Desire and despoliation

Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.” However, those of us who can afford to pay money for what we want (more than what we need) very often end up getting it. We may buy it, but we are not paying the true cost of it.

More and more, we see that we are living in the age of the human – the Anthropocene. The impacts of our activities on the environment are becoming better understood. The demands in one location have serious negative impacts for the environment in, often, far-off places. This means that negative impacts in distant places adversely affect people’s lives and livelihoods there. Eventually, the lives and livelihoods of the people in the demand locations also are negatively affected. These happen because humans are part of the environment, not above or apart from it. When these demands grow beyond a point, life becomes unsustainable.

Also, the world is interconnected. Whether we are at the ‘demanding’ end or the ‘providing’ end, we are all affected.

Today, I share two examples from recent reports.

A fishy story

The first report is a story of the unsustainable exploitation of the Amazon rainforest. You will have heard and read about how deforestation in the Amazon contributes to global warming by reducing tree cover, that reduces the amount of CO2 removed from the atmosphere, leading to increased green-house gases and global warming, and so on. This much is standard textbook fare in the chapter on climate change. Therefore, the textbooks trumpet, you must plant more trees.

This is only one part of the picture.

The deforestation also has local effects on the indigenous peoples (aboriginals or aadivaasis – literally, first inhabitants). The causes of the deforestation are, ultimately, human wants elsewhere – in countries where there is so much wealth in the hands of people that they can ‘afford’ to buy things they want. If there is a market, there are more than enough people willing to supply what the market demands. This is capitalism!

The environmental changes in the Amazon are resulting in not just deforestation, but also in the construction of dams across the rivers in the Amazon system. These dams are built chiefly for hydroelectric power generation.

Multi-national corporations (MNCs) are also involved in mining in the Amazon basin. The ores mined are in demand in diverse industries in South America and elsewhere.

One of the consequences of this is the drastic disruption of lives and livelihoods of the indigenous people. Among the things in their environment that they depend on for their lives (needs, not wants) is a particular kind of fish called the dorado (dourada) catfish.

Look at a detailed map of the Amazon basin (your atlas may be a good place to start) and you will see that it is a very complex and gigantic system of streams of different sizes all joining to form the mighty Amazon. These waters are part of the Amazon forest system.

In earlier article, I had mentioned the connection between the Sahara and the Amazon rainforest system. The Amazon river, the rainfall, the dust storms from the Sahara, and many other factors are very intimately interconnected.

In this vast system are these giant fist (a mature adult may grow to up to 2 metres long). They are part of the diet of may of the tribes living in Amazonia.

These fish migrate “11,600km from the Andes to the mouth of the Amazon and back.” This extraordinary migration pattern is only now being understood. The impacts of the changes human beings are creating in Amazonia include the disruption of the movement of these remarkable fish. Watch this brilliant and informative YouTube video you can watch to learn about this issue:

Consumerism vs eco-diversity

The second story concerns the ‘advanced’ economies – commonly called the ‘global North’ – where GDP and personal incomes are high. These allow people to consume goods far beyond needs – some people call this luxury consumption.

A global system exists that brings together goods (and services) to meet this demand in the advanced economies. This article focuses on research pertaining to the USA and its consumption of goods.

It connects those consumption patterns in the USA with the loss of biodiversity that happens where these goods are produced. One example examined in this video is coffee consumption. Watch:

The related article in Nature, a well-respected international journal, includes USA, Europe, and Japan as the major consumers and the rest of the world that caters to the demand in these markets. Using very interesting maps, they show the types and intensity of damage to ecological diversity in the producing areas.

Mind you, USA, western Europe, and Japan are not the only regions demanding such products. India, too, is part of this process, both demanding and supplying. So, let us not start feeling smug!

Everything we consume has an ecological cost – this is often called the ecological footprint. It is difficult to put a money value on the ecological (environmental) cost of goods that we demand.

Our wants often exceed our needs. Especially when we are able and willing to pay money for it. As someone once said words to the effect that, “When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.”


Featured image, courtesy:

A version of this article appears in the Deccan Herald Student Edition on 16 March 2017

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