If a well-informed choice must be made regarding our most urgent task today, then the choice is likely to fall on climate change.
More specifically, the most urgent challenge is likely to be identified as the task of restricting global warming to 1.50 C. However, it is not adequate just to commit to this as a one-point programme, we also have to clearly state that this will be achieved in safe ways. In pursuit of this one objective, we should not accept other big risks. Some geo-engineering solutions which have been suggested can be extremely risky and unpredictable.
Another way which has been suggested is to replace fossil fuels by huge nuclear plants or by too many large dam projects. Both these options can also be ecologically destructive and hazardous in many ways. It is important to emphasise that there are a wide range of other options, apart from well-planned renewable sources of energy.
A widelyspread afforestation effort, linked also to promoting livelihoods of a large number of poor people, particularly those communities which have traditionally lived in or close to forests, is one option. This is not to be confused with raising commercial or industrial plantations – monocultures of only commercially profitable trees which can be harmful in several ways. Rather the effort should be to encourage people who have lived close to natural forests to try and mimic natural forests which are composed of a wide range of local species of trees, plants and bushes, and home to a diversity of wildlife.
The communities who help to raise these forests can then get rights over the nontimber forest produce, to be harvested in sustainable ways, apart from getting some payment from the government for protection of forests and wildlife. Another option is to try and save all remaining natural forests and in fact as many of the existing trees as possible. In the course of my journey to remote areas, all the time I see examples of thoughtless and avoidable destruction of a large number of trees, even in ecologically critical areas such as the Himalayan region and hilly catchment areas of rivers.
Many villages are at present poorly served by commercial energy. Rather than imposing existing ecologically destructive models on them, models of decentralised renewables can be developed in which keeping in view local conditions villagers choose from sources of renewable energy in creative ways and maintain their systems, with some technological help from outside sources. Urban communities such as housing societies, youth and student organisations, can be involved in switching to renewables in ways that suit their conditions, as well as in planting trees and taking care of them.
With the involvement of local communities, trees and bio-diversity of existing urban parks can be improved significantly while several neglected areas can be developed as new parks, particularly in the economically poorer parts of urban and para-urban areas. Saving wetlands and traditional water sources, or reviving them, will be equally useful for rural, urban and para-urban areas. Similarly, water-harvesting and recharging work should be taken up much more widely.
People and communities need to be much more assertive about resisting ecologically destructive projects and for this they should get wider support so that local struggles do not languish in isolation. Wide networks which support such struggles should be created, cutting across national boundaries. It is millions of such small efforts and struggles which can ultimately achieve more for checking climate change than endless conferences of elites which promise much but achieve little. As a part of such mobilisation of people the most important idea that we need to spread is that of the desirability of a frugal life which resists consumerism.
In recent decades the notion of a desirable lifestyle based on acquiring more lavish consumer goods and comforts has spread far and wide. As more and more people are driven by this attraction, to the extent that they do not hesitate to use illegal, unethical and violent methods, this becomes a powerful force of spreading greed, discontent, violence, strife and above all, ecological ruin (resulting from more and more natural resources being extracted and more use of fossil fuels).
While phasing out fossil fuels is a priority, the overall level of all energy generation and industrial activity also needs to be checked, while agriculture needs to shift to organic in a big way. If overall energy and industrial levels are not reduced, scaling up renewables to huge levels will be impossible or risky. Reducing overall energy and industrial levels is only possible if there is a big people’s movement for checking consumerism and voluntarily opting for a more frugal lifestyle.
Happiness should be sought not in more consumption and acquisition, but rather in good relationships and creative work. All this will be very relevant for youth as they try to find a pathway which can check climate change and other forms of ecological ruin. They will soon discover that stable and sustained changes in lifestyles are needed, and these are closely linked to changes in value-systems.
Making life-style changes may not be easy for some, but if they persist with it, new ways of living, thinking and doing things can be exciting and creative. Protecting biodiversity in and around neighbourhoods, finding ways of reducing hazards in everyday life, teaching and encouraging children to be protective in small ways – all these are examples of creative and exciting work in our daily life to get involved in protecting the environment.
In addition to checking climate change, there are so many other forms of ecological ruin, which may or may not be related directly to climate change but need to be checked. Millions of such small efforts of common people, particularly youth can play the most important role in checking climate change and other ecological ruin.
Such work also provides exciting possibilities of teamwork and working together with a sense of purpose. As young people get more involved in such creative work, chances of being affected by alienation, loneliness, depression and substance abuse will decrease. Hence, they will move forward with reduced consumption but increased happiness to take up the most important responsibilities.
(The writer is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements and initiatives)