Small Steps and Future Course: Answering the ‘How’

Environment and climate change

The recently launched Towards a Better World’ campaign by Medha Patkar, conceived by Eco-Socialism Front and in the online presence of half a dozen activists from different countries representing Fridays for Future campaign of Greta Thunberg advocates taking small steps to achieve a more equitable society. It talks about contributing to economic, political and societal change through a personal commitment, but it has not been clearly articulated how this is to be done.

I am taking this liberty of trying to touch on the aspect of how one ought to go about fulfilling this objective.

When I try to write about how, it raises many possibilities, which seem interrelated and interwoven. They all involve identifying an injustice, raising the issue, and taking an honest, conscious, and watchful step towards its eradication. In this way, one can take strides towards realizing an equitable society. It is as simple as that, or is it?

Small Steps and Identifying Injustice

Small steps are essential to raising a particular “consciousness” in individuals. When Mahatma Gandhi organized the Dandi March and made salt, it was just not to oppose the salt tax, it was to demonstrate defiance against every injustice imposed by colonial rule. It successfully created a ripple effect, which made people aware of the injustices and how they could be addressed. When people realized that they are being oppressed and stifled, they volunteered and mobilized to fight against their oppressor and the root causes of the injustice being done to them.

Similarly, small steps like saying no to plastic bags can be instrumental in raising the environmental consciousness of individuals. Plastic is a perfect example of unabated capitalism gone wrong. You create a product which no one needs in the first place. Then you deny and ignore the malicious aftermath it can lead to. When the problem becomes difficult to deal with, you seek concessions from the government, asking for taxpayers’ money to deal with a mess you yourself are responsible for; money which could have been invested in public transport, green technology or healthcare instead.

There is nothing more liberating than identifying an injustice and making it one’s life purpose to resolve it. Plastic, with its detrimental impact on land, air, water, and marine life can give individuals that purpose to help raise environmental consciousness. Our voices must be raised against unplanned development and inessential products. Reducing plastic usage to the extent possible is one way of doing so.

Small Steps and Reparations

I have not even mentioned the amount of carbon spewed in the atmosphere during the production and then disposal of plastics (among other things), leading to climate change and global warming, to cyclones like Sandy and Nisarga, rise in sea levels, unprecedented droughts and floods and the loss of crops, life and property.

This process is exposing the prevailing inequalities in society, where an economically and socially persecuted fraction bears the brunt for someone else’s mistake. Many environmentally-conscious bodies, people, research, and advocacy groups, and nations have realised this injustice and have been striving to create an equitable society.

This became the foundation stone for the formation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992. For the first time, developed nations were made aware of the environmental impact they have been instrumental in creating since the industrial revolution. They were urged to cut back on emissions to limit the increase in global temperature. If they were not able to, they would have to pay for the excess emissions (the cap and trade agreements of the Kyoto Protocol 1997). But nothing concrete followed thereafter.

In hindsight, one can see that the carbon markets are highly sensitive to global recession (which occurred in 2008 and 2020) and as a result, the little progress made got lost in the winds of austerity. It was only in the year 2009 in CoP15 (Copenhagen) that the developed nations pledged to mobilize 100 billion dollars a year by 2020 to help developing nations like India adapt to climate change. This was a first welcome stride towards the reparation that rich nations owe developing nations, for their historical emissions. The pledge was reaffirmed in the 2015 Paris agreement. But the withdrawal of the US and Australia from the Paris Agreement has seriously curtailed our progress towards more concrete climate action, towards the redistribution of wealth through reparation, towards an equitable society.

As a developing nation, India needs funds for its transition into a green and sustainable economy and the onus of this should fall on the culprits (developed nations, their oil and gas, mining sector and power sectors) and not on the taxpayers of poor and developing nations. Therefore, our voices have to be raised to demand reparations.

Small steps like using a bicycle, or taking public transport can help limit carbon emissions. They can also help people recognise the urgency of the problem of climate change and personal experience being part of its solution in a small way. This could motivate them to learn more about the issue and participate in and advocate for solutions like reparation at the systemic level as well.

Small Steps and Development

Farmers and indigenous groups are dependent on nature for their livelihood and sustenance. They rely on forest produce, fisheries and agriculture. Encroachment or degradation of land and rivers in the name of development through the construction of dams, wildlife conservation sites, mining etc. cause them to lose their native land and their occupation. It displaces them and puts them at the mercy of corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. The present draft of the Forest Amendment Act (2019) is designed to facilitate such outcomes.

