Human Ecological Self-destruction
By Dr. Girish Chandra
We are different from others not just in having superior intelligence but more so in our ability to alter the environment to suit our needs. The constant change in our environment threatens the very survival of human species. Darwin‘s doctrine tells us that animals must change with the changing environment in order to survive but man’s misplaced wisdom makes the environmental changes essential and a constant phenomenon. Consequently we are trapped in a highly complex maze of nature in which each corrective step that is taken, lands us in deeper trouble. Mother earth which could support dinosaurs for over 150 million years finds man too heavy to sustain within a few thousand years of its existence. The self-destructive tendency appears to be inherent in mankind and is slowly but surely bringing us closer to extinction. It is ironical that in the past, progress of human societies has always been followed by their self-destruction. Not that the scientific advancement is dangerous because it led to the stockpile of nuclear weapons having potential to wipe out all life forms from the face of earth, but even the so called beneficent scientific advancements have brought us in conflict with nature. As the nature operates slowly, silently but firmly and contrary to our efforts and beliefs, is unconquerable, such conflicts boomerang on us more often than not.
Weakness lies in numbers
Malthus’ prophecy in 1838 that exponentially growing human population if not checked, will ultimately be brought down by floods, earthquakes, epidemics, famines etc. After 165 years, we are beginning to understand the relationship, but still shying away from taking the bull by its horn. U.N. estimates reveal that at the current rate of increase, 84 million people are being added to the world population annually, which amounts to adding one Germany to the world every year. The population growth rate in India is so rapid that according to Population Reference Bureau, Indian population will catch up with that of China by 2025. U.N. population projections say that human population is going to reach the unmanageable 12 billion mark by 2050. Unfortunately, the current population control measures are casual, localized and not considered a global necessity, although it threatens the very existence of human species. Population increase, coupled with a fast spreading consumerism culture has put immense pressure on the limited natural resources, upsetting the delicate balance of nature. What is worrying is not the fact that we will not be able to produce enough food to feed the additional 84 million mouths each year but that the industries in an effort to meet the demands of consumers will create havoc with the environment, thereby threatening the very survival of human species. Most of the industries are visibly polluting, spewing dangerous gases into the atmosphere and toxic chemicals into the soil and water bodies. That not only causes chronic ailments but also adds to global warming, ozone depletion and alteration of seasonal cycle. The effects are now so distinctly felt that they can no longer be ignored. Untreated sewage and industrial wastes that flow into all major rivers and water bodies in India have created a situation in which water in none of our rivers is fit for bathing and washing, let alone drinking. Instances of fish dying due to this degradation of water bodies are increasing day by day.
Pesticides are silent terminators
Rachel Carson’s famous book The Silent Spring published in 1962, was the first voice of protest against the dangers of pesticides. But even today 140 different pesticides are in use the world over at an annual consumption of over 90,000 tons. While so much noise is created by the discovery of pesticide residues in bottled water, it is still not considered alarming that 75% of food and vegetable samples collected from different states in India were found to contain extremely high level of pesticide residues. Many of these pesticides are fat soluble and therefore easily bind with body fat and escape getting excreted. They increase their concentration through the food chain of eating and being eaten, a phenomenon known as biomagnification that affects us adversely because of the fact that man sits at the top of the food chain and thus gets the highest concentration in his food. The role of pesticides in causing muscular dystrophy, impaired eye sight, cancer, and damage to liver, kidneys and nervous system is well-known. But recent discoveries have revealed much more dangerous implications of biomagnifications.
Many of the polluting chemicals have been found to act as hormone mimics, endocrine disrupters or hormone blockers. Studies in Australia and USA have revealed that sperm counts in men have declined by 50% during the last 60 years, because of the consumption of pollutants found to be estrogen mimics. These chemicals also caused reduction in penis size and reproductive organs, and brought about erectile dysfunction. If this trend is not checked human males would face the danger of extinction and thus elimination of human species. Cloning will then be the only option to save the human species from oblivion.
How dangerous can the production and stockpiling of pesticides be was amply demonstrated by the accident in Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal on December 2, 1984, when an underground storage tank blew up, releasing 40 tons of deadly methyl isocyanate gas into 78 km2 area. Over 15,000 people were killed and 600,000 exposed to carry the long term effects of the deadly gas for the rest of their lives. Public memory being short, we have forgotten the catastrophe and the Union Carbide got away cheaply by paying a paltry $ 4 billion compensation. In any western country, the company would have gone completely bankrupt.
Consumerism is turning the world into garbage dump
The consumerism culture of use and discard that started in USA is fast spreading all over the world, producing non-degradable toxic garbage that no one knows where to dispose. No wonder USA is the highest garbage producing country in the world. The account that follows reveals the capability of one country to convert the whole globe into a huge garbage dump and put the entire world to a health risk.
One year garbage produced by USA if filled in a convoy of trucks, lined bumper to bumper, would encircle the globe 8 times. Americans throw away enough aluminium to rebuild their country’s all airlines every 3 months. Disposed automobile tyres in USA in a year can encircle the earth 3 times, if connected together. Americans annually throw 10 million computers, 8 million TV sets, 3 million plastic bottles and 18 billion disposable diapers, which if linked together, would reach the moon and back 7 times. The garbage cannot be incinerated as it would release toxic gases into atmosphere. It does not disintegrate and remains there like a bottled genie that can rise anytime and cause immense destruction.
