Reckless consumption making the world filthy

ACCORDING to a recent report by the US and European environmental groups, the rapidly industrialising India and China have claimed four of the top ten most polluted places on the planet. The ‘top ten list’ is based on scoring criteria devised by an international group of experts including researchers from Johns Hopkins University, Hunter College, Harvard University, IIT Delhi, University of Idaho, Mt. Sinai Hospital, and leaders of major international environmental remediation companies. Specialists from Green Cross Switzerland also participated in this year's assessment. The methodology for 2007 ‘top ten list’ was refined to place more weight on the scale and toxicity of the pollution and on the numbers of people at risk.

Two very large toxic sites affecting hundreds of thousands of people in India and China have been included this year, according to Richard Fuller, director of the New York-based Blacksmith Institute, an independent environmental group that released the report in partnership with Green Cross Switzerland. The 10 sites in seven countries documented in the <World's Worst Polluted Places 2007> affect a total of 12 million people.

One such site is Tianying in the Anhui Province of China, which produces about 50 percent of the country's lead, often from low-level and illegal production facilities. A lack of environmental enforcement has resulted in severe lead poisoning, with soil and homes contaminated at levels 10 to 24 times China's national standards. Up to 140,000 people may be affected, suffering from brain damage and mental retardation.

Another toxic community is in India's Sukinda Valley in the state of Orissa, home to some 2.6 million people and one of the largest open cast chromite ore mines in the world. There, twelve mines continue to operate without any environmental management plans. Over 30 million tonnes of waste rock are spread over the surrounding area and untreated water is discharged into the local river. The ore is mined and refined for use in the many chrome-plated products enjoyed in North America and Europe. Approximately 70 percent of the surface water and 60 percent of the drinking water contains hexavalent chromium at more than double national and international standards, and sometimes up to 20 times higher. In villages less than one kilometre from the sites, 24.47 percent of the inhabitants were found to be suffering from pollution-induced diseases.

Another new feature of the 2007 report is the "Dirty 30", a more comprehensive group of polluted locations around the globe that includes the ‘top ten list’. The majority of the Dirty 30 sites lie in Asia, with China and India in the lead. More than 400 sites were surveyed for inclusion.

However, the onus is not on a set of countries alone. The fact that Russia topped the ‘top ten list’ last year with the three sites in the top ten. Particularly Dzerzhinsk, a city of 300,000 people where chemical weapons like sarin, VX gas, mustard gas, and phosgene have been manufactured for 50 years.

Actually, the West has been primarily responsible for environmental deterioration. It is estimated that each year European nations alone dump more than seven hundred thousands tons of mercury, nitrogen, phosphorous, cadmium, lead, zinc, etc., into the North Sea. Have they ever thought what right do they have to cause such agonising death to thousands of seals and damage marine ecosystem as a whole?

The above-mentioned problem is singularly due to blind consumption of natural resources prevalent in the West. On the contrary, the largest population of the Third World is not a great threat to the environment and that it is the level of consumption that threatens the environment and not the number of people or animals. It is true that the Third World is following no better examples by following North. Everybody knows that much smaller population of several countries of North have much higher rates of consumption; thus they have to think about ecologizal austerity and sustainability.

The prevalent consumption pattern has impacted the ecology in North in particular. The governments there are on the forefront to destroy some of the last fragments of ancient forests. Is not it happening only to meet over consumption of paper, timber and heating wood? No doubt that some conscientious organisations there are campaigning for the protection of the depleting old-natural forests but the question is why they have not been able to stop their governments from exporting timber to other countries?

It is no wonder that Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, an environmental and energy economist described by Paul Samuelson as 'an economist's economist’, had the common sense to point out that even at zero growth the continued consumption of scarce resources would inevitably result in exhausting them completely. Therefore, the point is how to consume judiciously as there is no other way of conserving the available resources for future generations. Going by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen’s observation, how appropriate would it be to allow the US to consume devastatingly? Why that country is allowed to consume most of the petroleum products and emit hazardous gases at the highest levels? And on top of everything, why there are no signs of re-thinking on the issue? The point is that why the re-thinking is not coming from the society if the government there chooses to keep animated silence?

Here it would be appropriate to quote Shekhar Singh, an eminent Indian environmental academician, who is of the view that the enlightened and progressive societies must develop a broad social consensus on the environment, especially on what needs to be conserved, where, and how, as natural environment in the world is under severe and increasing threat due to the large-scale destruction of forests, pollution, and overuse patterns. According to him, the society must also develop a systemic, institutional and individual capacity, and the political and administrative will, to carry forward an agenda vis-a-vis environment. Besides, a social consensus on the environment must be based on a realistic appreciation of the status of the environment and a proper understanding of the implications of environmental degradation.

What Mahatma Gandhi or US naturalist Henry David Thoreau had said about ecological austerity can be found in a Central Himalayan hamlet: Some thirty-five years back in my small village in the Central Himalaya or the new Indian state of Uttarakhand, everybody would fell trees in the community forest in violation of the traditional practices. Practically, there was no check on anybody and as a consequence, the oak and rhododendron trees started disappearing fast. Also, the moisture regime lost its sheen and vegetation including small bushes, herbal and medicinal plants, wild fruit trees, berries, grass etc., started disappearing. The concerned village elders had to decide to apply brakes on the new trend of felling trees indiscriminately. Today, the same forest is again dense and has turned out to be a good habitat for the wildlife. Nobody has the courage to enter the forest all alone, where we used to roam around freely and play hide-and-seek some four decades back. Besides, the water bodies down below have enough water unlike most of the villages in the area. My village, called Onchar, is continuing to supply water to several other villages. This example also gives a picture of what happens when society as a whole participates in preserving its ecology.

Similarly, <deva vana> – forests devoted to the Goddess Nature or the local deities – by village folks of India are other excellent examples. Such forests assiduously protect forestlands consisting of rare trees, herbs, and medicinal plants and are spread all over India. <Ayurveda> or the organic, non-chemical Indian life science tradition has undoubtedly developed due to herbs and medicinal plants found in such forestlands.

Written in the year 2007.