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An erudite and in-depth research article by Kunal, as part of the special feature of Different Truths on the World Environment Day, with all what’s, when’s and why’s. The narrative tells us the theme of WED 2016, “Go Wild for Life.” Let’s respect life without borders and ensure that we do not cause environmental degradation and death of our beautiful planet.
World Environment Day (WED) – let us trace the history that led to its creation; try to understand the significance of the day; and, discuss some of the challenges associated with its name. And, may I would start with the last point.
What’s in a Name?
“Environment”. Now, the word means different things to different people. So, one of the challenges in appreciating Environment Day starts with the semantics but it goes beyond that. The meaning of this word is contextual and difference between the meanings is often subtle. In science and engineering, for example, environment is understood as everything that is surrounding an object/system under study. One is then concerned with how the object ‘interacts’ with its ‘environment’ – through the exchange of energy or material across the system/environment boundary.
This is not the definition of the environment we wish to adopt in understanding or celebrating the Environment Day but we should certainly highlight the ‘interaction part’. In the biophysical context, ‘environment’ refers to the biotic (living) and abiotic (non-living) surrounding of an organism and population. Here, it is obvious to see how the existence, survival, and shaping of the organism or population (e.g. humanity) depends on the interaction between the organism/population and its surrounding.
The phrase ‘we are the product of our environment’, although generally applied to the social environment that humans exist in and interact with, is not dissimilar in the idea to the how the biophysical environment ultimately ends up shaping the evolution of a species. I would then like to submit that a critical and common element of understanding the significance of Environment Day is to focus on the ‘interactions’ between the entities that make up an environment and not separate an entity from a hypothetically drawn boundary between the entity (e.g. humans) and its surrounding.
So, all I am saying is that we are part of the environment and that environment is not something divorced from us. The environment then comprises millions of species that make up a mix of the biotic and the abiotic matter (water, air, and land) along with the external input of energy that ensure that species co-exist. The interactions between biotic species can be synergistic, parasitic or fatalistic. Today, the natural order of food chain we have come to known is an outcome of the fatalistic interactions between the species; tiniest of creatures called phytoplanktons get eaten up by small fishes, small fishes by larger fishes, fishes by birds and humans.
The make-up of our environment has been changing for thousands of years…. no, actually it’s been changing for millions of years. Most of these changes have been caused by natural/spontaneous acts and some by extra-terrestrial factors such as comet striking the Earth. So, change in some respect is to be expected. However, what has become alarming is the careless actions taken by the humans that is changing the environment adversely so rapidly. Humans are the only species possibly with consciousness; the only species potentially with capability of understanding and ability to predict the outcome of their actions that may end up causing irreparable damage to their own species.
Yet, it would seem that there are numerous actions humans take – either in ignorance or uncaringly – that is changing the face of Earth and its environment. When we alter anyone of the abiotic components of the environment, we end up changing the makeup of the environment either for a short-term or for ever. A dramatic effect of such a change is the extinction of a species; one example is the extinction of Dodo birds endemic to Mauritius – resulting from the encounters of the defenseless, flightless birds with humans and other introduced species on the island.
A more subtle but toxic effect is the slow change of the environment due to pollutant addition and, subsequently, its equal impact on those that were responsible for the change as well as those that are innocent bystanders. Air pollution is one such example where humans end up dumping toxic material, e.g. particulate matter (PM) emissions from cars to their surrounding environment, and the changes in the surrounding (high PM levels in the air) ends up not only affecting their health and but also of the flora and fauna co-existing within the environment that ‘interact or intake’ the polluted air.
The Environment Day is really about raising an awareness of our (human) interactions with the air, water and land that make up our world. And, a hope that by understanding the adverse effects of our individual and collective actions (or inactions), we can find strategies to minimise both the near-term and longer-term ill-effects to our environment. The overall idea is to preserve the cleaner parts of our environment as well as to clean-up the parts that we have ended up polluting.
When did it begin?
