Earth Day… or Was It?

LAST week many people all over the world observed Earth Day, on the thirtieth year since it was declared, and the national dailies carried photographs of the Prime Minister with school children carrying placards and an “Earth Day 2000 Manifesto”. Perhaps such observances, especially when they become routine, have mainly ritual significance, especially in the context of the momentous developments taking place in respect of the global environment, in terms of both the problems being faced and the global regulatory frameworks being negotiated or put in place.


On the other hand, like other such annual observancces, they do provide yet another opportunity to focus attention on important issues and review the progress or otherwise that has been made with regard to it, and also mobilise several thousands of people into action even if only at a personal level. In the same spirit, it may be appropriate in this column to take note of some of the major trends at the international level. But before we do so, it may also be interesting to take a closer look at the Earth Day observance itself, for thereby hangs a small tale.

Which is the real Earth Day? If it was difficult enough to remember myriad anniversaries for various causes, it is becoming even more complicated to keep track of Environmental Days! Apart from this one, celebrated on April 21 each year, there is another major Earth Day observance, usually on 20-21 March, observed since 1970 or since 30 years ago! “International Earth Day” is observed by and at the United Nations each year since 1970 when it was declared by well known conservationist John O’Donnell in the USA who had also roped in numerous public figures and intellectuals to this observance on the day specifically selected for the purpose.

The vernal equinox is a day every year when the sun crosses the equator and when, therefore, in all parts of the world, day and night are equal, the other such day being the autumnal equinox on September 22. (It must be noted that since the date of the equinoxes are determined by astronomical events rather than by the calendar, these do not occur on fixed dates each year but occur on some date between 19-23 of March and September). It heralds the coming of spring in the northern hemisphere and of autumn in the southern. Since the day is of universal and equal significance throughout the world and, besides, in numerous cultures also marks the birth of the new year or other calendric observance, this day was selected to be Earth Day.

Margaret Mead, the renowned anthropologist and one of the co-founders of this day, had remarked that this universality gave the March equinox special significance, and more so because the equinox epitomises balance and serves to remind all of the balance in nature. In recognition of the symbolism of this equipoise, U Thant, the then Secretary-General of the UN, proclaimed the first International Earth Day on March 21, 1970.

Unfortunately, around the same time, another group of environmentalists led by US Democratic Senator Gaylord Nelson had also been organising a campaign network originally styled “Environmental Teach-in” but, perhaps on hearing the announcement of an Earth Day network and observance in a 1969 UNESCO conference, decided to also use the same catchy name themselves. Senator Nelson had, self-confessedly, been watching with interest (and maybe concern?) the growing anti-Vietnam war movement in the US and the enthusiastic participation of hundreds of thousands of students and youth in it and felt it to be a worthwhile endeavour to channelise (some would say divert) these energies towards environmentalism. Then President John F. Kennedy readily endorsed the idea which was to lead to the proclamation of “Earth Day” on April 21, coincidentally in 1970 in the very city of San Francisco where the “other” Earth Day had been proclaimed a month earlier.

Given the political clout and connections of Senator Nelson, it is hardly surprising then that this later Earth Day should have the support and endorsement of the political establishment in the US even today. This year, US Vice-President Al Gore and presumptive Democratic Presidential candidate (and many see him indeed as the presumptive next President), and author of the bestselling book “Earth in the Balance” addressed the Earth Day observance gathering in Washington and made a rousing call to urgently tackle the major environmental problems. The theme of this year’s Earth Day was clean energy, so it was perhaps not surprising that he repeated his 1992 book’s call for the abolition of the internal combustion engine which powers automotive vehicles and is thus a major source of greenhouse gases which trap the sun’s radiated heat inside the earth’s atmosphere and thus cause global warming.

Many commentators however saw his speech as being aimed at the liberal or radical voter and yet others saw it as playing to the gallery even as the Gore campaign machine drew in massive contributions from the very industries he appeared to be railing against. In any case, clearly there is some politics in the phenomenon of two almost parallel Earth Days. Indeed, why would there not be? The environment is, after all, the latest battleground on which the great material and ideological struggle of human history between the rulers and the ruled, between the haves and the have-nots, has taken place.


As the true class character of the on-going struggle over environmental issues the world over becomes clearer, the articulation of some of the more perceptive environmentalists has finally begun to reflect this reality. In reflecting on the proliferation of efforts towards international environmental regulation, some prominent environmentalists now speak of “environmental globalisation” taking place in parallel with “economic globalisation”. In fact, as has been brought out repeatedly in these columns over the past few years while discussing various environmental issues and global conventions, the global character of major environmental problems today is but the direct result of the global spread of the world capitalist system led by the US. In this process, it is inevitable that actions in one region or nation can have trans-regional or even global impact.

