If you are in or near Delhi, there are plenty of things you can to to celebrate World Environment Day, which is happening today itself. The Times of India tells us how to "Go Green: Shop Eat Watch Gift". Their list of weekend events is here. Or try this list of events from around India.
However, if you are like me, you might not feel like shopping or celebrating. You may feel tempted to stay home and mourn instead. After all, staying home would help you avoid inhaling (or contributing to) the unusually hight levels of air pollution that we are experiencing this year in Delhi. And there is plenty to mourn. In spite of what “climate skeptics” would have us believe, the latest data from scientists at NASA suggests the world is continuing to warm at an alarming rate. And it’s not just the heat wave in North India; the data points to other things that are hard to deny—like melting ice caps and warmer oceans. Closer to home, scientists see a clear correlation between strengthening cyclones and warmer ocean water. (For more on how this works, see this article in The Hindu.)
Those who profess undying faith in the power of technology to save us from our follies might want to ignore how utterly helpless BP and the US government have been to plug just one underwater leak. Problem is, that leak is getting harder to ignore, because it’s spreading oil over such a large and sensitive area. Sensitive environmentally, sensitive economically and, most of all, sensitive politically. To see just how large the spill is, take a look at this graphic. (Thanks Amruta). Or this interactive map from the NY Times.
But as bad as that looks, there’s another story that we aren’t getting. You see, in the eyes of large corporations, powerful countries and the mainstream media, not all the wold’s regions are as …sensitive as the US coast. Last week, the Guardian's John Vidal reminded us that in many less “important” places, such as the Niger delta, oil spills are a regular occurrence. (In this article, he looks at the issue in more depth. You won't find an interactive map there, but it's worth reading.)
These spills are ignored, because they affect only poor countries and/or poor people. Of course this is part of what makes oil as cheap as it is; if we enforced the same safety standards world wide that are enforced in the richer countries, oil prices would rise dramatically and alternative sources of energy would become more attractive. A lot of people don’t want that to happen, for a lot of reasons.
Among all the bad news last week, I did see one heartening story. Writing in the Economic Times, M. Rajshekhar reports on a government health care initiative that seems to be making a real difference in Chhattisgarh, of all places. It seems that the program, which depends on an army of 60,000 volunteer healthcare workers who also function as advocates and activists, has resulted in more responsive doctors and more functioning health centers. Infant mortality in the state is down from 95 per 1000 in 2000 to 44 per 1000 in 2009. Rajshekhar reminds us that health care programs alone will not make people healthy; for that, you need to do things like reduce poverty and improve nutrition. But this story does remind us that government can make a difference in the lives of people and that progress is not impossible, even in these difficult times. It takes leadership and some honest officials, of course, but most of all it takes the involvement of everyday people.
So maybe the message this World Environment Day should be something like this: whether you celebrate or mourn is up to you. But whatever you do, don’t forget to organize. With as big a mess as the world is in these days, it's going to take a lot of us to clean it up!