Around 1978, fresh to secondary school, one of our early lessons in the general science class was about CFCs, chlorofluorocarbons, chemicals containing atoms of carbon, chlorine and fluorine. I don’t recall much of the science involved, but I came away stunned by two of their impacts. One was that they were destroying the ozone layer, and the other was that they were used in aerosol sprays, so common in those times.
Until then, I had no idea that such things as the ozone layer existed, or environmental destruction. After that lesson, I visualised every spray of deodorant floating upward and making a hole in the sky. I was terrified. I would keep telling my mother that we had to stop using sprays of any kind; nagging her anxiously, and she would jeer at my concern, mocking me about the hole in the ozone layer that had become my big campaign.
I suppose in those times, ignorance about the increasing vulnerability of the planet and the ways we were contributing to its degradation, was the general condition of the masses. We simply did not know, and in the way we were conditioned to see ourselves as little, inconsequential creatures, we could hardly imagine that anything we did would have any major impact on the world.
About three years ago, I was doing some of my gardening and chatting with two young boys, of about 11 years old, who used to come and engage me over the neighbour’s wall. We were talking about littering, because someone had tossed a half-eaten sweet wrapper into my yard, close to where I was stooping, and a thick cluster of ants was swarming all over it. One said that “people” had come to their school to talk about how littering caused flooding when the rains fell and all the garbage clogged drains and water courses. He said when he went home, he told his mother this news, and said they should not throw things out the way they usually did, because they were affected by floods when it rained heavily. But as mine had done, his mother scoffed at his concern, dismissing him irritably for disturbing her when she had so much work to do.
We had continued talking about the environment. I asked them if they wanted their country to be a beautiful place and how they felt when they saw garbage strewn everywhere. We went on for quite a while, and I came away pondering their comments. What they had been told by the people who had gone to their school had affected them strongly enough, at least the chatty one, for him to go home and share it with his mother. It was a reminder that even when you think they are not listening, they are. They told me they liked to see the flowers and plants in my yard and how I looked after them. That was why they often came to the wall. That surprised me; at that age they were so full of games and perpetual motion when they were outdoors, I did not imagine that they would have even noticed my sedate garden.
These memories came to me as I was looking at the latest round of headlines generated by COP26, the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, starting tomorrow. The environmental state of the planet is grim and most of the news warns of impending disaster.
Every time I see these predictions of catastrophe ahead, I shake my head and think, but this is misleading. Why? Because I feel that we are actually encouraging ourselves to believe that all of it is in the future, coming at a date to be specifically announced, and we are still in a safe state.
Maybe it is the way I tend to interpret things fairly literally, but I cannot help but feel that it makes people think it is something up ahead in the distance—a shimmering light.
It might seem simplistic to make it sound that people can be so easily lulled, but 40 years ago nobody paid any heed to my childhood warnings, and even now, a whole sector of people still cannot make connections between throwing household waste, particularly plastic bottles, anywhere outside their doors, and the flooding of homes.
We are already inside the whirlwind of planetary destruction. How much more evidence do we need? We know our local temperatures have been steadily soaring; farmers will tell you how badly their crops are being affected by savage winds, torrential rains and blistering heat. The scale and severity is unprecedented globally. Floods, wildfires, earthquakes, melting glaciers, droughts—every speck of the Earth has been afflicted by one or the other, and even in some hapless places, all.
Even with the gravity of the situation, even with the global attention to COP26 taking place in Scotland, there is still a stubborn resistance to act decisively on notorious culprits blatantly destroying the landscape. Locally, there is almost a criminal negligence in the inertia about plastic bottles and Styrofoam. When I see the ads on Cable TV promoting home deliveries, I am scandalised by the insulated packaging used to deliver meats and other produce for the convenience of householders. The blithe dotishness, driven purely by commercial greed, forces one to conclude that humans are the most selfish creatures on the planet, and they deserve what they get.
—The author is an editor, writer and cricket historian.
E-mail: vaneisabaksh @gmail.com