ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, January 07, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 32

What you and I can do to save her

We conclude today ‘Caring for the Earth’ by Dr. Sriyanie Miththapala

Water pollution

Humans are polluting the Earth’s water, through domestic and industrial as well as marine pollution. A city of the size of Colombo city (with about 300,000 people) produces about 51 million litres of sewage per day. Not all cities have sewage systems and much of this sewage can end up in rivers and the sea.

Marine pollution from engine oil seepage and other sources are despoiling the oceans. It should be noted that all river pollution also ends up in the seas. It is estimated that globally, 1.3 million tonnes of oils are released into the oceans every year.

Air pollution

Since the advent of coal, air pollution has been a problem, particularly in cities, but it is only after the industrial revolution (in the 18th and 19th centuries) that the quantity of emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen, sulphur dioxide, soot and particulate matter became particularly damaging. The 20th century saw Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) introduced in aerosols, and as coolants in refrigerators and air-conditioners.

Excess carbon dioxide and methane causes global warming. Nitrogen and sulphur dioxide result in acid rain; soot and particulate matter result in smog. CFCs destroy the ozone layer that protects harmful ultraviolet radiation from reaching the earth. Research has revealed this destruction has caused a hole in the ozone layer over the Antarctic, which is three times the size of the USA.
Acid rain is destroying some of the world’s most valued monuments; for example, St. Paul’s cathedral, the Acropolis in Greece and the Taj Mahal - have all been damaged. Increased particulate matter in the atmosphere multiplies the incidence of lung and eye diseases and increased CFCs, skin cancers. Further, the quantity of particulate matter in the air of Asia’s cities is generally twice the world average.

Climate change

Emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide and methane (collectively called Greenhouse Gases) have increased since the time of the industrial revolution. These gases function much like glass panes in a greenhouse, allowing light in, but preventing heat from escaping. This greenhouse effect, as it is commonly called, is important: without it, the earth would be too cold for humans to live; too much of it and the earth becomes too hot.

During the last century, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has risen by twelvefold. This is because of excessive use of coal and oil, innumerable vehicles that burn petrol and factories that are emitting enormous quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere. In addition, forests that serve to soak up CO2 are being decimated. Every year, about 23 billion metric tonnes of CO2 are released to the atmosphere. In addition, accumulated solid waste generates large quantities of methane.

The result of these emissions and the resultant increased greenhouse effect is a distinct warming of the earth. During the last century, global temperature increased by about 0.5°C - measured as the largest increase in thousand years.

Much of this climate change is dangerous. Because of climate change, ice caps are melting and increasing the level of the sea. Therefore, low-lying areas will become inundated. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that global sea levels will rise between 0.09 to 0.88 metres by 2100. This could mean that many coastal countries and cities such as Bangladesh, Mumbai and Bangkok could become flooded.

The IPCC predicts that climate change could set off extreme weather events such as intense rainstorms and cyclones, which result in floods, and increased heat, which result in droughts. It is predicted that fires, as well as El Niño and La Niña occurrences will become more frequent, and arid regions in tropical countries like Sri Lanka could become a desert. Temperate regions, on the other hand, could become tropical.

In addition, climate change will affect the planet's hydrology, causing changes in seasonal flows. Dry areas will become drier, wet areas could become wetter.

Climate change is also increasing the spread of diseases. For example, mosquito species have expanded their ranges so that mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria are spreading to higher altitudes in Asia, Central Asia, Latin America; dengue to Mexico; and yellow fever to Colombia.

Climate change, therefore, has caused and will cause undeniably profound ecological and economical effects.

The Earth is, therefore, seriously overused and severely damaged. In addition, it is also acutely overpopulated. There are six billion people on earth, all needing the goods and services that the Earth provides. Of this six billion, one third does not have access to safe nutritious food; one in every four children is malnourished; half the world’s population does not have proper sanitation and one fifth of the world’s population does not have safe drinking water. Eight million people die each year because they are too poor to stay alive.

The irrevocable truth is that the well-being of humans is linked tightly to the well-being of ecosystems. The first step, therefore, in ensuring that the quality of human life is bettered, is to ensure that the integrity of natural systems is conserved.

Thus, the conundrum and the challenge that faces all of us today, is to ensure the well-being of humans whilst ensuring the well-being of the Earth.

The challenge is not insurmountable, if we each do our own part. Each of us needs to extract from the Earth world only the minimum essentials for life and to put back only the minimum waste. And the secret, I believe, is not to make spectacular changes which may be impracticable, but to set manageable, small targets to do so. Once we achieve these targets, then we can increase our efforts, incrementally.

What can each of us do to stop the damage to the Earth?

Become aware of the beauty of the Earth world and of the damage that is inflicted upon it.

Look around you at the beauty of the Earth: its immense value to us aesthetically, economically and ecologically. Take time to look at and listen to the Earth: the colours of a leaf, the delicacy of a butterfly, the grace of a cheetah, the music of birdsong, the grandeur of habitats.

Each individual also needs to take time to learn about the damage that he or she is causing the Earth. It is against the law in Sri Lanka to kill deer, yet venison is sold freely on the outskirts of Yala. Many endemic fishes are afforded full protection in Sri Lanka, yet companies export them to aquaria in the West. All but seven species of birds are protected in Sri Lanka - which means it is against the law to personally own them or their products, but there are protected Hill Mynahs and Lorikeets as pets in houses. Many people have no qualms about smuggling in an exotic plant from Bangkok, not knowing whether it is permissible or that they could be bringing a dangerous pathogen or an invasive as a hitchhiker. Learn what you can and cannot buy in this country and any country that you visit.

