A better tomorrow

Staring at my laptop screen, aboard the Sanghamitra express, I wonder for the thousandth time- where do I begin and why should you care about what I have to say.

I am traveling from Pipariya, my aunt’s home, to Betul, my parents’ home- both towns probably unfamiliar to you, small and tucked away as they are in the heartland of India- Madhya Pradesh. But unfamiliar though their names might be, in these small towns too is unfolding a story which is unfortunately becoming too familiar to us all- the tragedy of climate change. If you had told me two years ago that I would be writing a blog post trying to increase awareness about climate change and urging people to take action by crowdfunding green projects, I wouldn’t have believed you. I was too wrapped up in my own life- love, family, friends and career, to care about bleached coral reefs and polar bears on melting ice. But then, back then it was easy to ignore these problems- they hadn’t invaded home, they hadn’t become personal.

A million tragedies

I am a couple of weeks into a three week visit home and a crazy couple of weeks they have been. A million climate related disasters are unfolding simultaneously across the globe- a staggering 40 million affected by flooding in Asia- that is larger than the population of Canada and Australia, larger in fact than the population of more than 150 countries; 200,000 homes destroyed by Hurricane Harvey in Texas, with total economic impact estimates ranging from 75–180 billion dollars- that is more than double the GDP of Sri Lanka at the high end- the output worth toil and effort of 2 years of a nation of 21 million people gone in a flash, while the Caribbean braces for more storms already brewing in the Atlantic; and millions are being ravaged by unprecedented drought and famine in the horn of Africa- a silent crisis, hardly being covered by any major news establishment.

Sights like these were commonplace in Asia as the floods raged

As I write this, a notification from BBC tells me North Korea has just conducted its 6th Nuclear test and South Korea is scurrying, wondering how to respond. This is how these world-changing events unfold in our lives- notification by notification, tweet by tweet. Good or bad, our world certainly offers a lot of drama for our daily consumption. It is difficult to care about the insidious problem that is climate change when there is so much else going wrong simultaneously, especially when each victim of these climate related disasters is a statistic in a 140 character news summary on a 5.5 inch phone screen.

Not somebody else’s problem

In ‘The hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy’, Slartibartfast uses the most potent technology in the known universe to hide his ship in plain sight in the middle of the Lord’s cricket stadium- it is called the ‘Somebody else’s problem field’. Nowhere else is the effectiveness of this seen more clearly than climate change. This is clearly a problem for all of us and yet because of the quirks of our mind, simultaneously, it clearly isn’t.

Acknowledging the problem is tough as myriad practical problems of everyday existence take precedence over these seemingly far away tragedies, which our mind tells us will never happen to us. Words like disaster, catastrophe, tragedy, suffering cease to mean much in our social media saturated world anyway. And compassionate though we may be, biologically we did not evolve to truly care about people beyond our immediate friends and family. How then can our human psychology begin to comprehend the plight of the 40 million people affected by floods in Asia? If you counted one victim a second, it would take you a year and four months to count them all. While thrown about in news reports as a statistic, it is a number too large to mean anything to us personally.

Even if acknowledged, solving the problem is tougher still because it is tempting to think that we can escape it. For the urban, educated class, the privilege of our birth allows us to sequester ourselves in what might seem like safe havens. Except that that safety is an illusion- we can’t really escape, not anymore. The world is way too connected now and the range of geographies affected by these disasters too wide for us to hope that these problems will not affect us in some way- they already are doing so.

The ‘Somebody else’s problem field’ shattered for me when I moved to Bangalore for my third stint in the city. Having previously done a lot of my schooling and post-graduation in Bangalore, I had had the good fortune to experience the best the city had to offer. But in July 2015, as I stood stuck at our own local version of hell- the silk board junction and the three minute traffic signal changed a mind-numbing nine times over what seemed like eternity, I stared out the window of my cab at the faces of fellow unhappy citizens, wondering how we had come to this.

Bangalore traffic on a good day

Bangalore, for many years was a paradise for people to retire to because of its peaceful way of life, devoid of the chaos and pollution which is so often an inevitable part of an urban existence. Known as the ‘Garden city’ of India, Bangalore experienced perfectly pleasant weather throughout the year, with temperatures rarely exceeding 30 degrees Celsius and even two days of relatively warm weather leading to rains on the evening of the third. Over the course of the last 15 years this changed rapidly, as the title of ‘Silicon valley of India’ brought with it an ever burgeoning population. Coupled with terrible urban planning, this has transformed the city from a paradise with a bright future to a city on the verge of death. Traffic beyond imagination chokes the city’s roads and the pollution chokes its citizens’ lungs. Studies indicate that there has been a 78% reduction in tree cover and 79% reduction in water bodies in the 4 decades leading up to 2017. The city faces acute water shortage and its lakes, which once teemed with marine life, are now covered with chemical foam from industrial waste and often catch fire. The city’s famous weather, often described as being ‘naturally air conditioned’ is slowly but surely becoming a thing of the past, with peak temperatures in 2016 reaching 39.2 degrees Celsius- making the the harsh truth of climate change undeniably real and personal.

