The creation of our planet took place a long time back. Though the exact date is debatable, a consensus exists that the Earth is more than a few billion years old. The planet has not been a static destination; rather, it has seen many dynamic changes in its stride. Humans appeared on the scene a few million years ago and can be considered to have existed on the geological timeline for a few seconds.
Life on Earth has been ever-evolving, right from unicellular organism to the present multi-cellular and ultra-complex beings; humans have also undergone evolution along with other species. Species from the start has been fighting for survival—as resources are scarce and one’s life is the appetite for another. Thinking from the human perspective of today’s world, it might appear barbaric; rather, this balance has been the source of survival for the entire planet.
In this fight to the finish, humans have appeared to be the strongest, despite lacking in muscle power over much bigger species. Humans have established their dominance on the basis of technological advancement. The human societies, right from the city-states to kingdoms to nation-states to imperial dominions, have advanced by guzzling up the natural endowments.
The situation has not remained much benign, especially the wide-scale use of resources post-Industrial revolution. The ramifications of mankind’s uni-dimensional view of nature as a means are being witnessed in today’s age. It poses a question to the entire humanity: are the we the owners of this natural bounty, or just guardians for the future generations??
All of us work hard so that we can live a luxurious life. We derive our pleasure from the possessions of luxurious items like cars, mobiles, good food, big houses, etc. We transit this obsession with materialism to our children. Our ever-growing needs have led to the exploitation of the land in an unsustainable manner. We are so occupied in fulfilling our needs that we forgot about our children and grandchildren.
Don’t we want this land to provide resources for their needs as much it is providing for ours? Are we not violating the basic rights of our future generation by over-exploiting the land? We have borrowed the land from the future generation, on a temporary basis, and if we hand them over less than what we borrowed, isn’t it unethical/equivalent to theft? We may not care about the next generation, but they will always remember ours for our greed and selfishness.
Resources on earth have their own life cycle varying from a few days to thousands of years. Some of these resources like water, land, forest, minerals etc. are essential elements for the survival of life on the earth. Unsustainable use of natural resources has created a pressure that threatens further use of these resources by man. Over-exploitation has disturbed the natural cycle of these resources beyond a stage of repair.
Our increased use of fossil fuels to meet energy needs has led to the excessive presence of GHGs in the atmosphere. Excessive GHGs have imbalanced the energy budget of the earth and caused global warming. Global warming has become the talk of the 21st century. Earth’s mean temperature is increasing at an unprecedented rate. Predictions are that the earth will be nearly 4 degree Celsius warmer by 2100.
Global warming will impact water resources, climates, cryosphere, etc. For example, Polar regions (Arctic and Antarctic) are sources of fresh water. Melting glaciers are not only increasing the sea levels but are contaminating future supplies of fresh water too. Several polar species, like the polar bear etc., are already on the verge of extinction. Besides damaging the environment, our uncontrolled use of conventional energy resources has ensured the energy crisis for our future generation.
Rapid industrialization has sped up the diversion of agricultural lands for roads, mining and irrigation projects that have not only disturbed the forest, wildlife ecosystem but has left little land to feed the ever-rising population. Current techniques of excessive fertilizers, GM seeds and other inputs to boost productivity are not environmentally sustainable. World-wide climate patterns are increasingly getting unpredictable.
We are planning to leave for future generation a shrinking and degraded land, with a highly unpredictable climate to feed themselves. Food security is already on its way to become the biggest threat to world security. Several wildlife species have become the victim of our greed as well. Forests have been cleared to meet materialistic needs as well the rising population. For the future generation, several wildlife species will exist only in school books, not in reality!
Ocean consists of nearly 70% of our land and supports a variety of life, and contributes to climate and hydrological cycle as well. Oceans provide food and livelihoods to billions of people around the world. Our unsustainable activities have led to ocean acidification, ocean warming, coral reef destruction, etc., that has severely disturbed the marine ecosystem. The rising water level has put several low lying areas susceptible to flooding in the near future. Oil spills incidents, radioactive water discharge, etc. have further damaged the local marine ecosystem and deprived the future generation of marine resources.
Continuous environmental degradation has increased the impact of a natural disaster. Coastal forest and mangroves build an effective natural barrier against Tsunami and cyclones. Similarly, tress and forest cover can offer great resistance to floods. Uttrakhand tragedy was one recent example, where land degradation caused by mining and dams projects aggravated the impact of heavy rainfall and turned it into the biggest disaster in recent years. By over-exploiting the forests for our economic development, we are making future generation more vulnerable to natural disasters.
For the last few decades, sustainable development has been a hot topic of discussion among intellectuals and world leaders. Stockholm conference in 1972 marked the beginning of international environmental politics. Agenda 21 in 1992, was a comprehensive plan of actions at a national and global level to promote sustainable development in all area where human impacts the environment.
Kyoto Protocol adopted in 1997, further put its signee members to abide by the preset emission targets. In Rio+20 conference 2012, countries decided to develop a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). No country or entity can work in isolation to control environmental damage. Activities in one region have a clearly visible effect on other parts of the world. Developed and developing are on a different page in their approach to handle environmental issues. Lack of consensus building is further delaying the much needed international efforts required to contain the environmental damage.
Sustainable cities are one way to control environmental damage. Around 60-70 % of the world’s population will be residing in future cities. Improved technologies and better working public transport can reduce fuel consumption to a great extent. Advocates of green technology believe that better efficiency will reduce the resource usage and pollution produced over the long run. But so far, resource usage has only increased in absolute terms due to the rising population.
World wide efforts are needed to frame population policies with due consideration to natural resources carrying capacity. Government efforts are needed to subsidize the cleaner technologies and incentivize the R&D in renewable energy sources. Green economy can be an important driver towards sustainable development. Instead of treating the environment as a passive receptor of wastes generated by economic activities, the environment needs to be seen as a critical factor of economic growth and long term prosperity. There is a need to factor in environmental degradation in calculations of economic growth.
Ultimately, our current level of consumption and production are not sustainable in itself. We need to check our desires. We need to live more simply—so that future generation could simply live. As Gandhi ji has said, there is enough for everybody’s need but not for anybody’s greed. Uneconomical use of water has depleted groundwater resources. In India, water levels have already gone down to several 100 feet below their level a few decades ago.
Industrial and habitat pollution have further damaged the resources of surface water. Many of our rivers are not even fit for bathing, let alone for drinking purposes. In the case of India, per capita water availability has gone down from nearly 1800 BCM to 1500 BCM. Access to safe and clean drinking water is a basic human right. Our unwise use of water will deprive the future generation of their basic human rights.