Earth Day, celebrated on April 22 each year, is a day of immense importance. The importance far outweighs the attention we pay to it. Some environmentalists argue that we put aside only one day for celebrating the one planet that we all live on and that every day should be Earth Day. Indeed our showing of concern for the Earth should not end when 22 April ends. So let us continue our discussion of the subject. For Earth Day, PPDLM posted a lengthy article on the significance of this year’s World Water Day for Pakistan, as water is Pakistan’s biggest environmental issue. We shall reflect on the points in there but first, let us pay attention to what Earth Day means to us.
PPLDM is dedicated to dealing with the hazards that exist in Pakistan. People suffer the risk of many kinds of disasters and live through some disaster nearly all the time. We in Pakistan need to deal with the risk as well as the actual presence of disaster. We also need to know where things will go from here. It is as important to focus on the future as on the present. It is quite evident that things will not continue to be the same as they are now for this is a rapidly changing world. That holds very much true for hazards. When we scrutinize the future, we find that Pakistan’s hazard situation is going to become worse and worse with, distressingly, no end in sight.
As Pakistan develops and the population grows, we will become more vulnerable to natural hazards. It is not just that higher population means more will be vulnerable to natural events. For example, more and more people are moving into cities. In 2007, for the first time in world history, more people in the world lived in cities than elsewhere, and the growth of urbanization is continuing. This means, for example, that earthquakes will become a greater danger. Seismologists now fear that an earthquake with a death toll of more than one million could become a possibility this century. Increasing development also means that people build infrastructure in formerly unoccupied areas where natural risks are high. An advancing world makes its human population more vulnerable to the natural threats that have always been there.
As technology advances and development expands, there are more things that can go wrong in terms of accidents what we would call artificial hazards. Everything that we build around us can harm us and the more we build, the more we are in danger. Now, in the modern era, many of us fear we live under apocalyptic threats. In the 1940s, for example, when the nuclear bomb was being developed, some scientists thought the detonation of such a device could set the entire atmosphere alight, as the extreme energy released could start a chain reaction igniting nitrogen and oxygen everywhere. That turned out to be ridiculous, but technology is just continuing to advance at an accelerated rate, making it more and more likely that something bad could happen. We live at risk of accidents, especially when development is done in a shoddy manner. For example, slums and shantytowns, which form when urbanization proceeds faster than we can handle, are places of great risk.
None of this, strictly speaking, however, concerns Earth Day. Earth Day is about the effects that human beings are having on the planet, on the changes we are making to the natural environment. Some of these changes can be detrimental to our well-being and all too often, they bite back in the form of disasters.
When we alter natural processes, we increase the risk of natural hazards. When disruption to the way nature behaves occurs, it is more often than not dangerous for us because nature’s balance can be temporarily thrown out of whack. The one biggest way this is happening is climate change, the warming up of the global climate due to the energy usages that power civilization. There are already signs that climate change is happening and among them is the fact that weather (tropical cyclones, flooding, drought, etc.) and weather-related disasters (wildfires, landslides, epidemics, etc.) are getting worse everywhere. Another big way is the destruction of natural environments through the expansion of agriculture or industry. Removal of vegetation makes hazards such as landslides and flooding more likely and makes us less protected from hazards such as storm surges and tsunamis.
Artificial accidents can have effects on the natural environment which are hazardous for us. The biggest such hazard is a nuclear power plant meltdown. Such an event releases radiation that can get into the air, the water, the soil, and living things. People are then vulnerable to taking in this harmful radiation through breathing, drinking, and eating. Where people are at risk from this depends on the natural conditions surrounding the power plant. Wind blowing in one direction can take the radiation far and a meltdown occurring next to the ocean can result in marine ecosystems over a wide area being contaminated.
Natural events can at times take what we put into the environment and use it to harm us. For example, in London, the air used to be thick with sulfur dioxide from coal burning. Then, in 1952, a great big fog blanketed the city, with the water droplets absorbing the sulfur dioxide and turning into sulfuric acid which was inhaled by people. 12,000 people were to die prematurely from one of the world’s less noticeable disasters. However, the risk from artificial hazards is much lower than the risk from natural hazards.
