Environmental Crisis – A Challenge To Our Survival
“……..Thus today,” World Environment Day”, is an occasion to reflect on the state of global ecology and pledge to try and set back the clock. While, at the broader level, leaders of nations need to put aside selfish considerations for the good of entire humanity, at a narrower level each of us as individuals have a duty to contribute towards stemming environmental degradation. The time is ticking for mankind and an occasion like World Environment Day should act as reminder of this.” (Editor’s view, Assam Tribune, dated 5 June, 2016)
This quote has certainly touched upon the environmental crisis that has now engulfed the whole world and has shed light on what humans either as leaders of nations or as individuals should act to prevent this problem. World Environment Day in this respect is a significant move to create awareness among people. In this context this article is also an attempt to motivate people for taking appropriate measures against such a problem.
When we speak of environment, we mean by it that concept that comprises a wide range of aspects or entire conditions in which an organic or inorganic matter exists. Briefly speaking, it means the whole sum of external conditions that surround us or to speak otherwise, all the matters that it surrounds are its constituents. However, these constituents are not independent entities. They are rather dependent on each other and form a interrelation among them, and this interrelatedness that exists particularly between organism and biophysical environment is the basis of ecological balance which is so important for survival and abundance of organism. As Zahid Husain says, “Interconnectedness among various components of environment in which nature always strikes a balance to maintain its harmonious functioning is essence of ecology. Ecological study systematically explores and discerns the intricacy involved in interactions in a working – whole or set of environment on which depend survival of an organism.”
Thus, the environment of this planet earth is of very complex nature. Man cannot survive without this environment. He is, in fact, an essential part of the highly complex web of living organisms which we can call the biosphere. But the harm done to any part of the biosphere or ecological balance would reflect on human welfare, and this is what has happened today in environment all over the world. The onset of environmental degradation which the twentieth century had witnessed has now become a gruesome problem for human concern, and therefore, this new millennium has given this problem top priority in its agenda, thinking that other problems are directly or indirectly related with this problem.
So far the number of the surveys that have been carried out has revealed that four global trends have been of practical concern. These are: (a) population growth and economic development (b) a decline of vital life-support ecosystems, (c) global atmospheric changes, and (d) a loss of biodiversity. Each of these issues is the prime cause for environmental degradation, affecting human life on this planet.
Now, as for population growth it is said that human population started growing faster and faster since 20th century last, particularly since the industrial revolution. It got doubled in 40 years between 1950 and 1990 to cross five billion. By 2000 AD it has touched 6.3 billion and by 2010 it has grown to 7 billion. And according to most recent projections from the U.N. Population Division, the world population in 2050 could be 8.9 billion. Thus the population growth in the world is phenomenal, though such a growth in developed countries is less than that in underdeveloped countries.
This population explosion, however, is beyond sustaining capacity of the Earth’s resources. It has increased pressure on land, water and all other resources. Scarcity of food and drinking water are also the results of population growth. Therefore, population growth must be checked or controlled by adopting family planning measures. Of course, such a planning does not mean very little or negative growths. It only means that the rates of growth should be such that they do not put pressure on the nature and impede the comfortable experience of life.
Another problem that concerns human beings is the gradual decline of ecosystems, that is to say, extinction of vital resources that support life and economy of human beings. According to United Nation’s report (PAGE) these resources are necessary to meet the dual demand of increasing population and affluence-driven consumption per person. But the attitude and behavior of human beings have been unsympathetic towards these and have been the main causes of their being extinct in this world. Today the world has seen ground-water supplies depleted, agricultural soil degraded, oceans overfished, and forests cut faster than they can regrow. Thus man himself has brought destruction to his environment. But he must be aware of this environmental picture and should acquire knowledge to assess the present condition and to move toward deliberate and wise management of natural ecosystems.
The most serious problem is the danger arising out of the atmospheric changes or pollution. This problem has been a relatively local problem affecting a given river, lake or the air in a city. But today scientists are analyzing pollution on a global scale. For instance, depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer has been a matter of grave concern all over the world. Again a more serious problem today is the problem of global climate change due to carbon dioxide (CO2) which is an unavoidable bi-product of burning fossil fuels- crude oil, coal and natural gas. Because of the large amount of fossil fuels currently being burned, CO2 levels in the atmosphere have already increased and is increasing by 0.4% per year, and there is no end iof this increase, given our dependency on fossil fuels.