Just as the crisis of world capitalism is sought to be overcome through a new world order regulated by the WTO in such a way as to reinforce the dominance of the advanced capitalist countries led by the US and thrust the burden of the crisis on the developing nations, so too the numerous international environmental treaties, while being efforts to contend with the impending global ecological crisis, are being used to tackle it at the expense of the developing countries. It is hardly surprising then that these numerous global environmental conferences, and the regulations that emerge from them, have mostly become arenas where each country takes positions chiefly to safeguard its own interests and make the best of a bad bargain, echoing the processes at work in the WTO where, rather than working towards an equitable system at the international level, each country jockeys for greater space in the global bazaar dominated by a few big players.

Needless to say, in an ideal world, these global environmental conferences and treaties would be looking to find truly global solutions to global environmental problems and mechanisms for equitable sharing and use of common global resources. But then again, ruling classes everywhere have never accepted universal and equitable access to natural resources and have always sought to appropriate them for their own benefit. Inevitably, therefore, the struggle continues to be between the countries of the north and the south at the world level, and between the ruling elites and the poor and marginalised peoples within these countries themselves.

The decades since the 1980s during which there has been an unprecedented upsurge in global environmental conferences and treaties, has also been the period when, after the collapse of the USSR and the socialist camp, world capitalism led by the US have been able to push through their agenda in different international fora. With globalisation and economic liberalisation have come their hand- maiden, privatisation and the mantra of market mechanisms guiding all transactions.

In the environmental sphere, this has meant a major assault on the very idea of common resources for the common good which, in the new dispensation, are not be decided on principles of equity, but by increasing privatisation and allowing “market forces” to determine the greatest mutual interest. Like free trade, this may sound good, at least on paper, but experience has clearly shown otherwise.

Globalisation and economic liberalisation are now almost universally acknowledged to have widened the gap between rich and poor between nations as well as within them. According to the Human Development Report, at least 1 billion people worldwide are believed to be outside the global economy. And in India, even according to official figures, poverty has increased during the ‘90s for the first time in over three decades. In such a situation, and in the face of untrammelled market forces, the poor and marginalised are left with even less bargaining power and sharply reduced access to common natural resources which could at least have ensured sustenance. And it is the same process at work regarding the world’s environment.


The global environmental issue that best illustrates the nature of the struggle internationally is that of Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) sought to be regulated through the Kyoto Protocol, so named after the Japanese city where the international conference took place. Several rounds of discussions have taken place since the Kyoto Conference, and the pressure to finalise the Treaty is now reaching its climax since it must be drawn up latest by the end of 2000.

GHGs are released into the atmosphere mostly by automobiles and industries burning fossil- fuels for energy, leading some to characterise them as products of the “carbon-based Western industrial model”. GHGs form a kind of blanket trapping heat within the earth’s atmosphere resulting in global warming which is predicted to have drastic consequences even within a few decades unless damage-limiting and preventive actions are taken urgently. Needless to say, advanced industrialised countries emit many times more GHGs than developing countries, in absolute terms and even more so if accounted for on per capita basis, with the US alone accounting for close to 20 per cent of GHG emissions.

Ecological costs of global warming are expected to be the worst in developing countries in the tropical and sub-tropical zones which have a sizable part of the world’s population. With a rise in global temperatures by as much as 5 degrees Celsius, sea levels are expected to rise leading to submergence of large areas along coasts and in island territories in this region, badly affecting, for example, Bangladesh and many Indian Ocean islands. Not only would there be enormous loss of lives but the ecology of vast areas are expected to be permanently altered for the worse by the submergence.

In contrast, latest predictions based on computer simulations are that several countries of the North could actually benefit by global warming and rising sea levels, of course over an extended period. For instance, Norway and Sweden could see large currently uninhabitable areas becoming not only habitable but also cultivable, perhaps fundamentally altering traditional North-South relations.

In any case, and more importantly certainly in the short term, the economic costs of shifting away from fossil fuel based industries in order to reduce GHG emissions, would be much higher than in countries of the South where GHG-emitting industries are much fewer and costs of switching over to other systems likely to be considerably lower. It is this which has determined the positions taken by major industrialised countries, and especially by the US, regarding the Kyoto Protocol.

The US position at the various rounds was, firstly, to stretch out the time-period within which it was required to control GHG emissions, secondly to minimise the quantum of reduction and finally to minimise the burden on itself and thrust it somehow on other countries especially the vulnerable developing countries.

