Averting the Revenge of Gaia

On a visit to Victoria, B.C. in 2007, my brother-in-law, Horst Molleken, a nature lover, introduced me to the ‘Gaia’ hypothesis proposed by James Lovelock, back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, which entails planet earth to be akin to a living organism having its own feedback and self-regulating mechanisms. This aroused my interest and I quickly headed for the downtown bookstore where I picked up Lovelock’s sequel titled “The Revenge of Gaia”.

Lovelock, is a globally reputed British earth scientist, and his book is both fascinating and alarming.  In short, the author argues that our generation has lived so irresponsibly and our reckless living has inflicted a disease on Gaia (literally, goddess Mother Earth in Greek) leaving her with no option but to destroy the invasive parasite (human economic activity). The author goes on to say that even if all economic development were to come to a halt, it would take more than a thousand years to recover from the damage already done and thus champions the case for a sustainable retreat rather than sustainable development.

Lovelock’s views and recommendations might be a bit extreme but there is no denying the fundamental tenets of his arguments. Lovelock’s assessment was corroborated by the Rockstrom report in 2009, which showed that three of nine planetary boundaries have already been crossed.

Pleanetary Boundaries_Rockstrom

Figure 1: Nine Planetary Boundaries as Depicted in the Rockstrom Report

Despite the writing on the wall, human beings are way too engrossed in economic growth as the altar to live and die for. I have attempted below to explore and asses the main issues in the environment debate; what is being done and what needs to be done.

The State of Mother Earth

A short prognosis of the state of planet earth reveals the following 5 top maladies:

Global Warming and Climate Change: Our failure to control greenhouse gases is leading to erratic and extreme weather patterns which was so noticeable in 2017 when we witnessed a record series of typhoons, cyclones and hurricanes across the globe.  There is enough scientific evidence that global warming is for real. Massive reliance on fossil fuels for energy and transportation has led to rising greenhouse gas emissions and rising global temperatures. On one hand, global warming is causing large scale ice melt; rising sea levels and abundance of warm water that threatens aquatic algae. On the other hand, it is threatening the existence of tropical forests.  Both aquatic algae and tropical forests are natural absorbers of carbon and our best insulation for global warming.

shutterstock_81823690_Glacier Melt

Figure 2: The Retreat of the Athabasca Glacier in 11 Decades (Source Euractiv.com)

Ocean Plastic: The unchecked use of plastics, particularly single-use plastics is destroying oceans.  World Economic Forum (WEF) in partnership with Ellen MacArthur Foundation predicts that by 2050 the weight of plastic waste in our oceans will equal the weight of fish. Plastics may a take a second to use and dispose but they take hundreds of years to decompose.

2018-02-11_21.00.57_Marine Litter

Figure 3: Consequences of Dumping Plastics in Oceans (Source: WEF)

Depleting Rivers: Across the world, we are witnessing depleting rivers on which townships depend. The city of Cape Town is currently experiencing its worst ever drought. In India we are witnessing previously perennial rain fed rivers drying up for some months in a year.   A lot of this has occurred due to unchecked deforestation; over exploitation by agriculture and wanton dumping of industrial effluents in rivers.

cauvery_dry river bed

Figure 4: River Kaveri in South India which Runs Dry for 4 Months in the year (Source: News18)

Industrial Pollution: is a consequence of not only fossil fuels consumption but also a by-product of the manufacturing economy and farm fires. Cities like Delhi have attained unprecedented pollution levels crossing well above the danger mark. Such pollution levels represent a major public health hazard. According to the U.N. 6.5 million people die annually because of air pollution and 92% of the world’s population are living in places which exceed recommended limits

Feeding a Dangerously Crowded Planet: This might just be the root cause for all our environmental problems. It is a lesser talked about matter that our planet is grossly overpopulated with a total population of 7.2 billion people. Large scale deforestation is taking place daily to bring more land in use for agriculture and animal grazing. This along with large-scale mechanised farming is causing unprecedented soil degradation. Industrial meat farming is contributing to more greenhouse emissions than all forms of transportation combined and meat eaters are responsible for twice the greenhouse gas emissions compared to those living on a plant diet.

