Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Look what you’ve done to my planet

(This article was written about two years ago, and I compiled information from various places to write about what I feel about the state of the earth today. Some of the info is outdated now, but this is still a working progress, it won't be over until I am sure that my planet is out of peril. One thing that I would like to say is that I owe most of this knowledge and present zeal for the conservation of the environment to my days in Greenpeace. I owe a lot to that organisation, hence the quotes at the start and the end of my article are taken from them.)

When the last tree is cut,
The last river poisoned,
The last fish dead…
We will find out that we can’t eat money
In our race for economic superiority, we often forget that it is our planet that is paying for our misadventures. In the second half of the century gone by, we have shamelessly plundered the Earth like never before. Our ever-increasing numbers are encroaching upon the domain of other creatures, we are losing our forests, leading to a drastic reduction of living space for animals. Our quest for fur, leather, musk, exotic pets and food on our tables has led to the extinction of the Dodo, the Tasmanian Tiger etc., an the near extinction of the platypus, turtles, musk deers, whales etc.,. Our hunger for political power has caused many wars that not only led to the death of many innocent people, but also played havoc on our ecosystem. Our energy needs led us to dig into the Earth in search of coal and fuel oils. The use of these fossil fuels in turn led to the increase in greenhouse gases which is causing global climate change. How else do you explain the snowfall in California and Dubai last year and the heat wave in Europe in 2004? One of our newer sources of energy – nuclear energy – is also a cause for concern. How many of us can really forget the Chernobyl disaster? We still do not know how to safely dispose off spent radioactive materials. We use plastics like Poly Vinyl Chloride (PVC), chemicals like chlorine and DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) etc. Things that we invented for our convenience but which are now posing a serious threat to our own existence. The industries that we set-up for manufacturing these, are now choking up our own farmlands and water sources with heavy metals like cadmium, manganese, chromium, zinc, mercury, arsenic etc.,. Due to increase in population and the resulting problem of feeding the teeming billions, we have achieved a new milestone in the field of agriculture, namely, genetic modification.
This presents a very gloomy future for us. But all is not lost. The crisis can still be controlled and with some luck, reversed.