Carbon dioxide is a natural component of the lower atmosphere, along with nitrogen and oxygen. It is required by plants for photosynthesis and is important to the Earth- atmosphere energy system. Carbon dioxide gas is transparent to incoming light from the Sun, but absorbs infrared (heat) energy radiated from Earth surface, thus slowing the loss of this energy to space. The absorption of heat energy by carbon dioxide warms the lower atmosphere in a phenomenon known as the greenhouse effect. Although the concentration of CO2 is a small percentage of the atmosphere, even slight increase in the volume of the gas affects temperatures and this effect of air temperature has been continuing from 1880 to the present. Referring to this trend, the IPCC states in their report released in 2000 that anthropogenic greenhouse gases (those due to human activities) have contributed substantially to global warming over the last 50 years.
But it should be said that stabilizing the atmospheric concentration of CO2 is, however, essential to stabilizing the global climate itself, and this cannot be accomplished, unless the current rate of use of fossil fuels is seriously reduced. This is, in fact, one of the defining environmental issues of the 21 st century.
Another problem of concern is the loss of Biodiversity. This problem has been there, because rapidly growing population along with increasing consumption is accelerating the conversion of forests, grasslands, and wetlands to agriculture and urban development. The inevitable result is the loss of the wild plants and animals that occupy those natural habitats. If the species involved have no populations at other locations, they are doomed to extinction by this process of alteration. Pollution also degrades habitats, destroying the species. Further innumerable plants and animals are subjected to exploitation for their commercial value. Hunters also hunt, kill and sell them illegally, even though there is law to protect them. Thus the earth is rapidly losing many of its species.
But what is the result of losing plants and animals? The result is very critical, affecting many areas of human acts. Such a loss can curtail development in agriculture and in the area of medicine. Maintenance of the stability of natural systems and its recovery after being disturbed by natural calamities will also be affected because of the loss of biodiversity. Not only that we will be deprived of essential goods and services of various living organisms. Thus, we threaten our own well-being, when we diminish the biodiversity within those natural systems. There are also aesthetic and moral grounds for maintaining biodiversity. Shall we continue to erase living species from the planet, or do we have a moral responsibility to protect and preserve the amazing diversity of life on this planet? Once a species is gone, it is gone forever.
In the context of above discussion, a question now arises: What can we do to move our civilization in the direction of a long-term sustainable relationship with the natural world? It is not easy to answer this question. Yet according to experts we can outline two sets of unifying themes- strategic and integrative themes that can be applied to giving direction to the interactions between human and natural systems. Strategic theme refers to the concept of sustainability, ethical teaching and sound science. Of these sustainability means that a system is sustainable, if it can be continued indefinitely, without depleting any of the material or energy resources required to keep it running.
This concept can be applied to both ecosystems and human society. When applied to ecosystems, it means sustainable ecosystems which stand for entire natural systems that persist over time by recycling nutrients and maintaining a diversity of species in balance and by using the Sun as a source of sustainable energy. And when applied to human societies it means a sustainable society which is in balance with the natural world. Such a society continues generation after generation, without depleting its resource base by exceeding sustainable yields or without producing pollutants in excess of nature’s capacity to absorb them. But till this day human society has remained an unsustainable society. For, what scientific and technological development it has achieved so far is only at the cost of natural resources and has brought only the collapse to the inter-related systems of this earth. Therefore such a development cannot be termed sustainable, it is unsustainable development.
This concept of unsustainable development of human society continued to be a matter of concern till a clear discussion on sustainable development emerged on an international level in1992, in the UN Conference on Environment and Development, popularly known as Earth Summit, held at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In that Summit the World Conference in its final report defined sustainable development as a form of development or progress “that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Further the Commission says that any development activity can be sustainable, if it is “…a dynamic process which enables all people to realize their potential, and to improve their quality of life, in ways which simultaneously protects and enhance the Earth’s life support systems.” Thus the basic idea of sustainable development is to maintain and improve the well-being of both humans and ecosystems. People also have embraced this concept of sustainable development. In fact, they should uphold it as an ideal, just as they accept justice, equality and freedom as their ideals.
Other strategic themes apart from sustainable development are environmental ethics or earth ethics and sound science. Environmental ethics teaches what we ought to do to face and solve the practical problem like environmental degradation or it tells us that to save environment from being destroyed is our moral duty. Sound science, on the other hand, is the basis for our understanding of how the world works and how human systems interact with it. It fulfills the need for more scientific study of the status and trends in global ecosystems and ways in which human systems affect them.
There are also other themes besides the above strategic themes. These themes called integrative themes are ecosystem capital, policy and politics and globalization. All these are also necessary to deal with the interactions between human beings and natural world.
Environmental crisis is, thus, a big challenge to our very survival on this planet. Unless we are aware of this problem and try to solve it with sincerity civil order will break down. As one observer says, “If we don’t change direction, we will end up where we are heading.”