All in all, human impacts on the environment are a huge factor behind the disaster risk we live under.
We can work to manage the hazards we face on a short-term basis, but PPLDM recognizes the long-term situation that we face and it is one of its top priorities to ready ourselves for that future in advance and find out how to mitigate it. It recognizes the need for timely action. One of our big obstacles is absence of knowledge – we do not really know what is coming and what we can do about it. The first thing we need to save our planet is science.
Earth Day was founded in 1970 by US senator Gaylord Nelson. It came as the result of growing consciousness over environmental degradation as a result of events such as the 1960 Santa Barbara oil spill and the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. One of the most important factors behind the fostering of this consciousness came from when we went beyond the world.
Near the end of 1968, the Apollo 8 mission was launched to put the first men in orbit around the Moon. On 24 December, while in orbit, the astronauts spotted their home planet, half-illuminated, rising from the side of the Moon and took a color photograph of it now known as Earthrise. Humanity, however, did not get a clear picture of the entire Earth until December 7, 1972, when astronauts on the Apollo 17 mission were 18,000 miles away from home while going to the Moon, they took a picture of the Earth that came to be known as the Blue Marble. As an epilogue, on Valentine’s Day, 1990, Voyager 1, while heading towards the outer reaches of the Solar System, was turned back towards Earth one last time and took a picture while 4 billion miles away that was digitally transmitted back to us. In that picture, crossed by rays of light due to the effects of the Sun on the camera, our planet, the planet we live on, Earth, appears as a very tiny, barely-noticeable dot of light.
These pictures had a profound impact on how humanity looked at Planet Earth. Before we took the earth for granted as the vast expanse we could live in. But from an extraterrestrial perspective, we could see clearly that all of humanity and all of life has only one home, one sphere floating through an endless oasis of emptiness. We realized how limited the entire world was and therefore how fragile it was, how limited everything on it was. Earthrise started this feeling and Blue Marble put everything into full view as we got to see the full magnificence of our planet, showing how much it has and yet how that is all we have. Earth was now plainly a single place of its own, a lonely and singular in the totality of the universe.
It got us thinking about wars and human conflicts, both how ridiculous they were and how bad they were. At that time, they were a huge concern. 54 years before Earthrise, World War 1 broke out and made the world feel the horrific impact of war for the first time. Despite that, it led subsequently to several decades of conflict and the threat of conflict across the globe, one of which, the Vietnam War, was occurring during the space flights. The Vietnam War fermented a wave of anti-war sentiment that gripped the Western World, to which the photos contributed. In addition, in those days, there was the constant threat of nuclear war between powerful countries, which could be a massive disaster for the world. Now, people could have a full view of what it was that could be wrecked by nuclear war, in fact, even be lost.
At the same time, in addition to what human beings were doing to each other, people were becoming more mindful of what human beings were doing to the environment they were living in, the very planet itself. When the pictures of that planet were released, concern for the state of the Earth was thrust forward in the minds of people. Earthrise kick-started the environmental movement, leading to the first Earth Day less than two years later, and two years later, the release of Blue Marble firmly cemented environmentalism. It has been that way ever since. The Space Race gave everybody the ability to look at their whole planet from afar. It opened up a world of inspiration.
That inspiration, ironically, was only made possible by the very processes enabling the degradation of the planet. Space exploration is the very height of what human beings can do thanks to their technological advancement which the Earth cannot handle. Indeed, the whole point was brought home through the Earth photographs. In the past, the world really was immense and humans were just a tiny part of it. But when we have reached the point in which we can leave the world and look at it from afar, we have clearly shrunk the world considerably and made it more vulnerable to our presence.
At the same time that we are ruining the world more and more, we are becoming more and more able to experience the world in all its majesty and beauty. It is from up close as well as from afar. Thus, many of us have easy access to an endless supply of photos and videos of the natural environment everywhere. Some of us also can easily and quickly visit natural environments across the world. By hopping onto airplanes, we can go hiking through a mountainous landscape one month, and trek through a tropical rainforest the next month. That makes globe-trotters and tourists potential forces for environmental awareness.