Oceans cover 70% of the Earth’s surface and hence are very important for our survival. But are we taking care of our oceans?
- Plastic waste kills upto 1 million sea birds, 100,000 sea mammals and countless fish, each year. These creatures, killed by plastic decompose, but the plastic does not. It remains in the ecosystem to kill again and again.
- An estimated 21 million barrels of oil run into the oceans each year from street run-off, effluent from factories and from ships flushing their tanks. Over the past decade an average of 600,000 barrels of oil a year has been accidentally spilled from ships, the equivalent of 12 disasters the size of the sinking of the Oil tanker ‘Prestige’ in 2002.
- Climate change threatens to destroy the majority of the world’s coral reefs, as well as wreck havoc on the fragile economies of Small Island Developing States. The average sea level has risen between 10 and 25 cms., in the past 100 years. If all the world’s ice melted, the oceans would rise by 60 metres. 60% of the Pacific shoreline and 35% of the Atlantic shoreline are receding at the rate of one metre a year.
- Pollution, exotic species and alteration of coastal habitats are a growing threat to important marine ecosystems such as mangroves, seagrass beds and coral reefs.
- Shrimp farming too, is highly destructive. It causes chemical and fertilizer pollution of water and has been largely responsible for the destruction of nearly a quarter of the world’s mangroves.
- Less than half a per cent of marine habitats are protected – compared with 11.5% of global land area.
- The High Seas (areas of the oceans beyond national jurisdiction) cover almost 50% of the Earth’s surface. They are the least protected part of the world.
- Although there are some treaties that protect ocean-going species such as whales, as well as some fisheries agreements, there are no protected areas in the High Seas.
- More than 70% of the world’s marine fisheries are now fixed upto or beyond their sustainable limit.
The Plan of Implementation adopted at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) called for a global network of marine assessment by 2004 and the development of a global network of marine protected areas by 2012. It also called for the elimination of destructive fishing practices and subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. Governments present at the WSSD agreed, on an urgent basis and where possible by 2015, to maintain or restore depleted fish stocks to levels that can produce the maximum sustainable yield.
Some important developments that will go a long way in securing our marine ecosystem:
1997: A ban for 50 years on all mining activities in Antarctica was imposed.
Ministers from industrialised nations agreed to set legally binding reduction targets on greenhouse gases at the Kyoto meeting.
2000: Oil and chemical industries, for many years had used the seas around the U.K. to dump their waste. This was banned in the year 2000.
2001: A ban on the use of driftnets came into effect in European waters by the end of the year. This ban was agreed upon in 1998.
2004: In December, the Duma (Russian Parliament) approved the Kyoto Protocol that was a major step in bringing the treaty into effect.
With reference to the Kyoto Protocol, we still have a long way to go. 55 countries must endorse the pact before it can become binding. Industrialised countries need to cut greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5 per cent in the next eight years, if the warming of the planet is to be curbed to acceptable limits. Russia’s ratification is vital, since two of the biggest defaulters – the U.S. with it’s 25 per cent share in polluting the planet, and China, with it’s 13 per cent – have not signed on.
Due to advances in technology, the average life expectancy of human beings has increased and the infant mortality rate has come down. In isolation, this is a very good sign and we do deserve to congratulate ourselves. But what we seem to overlook is that there is a delicate balance between death and birth which keeps a check on our population. If this balance is disturbed, we may run out of space to live in and go the way of the dinosaurs. Apart from space to live in, another of our basic needs is, food. It was for this purpose, that India saw the ‘Green Revolution’, a revolution that took place throughout the world. It brought about a change from the traditional methods of farming with the use of manure and natural seeds to the use of urea, fertilizers, new high-yielding hybrid seeds and advanced pesticides. These seeds were very useful for us, but they were dependent on fertilizers and pesticides and these were a big problem.
Fertilizers => Over 23 crore people in India face the risk of contracting gastric systems damage to their central nervous system and cardio-vascular systems due to dangerously high levels of nitrate in groundwater. Nitrate toxicity also causes the fatal blue baby syndrome in infants. The admissible nitrate concentration in water is 45 mg/litre. But in several areas this concentration is quite alarming, like 3080mg/litre (Mankaser, Rajasthan), 1600 mg/litre (Samboli, Delhi) etc. A report by the Central Groundwater Board, “High Nitrate Groundwater in India”, released in 2004 reveals nitrate concentration in excess of 100 mg/litre in 1337 monitoring wells in different states. It attributes the nitrate content to extensive use of fertilizers, besides sewage and animal waste. Nitrate poisoning poses a major threat to the quality of water in areas where water supplies are based on groundwater. And it seems, there is no easy way out of the mess that has been created, because even boiling the contaminated water does not solve the problem as nitrate is a chemical, not a form of bacteria.
Pesticides => A study by an environmental organisation titled, “Arrested Development” was conducted in the year 2004 in among 898 children between the ages of 4 and 5 and 9 and 13 belonging to 18 villages in 6 cotton producing states of Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Gujarat revealed that children living in villages exposed to dangerously high levels of pesticides have poor memories and impaired analytical and motor skills. Many of them were unable to perform even simple play-based exercises like catching a ball or assembling a jigsaw puzzle. The study also showed that children in a control group, not exposed to pesticides performed 80% better than the children exposed to the chemicals. The children were deliberately selected from the hot spots of pesticide usage as generally in cotton cultivating areas, pesticides are used most indiscriminately. On average, farmers in Punjab spray their cotton and wheat crops 15-30 times a day.
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) => Unlike traditional crop or animal breeding, genetic engineering enables scientists to cross genes from bacteria, virus and even humans into plants or animals, i.e. in ways that can never happen in nature. Genes have been transferred from humans to pigs, from toads to potatoes and from scorpions to corn. These GMOs may create new allergens and toxins. They may also cause previously safe elements to become toxic to humans or animals. Scientists know that some of these genes can make currently available drugs like ampicillin useless. This will make us more vulnerable to sickness and disease. As GMOs reproduce and interbreed with natural organisms, they can spread to new environments in uncontrollable fashion. The artificial organisms, once released into the environment, cannot be recalled. The risk of genetic pollution is unpredictable, irreversible and may have far-reaching consequences for the environment and human health.
Toxic Pollution

