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Whose environment is it anyway?

In a regular classroom discussion, we were once asked to define ‘environment’. Every one of us confidently shouted either ‘surrounding’, ‘climate’, ‘animal and plant habitat’ or ‘nature’. It’s a common word, and we’ve used it since our childhood, we wouldn’t collectively get it wrong. Yet, our professor maintained that something integral was missing in our definition. To exemplify, he painted a scenario for us – “there have been very severe volcanoes in The Antipodes; all the trees caught fire and the entire island has been wrecked”. Sounds dramatic right? He then asked if our reaction would change if we were told that The Antipodes are almost entirely uninhabited?

Violent acts of nature have been taking place since time immemorial, the only time that man has cared enough to want to prevent them has been when human life was damaged or threatened by them. Why then do we define the environment as something external to human beings? Just trees and animals don’t make up the environment, trees and animals that we interact with in some way (either in the food chain or due to our habitat) make up the environment for us. This seems quite intuitive, why have a discussion over it? I believe, this fundamental idea of the environment is instrumental in understanding how one protects it, and for whom we must protect it.

Let’s take the example of forests. Economically termed a public good, and in the governance language – a common property resource, forests have had a conflicted past when it comes to their ownership. Think about it carefully, who do the forests really belong to? To the tribals who were the first settlers and claimants of forests and who continue to derive cultural and economic value from them? Or to all other non-human species endemic to the forests, which existed much before the tribals, and even co-existed along with the tribals? Or do the forests belong to the rest of us in society for our recreation in the form of jungle safaris and sanctuaries? Or do they belong to the Govt. to earn revenue from the timber and non-timber forest produce, as well as from tourism? And finally, do they belong to the globe, since forests are considered large and natural sinks for atmospheric carbon dioxide. Answering the above question determines how we plan to protect our forests (and consequently the ‘environment’), and whether we will succeed in doing so or not.

But why does the environment need protection? Everyone agrees that anthropogenic activities are putting an unprecedented burden on environmental goods and services; leading to irreversible damage to ecosystems and in many cases to the sustenance of human life itself. However, in our quest to leave behind the earth in the form we inherited from our ancestors, for our children, we may be depriving the less privileged citizens in our generation from accessing the environmental services that we have already availed of. What good is our inter-generational concern if we can’t extend it intra-generationally? Politically too the same argument can be extended. The developed world, with more than one SUVs in many homes and countless flight trips per person, has been pressurizing developing countries to cut down their emissions. Developing countries, where less than 60% of the households are electrified, where riding a bicycle is not one’s chosen mode of transport, where clean cooking fuels are still a dream to many. Is social justice not an integral element of sustainable development?

Zoom into our own country, and the situation is no better – diesel subsidy has been removed but aircraft fuel is being subsidised, bullet trains are being built, however, no new road or rail routes connecting rural areas are being planned. The reason why India’s per capita emissions are so low is not its large population (as per the argument that’s commonly made at international forums), but the fact that majority of its people still have a very small carbon footprint. What would one really emit if they had one bulb and one fan in the house, they walked to their place of work every day, and barely managed to cook one square meal on a firewood chulah?

Then who should protect the environment? And how? Unfortunately, ‘increasing efficiency’ and ‘improving technology’ remain the only Band-Aid solutions at the moment. Even though, it is a well-known fact that increasing efficiency actually increases consumption until a point where the scales are large enough for emissions to decrease. Privilege has allowed us to simply abandon the ideology of minimalism (by choice) and no-wastage as a measure of environmental conservation. Goods and services that were a luxury before are increasingly becoming necessities. The existing social order expects such minimalism and conscientious consumption only from the already less fortunate.

Who does the onus of fixing the problem really lie on? Given the fiduciary duty of our elected Government to provide for all its citizens alike, some of the initial interventions need to be implemented by the authorities. Measures like decreasing commuting distances for people through integrated urban planning, improving mass transport systems especially within cities, encouraging industries to take up alternate energy sources and guaranteeing reliable electricity to areas that currently do not have access need to be considered. Including such interventions in our development plans can help weave the environmental and social justice discourse into our social fabric on a broad level.

At an individual level, we need to contribute by accepting part of the blame for the environmental degradation, and adopting significant lifestyle changes that can ensure more resources, not just for our future, but also for the less fortunate in the present. Environmental action must incorporate social justice, otherwise it will end up going against it, and thus be rendered meaningless. After all, protecting the needs of our fellow humans is part of protecting the environment.

Shruti is a Research Analyst at Council on Energy Environment and Water.


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