In addition to this, Mankind’s scientific knowledge is accumulating at a tremendous pace. While subduing and altering the earth, we can meticulously study it. We are learning about our natural environment at roughly the same pace we are losing it and this holds the key to what hope there is for the planet’s future. Our learning tells us how detrimental our actions are in so many ways.
Earth simply is not designed to accommodate the modern civilization and our burgeoning population. It is limited in its capacity to support us and its ability to sustain us is ephemeral in many ways. We are also changing it to a great extent and harming it severely. The entire planet is enormous and humans are insignificant compared to it. But that only means that we cannot affect the bulk of the planet, the huge quantities of metal and rock making up its insides. What is in severe trouble is the natural environment that makes up the surface of the Earth, the air, water, and sediment covering the planet in thin layers. This global environment is home to the biosphere, the living things which inhabit it thickly and which have also shaped it and influence it heavily. Human beings have made themselves the dominant life form on Earth and their dominance is spreading endlessly. They now pretty much rule over the biosphere and have taken on the role of shaping air, water, and earth. The environment, however, is very fragile and all the rapid change we are creating haphazardly is not going well.
The natural environment is all that there is to provide for us. Yet, it is limited in how much it can provide while humanity is not being limited at all in what it is taking and what it is doing. That has long been evident. For example, at the time of the Roman Empire, there existed an advanced civilization once developed in the depth of the Saharan Desert known as the Garamantes. They existed because underneath the sands of Libya lay a vast bed of water which accumulated over millennia from what little rain fell in the region. In just a few hundred years, the Berber tribe dug wells and built an underground irrigation system to extract this water, becoming wealthy and powerful. Inevitably, the water ran out and the Garamantes collapsed about 1,500 years ago and gave way to barren sand dunes once again.
Today, the middle third of the United States of America is mostly arid but underneath there lies the biggest underground reservoir of freshwater in the world, the Ogallala Aquifer. For over a century now, farmers in the Midwest have been pumping up this water on a massive scale to foster a major part of America’s agricultural prosperity. The only problem is, the aquifer comes from the end of the last Ice Age. More than 12,000 years ago, vast sheets of glacial ice, miles thick, covered much of North America. When the world warmed up afterwards, the entire ice sheet melted and much of the vast amounts of water that melted seeped underground to create the aquifer and have rested there ever since. Little water has been moving into the aquifer from other sources all this time. Being a nation with such a huge demand for resources, America is now basically draining the aquifer, and draining it fast. It is going to run out.
One might say that the Garamantes were only an Iron Age tribe of people living in the desert and so were vulnerable, but this is the United States of America. It is vast, it is powerful, and its prosperity is immense. The fact is, both societies, and all societies, operate within the limitations of the earth. The rules apply to them equally.
Besides these ancient reserves of water deep below the ground, known as fossil water, which are just a part of humanity’s freshwater resources, which, by the way, are limited all around, fossil fuels provide almost all of the energy for the machinery that powers modern civilization. But coal, petroleum, and natural gas formed over millions of years from organic matter that fossilized without decaying and are basically resting in the bowels of the Earth completely still. They also will run out inevitably and who knows how we will cope?
The photographs of Earth taken from spacecraft provide us with the “big picture” in terms of space. But in order to grasp the reality of the problem between humanity and the planet, we also need to look at the big picture in terms of time. The best way we have so far of doing this is looking at a graph made of the geologic time scale. Planet Earth formed 4.5 billion years ago. Life first appeared 3.5 billion years ago. Our modern ecosystems of plants and animals started spreading all over the world about 500 million years ago. The modern human race appeared 500,000 years ago. The roots of civilization began 10,000 years ago. The Industrial Revolution started in earnest two hundred years ago. “Our world” has been in existence for just a minute fraction of the time the Earth has been around. The natural forces that have shaped the planet the most operate over immense periods of time and the human forces now altering the world, overwhelming the faster and smaller-scale processes of nature, have been around since yesterday compared to the former.