The history of Environment Day may be traced back to 1968-69, when the UN Assembly by resolutions 2398 (XXIII) and 2581 (XXIV) had decided to convene, in 1972, a global conference in Stockholm, i.e. the UN Conference on Human Environment (UNCHE) . The principal purpose of the Stockholm Conference, as it is often referred to, was “to serve as a practical means to encourage, and to provide guidelines … to protect and improve the human environment and to remedy and prevent its impairment” .
I wish to gleefully acknowledge a Canadian connection to this. A person named Maurice Strong, a Canadian diplomat under the then Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, the father of current Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, was called upon to serve as the secretary general of the Stockholm Conference. The interesting factoid about Maurice Strong is that he had made his money as an entrepreneur in Canadian oil patch, a sector many consider to be responsible for destroying our environment. In some ways, Strong exemplifies the human ability to evolve – that is, to recognise the ills we cause as an individual or collectively as humankind, and make amends.
A significant point in the history of the Environment Day is a report on the ‘health of Earth’s environment’ that Maurice Strong commissioned in 1971. The report titled “Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet” was to be tabled at the 1972 Stockholm conference. “The report summarised the findings of 152 leading experts from 58 countries” . The Stockholm conference was the first UN meeting on the environment. The report was the world’s first report on the health/state of the environment. The conference led to the establishment of ‘environment’ as a part of international development agenda.
On December 15, 1972, a UN resolution was passed at the UN General Assembly to create United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to be led by Maurice Strong. The decision to designate June 15 as Environment Day was also taken at this UN General Assembly Meeting.
As an aside, Maurice Strong as the Head of UNEP convened the first international expert group meeting on climate change. Sadly, he passed away November of 2015 unable to see how the legacy he created led to a historic moment in humankind’s existence – when more than 160 countries came to a consensus on the need to reduce carbon emissions when they met in Paris in December 2015 at the COP-21. And, not only that, they agreed to a binding agreement on reducing carbon emissions so as to arrest the global temperature increase to less than 1.5 degree Celsius over next year 100 years.
It is worthwhile to point out that the iconic picture of Earth from the outer space, dubbed the Big Blue Marble, was seen across the world in 1969. Today, we take that image for granted. The whole of humanity up until that point was unaware of the stunning beauty of our host – Planet Earth.
Stockholm Conference/Declaration: The Significance
The Stockholm Conference either was an effect of the changing collective consciousness of humans about the environment they were part of, or, perhaps a cause responsible for changing the collective consciousness of humans on this issue. Prof. Handl at Tulane Law School argues that the Stockholm Declaration of 1972 “espouses mostly broad environmental policy goals and objectives rather than detailed normative positions.”  He also points out, as did I note in my article on Earth Day , that 1970s was an era where global awareness of environmental issues increased dramatically. In parallel, there was an increase in the creation of state (country) and international laws pertaining environmental protection.
Environmental activism also expanded from local issues to global issues. That Climate Change has become a global issue and creation of Paris COP-21 agreement must owe their success, in part, to the Stockholm Declaration. There were 26 principles of the Stockholm Declaration ranging from the human rights issues of apartheid to the elimination of weapons of mass destruction. It also acknowledged that putting an end to economic development is not a solution and that developing countries needed assistance to deal with pollution issues as well as need to use Science and Technology to find solutions.
I wish to highlight three of the principles that specifically talk about environmental protection and pollution : (i) Wildlife must be safeguarded; (ii) Pollution must not exceed the environment’s capacity to clean itself; and (iii) Damaging oceanic pollution must be prevented. Interestingly, there was no mention of ‘air pollution’ or of “land pollution”. One of the specific principles of the Stockholm Declaration responsible for celebration of Environment Day was – “Environmental education is essential.”
Why Environment Day?
To implement the ‘environmental education’ principle of the Stockholm Declaration, it was realized by United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UN General Assembly that an effective campaign was required. And, thus was born the “World Environment Day (WED)”. As per the United Nations , the purpose of Environment Day is to: (a) to engage people across the globe and encourage worldwide awareness for environment, (ii) to effect actions for protection of environment through policy changes brought about by public awareness.
