We only have one earth

The bounty of the earth is not inexhaustible. Driven by greed, we abuse the earth’s resources. With only two days to go for World Environment Day, Monideepa Sahu writes that it is not an option but an imperative that we adopt proactive measures to protect the earth and move towards healthier, low-carbon societies.

The fifth of June is World Environment Day. So what’s the big deal? Every day seems to be dedicated to something, from proclaiming love from the rooftops to protecting axolotls or orangutans.

Media campaigns, green walks, street rallies, distribution and planting of saplings, slogan writing and painting contests, strings of functions and speeches — what impact does it have on people like us?

We continue to slouch in our cosy synthetic leather beanbags, drooling over junk food and gaping at the idiot box, craving for more, more, more. Consider the everyday example of plastic bags, which we recklessly use and throw.

This is among the many environmental hazards created by people like us. Our Supreme Court recently called for a curb on the use of plastics, citing its harmful effects on humans, and on animals swallowing them. “Our next generation is sitting on consequences greater than the atomic bomb,” the court said.

Yet, when the talk turns to reducing our own carbon footprints, we turn a deaf ear. Guzzling less electricity and petrol or saying no to plastic bags? No sir, please excuse us.

World Environment Day is a call for each of us to sit up and reflect. Life isn’t all about grab-grab, waste-waste, though frankly that’s just the way we like it. This planet and all the wonderful things nature has created, belongs to us all. This world is miraculous in its infinite beauty and variety.

But much of its resources are all too finite and fragile. The least we can do is to use this special day to quietly reflect upon becoming a better caretaker of our earth. It’s easy to leave everything to ‘the authorities’, to cede all responsibility to some nebulous ‘powers that be.’

But, if we ourselves insist on squandering natural resources and generating mountains of toxic wastes, nobody else can make our problems miraculously disappear.

Our wasteful and thoughtless habits are taking us to the point of no return. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the construction of buildings sector accounts for more than a third of global resource consumption annually, including 12 per cent of all fresh water use, and produces 40 per cent of solid waste.

The International Energy Agency has estimated that already alarming fuel consumption and CO2 emissions from the world’s cars will roughly double between 2000 and 2050. Our demand for electricity is reaching epic proportions.

But commissioning more mega power plants is no solution to ease the power crisis. Conventional thermal power plants emit large quantities of pollutants, while the world cannot risk more environmental disasters such as the accidents in the nuclear power plants in Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Closer home, our reckless exploitation of natural resources is hurtling us towards doomsday. Mismanagement and misuse has reduced India’s groundwater tables to dangerously low levels. Depletion of groundwater resources and increasing pollution could be leading to an insidious nationwide health crisis.

According to data submitted in Parliament by the water resources ministry recently, groundwater in pockets of 158 out of 639 districts has become saline. In pockets across 267 districts, groundwater contains excess fluouride. High levels of nitrates, arsenic and iron are present in the water in many areas.

Elsewhere, the presence of dangerous heavy metals such as lead, cadmium and chromium poses a grave threat. These toxic chemicals are contaminating our water sources because we are digging far too deep and drawing too much water. Industrial and human waste contamination is aggravating the problem.

Meanwhile, large scale mining is destroying the greenery and the ecological balance of surrounding areas. Yet, according to recent reports, only a dozen of the 49 mining companies in Karnataka are actively working on greening proposals in keeping with the plan mooted by the Supreme Court to restore greenery in the three mining districts of Karnataka.

Flora and fauna

Our country is blessed with a rich diversity of wildlife and flora. Yet many educated Indians either do not value this bountiful heritage, or have a superficial understanding of its importance. As young conservation biologist Krithi Karanth says in a recent interview, “Taking wildlife photographs or liking issues on Facebook is not conservation.

My generation in particular seems to think this is how conservation works.” With cash lined pockets and cameras ready to click, people like us descend in hordes upon homestays and wildlife resorts. We indulge in drunken revelry and dump mountains of garbage, disturbing the animals and thwarting those who protect them.

Assistant Conservator of Forests (ACF) Madan H Naik died recently after an alleged assault by a gang of rowdy tourists at the Dandeli crocodile park in Karnataka. He paid with his life for doing his duty when he tried to prevent a group from throwing meat to crocodiles saying it was dangerous and could provoke the reptiles to attack them.

Elsewhere in our wildlife sanctuaries, poaching is flourishing in alarming proportions. The market for illegal animal products stretches from our protected areas into the neighbouring areas of Myanmar, Tibet and China.

When it comes to scams and unscrupulousness, we Indians can proudly claim to share the stage with the world’s greatest. Crooks in the guise of do-gooders have siphoned off public money meant for afforestation programmes.

According to the report recently presented by the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament, many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have disappeared with crores of tax-payers’ money released by the government for planting saplings. As many as 537 out of 560 projects, sanctioned between 2003 and 2008, vanished midway after receiving funds amounting to nearly Rs 30 crore.

The problems of global warming, climate change and rapid degeneration of the environment can seem too vast and overwhelming for us to contemplate. Yet, if we are aware and alert, as individuals we can work towards urging communities and nations to adopt proactive measures to protect the earth and move towards healthier, low-carbon societies.

In this consumerism and materialism driven society, there are positive steps which each of us can and must take, to further humanity’s common goal of preserving all life on earth. Scientists from St Andrews University, Scotland, have recently put forth the theory that dinosaurs were instrumental in bringing about their own extinction. The giant creatures ate enormous amounts of green plants daily, and as a result collectively produced copious amounts of methane.

This would have led to global warming, resulting in their demise. We humans are endowed with more intelligence. Let us apply it to rationalise our consumption habits and avoid a similar extinction.

The 2012 theme for World Environment Day is Green Economy: Does it include you? The concept of green economy is not as abstract and esoteric as it may initially seem. It means an economy whose growth and income is driven by projects that support environmental sustainability.