Therefore, to ensure that the interest of vulnerable communities is protected their needs must be vociferously put before the government.  A movement for planting saplings can raise the environmental consciousness of many people with regard to preserving nature’s precious ecosystems. This could lead to broader support for an existing movement for the protection of a forest or a river ecology, which can help prevent the displacement of indigenous people from their lands and protect their livelihoods.

To conclude, no matter how small a step is, it can lead to a big change – a revolution, provided small strides are taken in a well-defined objective – an equitable society.

To demonstrate that all this is not merely conjecture but is actually relevant and prevalent, I present a case study about how a nation’s economic and political situation has been gravely affected by unabated environmental degradation, and how the consumers’ right to refusal has put pressure on the government to fall back on to the right course – the course of sustainable development.

Brazil – a case study

The tropical Amazon forest sprawls over many nations of South America, but the majority of it is contained within Brazil (almost 60%) and is home to around 400 indigenous tribes. Deforestation has been prevalent for a long time, but it has generally been controlled and somewhat essential for the people’s subsistence.

Simultaneously forest conservation activities have been undertaken and the indigenous communities have been left mostly undisturbed. But things went downhill after January 1, 2019, when Jair Messias Bolsonaro won Brazil’s presidential election.

Like a true right-wing conservative leader, he followed in the footsteps of his contemporaries – the abusive Trump and the short-sighted Modi (with his proposed EIA draft and Forest Amendment Act 2019 draft).

What followed next was a blatant disregard for climate change. Bolsonaro’s government called it a hoax and a communist agenda. Funding of the government bodies responsible for protecting forests was either reduced or frozen owing to his anti-environmental, anti-indigenous and anti-NGO stance. There was gruesome ecocide – forests were razed to pave way for farms, extractive industries, ranches, dams and hydroelectric projects. The illegal loggers and farmers saw an opportunity in this misery and began encroaching razed land. This brought them in direct conflict with the native and vulnerable indigenous groups.  Apart from the recurring seasonal fires, there are mysterious fires that are still blazing in the Amazon forest as I am writing this article, the frequency and impact of which have increased significantly since Bolsonaro took office.

According to an environmental tabloid Mongabay,

“The 12-month deforestation rate in the Brazilian Amazon has risen 96% since President Jair Bolsonaro took office, and the extent of deforestation over the past year is the highest recorded since INPE, Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research, started releasing monthly statistics in 2007.” The director of INPE Ricardo Galvao, when he made his government aware of the data, was sacked the same evening. In short, everything seemed doomed for the Amazon and its natives. The government has clearly taken an anti-indigenous stance and left the indigenous people and the forest at the mercy of encroachers.

But what happened next was completely unprecedented. Personally, it was quite enlightening and reinstated my faith in mass action movements.

When the news of this sordid situation reached the environmentally-conscious European consumers, they immediately turned away from products imported from Brazil. Their outcry was: “If the cattle are fattened on illegally deforested land, then we don’t want its beef. If the timber is procured via illegal chopping of the trees, then we don’t want its timber.” It was vociferous enough to reach the ears of concerned corporations.

The European organizations then threatened the Brazil government of divestment, if the deforestation and land grabbing situation were not ameliorated. According to Statecraft, “A group of 29 companies, the vast majority of which are European, sent a joint letter to Brazilian ambassadors in their respective countries in which they threaten to divest from beef producers, grains traders, and government bonds if the Brazilian government does not adequately commit to tackling deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. The companies, which include Legal & General Investment Management Ltd, Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Asset Management, and NN Investment Partners, hold a combined total of over $3.75 trillion in assets. The letter has been sent to the Brazilian embassies in Norway, Sweden, France, Denmark, Netherlands, the United States (US), and the United Kingdom (UK).”

The soaring deforestation rate is becoming the basis for the rejection of the ratification of a $19 trillion European-Mercusor deal. French President Emmanuel Macron has also suspended negotiations with the EU-Mercosur bloc citing that they are not willing to make any trade agreement with countries that do not respect the Paris Agreement.

The situation has put pressure on the Brazilian administration to take adequate steps to curtail the deforestation menace. Whether it will lead to fruition is still to be seen. But one thing I can reaffirm with complete honesty that no matter how small an action is (like boycotting a product) it has potential to create a ripple effect (like divestment) that brings about emancipation from injustice (environmental degradation).

By Ankit Goyal

Note: Ankit Goyal writes on environmental and social issues. He is co-convenor of Eco-Socialism Front.

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