Become an agent of change

Once each individual becomes aware, then a mind-shift and an attitude-shift are essential, so that conservation of the Earth world becomes integral to each person’s life.

Each one of us needs to take from the environment only what is necessary: humans can not live without food and water, but we can live without coral jewellery, ivory and turtle shell trinkets, exotic and endemic fish in our aquaria, threatened orchids in our gardens.

In addition, each individual needs to take from the Earth only the amount that is needed. The 20th and 21st centuries have been periods of over consumption and periods of excessive waste production. Without an iota of doubt, humans need to reduce their consumption of natural resources. If every human consumed natural resources at the same rate as the average American or German, two more earths would be needed.

It is essential that we ensure that our use of natural resources is sustainable; i.e., we must consume less than what is naturally produced. Presently, we are eating into our natural capital.

Our consumption, for example, of electricity, water, plastic and paper must be reduced. Simple changes such as switching to energy saving bulbs can reduce consumption by 75% and costs as well; switching off lights can save up to 15% of energy; and reducing room temperature by just 1° saves 5-6% energy. During the Christmas season, each of us should have reflected upon how much of energy use each of us could have reduced. Yes, it is lovely to have a fully lit Christmas tree, but is it necessary to light up a whole garden?

Water leakages waste a large amount of water: a leak that fills up a coffee cup in 10 minutes will waste over 11,356 litres of water a year; a leaky toilet can waste over 83,300 litres of water in one year; leaving water running while brushing teeth can waste enough water to fill 13 cans of soda and leaving water running while washing the dishes wastes enough water to wash a car.

Plastic, the boon of the mid 20th century is proving to be the bane of the 21st century. Plastic may be light-weight, low-cost and water-proof, but it is an ecological and waste management nightmare: while it takes only 2-3 weeks for a banana peel to breakdown in the soil it takes about 100-1000 years for a shopping bag to do so. Plastic not only causes waste management problems (non-degradable waste will pile up) but also ecological disasters. It is reported that, every year, plastic bags kill about 100,000 whales, sea turtles, and other marine animals (many of which are endangered), often by choking them. In recent times, officials of the Colombo Municipality have been quoted as saying that sili sili bags clogging municipal drains have been the likely cause of flash floods during heavy rains.

Using an empirical estimate that one person uses 18 shopping bags per person per week, a single person will use 934 shopping bags per annum. If 20% of Sri Lanka’s 20 million strong population uses this quantity then, 3,744 million shopping bags will be used per year. If this usage is reduced by just one third, then there will be a reduction of use of 1,248 million shopping bags per year.

In a welcome move, the government of Sri Lanka has banned some types of polythene bags from January 1. The implementation of this ban will make a tremendous impact to the environment.

Reducing consumption must be accompanied by reusing products. We throw away too much. Paper, plastic and glass can be reused. In a lifetime, an average American will throw away 600 times his or her weight in trash. This means that a 68 kg adult will leave over 40,000 kg of waste for his or her children. Each year, the US throws away the equivalent of more than 30 million trees in newsprint. There are no equivalent figures for Sri Lanka, but we should note that our Sunday newspapers are getting bigger weekly - with supplements and advertisements making them bulkier.

This, in turn, must be accompanied by recycling. Aluminium, glass, paper can be recycled. Recycling and reusing the material in tin cans reduces related energy use, air pollution, solid waste and water pollution all by over 75%. Garden refuse, vegetable and fruit matter can be composted and recycled as manure. Used paper can now be sent to the Paper Corporation, and there are private companies as well who engage in recycling. There are also collection kiosks at Green Path, Torrington Ave across from the cemetery and the Kotte Municipal building.

It is essential that all of us, as individuals, follow the three Rs of environmental conservation: to reduce, reuse and recycle.
In addition, we must ensure that we maximise use of environmentally friendly products: biodegradable chemicals instead of chemicals that persist in the environment and poison plants and animals; natural fragrances such as fresh flowers and candles instead of air fresheners; ceramic and wood instead of plastic etc; cloth napkins instead of paper napkins.

We should stop to take stock of our habits. Do we buy only what we really must have, or do we buy because it is on sale or because it is pretty? When we polish, clean and decorate our houses, are we sure that we are using environmentally friendly products? When we receive gifts, what do we do with the packaging? We Sri Lankans are very good at re-cycling wrapping paper, but what do we do with boxes and styrofoam? Are we sure that what we have in our clothes closets is what we really need, or are we carrying excess baggage? (See box for further questions each individual should ask.)

Become an advocate for change

Finally, each individual not only needs to be an agent of change but also an advocate for change. Each person must take the message of conservation out to their own circle of acquaintances and share it by rhetoric and/or example.

Each one of us is responsible for the current state of the Earth. Each one of us is part of the problem. Each one of us, therefore, is part of the solution.

(Adapted from Miththapala, Sriyanie (2006) Caring for God’s World. The Bishop Abeynaike Memorial Lecture 2005. 36 pp. Colombo: Diocese of Colombo, Church of Ceylon.)

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Copyright 2006 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.