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The ‘idea of environment’ needs a new practice

We all, more today than yesterday, believe in the need, indeed the imperative, of managing and protecting the environment. The ‘idea’ of environment has been accepted. The challenge now is to make the ‘practice’ of environment work, writes Sunita Narain.

india Updated: Jun 05, 2010 01:15 IST

Every year on June 5, the world celebrates the day in the name of a cleaner and greener environment. The environmental issue has gained attention and recognition. We all, more today than yesterday, believe in the need, indeed the imperative, of managing and protecting the environment. The ‘idea’ of environment has been accepted. The challenge now is to make the ‘practice’ of environment work.

With all the good noise about environment, our rivers are more polluted. They are full of excreta from our cities, garbage from our homes. Our air is more polluted. It is full of toxins that get emitted from our vehicles. And even as vehicle technology improves, the sheer numbers of vehicles we add on our roads negates any benefits. Our health is at risk from the air we breathe.

Climate change is rearing its head. We know that carbon dioxide emissions are increasing. We know that the world is beginning to feel the impacts of this change, through variable and more intense weather events and more tropical storms. Just think of this summer. Think of the number of cyclones we are reading about. There is something afoot. What is worse is that this something relates to our consumption as emissions of CO2 are directly related to economic growth, as the world knows it today.

The only area we can claim some progress is in field of forests. We have, through legislation and diktat, improved our tree cover. But this environmental gain has come at huge costs to the livelihood and economic well being of the poorest in our country. We have not found ways to share the benefits of conservation with local communities, which would build sustainable wealth from nature.

It would be too convenient to blame this state of affairs on incompetent and indifferent governments. Over the years, successive governments have created programmes, spent money and shown concern about the need to do more to protect the environment. The problem is that these governments and all of us still do not realise that we need to re-learn environmental practice to succeed.

We do not realise that we cannot follow the already industrialised countries, with their apparently cleaner environment, to deal with our mess. The environmental movement of the West happened at a time when these countries were already wealthy and their wealth was creating waste. Over the past 50 years these countries have spent enormous amounts to contain the environmental fallout of wealth. But they continue to stay behind the problems they create — from tiny toxins that contaminate water and air to climate change — their problems can be ‘hidden’ but will not go away.

We in India are joining this league of waste-creators, but without even the wherewithal of money and governance systems to sweep it below the many carpets of nature. We have to do things differently. This means we have to build cities, not to first choke them under the spit of vehicles and then think of public transport and cycles. We have to leapfrog — from using buses and cycles because we’re poor, to using them because we’re rich.

This means changing the way we clean rivers. Not by first building sewage treatment plants without drainage to bring waste or electricity to run them. We have to find ways not to pollute our rivers.

This means using less water in homes, recycling sewage for water and manure, and minimising our own waste. We cannot build a model based on consumption to build wealth.

I believe we will find these new ways to build wealth without pollution or waste. The real challenge is agreeing that we need to search for new answers. The challenge is to practice the idea of environment.

Sunita Narain is the Director, Centre for Science and Environment