Since January 2021, I am writing on Environment and Science in the 'Chatusutra' weekly column of Loksatta, a Marathi language newspaper. This weekly series contains four different themes being written by four different authors in a four-week cycle. My first article was published on the second Wednesday of the year, and thereafter my articles are coming every four weeks. One of the request from the readers has been to provide English translations for those who are not able to read Marathi. Meera Rotti took on the task to do this, and therefore I am launching this monthly mini-series. Periodically, I will post the English translation of one article in the same chronological order that the Marathi articles have been published in Loksatta.
Links to previous posts:
04. On the Occasion of Earth Day...
The original Marathi article published on 07 April 2021 can be found HERE.
April 22 is celebrated across the world as the Earth Day. The first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970 in the USA. This celebration was inspired by two movements. In 1962, Rachel Carson’s book, ‘Silent Spring’ was first published. The book intensely recounted negative impacts of overuse of pesticides on the natural world. It was translated into many languages across the world. This book gave an impetus to debates and scrutiny of increasing interference of humans in the Earth’s environment not only in the USA but also in other industrialized nations, and those aspiring for industrialization.
This movement got further thrust by an astounding photograph. On 24th December 1968, the astronauts aboard the USA’s spacecraft Apollo 8 - Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders - became the first humans to orbit the Moon. It was an important milestone in the mission to the Moon. This spacecraft orbited the Moon ten times. In the fourth round, when they were getting into the illuminated side of the Moon from the darker side, a beautiful site from a window of the spacecraft captured their attention - the view of the rising of the Earth over the lunar horizon. William Anders had the official responsibility of photography on this mission. He quickly grabbed his camera to capture this fascinating view. The camera had a black and white film at that moment. By the time the film was changed to colour film the Earth had disappeared from that window of the spacecraft. But a few seconds on, it was visible again, from another window. Anders was able to successfully capture some colour photographs. The spacecraft returned safely back on the Earth on December 27, and a few days later the photographs were shared across the world.
The last few years of the 1960s were quite turbulent. Reverberations of the cold war between the USA and Soviet Union could be felt all over the world. Both these nuclear sovereign superpowers were locking horns with each other on different fronts pushing the world to the brink of a third world war. Around the same time, use of fossil fuels, and other different types of chemicals were making big inroads in diverse fields. There were no checks on air and water pollution in the developed world. And the ill effects of this on the natural ecosystems and human health had also started to unravel.
Amidst such times, these black and white and colour photographs of ‘Earthrise’ reached millions of people through American media, and later across the world through other media. The Moon’s lifeless gray surface and the distant, enchanting, lonely blue-white Earth against the backdrop of a pitch-black infinite universe - even today ‘Earthrise’ evokes a feeling of divine revelation in the viewers. We can only imagine the state of the mind of those who saw the Earth from the space for the first time.
In one obscure corner of this boundless universe lies our solar system, and within that is our home - the blue Earth. For as far as we can see, with our technological evolution, into the limitless space, this is the only place where life is thriving. Billions of years have taken for this miracle to happen. Our social status, our political notions, our economical dominance counts nothing compared to this. Our transient tussles are endangering the existence of not only our own species but that of this rare entity in the universe - such were the thoughts that began to take roots far and wide in people’s minds due to this photograph. It is no coincidence that movements of world peace as well as environmental protection started to shape up in the 1970s.
22 April 2021 will be celebrated across the world as the 51st Earth Day. The theme for this year is - Restore the Earth. This evokes many questions.
Are we trying to say that, long ago the Earth had the most ideal environment, and we have to go back to that state? Should we go right back to the age of the dinosaurs, or just up to an age of ideal conditions for humans? Of course, it is a no brainer… however, what is exactly the ideal state from human perspective? Since the evolutions of the modern humans, the natural conditions of the Earth have been undergoing varied changes in different places, and in the process of adapting to these changes our biological and social evolution has taken place. The Ice Age was the longest of such periods. It was in this period that the human species wandered out of Africa, and spread across other parts of the Earth. This Ice Age ended just ten-twelve thousand years back. In the resulting conditions, our hunter gatherer ancestors transitioned, and subsequently settled, to agrarian lifestyle. Humans in different regions of the Earth adapted to the local weather, geographical conditions in different ways. It has been not even two hundred years since the advent of fossil fuels, and the subsequent transformation of our lifestyle into an industrialized one. It is now proven that the alterations in climatic conditions of the Earth in the past ten thousand years have more to do with human interference than other natural causes. However, we must not forget that we too have been adapting quite well to most of these changes. Therefore, which exactly of these states should be taken as an ideal for humans? The one right after the Ice Age? If yes, then what is the lifestyle perfectly in tune with it? Today, there is tremendous diversity in the ways humans across the globe live their lives, and also in ways they are connected with other entities in the nature. So, by who all and where all is this so-called ‘restoration’ supposed to take place?
Hunter gatherer humans create the least (though not zero) interference in the natural systems. Their primary needs are exclusively met by the resources easily available in their surroundings. Researchers establish that to support such a nature-based lifestyle, per capita 10 sq. km space should be available. Taking into account the Earth’s total land area, and assuming that entire part of it, even the tip of Mt. Everest, is habitable and rich in resources, the Earth can support a population of only 15 million hunter-gatherers. When our ancestors settled down into the agrarian lifestyle, they increased the productivity of the land in their control by bringing in resources from other places. This enabled a 1 sq. km piece of land to support fifty people instead of just one. However, this was possible due to significant interventions done by us in the natural systems of the Earth. Nevertheless, such a lifestyle, too can support population of maximum 750 million. Today, the world population stands at 7.5 billion, and is likely to stabilize at 10 billion in the coming few years.
In a sense, humans have gained control over their evolution using their intellect. Our existence makes the change in Earth’s climate inevitable. It is not the first time that a living species is causing permanent changes on the Earth, and also, not all changes are adverse in nature. We have the capability to think and understand whether the changes taking place due to our actions are under our control, and also whether these very changes are jeopardizing the future of our species. Learning from the past mistakes, and avoiding them in the future, ways of creating a better and eco-friendly life for ten billion people, and also how to preserve the cosmic wonder called Earth and the biological wonder called human over the long-term future - if such topics are explored on account of the Earth Day, it would be more appropriate and relevant.
Author: Priyadarshini Karve
English Translation: Meera Rotti