This year World Environment Day has completed its 41 years of existence. During this time the awareness about environment has increased at least on papers. Academics have written reams and reams of research reports and media has been quick in broadcasting it globally.
Schools and colleges have introduced environment sciences and studies as an important subject and even the governments and corporate are making the right noises about environment conservation and sustainable development.
Yet the cold hard reality is that the environment deterioration has continued unabated. As mentioned recently in one of my posts on bio-diversity, the UN Biodiversity Outlook categorically says that the flora and fauna is shrinking both in quantity and quality.
The story is the same in terms of vanishing water bodies, shrinking rivers, increasing air pollution and deteriorating urban landscapes.
People wonder how can this happen? The answer lies in our evolutionary story. Every society goes through three phases – growth, prosperity and fall. If we study the rise and fall of civilisations we find that the founding fathers and mothers are people of vision and integrity.
They lay the foundation of a new beginning and are ready to lay down their lives to achieve what they believe is true. However, their grit, determination, ability to endure and sacrifice is aimed at achieving greater good for greater numbers.
Once the aim is achieved the society evolves in consolidating its gains. Maximum number of thinkers and rulers put in place a new and evolved ways of public dealing and conduct.
In the third stage the society is taken over by sloth. Its energy is sapped. It runs out of fresh ideas, decadence becomes the order of the day and almost everyone becomes hyper aware of their rights but woefully ignorant about their duties. This creates a situation where all the services and facilities extended by the state and the nature are taken for granted with little care to look after them.
This is the point when the civilisation’s time is up. No amount of quick fix, rhetoric and technological intervention can save the day for it.
A Persian adage says, “If a king plucks a fruit from the public garden, citizens will ruin it by evening”. The adage puts a lot of emphasis on the king’s wisdom and integrity to maintain the society’s order. In the third stage it is this standard of wisdom and integrity at the top that becomes a scarce commodity.
In an era of decadence pettiness and low level cunning passes off for wisdom and smartness. And this decline in self control and moral compass is at the heart of the final demise of the civilisation.
A story I heard during my childhood assumes special significance. On a full moon night a king was sitting with his favourite queen at the palace terrace. He was decadent and had no interest in the affairs of the state but devoted his time in creating grandiose spectacles.
The queen had won the King’s heart by creating compelling spectacles and mesmerising him with outlandish ideas of glory and self aggrandizement. While sipping her wine the queen asked him to fulfil her wish.
The king was in an expansive mood and asked her to demand whatever she wanted. The queen asked him to fill the pond with milk instead of water so that they can then row their boats in milk pond – an ultimate statement of prosperity.
King was so enamoured with the idea that he gave a decree in the entire city that everyone would contribute a jug of milk to fill the pond. When people heard about the decree they were nonplus but the decree had to be obeyed.
However, one of the older and wily farmers thought that if everyone is putting a jug of milk then even if he poured a jug of water what difference will it make? So he went and poured a jug of water in the pond. However, the trouble was most of the people thought like the wily old farmer.
By the morning the pond looked exactly the same as it had the day before. The officers at the palace panicked. They knew the king will throw a tantrum if he saw the pond without milk and didn’t want to incur his wrath.
They decided to throw lime powder in the pond to make it look white. The king arrived at the pond with queen by his side and was pleased to see the white sheet of water that greeted him. He declared that he would now go for a boat ride in the pond.
His wish was complied but midway through the lime started settling down and exposed the scam. The king was so enraged that he put to death the officials and exiled the entire population. The city fell into ruins. The king died a lonely man.
If we look at the story from the enviro-moral point of view we will find the queen was concerned with her own place in the king’s heart and would go to any length no matter what the cost. People were bothered about themselves and were more concerned about saving a jug of milk. The officials were concerned about saving their own skin and resorted to a quick fix.
However, each one did what they were not supposed to do because the king wasn’t sure what he wanted. He never made clear line of distinction between what needs to be done and what will not be done.
This led to a complete breakdown of moral value chain and each one became their own master concerned with their own immediate needs. This led to anarchy with unfortunate results.
This story is being played out today at the global level. Take the case of societies around the world. We are urbanising at a very fast pace. It offers an opportunity for better life and expanding business horizon but also tremendous environmental challenge.
It is a time when the policy planners, intellectuals and community leaders have to lead from the front to find creative balance between the twin demands of development and conservation. But what we are witnessing around the world is that the policy makers are becoming lobbyists, business men are becoming politicians, leaders are becoming businessmen, in short each one is doing what they ought not do.
The result is petty financial gains have assumed total primacy over every other concern. Take the case of realty sector. The realtors are using this opportunity to fill up every inch of spare land including water bodies to build housing societies. In China they have gone a step further and are planning to flatten 700 mountains and dump their debris into the valley to create 250 square kilometres of land of expand their city. This is being planned in Shaanxi province.
People in general are concerned with getting a house anyhow. They don’t care about the quality of life it provides, the environmental and health cost they will pay throughout their lives. In the absence of any clarity from the leaders each section in the society is trying to out-manoeuvre the other without realising (like the stakeholders in the story) that finally each one will end up being a victim.
Legendary British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill once quipped, “First you make the house, then, the house makes you”. If we expand on this theme, then it can be safely stressed that we may be altering the environment but later this alteration will come back to haunt us.
Seven billion humans – politicians, businessmen, bureaucrats, scientists, academics, and everyone in general should ask three questions – does our genius lie in outsmarting each other? What good is it bringing to us except for a few dollars? And last but not the least they should ask whether we are actually being clever in doing what we are doing or ending up being too clever by half for our own good?
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