There is a symbiotic relationship between man and environment. Environment does not merely mean landscape, soil, water, desert or mountains but is a sum total of living and non-living components; influences and events surrounding an organism. It also includes the biological or biotic influences in the form of microbes and animals.
Earth is the only known planet in the solar system which supports life—within its very thin layer called ‘Biosphere’. The natural resources that provide the base for human sustenance and development by providing ecosystem services are not inexhaustible. There has been substantial decline and degradation of natural resources over the years and there is an urgent need for sustainable natural resources management.
German geographer Friedrich Ratzel’s concept of ‘Determinism’ says that man is subordinate to the environment for social, economic, political, ethical and aesthetic needs. The ‘Concept of Possibilism,’ coined by the French historian Lucien Febvre, describes the relationship between man and environment.
Man has brought changes to the environment by over-exploiting its capacity to meet his needs and demands. While this has improved the standard of living of mankind, subjugation of nature has done irreparable damage to environment, which now poses a threat to the Planet Earth. We cannot throw into the limbo of oblivion the world’s worst man-made industrial disaster at Union Carbide India Limited on December 2-3, 1984 also referred to as the Bhopal Gas tragedy which claimed hundreds of lives.
The environment can be categorised into: (i) Natural Environment—oceans, lakes, ponds, rivers, forests, grasslands and deserts; (ii) Human-modified Environment—orchards, plantations, sanctuaries, parks; and (iii) Human-made Environment—industries, cities, towns, crop fields, artificial lakes, dams, etc.
Environmentalism describes man as an integral part of the environment. This approach emphasises the need for wise and restrained use of natural resources and application of appropriate environmental management programmes, policies and strategies with a view to ensuring that depleted natural resources are replenished, while keeping the health and productivity of nature intact.
Radioactive hazardous wastes, organic waste from kitchens, crockery, tin and plastic cans, glass bottles, cloth rags, straw, ash slag, lime sludge, brine mud, scraps of metals, glass, ferrous and non-ferrous metals, wool, thread and paper; fly ash, plastics, pesticides, and herbicides get mixed in the soil of the fields. Run-offs from agricultural lands bring these into water bodies. Irrigation from such water bodies takes pesticides and herbicides back to the field areas. Spraying and evaporation enable the entry of pesticides into the atmosphere. Rainfall brings back these chemicals into land and water bodies. Persistent chemicals and pollutants follow this pathway for a much longer time and enter the food chain. If not biodegradable, these pollutants can bio-accumulate and bio-magnify in the higher levels of the food chain.
As a result of chemical reactions between pollutants e.g. sulphur, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and particulates released from fuel burning, normal atmospheric compounds under the influence of electromagnetic radiation from the Sun spell catastrophe for our environment.
Altering vegetation cover, discharging heated water from steam generators, metal smelters, processing mills, petroleum refineries, paper mills, food processing factories and chemical manufacturing plants, change ambient water temperature and decrease oxygen supply thus affecting the ecosystem composition. Fish and other organisms are killed by an abrupt change in water temperature known as ‘Thermal Shock’.
Oceans are the ultimate sink of pollutants viz. municipal sewage, industrial effluents, hospital waste and domestic effluents. These wastes reach oceans as run-offs through streams,
canals or rivers or accidental spills like oil spills. If the temperature of tropical oceans is lowered by even one degree, the environment can become lethal to some corals and some reef species.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) defines climate change as a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global environment.
Human society is standing at the crossroads and searching for better alternatives for a sustainable future Earth. The United Nations’ Brundtland Commission rightly propounded in its report the need for sustainable development for meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.
Albert Einstein had said, “The environment is everything that is not me”. Undeniably, there will not be a society if the environment is destroyed. Destroying the environment for material gains is just like using a ‘Renaissance Painting’ as a gift wrapper. An activist is not an individual who just says, ‘Ganga Maili Hai’ but is the one who cleans it up!