The US succeeded in the first two objectives by sheer bullying and blackmailing tactics, not shying away even from causing dissensions with its European allies and Japan who were willing to take a more environment-friendly position. Driven by US energy and automobile interests, the US managed to obtain a period till 2010-12 to control its GHG emissions to the 1995 level. But more important to the US was its third goal which it is still striving hard to accomplish, backed by a US Senate resolution refusing to ratify any Treaty limiting GHG emissions unless major developing countries such as India, China and Brazil are also compelled to comply in sufficient magnitude which, of course, India and these other countries reject as it would be inequitable.

The preferred US strategy for this is to “privatise” the atmosphere into a tradeable commodity. If a developing country reduces its GHG emissions by a certain amount, the US wants to be able to “buy” this reduction and offset it against its own reduction target since it would be less expensive to fund such reduction in developing countries than to effect reductions in the US itself. This modality is being sought to be institutionalised in the Kyoto Protocol negotiations as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). As detailed in a previous article in PD at the time of the Clinton visit, the US has been working overtime to bring India on board and, using the BJP’s euphoria over Clinton’s visit, succeeded in getting an Indian commitment to work with the US in promoting the CDM although, in what exact manner, was not made explicit.


It would indeed be tragic if India were actually to fully succumb and support the US position for this would mean a virtual end to effectively putting forward the position of developing countries and defending their interests. It must be noted that when the issue of GHGs had first come up for global negotiations, the attempt by the US and other advanced industrial countries of the North was to deny it by claiming that scientific evidence was not conclusive, and then to claim that much of it was in fact due to methane emissions from paddy fields in third world countries. It was scientifically effective and timely intervention by India, China and Brazil which put a stop to these misleading tactics and put the blame squarely where it belonged, on industrial and automotive emissions by industrialised countries. It was the scientific capabilities of these large developing countries, absent in most other countries of the South, which enabled this turn-around apart from a political will which was present then but has since waned.

Leading environmental organisations and major developing countries had in any case argued for international measures to be taken on a precautionary principle besides an equity principle as against an unequal trading mechanism such as the CDM. But this position was not accepted by the US and other advanced countries, egged on by powerful industrial lobbies, and had to await more hard evidence which some energy MNCs still do not accept. However, in the case of the Montreal Protocol governing the depletion of the Ozone Layer caused by release of chloro-fluoro carbons (CFCs) contained in refrigerants and aerosols, these advanced countries after initial denials did accept the precautionary principle.

It was clearly not coincidental that public opinion in the US, Europe and Australia had been roused and shaken by the scare of additional ultra-violet radiation coming through due to the depleted ozone layer causing increased incidence of skin cancer among light-skinned peoples. This had hit the Western public where it hurt, in their life-styles, and the resultant public outcry forced their governments and the industry which had by now realised that shifting from CFCs would not be too expensive and may, in fact be profitable by spurring new production lines.

While the world has seen some success on GHGs and CFCs where Western interests were directly involved, there has been unsatisfactory or precious little movement on other major environmental problems of pressing concern to developing countries. The Convention to Combat Desertification (CCD) has been a virtual non-starter and repetitive droughts in sub-Saharan Africa, Ethiopia and not to forget India and Pakistan, as being witnessed currently, are clear evidence that urgent action is required. But world attention is lacking given Western disinterest and lack of leadership by capable developing countries like India.

As far as India goes, its positions on environmental issues, both internationally and domestically, only seem to have gone from bad to worse since liberalisation and globalisation. In international fora, India’s interventions have steadily worsened from the horrendously ineffective to the downright counter-productive as India is more concerned with “sending the right message”, in other words kow-towing, to overseas and MNC investors.

At home India is repeatedly and increasingly bowing to the interests of MNCs and Indian corporates at the cost of both the environment and the livelihoods and rights of the poor and marginalised. This has been witnessed in many issues such as in the import and recycling of hazardous and toxic wastes threatening to turn India into a garbage dump for the West and exposing our workers to all kinds of horrors. In coastal aquaculture and the Coastal Zone Regulations, there is increasing keenness to pander to commercial interests at the cost of the coastal environment and the livelihoods of fisherfolk and coastal farmers. In Forests, under World Bank pressure, there is an increasing move towards privatisation and denial of community rights and participation.

If these trends are not countered urgently, India is in serious danger of succumbing totally in both the economy and the environment, and that too under a so-called “nationalist” and “swadeshi” government, to Pax Americana.