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Our Gift, Our ‘Present’: Our Environment
|by Ramendra Kumar|
Birds and the bees, the flowers and the trees
Green House Effect:
A green house is a glass building in which plants are kept to protect them from cold weather. Like the glass panes in a greenhouse, certain gases in the earth's atmosphere permit the sun's radiation to heat the earth but do not allow the infrared energy radiated by the earth to escape. This process is referred to as the greenhouse effect. These gases, primarily carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and water vapour, insulate the earth's surface, helping to maintain warm temperatures. Without these gases, the earth would be a frozen planet with an average temperature of about -18° C instead of a comfortable 15° C. If the concentration of these gases were higher, more heat would be trapped within the atmosphere, and world wide temperatures would rise.
Depletion of the Ozone Layer:
The ozone layer, a thin band in the upper atmosphere, serves to shield the earth from the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays. In the 1970s, scientists discovered that the layer was being attacked by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), chemicals used in refrigeration, air-conditioning systems, cleaning solvents, and aerosol sprays.
A significant portion of industry and transportation is based on the burning of fossil fuels. As these fuels are burned, chemicals and particulate matter are released into the atmosphere. Although a vast number of substances contribute to air pollution, the most common contain carbon, sulphur, and nitrogen. These chemicals interact with one another and with ultraviolet radiation in sunlight in various dangerous ways. sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide are transformed into sulphuric acid and nitric acid in the atmosphere. When these gases come back to earth in precipitation, they form acid rain. Acid rain is a serious global problem because few species are capable of surviving in the face of such acidic conditions. Acid rain has made numerous lakes so acidic that they no longer support fish populations. It is also thought to be responsible for the decline of many forest ecosystems world-wide. Germany's Black Forest has suffered dramatic losses, and recent surveys suggest that similar declines are occurring throughout the eastern United States.
Ground Water Depletion:
Water that seeps through porous rocks and is stored beneath the ground is called groundwater. World-wide, groundwater is 40 times more abundant than fresh water in streams and lakes. However, even though groundwater is a renewable resource, reserves are replenished relatively slowly. In many countries such as the United States, approximately half the drinking water comes from groundwater.
Habitat Destruction and Species Extinction:
It is believed that species are dying out at an unprecedented rate; minimum estimates are at least 4000 species per year. The leading cause of extinction is habitat destruction, particularly of the world's richest ecosystems-tropical rain forests and coral reefs. At the current rate at which the world's rain forests are being cut down, they may completely disappear by the year 2030. If growing population size puts even more pressure on these habitats, they might well be destroyed sooner.
Practical, enforceable pollution laws have to be passed. These laws should take care not only of the immediate future but also have a long term perspective.
Thirty years ago London could have claimed the title "Smog City, Europe." Three-fourths of its smoke is gone now—a remarkable change triggered by a series of killer fogs in the late 1940's and early 1950's. The worst of these settled over London in December 05, 1952. For four consecutive days the city's normal daily death rate more than tripled. In all, some 4,000 extra deaths that winter were blamed on the incident. More such fogs came in the winters that followed. Each took its toll.
In 1956 Parliament passed the Clean Air Act, ordering that factories and homes in critical areas of the city must switch from soft high-Sulphur coal to less smoky fuels: hard coal, gas, electricity, or oil. Inevitably there were economic repercussions, both to householders and to industries. But, with each passing year, London's air grew clearer.…
If the other cities of the world want a pollution free ambience then they should follow the London example.
Human population growth may be seen to be at the root of virtually all of the world's environmental problems. Increasingly large numbers of people are being added to the world every year. As the number of people increases, more pollution is generated, more habitats are destroyed, and more natural resources are used up. Even if new technological advances were able to cut in half the environmental impact that each person had, as soon as the world's population size doubled, the earth would be no better off than before.
The most effective way of controlling population is through dissemination of information. People are to be made aware of the advantages of a small family. They should be explained the problems a large family can create for the individual, the society and the nation at large. Family planning issues should be discussed and advise given.
While this is primarily the responsibility of the government and the doctors, everyone should chip in. Even students can help out by going to slums, counseling the inhabitants, performing street plays and think up other innovative means of getting the message across.