Vanishing forests will take us along
Consumerism has produced a highly undisciplined culture which only believes in using and throwing commodities. At times that leads to defiant misuse and wastage with no concern for the environmental consequences. In order to meet this reckless demand of consumerism, the industries which have only commercial considerations, go all out to destroy the ecology. Forests suffer the destruction most. In India 10 million trees are lost everyday to meet the ever-increasing demand. No wonder the natural forest cover area in India, which stood at 22.7% of the total land area 20 years ago, is now reduced to 14%. Consequently, every year 1% of land surface in India is becoming desert. But this does not seem to be a matter of concern to anyone, in spite of the fact that many times in the past, advanced civilisations such as Egyptian, Maya and Incas have gone through this phase of reckless exploitation of forests that converted their habitats into desert and perished. But we have not learnt anything from history and those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
We have now landed ourselves into a precarious situation in which the use of synthetic wood alternatives is recommended to ease pressure on forests but synthetics being non-biodegradable cause dangerous pollution problems and therefore environmentalists demand banning them and insist on the use of biodegradable, which come from forests or from agricultural land obtained by clearing forests. The vicious circle does not seem to end and forests are vanishing fast everywhere. The only solution lies in applying brakes on consumerism but commercial considerations override all decisions and economics seems to be given more significance than the survival of the economist himself.
Hunger for energy is our nemesis
Energy requirement is at the head of consumerism and whether it comes from oil, coal, hydroelectricity or nuclear source, it has great potential to destroy human species. Coal and oil are not only expensive but also highly polluting, spewing toxic gases into the atmosphere. Accidents can cause much more destruction as happened on March 24, 1989, when an oil tanker named Exxon Valdez, equal to the size of two football fields, hit a submerged rock near Alaska, creating oil-spill that coated 1600 km of US shoreline and killed an unknown number of organisms. The clean up operation with hot water jets that followed, killed more animals than did the spill itself. Oil spills from tankers have become a frequent phenomenon in recent times.
Burning of fossil fuels releases highly toxic gases into the atmosphere, such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide and nerve destroying heavy metals. An increase in the incidence of chronic ailments in towns and cities is attributed to air pollution caused by hydrocarbons. In spite of our scientific advancement, we still do not have a safe source of energy available to us.
Nuclear energy is enemy no.1
There is a misconception that nuclear power is cheaper and safer, simply because no safety measure is foolproof while dealing with nuclear energy. Chernobyl disaster of 26 April, 1986 in Ukraine is a reminder, in which roof of a nuclear reactor blew up, spreading radioactive debris in an area of 160,000 km2, killing more than 32,000 people prematurely and displacing 400,000 others. Three-mile island disaster in USA caused destruction of equal proportions. Accidents apart, disposal of radioactive wastes produced by the atomic reactors is a problem that defies solution, resulting in huge stockpiles all over the world. In the absence of an acceptable disposal method, the radioactive wastes are currently sealed in drums and stored in underground storage tanks, where they lie below the surface like a sleeping monster that can escape anytime to cause immense destruction. In Russia such a nuclear waste storage tank blew up in Mayak in 1957, releasing 2.5 times as much radiation as the Chernobyl accident. Radiation level in that area still continues to be fatal.
It is now widely agreed that nuclear power is too risky, eventually costly and does not make commercial sense. Even peaceful uses of nuclear energy are as destructive to mankind as the nuclear bombs.
Dams are ecological disasters
People think that dams provide cheap and pollution-free energy, water for irrigation and control floods in rainy season, which is enough to pump large sums of money into their construction. But this is not true as the Egyptians learnt the harder way by building the billion dollar Aswan High Dam on the river Nile in 1960s. Initially the dam met one-third of the electricity requirement of Egypt, brought more area under the irrigated agriculture and stopped floods during the next 15 years. But after that the deleterious ecological effects started showing up. The dam ended yearly flooding that earlier used to fertilize the Nile Delta with silt. The silt now accumulated behind the dam, filling up the reservoir. In the absence of annual flooding, the cropland in Nile Delta basin now needed synthetic fertilizers, for which fertilizer plants were set up and they used up much of the electric power produced by the dam. Crop production around the dam also went down due to increased salinity and water logging caused by the reservoir. Not only that, without Nile’s annual discharge of sediments, the sea started eroding the delta and advanced inland, destroying agricultural fields in the coastal areas. Also in the absence of annual flooding of Nile Delta, which earlier brought food material with it, two-third of the fish fauna in river’s mouth vanished, severely affecting fishing industry, causing loss of millions of dollars and rendering fishermen jobless. Dam uprooted 125,000 people from the affected area, who had to be allotted alternative sites, which were then created by clearing forests. Today, Aswan High Dam is considered by the Egyptians as an economic as well as ecological disaster. The huge dams which we are constructing in India so enthusiastically are also destined to end up the same way.
Nature is a very complex organism and when projects are initiated without taking into consideration all its facets, the consequences are disastrous. Gigantic projects bring about gigantic disasters. Nature offers only two options: either learn to live with it or perish and we ought to learn to be in agreement with it.