In order to make our lives more comfortable, we have unwittingly let loose a barrage of toxic products into the environment. Some of these products and their effects are discussed here:
Persistent Organo-chlorine Pollutants (POPs) => They are highly toxic, synthetic chemicals that have been produced and released into the environment; up chimneystacks, down outflow pipes, in agricultural sprays. POPs are contained in some consumer products, such as computers, paints and household products, and can also find their way into the environment when products like these are used, or disposed in landfills or incinerated. Once released, into the environment, they can travel vast distances across air and sea currents to contaminate areas far away from where they were released. POPs evaporate quickly in warmer climates and so are found in higher concentration in cold places. Studies have shown that the chemicals can reach the polar regions within 10 days of their release from Asia. They take decades to breakdown and bio-accumulate in the environment. They do not easily dissolve in water but readily dissolve in fats. As a result, they buildup in fatty tissues of animals. So animals with high fat content – humans, whales, dolphins, polar bears – are highly susceptible to the buildup of POPs. They also bio-magnify as they move up the food chain. So animals at the top of the food chain like humans, polar bears and whales are again most affected. The magnification or multiplication in concentration of POPs is by factors of millions as they go up the food chain.
Impact of POPs:
POPs have been seen to have numerous detrimental effects on global environmental and human health. Surprisingly, their effects on wildlife and humans are not similar
ð Multiple cancers and tumours
ð Learning disorders
ð Reproductive problems/failures
ð Hormone dysfunction
ð Suppression of the immune system
ð Decreased lactation periods
ð Increased incidence of diabetes
Affected women who were pregnant had children who suffered from the above problems. The newborn also ingested the chemicals through breast milk.
The United Nations Environment Programme has decided to eliminate POPs from our environment. A list of 12 extremely hazardous POPs has been made, which includes Dioxins. Most of these are either industrial by-products or pesticides. Many of these have been banned for use in developed countries but are still manufactured and used in developing countries. The 12 POPs are:
Industrial Chemicals
Industrial By-products
Industrial By-products

PVCs and Plastics => Poly Vinyl Chloride or PVC is one of the most toxic plastics that is manufactured in the world. PVC is a plastic that is manufactured with chlorine making it very dangerous to human and environmental health. When plastics are burned or buried in dumps, they release some of the most toxic substances known as dioxins and furans. These chemicals are collectively known as dioxins and are proven to be carcinogenic. Dioxins also effect the growing embryo in many ways; it impairs the growth of reproductive organs, especially in boys; it inhibits general growth and causes lower birth weight, it also causes cancer and endometriosis, cognitive defects and nervous problems. Dioxins do not break down and instead get absorbed and stored in the fat of animals, fish or people. It can be absorbed through the skin, or frequently through contamination of food. The most alarming effect that it can have, is suppression or mimicking of the hormonal system. This in turn, affects the functioning of the entire body, including immunity, the nervous system and reproductive system.
The Stockholm Convention seeks to eliminate the generation of these chemicals all over the world. It assumes particular significance because India has signed the treaty in May 2002.however it is difficult to expect a strict implementation of the ban, unless there is public pressure on the government to do so. It is imperative to find alternatives to plastics. One alternative is to make non-chlorinated plastic. But still, this plastic uses additives and heavy metals, which when buried or burned, get released into the environment. Plastics can actually be substituted by other materials like wood, cement, glass, bamboo, grass, ceramics, paper, metals etc., in many products and processes.
It is vital that global measures are taken to arrest the degradation of our environment, we must remember that, "The earth was not left to us by our parents, it has been lent to us by our children for safekeeping."

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