It is widely believed that because of their huge populations the developing nations are far more responsible for the ecological problems. This is a fallacy. It is true that population increases faster in the developing world than the developed world. However, the impact on the environment is still the same. This is because, since larger amounts of resources per person are used in the developed nations, their citizens have a greater environmental impact.
This means that while the developing nations have to concentrate on population control the developed world has to teach its citizens the dangers of reckless consumption.
Education is one of the most powerful tools to spread awareness about environment and its management.
Fed up with its failure to bring down pollution and protect its environment the government of Sweden implemented a carefully drawn out strategy. The key element of the strategy was education. A Swedish student starts learning ecology in primary grades, and he continues all through high school. Adult courses have also been set up all over Sweden and have received an overwhelming response.
According to a spokesman of the Swedish Government, “Our primary targets were the people at local government levels. Before a community agrees to let a new factory come to town, we want its people to consider more than just the short-range economic gains. Will the new factory create environmental hazards? In our public-education courses, we teach adults to ask just such unpleasant question."
Sweden’s strategy has made its people environment friendly and the country a leader in Environment Management.
Environmentalists feel that prioritizing is one of the keys to the effective management of the environment. Each nation and each community has to prioritize. For instance in India population control, cleaning up of rivers, and checking the unplanned growth of cities can be the chief priorities.
Being Realistic :
Every time a new project is launched – such as the construction of a dam – the politicians, social activists, the bureaucrats and the government are all at logger heads. As a result the project runs into heavy weather. What is required is for the parties concerned to get together and come to a decision. The decision should be such that it balances the risk and return and aims to achieve the greatest good of the greatest number.
Before using new technology or a new chemical, both the long terms as well as the short term side effects have to be explored. And when a new product is developed, plans should be made for its ultimate disposal. Or else this could create an environmental hazard in future.
Conservation is the sustainable use of natural resources – both renewable as well as non-renewable. Recycling or reuse is one of the most effective ways of conservation. In many cases it is possible to reuse or recycle resources to reduce waste and conserve the energy needed to produce consumer products.
For example, paper, glass, aluminum, metal scrap, and motor oil can all be recycled. A preventative measure called pre-cycling, a general term for designing more durable, recyclable products, encourages reuse. Many countries have established mandatory recycling laws in an attempt to reduce waste and consumption.
By achieving synergy between two industrial units too one can achieve the goal of conservation. For instance one factory's industrial waste can be another plant's raw material.
A key experiment, inexpensive and of almost immediate utility, is the generation of bio-gas from city and town sewage as well as water hyacinth which for years been blocking waterways and clogging fields. The extra amount of power required is small, but it increases the output of power by seventy per cent. Its financial returns are encouraging, apart from its great advantage of preventing air pollution and clogging.
There is a global need to increase energy conservation and the use of renewable energy resources. Renewable alternatives such as waterpower (using the energy of moving water, such as rivers), solar energy (using the energy from the sun), wind energy (using the energy of the wind or air currents), and geothermal energy (using energy contained in hot-water deposits within the Earth’s crust) are efficient and practical ways of energy conservation.
The Good News:
So much is being said, discussed, and written about man ravaging the environment that we start feeling panicky. Though the situation does warrant concern the news is not all bad. There is plenty to cheer about on the environment front.
Let’s start with the atmosphere and climate. The ozone layer is on the point of recovering. This success story dates back to 1987, when scientists began to voice their concerns. The world’s governments moved in just nine months to conclude a treaty to eliminate chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other ozone-destroying chemicals. Today almost two decades later the result is encouraging.
The world over scientists, engineers, technologists are working to tackle the menace of global warming, acid rain, urban smog etc. They have realized that the best way of doing it is by reducing the consumption of fossil fuels, viz. coal, oil, and natural gas. To achieve this they need to build more efficient cars, insulate buildings better, and use advanced light bulbs.
An excellent example has been set by Amory Lovins, a Colorado scientist. He, is well on the way to inventing a streamlined and hybrid-power car that will drive from New York to Los Angeles on a single tankful of gasoline. He and his wife Hunter live at 7,100 feet in the Rocky Mountains where the winter temperature often plunges below freezing every night for weeks if not months on end. Their house with its exceptional energy-efficiency installations leaves them with an annual heating bill of less than Rs. 2,500, which by American standards is extremely low. Nor did the house need way-out and costly technology. All items had long been available at the local store, and the Lovins’s energy savings paid off their capital investment within two years.
