Saturday, July 24, 2010

Mother Earth: Invoking Culture of Permanence

This year Delhi experienced the highest minimum temperature in June the last forty years. A consequence of global warming, it’s a grim reminder that our buccaneering attitude towards environment and ecosystem has made climate change the most important issue today. While the IPCC’s claim that the Himalayan glaciers will melt by 2035 A.D. is a lot of hot air, that we earthlings have savaged the earth and environment cannot be denied.

At the cusp of the 20th century humanity started life on earth where about 50 per cent of its ancient forests were still intact. Though far from pristine, it was a sublime world of rolling seas, of land masses teeming with varied lives; vast expanses of wildlands sparsely peopled by original aboriginals who knew how to draw sustenance from nature’s bounties. Things are different today – the equilibrium has been cleaved.

A legacy with less than 20 per cent of its original forests intact and most of the readily available freshwater already spoken for and most of the wetlands and reef systems destroyed or degraded wouldn’t make our progenies happy. Plus they shall very likely inherit a stressed atmosphere and an unwanted remnant of toxic waste in soil and water. Missing from their domain will be countless species, much as the troves of aboriginal knowledge would’ve disappeared as tribals lose their lands or abandon their traditional ways.

Sadly, though the problems are real and portentous, the response of the international community has been all smoke and mirrors. The reality is that the loss of species is accelerating and ecosystems are getting fragmented.

One issue surfacing today is “water terrorism”, clearly manifested during Somalia’s civil war and the Bosnian war. The Serbs who besieged Sarajevo quickly discovered a tactic more devastating than direct assault: shut off the electricity and water supply, and the enemy is easy prey. The Bosnian and Somali episodes are just the previews of “water wars” that one day will engulf us in getting access to aqua pura.

Recall June 1969 when the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland, Ohio, caught fire. The bizarre picture of a river burning (Time magazine called it the river that “oozes rather than flows” where a person “does not drown but decays”) brought home to the American people that something was seriously wrong.

Population continues to explode. For aeons Malthusians are sounding out a bleak future. The disaster though averted, the apocalypse hasn’t been staved off. This is disturbing since the technology advantage of the past decades is tapering off with the likes of Bt crops nowhere near acceptance.

The urban problems get worse by the day. Several megacities are already past their limits to accommodate the influx of rampaging humanity telling on urban tolerance threshold. Fresh air gets scarce as auto exhaust suffocates, while new cars continue to suffuse roads not meant to hold so many vehicles.

There are telltale signs that the planet’s protective blanket is getting too clogged for comfort; few years ago there was flood in the Rajasthan deserts. One prediction is partial melting of the polar ice-caps and consequential rise in sea-level that could submerge parts of coastal cities around the world.

Forests continue to get depleted what critics of the unrestrained free enterprise call Wild Capitalism in developing countries and formerly Communist nations. And nowhere is the entrepreneurial spirit more savage than in Russia which accounts for 23 per cent of the world’s woodlands. When Moscow and regional satraps desperate for hard currency opened up the forest to foreign exploitation in the 1990s, there was a mad scramble on the invite. The result has been despoliation of forest on a breathtaking scale. Same in the Amazon, west and central Africa, Indonesia, Alaska and western Canada – where logging and deforestation continued as though there were no tomorrow.

Charles Darwin once waxed eloquent about the “primeval forests undefaced by the hand of man”. Today people treat forest in the most cavalier fashion, as a capital to be liquidated, forgetting that they provide the protective umbrella for life. Forests are home to most of the world’s indigenous people; they act as “carbon sinks” and keep global warming at bay. Forest loss contributes roughly 12-15% to annual greenhouse gas emissions – about the same as the entire global transportation sector. Ditto reckless and unbridled mining, which today has given rise to social problems as the Maoist insurgency, apart from savaging the Good Earth.

Today the pulse of environmental awareness has begun to surge around but its progress is halting, its focus ponderous. Environment is fairly new to the pantheon of policy issues; policy makers are unclear how ecology relates to issue of trade and economic development.

The wounds suffered by the planet have already forced various disciplines to rethink basic assumptions. Economists are wrestling with the absurdity of a mechanism of national accounts that views liquidation of forests as a positive contribution to GDP – adding new concepts like New Economic Welfare, Green Savings, Green GDP, Beyond GDP, and Gross State Product to the lexicon.

Given the growth impulse, governments have focused on GDP growth rate obsessing on natural capital to increase their wealth. Now the question is: will value changes in stocks of natural capital and the ecosystem services help advance a science of new metrics capable of inclusive sustainable policy choices? And will they satisfy emerging economies in these times of senseless consumerism to heed the warning and pursue global futuristic altruism?

The vital question stays undimmed: Will the fertile ingenuity of our consumer society revive exhausted Mother Earth? Can the cerebral stimulations of the apologists of Mammon that spurred a culture of materialism as a final piece of alchemy, turn its head and become the evangelist to halt environmental degradation and stop us from looming ecocide?

We need to learn from history. As George Santayana once said, those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. We know nuclear weapons can snuff out life on earth. Today humanity could accomplish this horrific feat through its mad lust for accelerated economic growth. But as Edward Abbey observed: “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” Endless, thoughtless material expansion will eat into the earth’s biosphere just as malignancy metastasizes and lays waste to the human body.

Now’s the time we realized to focus on the quality of growth – not the amount of material gain. Wanton material gain has become passé. The new era calls for what environmental writer Alan Durning says “culture of permanence” – meeting the needs of the current generation without jeopardizing the prospects of the future ones. Our forebears instinctively saw the dependence on the natural world and the natural order of things; they revered the equation and viewed trees and animals as sacred and treated them with respect. It’s time we returned to that reverence.

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