E3: Earth's Environment of Edge: A Critical Analysis
E [Earth’s Environment on Edge]: An Critical Analysis
Dr. Prashant Mehta, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Science, National Law University, Jodhpur
In one sense earth’s environment has always been on the edge, and always will
be. It is just that the shortness of our lives and the narrowness of our perspective
on earth’s history mean that we are mostly unaware of change, which is
transforming the environment all around us day in and day out. This in turn is
putting pressure on sustainable ecosystem and matter cycles, to maintain
equilibrium and maintain itself.
Over millions of years of existence the earth’s environment has been on many
edges. There have been big hits from space, the changing relationship and
interaction between the Earth and the Sun, the slow movement of tectonic plates
on the earth's surface leading to natural disasters like tsunami, major volcanic
eruptions, recent earth quakes in Haiti with high intensity, global warming due to
build up of gases in atmosphere which is resulting in melting of glaciers, rising
sea levels, submersion of coast lines, threatning the very existence of small
islands nations like Maldives, and last but not the least is influence of life itself.
The tightly linked relationship between the living organisms and the natural
ecosystem on the earth's surface, works as a single self-regulating system,
tending to create and maintain the environmental equilibrium most favourable for
all. Time and over again the earth’s environment has tipped in many ways,
sometimes so violently that is has been detrimental to the ecosystem by targeting
the system and transforming in unusual ways that cannot be comprehended.
The idea may be hard to accept but the earth has never been in this situation
before. "The accelerating human transformation of the earth's environment is not
sustainable in long term. The usual way of dealing with the Earth's ecosystem is
not an option anymore. It has to be addressed as soon as possible by effective
strategies and management systems to sustain the Earth's environment while
simultaneously meeting long term social and economic development objectives.
Although highly debated, a common definition of sustainability is: “Development
that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future
generations to meet their own needs." A more in depth definition was given by
Roy F. Weston which states that: “Sustainable development is the process of
change in which the direction of investment, the orientation of technology, the
allocation of resources, the development and functioning of institutions to meet
present needs, and aspirations without endangering the capacity of natural
systems to absorb the effects of human activities, and without compromising the
ability of future generations to meet their own needs and aspirations."
Sustainability takes into account a long-term view of recognizing the interactions
between the environment, social justice, and economics. These three factors and
their relationship are often referred to as the triple bottom line is depicted in
graphic3 given below.
Analyzing the recent human history we can address this situation. At each stage
in the development of current society, the impact on environment has increased
manifold. Hunter gatherers fitted easily enough into the ecosystems of cold and
warm periods in the Pleistocene epoch contrary to this farming with land
clearance changed everything. Exploitative increase in human population and its
migration form rural to urban areas lead to environmental problems whose
effects has transformed form local, or at worst regional, to a global level with
There are several problems which have pushed the earth’s environment to the
edge. They arise from exponential human population increase (shown in figure 1
below); degradation of land by unscrupulous exploitation of nature (unlimited
deforestation), Variety of toxic wastes, accumulation of wastes and its non or
improper disposal, rapid Industrialization and Urbanization; Water scarcity,
pollution, and its supply; Climate change with phenomenon like Acid rain, Green
House effect, Photochemical Smog; Energy production and its indiscriminate
use, and finally Destruction of biodiversity by spontaneous natural environmental
phenomenon like pollution.
(Figure not to scale and Data from World Bank and the United Nations; photo courtesy of NASA)
Of these above mentioned factors population issues are often ignored and so are
issues of environmental degradation which most people are broadly aware of.
This is apart from those who do not want to understand it leading to irreversible
damage to the diversity of life on this planet. Coping with all or any of these
issues requires two fundamental changes in ones mindset:
1. Recognition that issues exist
2. Our readiness to do something about them. This process is very slow may
take some time.
For Example: How ozone depletion was recognized and international action
followed and so is the story of global climate change and its impacts.
Newton rightly said “Every action has equal and opposite reaction”. Today
innovative and inventive thinking (thinking differently) is the need of the hour. The
problem goes to the roots of how we run our society and we attach monetary
value to almost everything. But how do we give a monetary value for pollution of
the atmosphere, acidification of the oceans, loss of a species and its habitat or
waste segregation and microbial disposal of wastes? Thus we will have to bring
in the factor of environmental costs where polluters will be compelled to pay for
the treatment of the waste they generate. Definition of costs will require a new
approach towards economics and above all towards how we measure things.
Governments have a particular responsibility to determine what is in the public
interest, and to use fiscal instruments to promote it.
It is also extremely difficult for governments to take action outside a broad
international consensus just like what happened in Copenhagen summit in 2009.
Such action can look needlessly damaging to the national interest unless others
do the same. We seem to have an exaggerated expectation of what they, and
international conferences, can achieve. So at the moment neither public
understanding of how and why environment is on the edge, nor the mechanisms
for coping with the results yet exist. Nor have we yet reckoned with the indirect
effects. In bringing about change we need three things: leadership from above;
public pressure from below; and usually some disasters to pull us out to achieve
something on saving the planet earth and its environment.