A caveat is in order

Last Updated 31 May 2020, 17:59 IST

The issue of bread and butter is inextricably linked to how we resume our livelihood on the basis of the lessons learnt during the lockdown. The first lesson obviously is that our consumption and all the economic activities governed by it were unsustainable in character and therefore, we cannot carry on with the sustained despoiling of Nature around us as we did in pre-Corona days.

But our GDP-obsessed economic chieftains rule the roost. Our political leadership should be governed by a granular understanding of the need of the people to make major changes in their relationship to natural resources. The major worry is that once the lockdown gets finally withdrawn, people might feel too tempted to get back to the default mode.

The economic imperative to start afresh at the backdrop of the gruelling lockdown notwithstanding, the second lesson that follows is that if we persist with our old, greedy, ravenous self, there might be another catastrophe, be it some superbug or some natural disaster like the recent cyclone Amphan that struck parts of south Bengal. The incubation of a deadly tropical cyclone is the direct outcome of global warming and climate change triggered by human activities and the emergence of old and new pathogens is often the outcome of destroyed ecosystems.

The sight of non-human creatures coming out in the open conjures up the image of a pre-lapsarian world made possible by a lull in economic activities and human movement. Somehow, we get an idea that the world very much belongs as much to humans as to the non-human species. With fewer humans out on the street, they are somehow coming forward to reclaim their lost territories.

The Bombay Natural History Society estimated that the number of flamingos is 25% more than in 2019 in the Talawe wetlands and other areas of Mumbai. Hundreds of monkeys have taken over streets around the presidential palace in New Delhi during the country’s lockdown. Images of wildlife – jackals, coyotes, pumas, mountain goats, the European roe deer, dolphins, leatherback turtles – coming out in the open across the world serve as a stark reminder of how we colonised their habitats.

Since a global existential threat in the shape of epidemics threaten us all, we are now inclined to take notice of the fact that environmental degradation to a great extent accounts for the sixth mass extinction of species in the history of life on Earth and the first one caused by humans.

While the role of cyclical swings in the earth’s climate is responsible for this, the spread of humans and their activities are no less liable. Many scientists believe that we are in the middle of a mass extinction right now, caused by the human undermining of the earth’s complex systems that support life. Even if we are dimply aware of the need for biodiversity conservation, especially in its scientific and legal dimensions, it is shaped by cultural assumptions about what is valuable in nature and what is not.

Given the widespread concern over the worldwide loss of biodiversity and popular crusades to “save” endangered species and habitats, professionals in conservation biology, public policy, environmental law and environmental organisations are rarely seen to mobilise public action.

But the epidemic did prove once again that human activities are the major reason for the incredible harm dealt to the environment and for all the excesses that we have committed in the last century, this is a tipping point.

Environmental scientists, therefore, envisage cleaning up the damage already done to earth, changing current uses of natural resources, and developing new technologies to conserve earth’s remaining natural resources as part of the green movement that can no longer be cast aside as a fad that runs counter to the economic imperative.

The lesson that the coronavirus epidemic taught us is that an increasing rate of environmental disasters, hazardous waste spills and wholesale destruction of forests, clean water and other resources have brought us to an edge and we can go no further.

Carbon footprints

Why so? The continued growth of ecological and carbon footprints puts animals and plants in danger because earth’s biota can no longer sustain the current number of people since from about 1988 the ecological footprint of earth’s human population has exceeded the planet’s capacity (known as ‘biocapacity’) to support it.

If humans continue to stress biocapacity, other species will lose hold on their natural habitats as is evident when animals such as elephants or cheetahs or troops of monkeys are seen to invade thickly populated localities in increasing numbers.

The high level of consumerism must be made to taper off along with an ecological footprint and carbon footprint on the planet. An ecological footprint is the amount of land and water needed to support one person and absorb that person’s wastes. The amount of cropland, grazing land, forests and fishing grounds plus carbon-based fuel and nuclear fuel consumption factors into a single ecological footprint.

The amount of forestland needed to remove from the atmosphere the end-products of burning a unit of fossil fuel is a measure to calculate carbon footprint. As of 2013, the world’s population would need 1.7 Earths to support its demands on renewable natural resources, according to Global Footprint Network, a nonprofit organisation that calculates human demands on the planet’s ecosystems. Yet another study estimates it would take five Earths to support the human population if everyone’s consumption patterns were similar to the average American.

The gruelling effect of the lockdown and the economic cost to the nation are too unbearable. The emptied streets worldwide point to an apocalypse. However much we feel the need for the economic engines go revving again, a caveat is in order.

If the sight of the natural world disappearing everywhere right before our eyes, mangled and twisted out of shape or replaced by human artefacts long crying for our attention does not move us in a post-corona world, the economic cost would be far greater than the gains we have posted so far.

(Published 31 May 2020, 16:48 IST)

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