The media are being bombarded these days with the happening event of the month - the Earth Summit. Formally known as the UN Sustainable Development Conference, it is nicknamed 'Rio+20' to denote the fact that the world's leaders are meeting in Rio de Janeiro 20 years after a similar summit was held in the same Brazilian city to save the world from its own inhabitants.
The world's biggest player, US President Barack Obama will, however, give the summit a skip. He's busy campaigning for re-election. That about underscores the whole issue of the future of planet Earth; immediate self-preservation and individual prosperity given precedence over the common, universal good.
Briefly put, the worldwide concern is about man-made changes on Earth that are leading to a collapse of the planet's biosphere (Earth and its atmosphere that is capable of supporting life). An extended meaning would be that the focus is on human development -- cities, industries and agriculture -- including the accumulation of greenhouse gases (caused by deforestation, burning of petroleum products etc.,) in the atmosphere that is leading to climate change and global warming.
Cynics say all this is overblown; alarmists say there won't be another summit in 20 years because the end of the world is nigh; moderates believe that the rapid acceleration of the material development of humankind during the last century and in the foreseeable future is going to trigger, over time, an event where the threshold pressure on Earth by such development activity will be surpassed and a calamity, even mass extinction of species, including human beings will occur.
Danger signals are already there to see. The economically developed countries are the biggest culprits when it comes to greenhouse gases. In their quest for a higher quality of life for their people, their goals in pulling back and rectifying the situation now do not seem to be the panacea for countries outside the Northern Hemisphere.
The author of 'The Skeptical Environmentalist and Cool It", Bjorn Lomborg, a Dutch professor says, "in a world plagued by serious problems caused by air and water pollution, this breezy focus on trendy topics and unrealistic solutions is deeply disturbing. A disconnected global elite is flying to Rio to tell the world's poor to have a solar panel".
He says air and water pollution today kills more people on Earth (13% of all economically developed country deaths) compared to floods, droughts, heat waves and storms (0.06%) caused by global warming. That puts in some perspective the differences in priorities faced by the rich and poor states.
He points out that windmills, solar panels, bio-fuels are rich country fixations and provides an interesting illustration of what happens in the real world. He says China manufactures almost half the world's solar panels with generous subsidies from rich world markets, but only 0.005% of China's energy comes from solar panels. "China's decades-long economic expansion has lifted 600 million people out of poverty, but the enormous pollution this has entailed does not fit into Rio+20's green narrative".
The Dutch professor's argument that air and water pollution causes more damage to people right now in the economically developing countries is reinforced by a comment made by the Defence Secretary just this week at a new sewage plant donation ceremony. He referred to the number of Navy personnel who have fallen sick by clearing Colombo's clogged canals and waterways. One can only imagine the impact such an environment has on the health of the people, especially the children, living around these canals and waterways.
If the rich countries have a sacred duty to cut down on consumption, the developing world has to cut down on population. When it comes down to the wire, these are the twin issues that are at the root of the problem. If big corporate interests constrain rich countries from taking tough remedial measures, it is growing populations with stagnant growth potential that restrict economically poorer countries.
Sri Lanka does not have unlimited space for expansion for a growing population. Already, the human-elephant conflict is claiming lives. Just the other day, a monk pleaded that the wasps which have 'guarded' the Sigiriya rock for centuries not be removed merely because they sometimes sting tourists. He blames the humans for their behaviour rather than the venomous bees. In the city, commuters feel the pressure of increasing vehicular traffic on a daily basis.
It's not that Sri Lanka must be outside the global agenda on saving the planet but its priorities would be to save itself first. One Sri Lankan among the huge number of civil society persons roped into Rio+20, a Fellow of the Adopt a Negotiator Project, correctly puts it by saying that "post-war Sri Lanka should seize Rio+20 as an opportunity (and not a threat) for the ongoing development agenda of the Government.
There are rising expectations of a better standard of life for the people in this country, particularly those emerging from a war-ravaged North and East. Yet, sea level rise, potential tsunami threats, floods, droughts, earth slips, water and air pollution are everyday issues, especially for the poor.
A fortnight ago, this newspaper published a front page picture of the plunder of the dried- up Deduru Oya tank near Kurunegala -- its sand being removed for use in the construction industry. One could witness dozens of newly purchased earth-moving equipment at the site. This is the work of an organised sand mafia. You find them in Puttalam also. The Supreme Court once came down heavily on this mafia saying it was backed by ruling party Provincial Councillors. The media regularly write about timber mafias operating in protected forests.
Politicians, usually from the ruling party are hand-in-glove with these mafias for a mess of pottage. This Government is not relying on a slender majority in parliament, to avoid taking stern action against these unscrupulous party members whose activities are hurting the environment.
That is why it is good for the President to go to Brazil, not to report back on the number of world leaders he met on the sidelines of the conference, but to realise the gravity of the problem of the Earth's future, and do his part in ensuring this country is saved from the ravages of man's greed at the expense of future generations.