In the natural world, what is taken is given back and that is what sustains life. For example, animals breathe oxygen and eat plants to produce carbon dioxide which is exhaled into the air and that carbon dioxide is taken in by plants to produce oxygen which is consumed by the animals along with the plants. Not only are we people now taking too much from the Earth, what we are giving it back in return is mostly unusable and poisonous. As we burn the fossil fuels that has been building up in the Earth’s crust over millions of years, we are ultimately going to remove it all, but in the meantime, we are turning it into other things, much of which is carbon dioxide. All this carbon dioxide emitted by our energy usage cannot be used, destroyed, or contained and just goes into the atmosphere, changing its composition.
Carbon dioxide absorbs heat rays emitted when sunlight is absorbed by the Earth’s surface. As such, the Earth’s entire climate is warming up. Estimates are that nearly a trillion and a half tons of carbon dioxide were produced by human activity since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and that, now, nearly forty billion tons of carbon dioxide are released per year! And, the trend is rising. This undoubtedly will cause global warming. It is already quite evident, as most of the hottest years ever recorded have just happened. In the years and decades ahead, it is not clear what exactly will be the effects of climate change, but it is quite obvious that we will be, and are already, experiencing severe disruptions to the workings of the Earth’s climate that will by and large affect humanity negatively. Among the biggest impacts will be redistribution of Earth’s freshwater, which will put agriculture at risk.
Besides carbon dioxide, more immediate severe harm to the environment is happening due to pollution from the great variety of other waste that we produce in huge quantities. Burning of fossil fuels also is producing air pollutants like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and soot. Rain can wash them out of the air but this rain, which is acidic, causes even more harm. Water supplies are polluted by a variety of harmful chemicals which can make them unhealthy to drink or unsuitable for living things to live in. Most of the enormous amounts of plastic that we trash travels far and wide into natural environments and harms animals in many ways. Certain gases that we have been emitting into the air in small amounts release chlorine atoms that are destroying the Earth’s ozone layer in the upper atmosphere that shield us from the Sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays, making us more vulnerable to solar radiation.
Carbon dioxide, at least, can be absorbed by nature. All photosynthetic organisms, such as phytoplankton in the oceans and vegetation on land, need to consume carbon dioxide and the carbon dioxide we are pumping into the atmosphere can be turned into biomass. However, this is not happening because we are wantonly clearing the Earth of vegetation, especially trees, to make way for our agriculture, industries, and human habitation.
This is one of our big impacts on the Earth, destroying its living ecosystems by pushing it aside or overexploiting it. As human civilization, which is based upon the cultivation of only a few kinds of plants and animals, expands rapidly across the planet, wild habitats and wildlife populations are being wiped out on a grand scale. That we are killing off the other life-forms inhabiting this planet is the crux of our impact on the environment. In addition to that, of course, is that we are also killing ourselves, more slowly, at the same time. The subject of Earth Day basically boils down to the fact that other living things are being killed and humanity is being sickened.
So the important question is what can be done about it? We are barely able to even answer that question yet. Perhaps the very capabilities we have gained from the modern growth of civilization can be put to use in solving the problems we are causing. After all, it is through modern technology and development that we are finding out what is happening to the natural world, and acquiring the knowledge to do something about it. But we should not count on it too much as a source of actually helping the Earth and restoring its natural, healthy state. Our influence on Earth so far is doing almost nothing but hurting it and so how can it start healing it? This is all because what we are capable of doing gets more and more out of our control.
We must be mindful of it. Hubris, not just ignorance, may blind us to this reality. Consider the North Korean regime and its nuclear program. The North Korean government has described the atomic bombs it has built as a “sword” with which it can defend its people. But is a nuke really like an actual sword, the top personnel weapon of more primitive times? With a sword, a person carrying it can pierce and cut through other things in any way he wants and is quite safe from it at the same time. A gun in hand is much more powerful, but it can only penetrate in one direction and the bullet can ricochet and hit anywhere else. A bomb can be vastly more powerful. A person with a grenade can use it to annihilate his enemies instantly. But he has to throw it from afar, because when the grenade is used, it creates an explosion which exerts itself equally in all directions. Shrapnel from the blast could even go far and wide.