Innovative house lighting can save on electricity and hence on fossil fuels. In Japan, more than 80 percent of homes are lit with low-power and long-lasting bulbs that give light as good as conventional bulbs.
In Norway, one home in every 25 (50,000 in total) are powered by photovoltaics. In Kenya, 20,000 homes are electrified with solar cells. If price trends of the 1990s continue, solar technologies will provide power at rates which would make them broadly competitive with electricity derived from fossil fuels.
Much the same applies to wind power. During just the past few years, generating capacity has risen rapidly until wind power is now the fastest-growing energy source. India possesses the second fastest growing wind-power industry with 500 MW installed.
In many parts of the world, the cost of wind-generated electricity has fallen by two-thirds since 1990, and in many regions it has become competitive with new coal-fired power plants. As wind turbines enter mass production, costs should soon fall significantly making wind one of the least expensive electricity sources.
Examples of environmentally friendly practices making good business sense are increasing. Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing, makers of scotch tape and many other office supplies, has saved more than 500 crore rupees since 1975 through its recycling and waste management practices.
Innovative efforts to recycle and reuse waste are also yielding encouraging results.
Indian born Australian scientist Professor Veena Sahajwala has won a prestigious Australian science award for developing a technique to use waste plastic in steel making. Under this process waste plastics are fed into electric steel making furnaces as an alternative source of carbon. Many waste plastics from shopping bags to cold drink bottles contain high levels of carbon which is useful in steel making. This innovative technique has two vital benefits. It puts an environmental hazard like plastic to economical use and conserves a valuable resource like carbon.
All these innovations and proactive approaches augur well for us and our environment.
What You Can Do?
As children, the future leaders of tomorrow, what is your responsibility? After all you are going to inherit the earth from the present generation and pass it on to the next generation.
Each One Teach One:
Some time back the Indian Government had launched a literacy programme called ‘Each One Teach One’. Even then I had liked the idea immensely, though it had failed to take off. I think this campaign should be re-launched - not by any Government but by us, you and me.
In whichever part of the world we may be, if we consider ourselves the concerned and committed citizens of the world we should chip in. We should identify the illiterate in our vicinity and teach them the basics of not only the three Rs but also about hygiene and health.
And by ‘we’ I mean both adults as well as children. Father and daughter, mother and son can teach together and also be taught together.
This might sound simplistic to many of you. But please keep in mind that all great revolutions have begun with a simple step and eventually led to terrific results.
Mahatma Gandhi, an old and frail man picked up a handful of salt, on a beach in 1931, and rang the death knell of the biggest empire in the history of human civilization.
We too can make a small beginning. Each of us can pick up a single soul shrouded in ignorance and lead him (or her) on the well-lit path of knowledge. All it needs is a little bit of effort, a little bit of commitment and a tiny voice in our minds and hearts that will urge us on to make the lives of those around us a little better.
Each One Plant One:
Plant a sapling and care for it. Watch it grow, nourish and nurture it. Encourage your friends, family members, neighbors and anyone else you can to follow your example.
Each One an Environment Vigilante:
Whenever you see food or water being wasted prevent it. Begin in your own house and school.
Form eco-clubs in your school and neighborhood, let each member become an environment vigilante.
Interact continuously with people from all strata, across generations on environment issues. Here is a simple example. Our cities and towns are growing. To provide bricks for houses and offices, brick kilns are cropping up everywhere, using fertile soils from the top layers. Do the people who use these bricks or the brick layers know – that it takes nature over a century to make one centimeter of top soil? If owner of houses realize this, it would soon become possible to prevent haphazard digging up of soil for bricks. You should take up the responsibility of informing, of counseling people so they know the results of their seemingly harmless actions.
The Last Word:
Smt. Indira Gandhi, former Prime Minister of India was a great environmentalist and nature lover. Her words should serve as a guiding force for all of us as we try to make our world a safer, cleaner, saner and more humane place:
“Modern man must re-establish an unbroken link with nature and with life. He must again learn to invoke the energy of growing things and to recognize, as did the ancients in India centuries ago, that one can take from the earth and the atmosphere only so much as one puts back into them. In their hymn to Earth, the sages of the Atharva Veda chanted:
What of you I dig out, let that quickly grow over,
So can man himself be vital and of good heart and conscious of his responsibility.
Images (c) Gettyimages.com
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