The latest UN Environment Programme's(UNEP) report released last fortnight states unequivocally that man'sdevelopment and progress are responsible for the environmental degradation and the fast approaching doom'sday. The Global Environment Outlook 4 (GEO4) report from UNEP says that the factors for ?environmental change include population growth, economic activity and scientific and technological discoveries. As these intensify, they exert new pressures on the environment, which have huge effects on human well-being?.
This is probably the best testimony ever to be made by a world body on how progress, technological and otherwise, that we sing paeans to everyday causes the biggest damage to mother earth and will sooner than later, consume us all.
Years ago the Left had coined the term ?Hindu rate of growth? quite derisively to suggest that India in all its past glory of Hindu way of life registered zero growth rate, and for thousands of years had the same standard of life for its people.
For instance, a potter by virtue of his birth in that family would remain a potter just as all his ancestors down the line. This system of society was considered anti-progress, anti-technology and anti-modernism as the western lifestyle propagated furiously by the developed countries was the panacea for all ills. It had such an appeal for the western educated new breed of citizens that today technological progress is considered the only sign of success in the globalised world.
The UNEP report GEO4 though does not condemn progress, states that technological advances should be used to curb further damage to the environment, be it ozone layer hole over the Antarctic region, chemical pollution that now is considered the biggest source for carcinogenic material or various other facets of environmental degradation.
Further, the UNEP report says that the world has changed radically between 1987 and now, economically, socially and politically. ?Population has increased by 34 per cent, trade is almost three times greater, and the average income per head has gone up by about 40 per cent?. All this in just 20 years.
To understand the gravity of the situation one has to just go through the 1911 British census conducted in undivided India. The total population then was 31.16 crore. But undivided India included Baluchistan, Burma and Pakistan. After discounting for the people living in these regions in 1911, the population of India at that time would be more or less 30.57 crore (it is difficult to come to a definitive figure for India from 1911 census as places like Punjab, Bengal and several other states have been partitioned).
This essentially means that since time immemorial till 1911 the population of this country didn'tgo beyond 30.57 crore, simply because there was little growth, little technological advances and a way of life that was integrated to nature.
A stagnant population growth ensured that the number of births was equal to the number of deaths occurring in the villages. This in spite of the fact that Hindu undivided family was large?with a large number of children per married couple. But low or no growth in population also, most significantly, ensured that there were enough natural resources for people to live on, be it water, food, shelter, land to till and other requirements of life.
Between 1911 and 2000, within a span of 89 years India'spopulation burgeoned to over 100-crore from 30.57 crore. We might celebrate the largest market status in the world and all its attendant benefits, but will the planet be able to sustain our position and growth rate is the frightening thought.
A few years ago, a report in a leading newsmagazine said that the human gene pool in India has been considered to be the best in the world by the scientific community. The most important reason for it was stated to be the weeding out of disease-causing/ defective genes from the gene pool during thousands of generations; because only the most fit human beings survived. The Hindu health system assiduously kept away from treating life-threatening diseases like coronary heart ailment, diabetes, hypertension, organ failure, etc. which was prevalent even then. This only helped the following generations to get better and stronger genetically.
It can be argued that before the advent of modern advancements in medical research the situation was the same all over the world, not just in India. But it is undeniable that the Hindu way of life even during its golden period emphasised on a system of life which was closest to nature. The Hindu system of life encompassed almost every aspect of life?education, health and hygiene, music, dance, cuisines, farming and other livelihood, architecture, transport and god, what have you. Almost every sentence of the GEO4 report reaffirms the sustainability and importance of the ancient system of life prevalent in this subcontinent for an unknown number of millennia.
On the other hand, the latest report released by the International Energy Association (IEA) to the world media on Diwali day does not pull the punches. Even President George Bush bluntly put it that the energy crisis is triggered by the growth rate in the two most populous countries in the world ? India and China.
?How China and India respond to the rising threats to their energy security will also affect the rest of the world,? said the Paris-based agency in its 2007 World Energy Outlook, which concentrated on the implications of energy developments in the two emerging economies for the rest of the world.
The irony of it all is pointed out by IEA Executive Director Nobuo Tanaka: ?the rapid economic growth in China and India was a legitimate aspiration that would improve the quality of life of more than 2-billion people and that needed to be supported by the rest of the world.
?Indeed, most countries stand to benefit economically from China and India'seconomic development through international trade?.
The world needs to act now to bring about a radical shift in investment in favour of cleaner, more efficient and more secure energy technologies, according to Mr Tanaka. But R&D in vehicle technology and fuel has often revealed that fuel efficient machines though save on precious petrol and gas, have higher CO2 emissions.
In the midst of the raging oil prices that is all set to cross $100 per barrel breathless analysts on foreign news channels are predicting ?abrupt escalation? in oil prices before 2015. The fear is also that the increased demand and shorter oil supply will become more concentrated in a few West Asian countries.
Even as Indian newspapers report everyday about new gas finds the International Energy Association says that ?although production capacity at new fields is expected to increase over the next five years, it is very uncertain whether it will be sufficient to compensate for the decline in output at existing fields and meet the projected increase in demand.
Unsustainable land use and climate change are driving land degradation. This could bring about the biggest economic devastation on mankind, what with water scarcity, soil erosion, nutrient depletion, salinity, desertification and disruption of biological cycles. The per capita availability of freshwater is declining globally, and contaminated water remains the greatest single environmental cause of human sickness and death, the report points out. ?If present trends continue, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity by 2025, and two-thirds of the people in the world could be subject to water stress?.
Global marine and fresh water catches showed large-scale decline because of persistent over-fishing. The report does not reveal how much has environmental changes led to drop in the seafood production. But the fact that over-fishing because of increased purchasing capacity of the people leading to bigger markets in fast developing economies should not be lost on global policy-makers.
?These unprecedented changes are due to human activities in an increasingly globalised, industrialised and inter-connected world, driven by expanding flow of goods, services, capital, people, technologies, information, ideas and labour, even affecting isolated populations?. UNEP'sdesperation is evident when it says: concerns about global environment may have reached a tipping point of their own, with the growing realisation that for many problems the benefits of early action outweighs the costs.
It might be easy to mock at the Gandhian way of life of self-denial, living for one'sneeds rather than one'sgreed, wearing handloom clothing, abstinence of every kind, and strengthening the village as a self-sustaining unit, but the consequences of the alternative life-style as propagated by the West is driving us to the end of the world. The high growth of developed economies and industrialisation in the second half of last century itself had such a perilous effect on the fragile ecosystems the world over. Now the new emerging economies ? India and China, could hurtle the planet to complete ruination. India and China could have also joined the developed world'sclub without having to create so much environmental damage beyond that tipping point only if the two countries had smaller population to bear the burden of development.
If India were to be a developed country by say 2025 then the scenario is not just frightening but also bleak for the survival of the planet. As said in our earlier reports in this magazine, if every family in India were to own a car (many middle-class families after the new-found real estate boom and stock market surge own more than a car each) the number of cars plying on the road would reach the figure of 250 million! The same estimation would extend to other vehicles. Can we develop the infrastructure to accommodate that many vehicles, and does the planet have that much natural resources to provide for the development of India and China to a first world status?
It might sound stupid to suggest that we need to bring down our growth and abjure the western luxuries of life, but the effect of our insatiable quest for more and more resources to fulfill a resplendent consumerism can only be devastating. As Shakespeare once said, ?but yet the pity of it, Iago! Yes, the pity of it all?!