Taking Collective Responsibility

Our planet is everyone’s responsibility and not just of the officials working at the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Governments across the world; the private sector; NGOs and individuals all need to come together as partners.

In 2015, 196 countries and representatives (collectively referred to as Parties) passed the Paris Agreement to combat global climate change.  Of these 196 parties, 174 have ratified the Agreement. By becoming a party to the Agreement, each nation/representative is responsible for containing rise in temperatures, to within 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and ideally within 1.5 degrees Celsius, in the time frame from 2015 till year 2100. Also, in 2015, the U.N. formulated the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) agenda consisting of 17 SDGs. The beauty of the SDGs framework is that it makes sure the goals of economic development and social inclusion are mutually inseparable from preserving the environment.

The Energy Response

The energy response needs to consider both supply alternatives and altering fossil fuel consumption. Across the globe, we are witnessing an overwhelming interest in renewable energy.  International Solar Alliance (ISA) was set up in 2015 to harness energy from the sun and reduce dependence on fossil fuels. ISA needs to work with governments and communities across the world to promote policy level measures for deployment of renewable energy.

Policy makers need to work on a war footing to provide incentives to the auto industry for switching over to electric vehicles. We need further progress on carbon taxes and introducing robust monitoring systems.  In India, the government has announced halting of new thermal power plants and a program to eventually wean these away.

Dealing with the Plastic Menace

We desperately need measures to curb the use of plastic given its non-biodegradable properties. Costa Rica, perhaps, is the first government to introduce a ban on single-use plastics and have it fully enforced by 2021.   PlasticBank , a noted Fintech,  was set up to build at-scale plastic recycling opportunities and provide incentives to monetize these using blockchain technology.

RallyForRivers

Both, droughts and floods can be brought under control by understanding the flow of rivers and appropriate land use along their banks. In India,  Isha Foundation has taken a move of bringing civil society together to RallyForRivers and promoting polices to promote afforestation, particularly along the banks of rivers. The idea is to enhance ground water retention through tree plantation along river banks which in turn will increase natural cloud seeding; carbon capture; make water flows perennial and also provide buffers to prevent flooding.  RallyForRivers  has submitted a draft policy document to the Government of India on how India’s rivers can be revitalised.

Curbing Pollution

In 2016, the World Health Organisation (WHO) launched a new air quality model with an aim of reducing the number of human deaths attributable to air pollution. Dr Maria Neira of WHO said “Solutions exist with sustainable transport in cities, solid waste management, access to clean household fuels and cook-stoves, as well as renewable energies and industrial emissions reductions”.

City/state councils need to limit the number of cars that can be owned and operated in a particular city or district. For instance, Singapore and the City of London have got programs that limit ownership and plying of cars.

Taking Personal Responsibility

The Story of Stuff

Quite recently, whilst attending the program India Leaders for Social Sector I was introduced to this beautiful video prepared and published by Tides Foundation featuring Annie Leonard. It’s called The Story of Stuff and depicts how linear (conspicuous) consumption on a finite planet is a recipe for disaster and how each one of us as consumers is responsible for environmental decay. In his seminal book  “Ecological Intelligence” author Daniel Goleman advocates the case for eco-consciousness and provides solutions in terms of exercising eco choice while consuming services and goods.

In the last decade or so, there has been a big leap in eco-consciousness in humankind. But we are clearly addressing only the tip of the iceberg. To avert the revenge of Gaia, we need to assume collective responsibility; we need to put the environment before economic development; we need to include externalised costs in production and we need to make correct choices in the way we eat food; the way we travel and the ways in which we consume and discard. Only then would we have earned our true salvation.

Shakti is a former banker, management consultant and I.T. professional and shares a close bond with Mother Nature. He can be reached at saranshaks@gmail.com

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