Alongside his account of a life of 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 our own nature-conservation battles into perspective. I thoroughly recommend it.