“It is obvious that the key problem facing humanity in the coming century is how to bring a better quality of life – for 8 billion or more people – without wrecking the environment entirely in the attempt. “ - E. O. Wilson[i]
Environment is defined as ‘the biotic and abiotic surrounding of an organism, or population, and includes particularly the factors that have an influence in their survival, development and evolution.’[ii] The industrial revolution of the 19th century and the subsequent rise of capitalism led to the economic development of Europe and other capitalist countries around the world. The advancement in technology and the emergence of new scientific concepts helped man in creating a new world in which humans rely more on machines than on their fellow humans. All these technological developments – the massive industrialization, construction of new factories and infrastructure – had an environmental cost which was blatantly ignored by our elder generations.
Today in the twenty-first century we have many specific environmental problems and it’s almost impossible to discuss all of them in one article. So I will focus on the two major issues:
Food and Hunger:
Thomas Malthus in his famous Essay on the Principle of Population argued that the ‘natural inequality of the two powers, of population, and of production of the earth, and that great law of our nature which must constantly keep their effects equal, form the great difficulty that appears to me insurmountable in the way to the perfectibility of society.’[iii] According to Malthus the human population will grow at an exponential rate while the production of food will gradually decrease because unlike the human population land is static and will not produce enough food. This will make universal poverty an ‘existential and inevitable’ fact of human existence. This theory of Malthus was debated extensively by economists and scholars in the twentieth century and triggered many researches.
Since 1960, there has been a dramatic increase in the production of rice, corn and wheat in developing countries. This has been made possible by the development of modern farming and agricultural techniques. While this can be seen as a positive development, there are still hundreds of millions of people for whom no progress has been made. In today’s world production is not a major issue, but it is the distribution of food which creates inequality and has led to a divide between the developing and the developed world.
According to the 2012 report of Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, one in eight people goes to sleep hungry every day and there are still 870 million hungry people worldwide[iv]. The report also indicates that there are 130 million few hungry people today than there were twenty years ago.
It gives us a sense of satisfaction that Malthus has been proved wrong, but it is our collective responsibility as members of the larger human community to worry about these 870 million people and do whatever it takes to make world free of hunger. This goal isn’t just idealistic because our past experience suggests that it is very much attainable. The developed countries of the world must lead and take an initiative otherwise their apathy and indifference can lead to serious conflicts in future.
Global Warming/Climate Change:
Climate change is a ‘significant and lasting change in the statistical distribution of weather patterns over periods ranging from decades to millions of years’[v]. Climate change is a contentious issue because according to some scientists and scholars it is a natural phenomenon and has occurred on its own, but intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) proved in 1988 that there was enough evidence for proving discernable human influence on climate change[vi]. According to a recent report published by UK Meteorological Department global warming stopped 16 years ago and the global temperature has not increased since 1996[vii]. So basically there is no consensus on this issue and there are institutions worldwide who promote the interests of global elite whose income is dependent on industrialization, but both the optimists and pessimists have scientific proofs to support their arguments.
The fact that Earth’s mean temperature has increased about 0.8°C [viii] since early twentieth century proves that climate change is a real issue and has led to global warming. Scientists have warned that the global temperature can rise by 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit during twenty first century[ix].
The fundamental reason for climate change is the increase in the emission of greenhouse gases which is related with the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil. Greenhouse gases enable everyday life and can’t be replaced easily. Most of the greenhouse gases are emitted in the developed world, but it affects the whole of the mankind. The richer countries are now outsourcing their industries because the local laws in their countries are much stricter and the local population will not allow the destruction of environment. Outsourcing is not at all a solution and will eventually lead to many new problems.
All these developments shouldn’t make us hopeless because we can still switch to clean and renewable energy sources which are much more environment-friendly. This will be a long and costly process, but the good news is that it has started. Many universities now have special departments for Renewable Energy and tremendous research is being done to come up with new solutions.
“Renewable energy is proven technology, the price is dropping, the rest of the world is going that way, that’s where our investment should be going as well,” – Bob Brown
In today’s world, there is both hope and fear as far as environmental issues are concerned. People are much more aware especially in the developed world about the grave challenges that environment can pose to mankind in the coming years. These issues can no longer be ignored or avoided by the politicians and executives. At the same time there is no doubt that environment has degraded and if active and efficient steps aren’t taken our coming generations will live under a threat of an environmental collapse.
It is very easy to criticize, but extremely difficult to come up with solutions. There is no doubt that unrealistic optimism can lead to severe consequences, but if you look at history you realize that pessimism is against human nature because we evolve and change things. The human civilization has faced immense challenges before and it usually unites when its own existence is under threat.
In my view, environmental issues can be solved by raising awareness and working together, but we all will have to ‘walk the talk’ for achieving those solutions so I am an optimist who is also aware of the dangers.
“The blunt truth about the politics of climate change is that no country will want to sacrifice its economy in order to meet this challenge, but all economies know that the only sensible long term way of developing is to do it on a sustainable basis.” – Tony Blair (Former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom)
[vi] Pg 278, Introducing Human Geographies.