And what about a nuclear bomb, a more modern invention and the ultimate in our ability to attack, able to wipe out an entire city? A nuclear blast produces great amounts of harmful radiation which spreads through the environment. When a city is vaporized by a nuke, the dust created from it can pick up the radiation and be dispersed far and wide by wind, afflicting people in other parts of the world with horrific sickness and death.
The North Korean regime must really think of itself as being big and powerful thanks to its nuclear arsenal. But it is only the arsenal which is powerful. The North Koreans and all other human beings are humble and vulnerable in its face. You cannot make sure that nuclear weapons will only do what you want them to do. Fidel Castro’s government in Cuba once learned that. At one point during the Cold War, he advocated that the Soviet Union toughen up to America and even suggested a nuclear strike. The USSR sent its scientists over to Cuba to explain to him how much radiation will be produced by a strike on American cities, that it will be carried by wind towards the Caribbean, and what effect it will have on Cuba. Fidel must have thought that because nukes were something created by people, it is entirely in people’s control. But that is not true.
Nuclear energy is a natural force. Hydrogen fusion occurs on a grand scale in the Sun, producing the sunlight that powers nearly everything that happens on Earth, and uranium fission happens in great amounts in the bowels of the Earth, producing heat that shapes the planet over time. Now humans can take hydrogen and uranium and fuse and fissure it to create explosions that they desire, but they are playing around with something very big here, too big for what humanity is meant to handle, for what the Earth, in the balanced state it is supposed to maintain, can handle.
Speaking of which, environmental destruction basically happens because the environment is very fragile and we are playing around with it too much. But we must remember that only the way the natural environment is supposed to be is fragile. Nature itself, however, still has all the power. Humanity does not have control over it, which is why we are suffering from what we are doing to nature. If those American cities were nuked, the radiation emitted would not harm nature. Rather, nature would step in and take control as air currents in the atmosphere would pick up the radiation and transport it anywhere regardless of where people want it to go. That is how we must view the environmental situation.
Our true hope for the future, the future of the planet, the future of humanity, may thus lie in working with nature. That was the idea espoused by the UN on World Water Day a month ago and we absolutely must not limit our consideration of this idea to just certain days like that. We must make use of the processes of nature in a way that does not tamper with the same in order to continue inhabiting the planet in a healthy and sustainable manner. How we can do so, of course, is something we are just beginning to understand. We must now embark on that journey of understanding and we must put our scientific prowess to use doing so. We already are learning a great deal about nature and so the stage is set for us to learn how we can collaborate with the natural environments of Earth. There is so much we can gain from that as the forces of nature are so powerful and productive.
To give just one example of what can be done, many of our towers are built by concrete and steel, the production of which is environmentally damaging. But there is an innovative new idea to create buildings out of wood. That is an old idea used for making small buildings, but for the huge buildings of modern times, simply wooden planks will not do. Instead, a way has been invented of cutting wood into thin sheets and fusing them together to create structures of any size. Wood is very useful for construction because it is a biological building material, designed to perfection by nature. Made of a mass of lignin interspersed with cellulose fibers, it is very strong and lightweight. Of course, when we return to using wood as a common building material, we will have to cut down more trees and only worsen habitat degradation. But if we find a way to harvest timber and let more trees grow and harvest them again, we could find the solution to global warming. Trees store much of the world’s carbon in their woods and a tree left out in nature usually will eventually rot and release the carbon. But if the world makes its structures out of wood, we can suck out all the carbon dioxide we are releasing into the atmosphere and store it in our buildings. Wooden skyscrapers can be the carbon sink we are looking for.
It is time to put our minds to completely changing our relationship to nature and the way we treat it and use it. We advocate that Pakistan puts all its effort into doing this. This is very useful in disaster management. The country is very vulnerable to natural disasters but nature is not our enemy. Working with nature is the key to making it safe. It will also ensure our prosperity. The people of Pakistan are already putting much admirable effort into this. The government of KPK, for example, has led the Billion Tree Tsunami which has succeeded in its goal to improve forest cover in the northwest. This not only plays a small part in mitigating carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, but also keeps soil erosion from the mountains in check, and benefits all of Pakistan.
