With the exception of a few skeptics, most people believe that God created the earth, sea and skies, the cycle of seasons, plant and animal life, and environmental systems. Then He entrusted the care of His creation to Man, on a long-time lease. God also gave Man dominion over the earth. Its vast resources were to be used responsibly to feed, clothe and accommodate him and his family. Man was endowed with intelligence for research, invention and scientific discovery in various specialities like biology, physics and chemistry. Technological inventions were to be used for the good of Man as well as for preservation of the natural environment. It was to be a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship.
However, History shows that every major scientific discovery has been misused because Man has forgotten that he is merely the caretaker – the steward of the earth’s resources. God is still the owner and Man is accountable for his actions. One of the paradoxes of modern science is that Man has assumed God-like powers, but has squandered the confidence vested in him for short-term gains, with total disregard for posterity. As a consequence, he has upset his relationship with Nature, and ushered in an eco-crisis. Hundreds of years ago, the prophet Jeremiah said,
“Your wrongdoing has upset Nature’s order, and your sins have kept you from her gifts.”
Clearly Man has made a mess of the environment, and the consequences are now being globally felt.
First among the reasons for concern is the problem of Resource Depletion.
We need vegetation and forests because they act as natural rain-water harvesters. They absorb water during the rains, and release moisture during summer. Tree cover has a protective function, and shields us from avalanches, floods and soil erosion. Indiscriminate denudation of forests and bad farming methods have brought about acute water shortage, drought, soil erosion and flash floods in many parts of the world. Forest cover has now been reduced to a mere 11%. World wide, deserts have increased by 150% in the last 100 years. So at present, almost half of the earth’s surface is arid. What a tragic loss of arable land!
Similarly, there is a depletion of the earth’s water content. Rivers and lakes have dried up. Oceans are contaminated with toxic chemicals, pesticides, fertilizers, oil spillages that have not only destroyed varieties of fish, but also the natural flora of algae, plankton and coral reefs. These are essential for absorbing carbon dioxide from the air and providing us oxygen to breathe. But excess of nitrogen in water has depleted its oxygen content.
The air around us is heavy with emissions from factories, power stations, vehicles, air traffic, and even nuclear plants. Sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) rise into the stratosphere and threaten to destroy the ozone layer. This ‘green house effect’ has been causing climatic modifications.
Poaching of wild animals and birds has seen the extinction of several species of wild life. During the last 2000 years, more than 100 species of mammals have disappeared from the face of the earth.
Unchecked Population growth is another major factor that has upset the ecological balance. A large percentage of people live below the poverty line creating problems of employment, housing, water, sanitation. Migration from rural areas to cities has magnified civic problems of sewage disposal, provision of potable water and control of epidemics, due to the mushrooming of squatter colonies and shanty towns. In 1920, only about 360 million lived in cities around the world. Today there are more than 3000 million city dwellers. Of these, nearly 1000 million suffer from malnutrition. Tuberculosis, sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS is spreading rapidly, and diseases like malaria and small pox are resurfacing.
Rapid Industrialization has brought so much pollution into the atmosphere, that it is taking a toll on the health of millions of people. The incidence of blood diseases like leukemia, cancers of various kinds, skin infections and respiratory allergies is frightening. In USA alone, 142 tons of smoke is released into the air every year. Modern technology is greedy for fossil fuels, and at the present rate, the temperature of the earth will increase considerably, leading to melting of polar ice and dangerous flooding. Global warming is already imminent, and even the West is beginning to experience something of the tropical heat.
The virtually indestructible garbage from nuclear plants is nerve-chilling. There is still no permanent means of disposing off nuclear wastes. They remain radioactive for centuries. No matter how deep they are buried in the ground, the possibility of being inadvertently dug up by future generations is real.
Scientists and environmentalists are now seized of the urgency to save our planet. It is providential that Nature has incredible powers of recuperation and regeneration. It is up to us to individually and collectively restore the delicate balance of nature, by thinking and acting ecologically.
Watch-dog organizations like the Green Peace Movement are on the alert, to expose errant governments and individuals, and prevent more damage. However, environmental activists sometimes tend to go overboard. With their nit-picking and constant tirades against industry, development and technology, they can make human life impossible. To submit completely to such a “theocracy of nature worshippers” would be a retrogressive step.
Bringing about a substantial healing of Nature must be a joint effort of the common people, resource planners, developers, environmentalists and local administrative authorities. The urgency of protecting the environment must be brought to bear on the general public, through vigorous dissemination of information through print, audio, and visual media. People should learn that it is their responsibility to enhance natural environment and not destroy it. The system of land use should imitate the natural vegetation of each area. There should be a balance between the growth of forests and the cutting of trees. Aged trees need to be chopped down, and seedlings planted to fill in the gaps. Cutting of large number of plants without replacing them could lead to soil erosion, sudden floods, and even extinction of certain varieties of plants, birds and insects. Stumps of cut trees should be properly treated so that fungal infection does not take place or spread.
Research and implementation of protective measures for endangered species of plants, and ‘gene banks’ for plant conservation are already in operation.
Rapid industrialization has even poisoned the food we eat. Strict guidelines should be issued and enforced on industries, and those flaunting the rules must be punished through criminal prosecution. There should be special branches of courts to deal with environmental cases. Disposal of toxic chemicals, pesticides, radioactive substances must follow stringent procedures. Defaulters must be punished, or their polluting industries closed down.
Indiscriminate urban development must be contained. Every planning project affecting people’s lives must be done in consultation with the general public. Human life is valuable. Soulless concrete jungles and box-like high-rise buildings are choking the breath out of ordinary people. Squatter colonies and slums cannot be allowed to flourish and create health and civic problems.
Wild life conservation must be encouraged. Poaching of animals and birds must be contained, and forest staff who facilitate unlawful acts must be dealt with severely.
Recycling material whenever possible is another way of saving the environment. Wastes can be reduced by prohibiting plastics and other material that is not biodegradable. It is estimated that about 60% of material we use can be recycled.
Composting sludge from Municipal waste through treatment plants, can yield good fertilizers. During composting, the high temperature generated, kills germs and dilutes heavy metal content.
Alternate sources of energy such as biomass conversion, solar and hydroelectric energy is a definite step towards total independence from fossil fuels and nuclear energy.
We can no longer take our water supplies for granted. Rainwater harvesting, trickle or drip irrigation where water is sparingly used, ensure no wastage of water or loss through evaporation.
There is a causal relationship between man-made reservoirs and the incidence of earthquakes. Dams if not built according to specifications can submerge large tracts of land, and render people landless and bankrupt. Man has acquired so much knowledge, that he has the power to transform life on earth. But this knowledge must be used prudently, keeping a balance between natural situations and man-made changes. While environmental activists cannot value pristine Nature above human life and needs, market forces and materialistic considerations should not bring about ecological confusion.
Barbara Ward calls Creation “the most majestic unity of the planet.” This is because of “ natural laws which produce an equilibrium of biological forces, held in position by checks and balances of a most delicate sort.”
Tom Dale and Vernon Carter remind us that “Man whether civilized or savage, is a child of Nature. He is not the master of Nature. He must conform his actions to certain natural laws if he is to maintain dominance over his environment.”
It is time to make peace with nature, and become responsible stewards of our vast and wonderful resources.