Taking the green pulse 40 years on

The Himalayan glaciers are melting at an alarming rate; the Ganga is changing its course at Varanasi, threatening agricultural land on the banks. Last year Moscow witnessed an unprecedented heat wave, and Pakistan was hit by a flash flood. Ever since the Stockholm Conference in 1972, a number of international conventions have been held

and several measures taken by the UN and other international and national agencies to arrest global warming and environmental degradation. As we prepare to observe this year’s World Environment Day (June 5), it may be instructive to ask ourselves what state the earth is in, and whether corrective measures since 1972 have had any significant impact.
The Ganga, epitome of Indian civilisation and the lifeline of North India, is one of the 11 large rivers of the world which, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature, are dying. The net forest loss continues to be substantial — worldwide about seven million hectares per year. Forest fires, too, are having a devastating impact. In India, for example, five per cent of the forest cover is lost due to fire.
About 40 per cent of the world’s agricultural land already stands degraded. Though modern industrial agriculture has brought about green revolutions in a number of countries, it has also meant a higher cost of production and damage to the soil.
While the global population is increasing by about 87 million a year, global grain supplies are dwindling. Already, in the last three years, food prices have nearly doubled, exposing about 100 million more persons to the risk of falling below poverty line.
At present, three species are dying every hour. At this rate of extinction, the global gross domestic product could decline by about seven per cent by 2025. Moreover, the loss of biodiversity and degeneration of ecosystems are not mere “green” issues, they have a deep relationship with the production of food, fibre, fuel and medicines and maintenance of soil fertility. If these issues remain neglected, it would be the poor who would suffer most and lose whatever little access they have to productive lands and other resources.
At present “four of every 10 people in the world do not have access to a single-pit latrine and nearly two in 10 have no source of safe drinking water”. In India, annually 38 million people are afflicted with serious water-borne diseases, like jaundice, typhoid and hepatitis. Another 66 million fall victim to fluorosis in the country. The economic burden of these diseases is enormous.
The cities of developing countries have continued to expand in an unplanned way. They have now a quarter of a million designated slum settlements, with about one billion inhabitants. About 500,000 people are losing their lives on account of indoor air pollution every year. The ecological footprint of the cities have been rapidly expanding, and they have been consuming a huge amount of global resources and emitting a vast quantity of carbon. They are now using bulk of the world energy and throwing up as much as 30 billion tonnes of carbon annually.
Poverty, ignorance and disease continue to cast their dark shadows on the major part of the globe. Deprivations have increased and disparities sharpened. A small group of powerful countries have acquired a stronger hold over the global economy as well as over the international power structure. On account of the economic ideologies sponsored by this group, wealth begets more wealth, power begets more power and the inequalities increase globally and also within the nations. At the fourth United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries, held from May 9-13, 2011 at Istanbul, it was revealed that the number of this category of countries has increased from 24 in 1971 to 50 in 2011. Together, they have a population of about 880 million, and half of them live on $1.25 a day.
Certainly, there have been some positive outcome of measures taken after 1972. Environmental awareness has spread far and wide. The acid rains have been contained, and the ozone hole has virtually been closed. But all such gains pale into insignificance when viewed in the context of the steep deterioration that has occurred.
Worse, a highly unfair and unjust order has come to stay. While it is the consumerism of the rich that is putting unbearable strain on the finite resources of our planet and causing environmental degradation, it is the poor, with little role in this degradation, who are suffering the most from its consequences. After the terrible tsunami that accompanied the earthquake in Japan in March 2011, Tokyo governor Ishihara bewailed: “It is the divine punishment for our consumerism”. Nature demands balance and unbridled consumerism flies in the face of this balance.
It is time that the international community recognised the irrefutable ecological reverses and degradation of key natural resources over the past four decades. It must disabuse itself of the greedy forces of neo-liberalism and evolve a new design for economics, promote a culture of contentment and compassion. And of course promote a stronger awareness campaign for a lifestyle in the current century that is much less profligate and respects balance and harmony wherein the entire humanity is regarded as one family.

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