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Guest Column/ Sanjay Gupta
Over 20 million Americans filled the streets and parks on 22 April 1970 celebrating the first Earth Day. This movement gained momentum and soon was instrumental in the passing of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act by the US Congress. A study conducted by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that Americans gained $45 for every dollar spent in controlling air pollution.
While EPA estimated the costs of undertaking clean water initiatives to be more than the quantified benefits, it decided to continue with them because of the qualitative benefits obtained. These two examples present a strong case on how enhanced public awareness on environmental issues can and will result in sustainable yet robust economic growth.
Population growth and escalating demand for resources still far out-pace the laudable efforts undertaken towards achieving sustainable development. Notably, health of natural resources is highly critical to the long-term growth of any economy. This is manifested to a greater extent in India where people in villages, poor people, and a large number of industries are directly dependent on natural resources for survival. Unfortunately, resource degradation hurts those most who can afford it the least — the poor and the underprivileged.
However, the required changes in the economy would have to be preceded by a change in our mindsets. In this regard, environmental education and widespread dissemination of information on various aspects related to our environment are necessary.
These could include desirable practices and changes in lifestyles, success stories and their methodologies, roles to be played by different sections of society, and regular exchange of ideas and feedback on these items.
Notably, in `The Tragedy of the Commons’, Garrett Hardin has argued that there is increasing realisation that no technical solutions exist for problems such as population, atomic war, and environmental corruption. Knowledge and mass awareness are the answer to such problems.
The power of individual actions cannot be underestimated. Keeping a refrigerator 5C cooler than is necessary increases electricity consumption by 25 per cent. Compact fluorescent lamps use 75 per cent less energy and last 10 times longer than conventional bulbs, which means huge savings for the consumer. A journey using public transport is not only cheaper but also far less resource-intensive compared to travel by car.
This translates into huge savings to the economy. Why fritter away dead leaves by burning them when composting them reduces air pollution and gives valuable manure? This means less money spent on chemical fertilisers and the accompanying subsidy.
An informed citizenry makes it easier for the government to pass environmental measures. It is heartening to note the near-absence of public protests over banning of old buses, 3-wheelers, and taxis (8 years or older) in spite of the obvious hardships being faced by the commuters. This can be attributed to the increasing public concern about air pollution.
Similarly, successful efforts by Delhi students to encourage vehicle owners to obtain `pollution under control’ certificates and to stop the use of firecrackers during Diwali are considered landmarks in environmental history.
The United States with 5 per cent of the global population consumes 25 per cent of all non-renewable energy sources and 33 per cent of paper products and generates 25 per cent of all pollution and trash. This phenomenon, termed as `consumption overpopulation’, is rarely put in the correct perspective to the American public. Policy-makers from George Bush to Bill Clinton often cite negative public opinion and Congressional resolutions as reasons for not taking action to reduce emissions or bring about changes in lifestyles.
Water wastage, as a result of leaks, high-volume cisterns, and other undesirable practices is a common phenomenon. Already 8 per cent of the global population is facing acute water shortages and this number is likely to rise to 35 per cent during the next three decades. Municipalities are awakening to the increasing costs of both procuring clean water and treating sewage. Public education could reduce per capita water consumption without compromising sanitation and the quality of life.
Again, it is mass awareness and action that can effectively find solutions to these socio-economic problems.
(The author is with TERI, New Delhi)