Full Circle: From 1972 to 2022, what 50 years of celebrating World Environment Day should have taught us

Jun 05, 2022 11:22 PM IST

According to the United Nations, more than a third of 50 Nobel laureates surveyed cited that population rise and environmental degradation are the biggest threats to humankind

‘You know, if you hang around this earth long enough you really see how things come full circle.’ – Patti Davis

A man rides a makeshift boat through toxic foam floating in Yamuna river, on World Environment Day, at ITO, in New Delhi, Sunday.(PTI)
A man rides a makeshift boat through toxic foam floating in Yamuna river, on World Environment Day, at ITO, in New Delhi, Sunday.(PTI)

In 1972, June 5 was christened World Environment Day by the UN General Assembly at the Stockholm Conference. The first celebration took place in 1974 with the theme ‘Only One Earth’ and now, nearly 50 years later, in 2022, we’re celebrating one of the most prolific days for environmental awareness under the theme ‘Only One Earth.’ We’ve come full circle. But why does the same theme continue to be relevant after so many years? Is it because the problems that have been plaguing our planet -- like air pollution, single-use plastic usage, and illegal wildlife trade among others -- remain the same and have not seen adequate resolution?

Yes, they haven’t. One of the main causes of where we are today is human beings themselves. The climate crisis, coupled with biodiversity loss, is causing irreparable damage to the planet. According to the United Nations, more than a third of 50 Nobel laureates surveyed cited that population rise and environmental degradation are the biggest threats to humankind. Contaminants are causing adverse changes to the natural environment while unwanted, unusable materials are piling up in heaps of trash that can be seen from space. UN Secretary-General, Mr António Guterres had said that the 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that states that some climate change trends are irreversible are a ‘code red for humanity.’ The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals are still achievable, but it is an onerous task as the deadline is approaching fast.

To help our deteriorating environment, we must first aim to achieve ecosystem restoration. This could be done through many things: planting trees, creating sustainable cities, changing diet patterns, or cleaning up water bodies. By declaring the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, governments worldwide have understood the need to prevent, stop and reverse the deterioration of ecosystems globally for the benefit of both people and nature. The 2021–2030 timeline underlines the urgency of the task cut out. 

Secondly, we need to ensure that there is a slowing down and eventual cessation of species loss due to environmental degradation. A whopping one million plant and animal species are facing extinction, due to human activity. With rampant bushfires, accelerating insect infestations, and a pandemic that continues –- we can see how much we need to maintain a symbiotic environment, where animals and humans can depend on each other for survival. The implementation of the One Health programme in India is a great example of the steps that countries should take to promote sustainable development. The One Health approach works with various stakeholders to improve livestock, wildlife, and environmental health through technology and finance. A recently launched pilot project in Uttarakhand is helping build the One Health framework in India, which will foster better health for the country’s people and the planet.

Nature is sending us an urgent message to urgently address air pollution. It is the biggest environmental challenge of our times – as according to the Environmental Defense Fund, nine out of 10 people around the world breathe unhealthy air. Thus, air pollution attacks us relentlessly impairing every organ from head to toe. To combat it, a few simple steps can be taken every day like conserving energy, looking for the ENERGY STAR label when buying equipment, and opting for shared modes of transport like carpools or public transportation. 

Plastic pollution is affecting every part of our planet. It’s choking the planet with its inability to decompose. People need to make significant changes in their lives to try and combat the heavy burden of plastic pollution. Smile Foundation’s ‘Waste No More’ initiative is quite inspiring in this regard, an initiative developed to spread awareness about plastic waste management. The initiative was taken to students across the country to help imagine an India where plastic is no more a major pollutant. Smile Foundation was successful in connecting with children, the changemakers of tomorrow, in over 250 schools in 50 cities for thematic competitions. 

Lastly, global warming is leading to erratic weather events and rising sea levels. According to the State of Global Climate 2021 WMO Provisional Report, the past seven years have been the warmest on record and sea levels have risen to a new high. We need to find a conclusive way to stop global temperatures from increasing. Till then, we can take a few steps in the right direction by moving away from burning fossil fuels and adopting renewable energies on a mass scale as well as ensuring the efficient and efficacious use of water. 

It’s also so important for human beings to feel at one with nature. Over the past century, research has tried to deep-dive into understanding the human-nature relationship. This research has revealed the many ways that human beings are connected to their natural environment, be it a preference for scenes predominantly showcasing natural elements, or the sustainability of natural resources. This shows that even if one’s in a concrete jungle, it’s of utmost importance for human beings to ground themselves using nature, touch grass with bare feet, and become aware that we were born and are from this One Earth. Therefore, the protection of this beautiful environment is not a choice anymore, it’s our duty if we want to survive and be happy. 

Thus, 50 years on, our goal is still the same – to realise that the planet is our only home and that it’s up to humanity to protect its precious resources that allow us to live. The time for humanity to act is now with transformative changes to policies and individual choices to enable a cleaner, greener, more sustainable future – where humans live in complete harmony with nature. We need leaders for a sustainable society to emerge today, that will guide us on this path to transformation of the planet. Seven billion lives depend on one planet – a circular planet, that holds the circle of each one of our lives. Let’s tread forward softly, and with care. 

(The opinion piece has been authored by Aatish Parashar, dean and head of Central University of South Bihar. Views are his personal and does not represent the stand of HT)

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