But there is so much more that needs to be done. The struggle is only just beginning and we will all have to play our part in it. Environmental problems range from local to global, from one village suffering from the cutting of trees around it to the warming up of the entire planet by industrial activities as a whole. Pakistan suffers from environmental problems caused by activities both within the country and outside. Therefore, to solve these problems, we need to not only change what is going on in Pakistan, we also need to work with other countries.
Environmental issues are not just for governments, policy makers, and organizations. Decisions made by people in authority will not be enough to protect the environment. That is because the human impact on the Earth is made by all of us, every single person. The lifestyles and choices of each person in the world are responsible for the changes being made to the natural environment. Therefore, protecting the environment depends on everybody. All of us need to get involved in protecting nature by both changing our ways and looking for solutions.
PPLDM, of course, is all about mobilizing the people and bringing change through the grassroots level in order to make Pakistan safe from disasters. It is entirely possible to make the masses of Pakistan become involved in making themselves safe from disasters, to work for disaster risk reduction. They can also get involved in tackling the long-term, root cause behind much of the disaster risk they face, the degradation of the environment. It is up to the people of Pakistan to solve the nation’s internal environmental issues, right up to the most remote villagers, and what they need now is guidance.
Ultimate guidance, of course, will come from our scientific endeavor. In addition, guidance can also come from history. There is much we can learn from what has already been done. Right now, let us focus on a lesson already dealt with in the last article. Before 1914, there was more than a century in which the pace of civilization picked up rapidly and produced our modern world. It was a time when people’s foremost concern was what they were capable of and they did all they could to subdue the Earth. Conflict and tension was one result of this march of civilization. As a result, the years from 1914 onwards were of constant strife and struggle between the people of the world, spilling over at times into conflicts of epic proportions. This dark age peacefully subsided by 1991 and no, relatively speaking, there is systemic peace. But we are now also in the era when another effect of the march of civilization is making itself evident, the buckling of the Earth’s environment under our weight. As such, another dark age is on the horizon and we have absolutely no idea where it will be leading us. We have no idea how we will cope.
Consider, for example, that in the nineteenth century, if a country suffered an oil shortage, it was likely because that country did not expand its oil industry enough. If a country suffered an oil shortage in the twentieth century, it was usually because there as a war going on or OPEC nations were angry at that country or some such situation. Now, in the twenty-first century, countries are likely to start facing the situation in which they will be short on oil more and more because the oil reserves in the Earth will begin to run out. If you are not producing enough oil yet, you can just dig more drilling wells. If you are faced with wars and embargoes, you can just make peace or restore good relations with your enemies (very easy to do but very hard to want to do, which is why wars are such a huge problem). But if all the oil in the world starts to run out, just what can you do?
That is the predicament we will face this century and beyond, not just for oil but for much else. While that future is hurtling our way, we are not even at the point where we are able to conceive of solutions.
It seems we are still in the mindset of bygone eras, when all we could think about was our relations with other people and with what we create. We have yet to be concerned enough about the natural environment around us. On TV, all we hear most of the time is the state of the economy and international relations and (in Pakistan) Nawaz Sharif being kicked out by the Supreme Court. News about the state of the environment appears only as a sideshow. Yet what is going on with Nawaz Sharif is not important in the long-term.
Earth Day serves as a yearly reminder of that. But we need to be reminded every day. This piece of writing is meant instill in the readers a concern for the Earth. It is a long road ahead for Pakistan and the world, for every single one of us. Humanity really is a capable force and so, in the end, we may really hold the key to making sure the planet we live in is healthy. In order for it to be that way, we must begin now and we must try everything we can to help the Earth. We are only living for now, which is wrong. We need to live in a way that allows humanity to have a future. If we must think in personal terms, lets say we must ensure a future for our children and grandchildren and their grandchildren, so on. If there is anything those photos taken aboard the spaceships have taught us, it is that we have only one planet to live on. There is nowhere else to go. It is our oasis in the universe and letting it go to ruin is absolutely not an option for us.
Shahzeb Khan is an environmental activist and journalist whose articles have been published in Daily Times, Express Tribune, and Eurasia Review. His work was commended by former US president Barack Obama for outstanding achievement in environmental stewardship.