Environment: A Survival Issue Now

Bharat Dogra

While consciousness about environmental problems in India has certainly increased in recent times, this is generally more in terms of the adverse impacts of air pollution on health and also in terns of the pollution of rivers particularly the Ganga river. While these are certainly very important issues in themselves, it needs to be emphasized nevertheless that the full dimensions of the environmental crisis in the 21st century need to be understood in much wider terms of several critical parameters together creating such serious problems for most forms of life and also disrupting the life-creating conditions on the planet earth to such an extent as to result in nothing less than a survival crisis for many forms of life and ultimately for human beings.

A widely discussed recent study by Gerardo Cebellos, Paul R Ehrlich and other scientists has stated that the "average rate of vertebrate species loss over the last century is up to 100 times higher than the background rate." Further, this study asserts, "Under the background rate, the number of species that have gone extinct in the last century would have taken, depending on the vertebrate taxon, between 800 and 10,000 years to disappear. These estimates reveal an exceptionally rapid loss of biodiversity over the last few centuries, indicating that a sixth mass extinction is already under way. Averting a dramatic decay of biodiversity and the subsequent loss of ecosystem services is still possible through intensified conservation efforts, but that window of opportunity is rapidly closing."

The United Nations Environment Programme issues periodic reports on the state of world's environment, recent trends and future prospects. The latest of these—Global Environment Outlook 5 has presented "undeniable evidence that the world is speeding down an unsustainable path." This report has voiced a clear warning that urgent changes are needed "to avoid exceeding critical thresholds beyond which abrupt and generally irreversible changes to the life support functions of the planet could occur."

This issue of critical significance has been taken up in greater detail in the work of scientists at the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC). Johan Rockstrom, director of SRC says "The human pressure on the Earth System has reached a scale where abrupt global environmental change can no longer be excluded. To continue to live and operate safely, humanity has to stay away from critical 'hard-wired' thresholds in the Earth's environment, and respect the nature of the planet's climatic, geophysical, atmospheric and ecological processes."

The scientists at SRC first identified the Earth System processes and potential biophysical thresholds, which, if crossed, could generate unacceptable environmental change for humanity. They then proposed the boundaries that should be respected in order to reduce the risk of crossing these thresholds. The nine boundaries identified were: climate change, stratospheric ozone, land use change, freshwater use, biological diversity, ocean acidification, nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the biosphere and oceans, aerosol loading and chemical pollution. The study suggests that "three of these boundaries (climate change, biological diversity and nitrogen input to the biosphere) may already have been transgressed". In addition, it emphasizes that "the boun-daries are strongly connected—crossing one boundary may seriously threaten the ability to stay within safe levels of the others".

As life nurturing conditions on the earth are badly threatened, clearly these have to become top most priority. Further remedial steps should be rooted in justice and equality, so that basic needs of all people can be met while also respecting needs of all other forms of life. This in turn can be achieved if the existing relationships of dominance can be replaced by relations of protection and cooperation.

This basically means improving four relationships—the relationship among human beings, the relationship of human beings with nature, the relationship of human beings with other forms of life and the relationship of present generation with the next generation. The path of real progress is to make all these relationships more and more protective.

The present times are unique in this sense that there is a real possibility of life sustaining systems on the earth being seriously harmed in irreversible ways and damaged beyond recovery due to man-made causes which can still be checked to a considerable extent (even though time is running out fast). Already precious time has been lost. People can't afford to lose any more time. It is the real threat of man-made irreversible change and permanent loss of life-sustaining systems as well as the challenge of resisting and overcoming this threat which makes present times unique.

Vol. 48, No. 48, Jun 5 - 11, 2016