Speaking on the World Environment Day

Each year the World Environment Day is celebrated on June 5. The idea of celebrating World Environment Day (WED) came from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). Each year UNEP announces a theme for WED and accordingly events are held across the world. This years theme is Only One Earth.

In celebrating the WED, most organizers want to show their leadership in conceiving and holding the event. There is sometimes a kind of competition on who gets more publicity. Earlier days of putting banners and posters are over and are now replaced by social media handles. Much of the energy is spent on the sheer logistics and publicity.

Sometimes, on WED a massive tree plantation drive is launched, or plastic waste cleanup at a prominent beach is done or awards are bestowed to sustainability champions or leaders. More high-profile organizers make pledges like “lets live lean to protect our only one earth” etc. The media czars call this as a L cube (L3) or 3L campaign making people curious what each L means.

Amongst these and generally so, a renowned speaker is invited to speak on the declared theme. Unfortunately, since the speakers are approached rather late, there is always a rush at the last moment. On the other hand, if an expert does not get invited, he or she get into a kind of depression.

It was June 1st, and I was sitting with Professor in his study. As we were about to start our discussion, Professor’s mobile phone rang. He put the mobile on the speakerphone. This is Professor’s dirty habit to show his transparency especially when I am present. I always feel awkward when he does so.

“Good morning, Sir,” beamed a voice on the other side.

“Morning” said the Professor. He wanted to be brief.

“Sir, I am executive council member of “Paani Bachao movement” in Rajasthan. We are a large NGO working over two decades and recognized by UNEP for our efforts. I am referring to our email invitation sent to you on May 1. This email was to request you to speak on the coming up WED event at Jaipur. Just wanted to reconfirm your presence. Environment minister has already accepted to be on the dais Sir and he will be giving an opening address. You will be the keynote speaker”

Professor said that he never received such an email. There was a pause on the other side.

I was sure that this email was never sent. This is a typical style of opening a conversation when approaching personalities like our Professor rather late.

“Oh, we will resend the invite Sir. Can you please reshare your email id on whats app?” The other side spoke.

I was then convinced that no email invitation was sent.

I could sense that Professor wanted to wriggle out

“Gentlemen. I am in Yawatmal in Maharashtra on June 4 for a wedding of a close friend. I won’t be able to reach Jaipur on June 5. I will have to travel to Nagpur first and then take a flight. Earliest I can reach will be lunch time on June 6th. That will be late. So sorry I have to regret your invite”

I had never heard Professor mentioning about his close friend in Yavatmal – leave alone the invitation for wedding.

I could see that Professor made a good move as there was silence on the other side.

But the person wasn’t giving up. He said

“That’s so unfortunate Sir, we will surely miss your physical presence. But can we request you to record a video and send us for screening? We will make arrangements to project the video on a large screen after the opening address of the environment minister. And we have already printed your name and photo on the banner behind the stage”

The other side continued

“Sir, as another thought this virtual option will reduce GHG emissions arising from your travel. We will calculate this reduction and report to the audience before introducing you and say you volunteered”

The other side was certainly smart and pretty climate literate.

Professor did not expect this googly. He started thinking to find another excuse

While he was thinking, I thought of asking the Gentleman not to hold the physical event at all and consider the event as if the event was in the COVID-19 lockdown. Cancelling ministers travel with his squad would majorly reduce the GHG emissions if that was the interest. Reduced waste generation of all kinds will be another advantage.

“What is the topic you want me to speak on” Professor asked

“Vulnerability to the ground water resource due to climate change, Sir”

The gentleman elaborated why this topic was chosen as it was most relevant to the desert State of Rajasthan.

“Well, gentleman, I have no expertise to speak on this subject. I can give you suggestions for other eminent speakers.” Professor responded hurriedly. I could see him taking a sigh of relief.

“But Sir, you are the Expert. Experts can speak on any topic. And Sir, even our environment minister is speaking on this subject”

Professor clarified his position and explained that he is not that kind of expert who can speak on any topic. He also hinted that Ministers merely read the text given by their advisors and hence can speak on any topic.

The gentleman from the other side said

“Then Sir, which is the topic you are comfortable with? We will go by the topic that suits you. We know you just published a book on circular economy….. ”

Now, this was a very clever suggestion and a trap that Professor could see was difficult to get out.

Professor said that he does not see much connect of circular economy with the original topic “Vulnerability to the Ground water resource due to climate change.”

But the other side was not giving up.

“Professor, the theme this year is Only One Earth” so almost any topic will fit in. You could speak on circular economy”

Now the Professor was in real fix and could not find an excuse to regret.

The other side continued

“Thank you, Sir, for accommodating. Really appreciate. But one more request Sir, would you mind writing a 2-page speech for our Minister on circular economy? Our office had earlier prepared the speech on groundwater, so we will need to replace the old speech with the new topic. And please could you email this speech by tomorrow? Minister may like to review and rehearse”

I could see that Professors face was now quite irritated. He shot back.

“Why not I send you a universal speech that can be given on any WED celebration by anybody whether an Expert or the Minister. In this way, you should be fine for next several WED celebrations well ahead”

I thought the Professor was rather too skeptical this time. Unfortunately, I don’t think the gentleman on the other side understood the sarcasm. He put the phone down with a big thank you to Professor. He had done his job.

After the call was disconnected, Professor lighted his cigar and explained

“I said this because all we talk about on each WED is the same rhetoric, same old statistics on increasing water stress, loss of biodiversity, contaminated lands and about the millions of people dying due to unabated urban air pollution. Of course, we do a bit to show our concerns on the WED by planting trees or cleaning beaches etc. and getting an expert to speak on the occasion, but once the day is over, we continue with our same consumptive lifestyles, extractive businesses, and supporting investments that are not environmentally and socially sensitive. Above all, we continue to accept the uneven environmental governance like taking a roller-coaster ride without screaming”

I thought he was absolutely right.

Today how many of us have read the book ‘Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet’ by Barbara Ward and René J Dubos that was published in 1972? This book was written after numerous consultations and served as an unofficial report to the Stockholm Conference.

As Andrew Norton, Director IIED says: If Barbara Ward were with us, she might be proud to have set out the global challenges so clearly and accurately, and so early. But she would doubtless be distressed that many of the dangers she identified – from the climate crisis to nature loss, from growing inequality to unsustainable production and consumption, and from growing social exclusion to chaotic and poorly governed urban growth – that have been so weakly addressed”

So perhaps holding a one-day event on WED and doing the “rituals” is simply not enough. We will need to think and act all 365 days and on a 24×7 basis, collectively so and on multiple levels if we ever cared for this only one planet.

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  1. Excellent! We as a society have become habitual in adopting tokenism on any subject. Not serious about anything .

  2. Very transparent and eye opening message, Dr Modak Sir! Definitely, actions for environment conservation are required all 365 days and on a 24×7 basis, collectively so and on multiple levels. But celebrations are also important and need to be used for continual important as PDCA (Plan-DO-Check-Act) Cycle.

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