Fast forward to today, my visit home is marked by people everywhere talking about the meagre rains in Madhya Pradesh this year. Worries abound about water shortage for household purposes and crop failures as my dad contemplates building a larger storage tank in our house for rainwater harvesting, if there is any rainwater to harvest that is. It is Ganesh Chaturthi, a festival quite popular in Betul and people are hoping that Lord Ganesha will bring with him the much needed monsoons.

A few days into my visit, while at Pipariya, the prayers didn’t seem to be working so well for the residents of Madhya Pradesh, while millions struggled yet again with the insane amount of rain in Mumbai- such are the contrasts thrown up by climate change. Stories of cars being submerged, houses being flooded and friends being stuck on the road for hours were heard everywhere while all of us made a trip to a nearby dam. My aunt tells me how they used to visit the dam many years ago for picnics during the day or at night to gaze at the stars, all the time wary of going too close to the edge, for the fear of falling in. Looking at the dam today, it is hard to understand that fear because many years of poor rains mean that the water level in the dam has receded and much of the dam’s area has now been reclaimed by vegetation and villagers who have made it their home- they at least don’t believe that Lord Ganesha will usher in a miracle.

A photo of the dam from earlier in the summer. <Photo by Samarth Puri>

The twin tales of the drying lands here and hurricanes and floods elsewhere, remind me that it is the height of hubris to think that we need to act to save the environment or save the planet- it is we who need saving. If we fail to change, nature will, at first slowly but eventually with devastating fury, restore balance.

A collaborative solution

But all is not doom and gloom- there won’t be much point to writing this if it was. It’s been less than two years since the signing of the historic Paris agreement and nations across the globe are putting together plans to tackle the issue. Germany recently broke records by generating 85% of its energy from renewable sources for a day, while India has an ambitious plan to generate 57% of its energy from clean energy sources by 2027. Organizations world over are becoming increasingly conscious of their impact on the environment and taking steps to curb the same. A leading example is the FMCG behemoth Unilever, which in 2010 committed to reducing its environmental footprint in half by 2030, recognizing that what is good for the planet is also good for business. Many community level initiatives world over are tackling the issue at a local level while also improving the health and well-being of the people involved. They are aided in their effort by several NGOs, which not only provide them the technical know-how, but also help ensure that these projects are having a measurable impact. Slowly, but surely, we have begun to act.

That said, while this is a good beginning, we have started acting quite late and are still far away from doing enough- with current national commitments under Paris agreement still putting us on course for a 3.4 degree warming against the targeted 2 degrees. Many more people and organizations need to get involved, both in terms of time and money they dedicate to the problem, before we will make substantial progress. It is with the hope of aiding in this cause that I write to you today. A few of us have gotten together to start ‘Earth 47’, a platform dedicated to increasing the awareness and understanding of this issue and help crowdfund green projects which are making an impact in fighting climate change, but aren’t financially viable on their own. These include various solar, wind, bio-gas, geothermal and reforestation projects across the globe. While governments and organizations by their nature will move slowly to implement the policy and infrastructure changes required, all of us can act today to make a difference by supporting these projects.

While it will be a couple of months before the crowdfunding part of the platform is ready, we at ‘Earth 47’ hope to use the tools currently at our disposal to bring you facts and news about climate change in a more accessible manner and spread the word to get more people involved in this fight. Through the course of the next few months, the aim of this blog is to explore the nuances of climate science-including why a 3.4 degree rise would be catastrophic and discuss possible ways to transform our growth model. Only with an increased understanding will we be able to act effectively- by pushing businesses, governments and ourselves to reduce our carbon footprint. Cliched though it may sound- we, the citizens of the 21st century, stand at crossroads and we can either continue to ignore the problem and then shake our heads in regret a few years down the line or we can answer this call of the hour and embrace it as an opportunity to reshape our world and build ourselves and our children a better tomorrow.

As I near the end of what has now turned out to be a post far longer than imagined, I wonder how we will tackle all the challenges that are to come, for surely the task ahead is a difficult, though achievable one. But as I look out the window, I see a blur of green passing by- the countryside looks lush despite just two light showers in the last fortnight. It is a reminder that for all the damage inflicted so far, the fabric of life is resilient and can surely bounce back- all we need to do is make a sincere effort.