These include public and private investments that reduce carbon emissions and pollution, enhance energy and resource efficiency, and prevent the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. These investments need to be supported by focused public spending and policy reforms.

Policies to protect the environment are becoming increasingly necessary because more resources are exhausted and more toxic wastes are generated as a result of economic progress. A good example in India is the widespread use of electrical and electronic items like mobile phones, computers, refrigerators, etc.

As the use of these items increases with growing prosperity, an enormous amount of waste is generated. According to an official estimate, India may have 8,00,000 tonnes of e-waste by 2012. E-waste recycling is currently done in the unorganised scrap market, resulting in leaching of toxic heavy metals into the soil and water.

With new e-waste management rules coming into effect from May 1, manufacturers will have to ensure that their products are free from lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, and other harmful matter should not be above the specified limit.

It is also suggested that manufacturing companies set up a system to collect old electronic items from consumers, and set up dismantling and recycling plants. As Individuals, we can help mobilise public opinion to urge policy makers and industrialists to take environment friendly measures, rather than view them as hindrances to economic progress.

Towards a greener planet

What can we do to promote a greener economy? The official UN website lists 10 sectors for a greener planet. Construction and buildings is foremost among these. Conventional building methods using cement, glass, steel and concrete use up massive amounts of resources and generate wastes, accelerating global warming.

Materials such as sand, stone and timber are usually extracted in ways that can harm the soil, rivers and forests. Dust from construction sites not only annoys people living nearby, it can ruin the lungs and internal organs of poor construction workers who breathe it continuously.

As our cities grow and get choked by more buildings, asthma and other respiratory problems are growing. As individuals, we can take steps to incorporate green building concepts in our homes and workplaces, which make efficient use of water and electricity. Locally available and sustainable construction materials such as bamboo can be used as eco-friendly alternatives to chopping down forests for timber.

Fish is a delicious and nutritious food, but overfishing in many parts of the world is a threat to many species and their ecosystem. Policies to promote sustainable fishing practices can stem the damage. We can choose to buy only those seafood products that have been harvested sustainably, sending a message to producers about our support for a Green Economy for fisheries.

Forests shelter myriad species of wildlife and rich and unique ecosystems. They keep the air clean and help to maintain a moderate climate. Forests provide a livelihood to many, including indigenous tribes, whose cultures are deeply connected with forests. Destruction of forests accounts for nearly 20 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

We can reduce the use of paper and rely more on electronic communications and file. We can insist on using sustainable forest products, and substitute environment friendly materials such as particle boards for materials such as solid wood, which results in deforestation and degradation of the environment.

Traffic is a boon and bane of civilisation. The luxury of a speedy and enjoyable drive can also lead to traffic jams, pollution and accidents. Air pollution, of which over 70% is estimated to be caused by traffic emissions, can cause breathing problems. Studies have linked exhaust fumes to increase in heart diseases, and some of the pollutants are known to cause cancer.

Instead of riding alone in our cars, we can opt to car pool and cycle or walk short distances. It’s not only good for the environment, it also perks up our health. Carpooling or taking public transport is certainly more economically and environmentally sustainable than clamouring for chopping down more trees to widen our city roads. It’s friendly on our wallets too.

Water, the elixir of life, needs to be conserved and used wisely. With the world’s population skyrocketing, billions of people worldwide lack clean drinking water or sanitation. We can make small steps to conserve water a daily habit. Turning off taps when not in use, repairing leaky pipes, running washing machines only with full loads, and limiting our use of bath water are practical and doable.

Implementing rainwater harvesting in our homes is a must. Every drop saved is precious.Agriculture needs to be promoted in an ecologically sustainable way, so that ourfarms can continue to feed the world’s growing population. As individual consumers, we can opt for locally grown and fresh seasonal vegetables, rather than greens and fruits transported over long distances in fuel-burning trucks, and requiring electricity guzzling refrigeration.

Our lifestyles demand energy, but is our rising demand exhausting our natural resources? Widespread use of conventional energy sources like oil and coal causes disease inducing pollution. While supporting the increased use of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power, we must rationalise our personal habits.

Turning off lights and electrical equipment when not in use, and installing solar water heaters and cookers in our homes are simple steps we can take to save energy.
Tourism can be great for local economies, but careless tourists can create negative environmental and social impacts.

As responsible tourists, we can travel in groups to reduce traffic and fuel consumption. We should consume local resources like water and energy with care, and avoid littering and polluting the surroundings. Respect for local customs and sensitive habitats needs to be cultivated.

If we do not curb the generation of waste, the planet may soon become choked with rubbish. Before throwing anything away, we must try our best to reduce, recycle and reuse. We can take simple steps like avoiding disposable plastic plates and cups; refusing to buy overpackaged goods wrapped in reams of plastics; use cloth or jute bags for shopping; and reusing wrapping paper, plastic bags and boxes

Domestic wastes need to be sorted into items that can be recycled or made into compost. We can mobilise support for recycling efforts within our community.

Industries drive economic growth, but they also produce pollutants and can exhaust natural resources. We can help mobilise public opinion within the community towards a change for the better. As aware and alert consumers, we can insist on buying products from businesses that have plans to sustain the environment; treat effluents before releasing them into the ecosystem, and invest in renewable energy. We must do our homework and ask questions.

Many of us will shoot down warnings and good advice, and continue in our wasteful ways. As long as our material greed flourishes, we will be hell-bent on exhausting the resources of our planet.

Scientists provide a ray of hope. Earth-like rocky planets fit for human habitation may be more common in the universe than stars, say planetary scientists at Australian National University. We can extend the use and throw culture to our earth, and junk it as we seek out new planets to colonise, exploit and devastate.

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