#WithNature. A simple enough starting point to begin a narrative about where you are, or so the UN thinks. Connecting people to nature is the theme for 2017’s World Environment Day (June 5th) and the aim is to get people to tell stories of their relationships with nature, to celebrate nature and to reconnect with it. It’s the ‘people’s day’ for owning their part as agents of change to protect our shared environment.  The aims are admirable and go one step beyond encouraging awareness.
We all have a relationship with nature. For some the relationship has not been a worthwhile one, or even a beneficial one. There are those who grow up next to giant waste disposal sites or for whom water is simply water, not clean, safe, drinking, rather, simply whatever you can get access to that resembles the liquid. For them the environment has not been a source of comfort or even life, but an oppressive force that reminds them how vulnerable they are and how dependant on something they cannot control. For others the environment has been the canvas for natural wonders, a reminder of our happy smallness in a world of inimitable beauty.
These hugely varied experiences must be balanced out. Any conclusion to the contrary is not just a defiance of the humanity of those who are denied the dignity of safe and clean living conditions. Denying the necessity of making the environment safe for all is a denial of our responsibility to protect and safeguard our natural environment. The environment cannot be protected if it is only protected for tourists and for those living in middle class society. It has to be protected for every individual on earth because it impacts every individual on earth.
Most people would attest that it is not easy to understand how cleaning a city for those living in slums or safeguarding marine biodiversity would impact those living elsewhere. Ecosystems are the physical and biological components of an environment. When they change the impact on human health is very complex and difficult to measure, which means it is difficult to control. But the results are both direct and indirect and in all cases significant. For example when forest resources are depleted, there are no tree roots to anchor the soil. This means it loosens and is eroded away, which in turn means problems for growing vegetation. The upshot is a loss of arable land. And according to the World Wildlife Fund: “The effects of soil erosion go beyond the loss of fertile land. It has led to increased pollution and sedimentation in streams and rivers, clogging these waterways and causing declines in fish and other species. And degraded lands are also often less able to hold onto water, which can worsen flooding.”
One example of an area where the environment does feel universal in its changes is climate change. The earth is warming up at an alarming rate and it is causing dramatic problems that we are not equipped to deal with. Sea levels are rising, arctic sea ice and ice sheets are shrinking, extreme weather events are on the rise and ocean acidification has increased alarmingly. Domestic government incompetencies aside, there are global insufficiencies and responsibilities that everyone has to own to be able to make any genuine difference. This is why the Paris Agreement is significant.
The agreement was signed in 2015 and signified global consensus on climate change. It became legally binding for Sri Lanka and all other countries in November of 2016, after the ratification of those countries that were responsible for a total of 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions (the gases that create a ‘blanket’ around the earths atmosphere, preventing heat from escaping and triggering climate change). Finance mechanisms, for a long time a stall in proceedings, have been set up so that “Developed country Parties [listed] shall provide financial resources to assist developing country Parties in implementing the Convention.”
The two main aims of the agreement are to strengthen country adaptability to the impacts of climate change and, most importantly, to keep the overall rise in global temperature at ‘well’ below 2C from pre-industrial levels. According to The Guardian “Scientists say these are the largest increases possible without risking catastrophic and irreversible change in the world’s climate.” The Guardian goes on to say “Only two countries have not joined: Syria, which was crippled by war at the time of negotiations, and Nicaragua, which refused to sign up because it considered the deal too weak. Therefore, as the US pulls out it becomes the only country in the world to argue that the Paris accord demands too much of signatory nations.”
The US Federal Government may live to regret their decision, but this World Environment Day is not about them. It is about all of us. Last month Sri Lanka had to endure an appalling loss of life, displacement on a massive scale and communities torn apart, while huge swaths of the citizenship were mobilised to do anything and everything to help. We are more aware than many of the impacts the environment will have and how it can be countered by collective action. But in all cases, prevention is better than the cure. As with the Paris Agreement, it is time to start applying long-term thinking to emerging problems and focussing less on short-term gains. To be able to leave a legacy for future generations, to be able to promise the rewards of development for every member of a society and to be able to continue to enjoy the wonders of a world we could not replicate should we try to, we need to work. Work to understand, work to change and work to live, not on our own terms, but #WithNature