An environment for the self

Is it not a step forward when the plastic we cleared off the sands allows olive ridley turtles to hatch on the beach?

Shinrin Yoku, or forest bathing, is a popular pastime in Japan. The term was coined in 1982 by Japan’s then forestry minister Tomohide Akiyama, to promote the country’s forests. Ever since, researchers and scientists have invested much time and resources to understand how spending time among trees enables – to borrow a phrase from India’s prime minister Narendra Modi – ‘sabka vikas’. They’ve found that not only does a walk in the forest calm the mind, but it also reduces stress levels and regulates blood pressure. Shinrin Yoku may even help prevent illnesses.

Japan has 25million hectares of forest. This is about 67 per cent of the country’s land area. Closer home, in Bhutan, the Constitution mandates that 60 per cent of all land area must be under forest cover at all times. The forest area in the Himalayan nation, according to recent reports, is presently 71 per cent. Forests and the environment are key to Bhutan’s pioneering happiness index, and every piece of legislation is vetted through the prism of Gross National Happiness index. Bhutan’s initiative now has many followers around the world, including and most recently, New Zealand.

Last week, on May 30, prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s government announced a ‘wellbeing’ budget, much to the chagrin of the Opposition. The budget’s biggest allocation, $1.9billion NZ$ ($1.24b), has been for mental health, followed by allocations to curb domestic violence and childhood poverty.

“When our children do better, we all do better,” Ardern was reported as saying. To this end, her government made a significant announcement a few weeks earlier. In April, New Zealand said it would not grant any new permits for offshore oil exploration in a step towards a carbon-neutral future.

Hopes for a better future for the climate and the environment were further bolstered in last week of May when Europeans voted to elect new members to the European Parliament. The Greens, a party coalition that focuses on environmental issues, took 69 seats, up from 52 in 2014. They are now the fourth largest block in the 751-member European Parliament. Their outstanding finish – second in Germany and third in France – means environment will be firmly on the political agenda in Europe.

In India, environmental issues figured in the ‘tamasha’ that was the 2019 General Election. Many issues were written about in the manifestos of the main contesting parties – the triumphant Bharatiya Janata Party, and the Congress. What was not stated in their political agendas, however, was the roadmap to achieving any of these environmental goals. Many of these are pressing matters and involve day-to-day life in cities, such as air pollution in the national capital region, public transport (the under-construction Mumbai Coastal road project and the proposed metro shed at Aarey), waste management, as well as larger concerns about forest rights and the draft national forest policy.

While citizen’s groups, conservationists and non-governmental organisations keep the torch burning, is it not time for ordinary citizens such as you and me to turn the political into the personal? How quick we are to endorse our leaders’ choices about development and progress, and eager to trounce the naysayers during family debates – on WhatsApp groups or in-person. Do we even bother to understand what’s at stake when we root for big-ticket infrastructure projects? Have we spared a thought for the long-term damage we do to our own selves when we uproot trees to build expressways? Or even simply how we add each day to the Earth’s burden when we opt for single-use shampoo bottles and packets of crisps?

A measured way to navigate the debate is by asking what development really means to each one of us. The question to ask is not whether a 15-minute shorter commute via a new flyover is worth taxpayer money, but whether the clearing of fully-grown trees, that help absorb pollutants and provide fresh air, is the only way to make space for a flyover. Is not a step forward when the plastic we cleared off the sands allows Olive Ridley turtles to hatch on the beach? Is it not a worthy development that we habitually use minimal water rather than wage wars over river water or have governments artificially change the course of river waters by linking them?

There are no easy answers and definitely no easy choices. But it’s time we ask the tough questions and make the tougher choices.

(Marisha Karwa is a Bangalore-based independent writer who is always looking for ways to reduce her carbon footprint)

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