The first WED was celebrated on June 05, 1973; the date June 5 was, of course, the first day of the 1972 Stockholm Conference. The theme for the first Environment Day was “One Earth”, named after the Report on the ‘state of environment’ tabled at the Stockholm Conference.
Every year, Earth Day is celebrated with a specific theme and a host city is also designated. Several World Environment Days have been centered around water theme – Water: a vital role for life (’76); Ground Water – Toxic Chemicals in Human Food Chain (’81); Water – 2 billion people dying for it (‘03); Wanted! Seas and Oceans – Dead or Alive (’04).
Themes on land issues were – Ozone layer, environmental concerns, lands loss (’77); Desertification (’84); Deserts and Desertification (’06).
World Environment Day with air related environmental themes were also celebrated – Ozone layer, environmental concerns, lands loss (’77) and Global Warming (’89).
Let me briefly point out impact of some of these WEDs. The theme for 1977 WED was coordinated with the UN initiative to curb release of refrigerants that damage the high level ozone in atmosphere – which resulted in a huge milestone in the history of Environmental protection by the way of the 1977 Montreal Protocol. Some credit must also be given to 1989 WED focus on Global Warming that has become a driving force in the changes on Environmental Policies all across the globe. It is pertinent to mention that it was in June 1988 that out-not- to-be- controversial James Hansen of NASA had testified to the US Congress that he was 99% certain that ‘Global Warming’ had begun. My point in sharing these details is to highlight the effectiveness of the Environment Day campaigns in achieving at least one of the two purposes – that of engaging millions of people and drawing their government into discussing both the issues and in potentially getting the ball rolling on pertinent policy changes.
2016 World Environment Day – “Go Wild for Life”
The theme for 2016 World Environment Day is “Go Wild for Life” with a dual purpose of – celebrating all species under threat and taking action to safeguard their survival. A significant focus is on the move towards a zero-tolerance for the illegal trade in wildlife, a plague deeply affecting African and Asian countries. Tigers in India, despite progresses made, are still under threat both due to illegal hunting and growing encounters of the wild beauties with ever-expanding habitats of humans. Poaching of elephant tusk in Africa makes for an oft-heard news item; sadly.
One can remember the disgust and outrage expressed by people all across the globe upon learning the sad end of Cecil the Lion by the hands of a Safari hunter. This was certainly not a case of illegal ‘trade’. Last November, another outrageous picture was posted where a German hunter stood shaking hands with his African helper, and in the background was a taller than them even in his succumbed state was a majestic tusker.
Several other species are under critical threat including Rhinos, Panda, and even Gorillas. Personally, I crave to see a live mammoth – an elephant-like creature that went extinct some 10,000 years ago. My desire would be to see extinct creatures come back to life, let alone have the existing species go extinct.
What can we do?
So, if you have made it this far – either after surviving the long-read or by deftness of scrolling down, it is now time to talk about what we can do to contribute to the health of our environment. There are many options – get involved in mass movements, effect a change in the implementing or changing the Environment policies – if you happen to work in a corporate environment, teach and learn from your kids…. But some more effective, even if small, ways of contributing is to ‘think’ about and become conscious of what are the implications of our day-day actions.
- Recycle cans, papers, plastics… don’t throw them in garbage, for it may end up in the landfill. This act will protect both the land and water.
- Don’t throw batteries in garbage. They contain toxic chemicals, which may end up in the groundwater and ultimately in our food either through direct water consumption or through food chain.
- Minimise the emissions of CO 2 and particulate matter by not using vehicles to fetch items from nearby place… walk or bike.
- Switch off lights when not occupying a room
- Men folks, no need to have water continuously running the tap when shaving.
The list is long and I do not want to be prescriptive. I simply hope that we exercise the one distinguishing quality our species has acquired – consciousness. Be conscious of your environment. So, on a philosophical, perhaps poetic note must I end this:
In diversity of the wild, lies the beauty of the natural order, In co-existence, the ultimate balance… of life without borders.
In pursuit of wealth, lose not the richness of experience, Save a life, and a species is saved… make life worthwhile; make a difference.
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