Our earth has existed for at least four billion years.  During this stretch of time, it has witnessed countless transformations: continents have shifted, rocks compressed and metamorphosed, hills and mountains have risen and fallen, streams and rivers have been forged and dried, ice ages have come and gone. Our continents are of enormous size, but together they add up to but a small fraction of the surface area of the Pacific Ocean .

Through the silent merger of sunshine with the salts of the seas, and perhaps with the intervention of an unseen power, the miracle of life arose, and at its apex appeared our first ancestors, self-aware and questioning, dreaming and debating, loving and hating. Gradually they learned to mold matter and energy, and other life forms came under their sway and mercy. In less than a couple of million years, humans became even more creative  in their cleverness.

Land and water, birds and beasts, the heat of the desert and the cold of the polar zones, fruits and flowers on plants and trees, minerals from deep down, coal and oil and gas, and the mighty forces of atoms and nuclei were rapidly subjected to human manipulation. In an orgy of domination for creature comforts we have been intruding into the beauty of nature and the salubrity of our environment.

Less than two centuries since the ease-giving ingenuities of the Industrial Revolution began to percolate into human societies,  we have begun to realize the harm we have been wreaking upon the air, land, and water of the earth: the very bases of our physical survival.

We have begun to reflect upon these. At least some thoughtful thinkers and informed scientists, if not the world at large,  feel that the time has come for self-restraint. The wisdom of the ages, enshrined in the insights and scriptures of ancient cultures, come to our aid in this context, for they have invariably spelled out the grandeur of Nature in a spirit of humility, acknowledged the power of the world in a spirit of reverence, and stressed the harmony between us and our environment. But we need more. For problems never-before-confronted, we need visions never-before articulated.

There may be a temptation to point the finger at the Cartesian-Newtonian perspectives of science which have unwittingly given rise to the ecological time-bomb. But we should be careful not to confuse science with technology.  Science has given to humankind understanding and insights on a myriad features of the physical world, the emancipation from mind-enslaving superstitions, and eradication of a hundred plagues and diseases that used to  consume hundreds of thousands in generations past.

Recently, a United Nations-sponsored report spelled out in gory detail some of the environmental havoc that our industrialized civilization has unwittingly perpetrated. And the scientists involved in preparing the document predict dire consequences if intelligent and urgent steps are not taken. 

The tension of our age may be described in simple terms by saying that it is a confrontation between ecology and  economy: between keeping the environment safe and life-sustainable on the one hand, and providing employment and income for the vast majority of people, on the other. It is a tension between the urgent necessities of today and the need to ensure security for tomorrow. This in itself can be quite frustrating, but some thoughtful economists have argued that this is not an impossible challenge.

The problem is a good deal more complex, compounded by at least two other factors:

First, there is the blatant contrast  between the standard of living of the average citizen in industrially advanced countries and the so-called developing   countries. This asymmetry, exposed and rubbed in by globe-encircling media, fuels the fire of discontent, anger, and the irrepressible urge, if not the need, to emulate the more comfortably living minority of humankind. Aside from the creature-comfort appeals of such hankering, especially in its more unnecessary,  not to say, grotesque exaggerations of having more than one bathroom, telephone, cameras, TV, automobile, etc. per family, it also provides eork for more people and the attendant economic security.

That is why, when Western nations warn Third World countries about the dangers of rapid industrialization, and protesters march at the World Bank against funding rapid-industrialization projects in developing countries  it sounds to the people there like the exhortation of a man in an air-conditioned limousine to crowds trudging bare-foot  along in a hot sandy desert to walk their way to the oasis rather than jump into a car because the vehicle spews out carbon monoxide  and makes unseemly noise.

Technological development  has a devastating consequence on the environment because many aspects of technological living is an overt or subtle assault of Nature. If we ever reach the stage - which seemed a worthwhile and realizable goal barely fifty years ago - in which every person in every nation on the planet would achieve the standard of living of the industrialized countries, the consequent destruction of the rain forests and degradation of the environment will become totally unbearable to our eco-system.

Under these conditions, what are we to do? Taking into account both the ecological impacts for the whole world, and the economic necessities for significant sections of the human family, several steps seem indispensable:

Perhaps we need to adopt a long range plan to bring down the standard of living (i.e. per capita consumption of matter and energy) of people in the industrialized countries. Perhaps we must set an international standard of matter-energy consumption, which must be lower than what obtains in first world countries, but higher than what it currently is in Third World countries. I rather doubt that this will ever come to pass, unless there is real physical danger to the survival of energy-consuming nations.

Since pollution of some sort is inevitable in most energy-transforming gadgets, every nation or group must be allowed a certain pollution index, depending on its population size.

We must continue to invest significant amounts for research and implementation of projects to clean up the environment.

Finally, and this too is more easily said than done, we must bring about a cultural revolution in the values and meanings we attach to life on earth. For only then will we reduce the size of our cars and refrigerators, and the number of lamps and faucets in our homes.

April 22, 2000