Being the change

It is clear now that in this age of the Anthropocene, environment security is the biggest casualty. It is well known now that the world is fast exceeding its capacity to live within the boundaries that the Planet sets — news is exploding in our face of the local crisis of health because of our mismanagement of the environment and the global existential crisis of impacts of climate change.

What can I do then? This then is a question many of us ask. We want to make a difference. We want to clean up and protect the environment. We want to be part of the change that is so desperately needed today. We know that the air we breathe is so polluted that it is hazardous for our health. Our rivers are dying because of garbage and sewage, and our forests are under threat. We know that much has to be done to safeguard our environment, because without this our planet’s survival is at stake.

We know this. But the question in our mind is: What can we do? Is there anything we can do, as individuals or as collectives belonging to schools, colleges or even residential complexes and colonies? Can we contribute? How?

We can. Many years ago, Mahatma Gandhi had said we need to be the change we want to see in the world. This is what we need to do in today’s world.

It is clear that our lifestyle has an impact on the environment. What we do and how we do it make a crucial difference. This is why the first task of being the change is to become aware of what we do — benchmark how much water and energy we use and waste we generate. It is only then can we transform our ways so that we can use as little and waste as little as possible — “tread lightly on Earth” has to be our motto.

We must live the change.

Take the issue of water. We know that while, on the one hand, water scarcity is growing — many do not even have clean drinking water — on the other hand, available water is getting contaminated. The answer then is to do the following:

First, augment our water resources by capturing every drop of water where and when it falls — we can do rainwater harvesting so that every rooftop, every paved surface becomes a water catchment. We are then part of the solution. This is not just the “job” of government. It is within our own reach. Every village, every school, every colony and every other agency can and must be part of capturing the rain, harvesting it and then valuing the raindrop.

We can and must minimise our water demand — we can do this by making sure that we do not waste water and, in fact, come up with solutions to use recycled water and even ways to minimise what we use in our kitchens, bathrooms and gardens. This is not something that is often in our reach because wastewater is connected to official sewage systems — we flush and will forget.

But, it is also a fact that many households — many more than those that are “so-called” connected — are dependent on on-site collection systems — everything from well-designed septic tanks to boxes that contain the waste and then discharge it into the open drain or land. These are systems that can get connected locally to wastewater treatment, designed for reusing and recycling water. But all in all, we have to work to turn wastewater into water.

It is the same with garbage. If we measure our garbage we will know how much we generate. But if we deliberately separate out the wet waste — all the food peels, leaves and other biodegradables — from the plastic, glass, metal, etc., we will know the composition of our waste. Once we know this, we can manage it — as the biodegradable can be composted or used to make energy, and the plastic, glass and metal can be recycled. But more importantly, we will know what we use that generates non-degradable garbage and then plan deliberately to cut out the high-waste items. We can do this.

Added to this is all that we can do to reduce our energy needs — by first reducing what we need to consume, through efficiency and sufficiency, and then working to use renewable sources of energy on our individual homes and institutions — like the rainwater that we harvest or the sewage that we recycle and the garbage we compost — these small steps combine to make it a giant leap.

The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), where I work, has a green school programme, where schools do not preach environmental change but practise it. It makes for amazing change-makers. In this programme, students and teachers first benchmark the environmental status of their school — how much water, energy or vehicles they use and how much garbage or pollution they generate. They then take steps to fix their own environmental footprint — they become the change. I believe if each school and each home becomes the laboratory of action, then the ripples will spread fast and furious. We will take these lessons of life to make them life itself. This has to be the way ahead.
The writer is at the Centre for Science and Environment
Twitter: @sunitanar

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