Something New Under The Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth- Century World by J. R. McNeill, W. W. Norton & Company, ISBN:0-393-04917-5 (2000).
This book, which aims to present an ecological history of the 20th century, but which does more than that, is one of the first really comprehensive global environmental history books I’ve read. It is balanced, mostly neutral in tone, has a historian’s caution in interpreting past and recent events and prognoses for the future. While generally well written, it is a little less engaging in the beginning but becomes better towards the end.
The span is impressive: effects on soil, water, air, ecosystems, and biodiversity; themes of economic growth, industrialisation, farming of land and water and ocean and the so-called Green Revolution, dams and infrastructure, democratisation, coal, oil, and energy, globalisation, medical and public health changes, and, of course, environmentalism itself. Its pages encapsulate an amazing range of items and ideas: from the history of chainsaws and tractors to cars and nuclear power, from the history of chemical fertilizers and leaded gasoline to chlofluorocarbons (CFCs) and greenhouses gases.
Most fascinating of all are the accounts of the people responsible and the nations underlying these changes, and how people and nations have changed and been changed by the environment. There are some interesting sidelights to read here. How Fritz Haber, the co-inventor of the Haber-Bosch process that brought us today’s urea and nitrogen crisis, also spent World War I creating poison gas for the German military, which led his wife to commit suicide. How Thomas Midgely, the inventor of ‘freon’, the first of the ozone-depleting CFCs, and of the use of lead in engine performance, “had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in earth history”. Midgely later contracted polio and invented a peculiar contraption to get himself in and out of bed, which ultimately went awry and strangulated him to death.
The chapter on air pollution makes fascinating and compelling reading, highly relevant to today’s context. How a London fog of 1873 was so dense that people walked into the River Thames because they couldn’t see it. How air pollution killed as many people as were killed in the 20th century in both world wars combined, “similar to the global death toll from the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic, the twentieth century’s worst encounter with infectious disease”. How, for people “… breathing Calcutta’s air after 1975 was equivalent to smoking a pack of Indian cigarettes a day. Nearly two-thirds of the population in the 1980s suffered lung ailments attributed to air pollution, chiefly particulates.” How “Coal soon signed its own death warrant as London’s fuel by killing 4,000 people in the fog of December 4—10, 1952. Chilly weather and stagnant air meant a million chimneys’ smoke…”. McNeill writes about urban smog and indoor pollution from burning coal and biomass in the domestic hearth, adding chillingly how air pollution only compounded the environmental crisis brought by water pollution in the twentieth century. “Indoor air pollution, particularly in the poorer countries where biomass and coal served as domestic fuels, produced the same ailments and probably killed millions more. That said, it is well to remember that polluted water caused far more death and disease than did polluted air in the twentieth century.”
Fascinating and manifold, McNeill recounts a range of events of great environmental import: the Dutch transmigration of 1905 in Indonesia, the Soviets ploughing into the steppes, the Brazilian push into Amazonia, waste management in Curitiba and Tokyo and Mexico, Peru’s anchoveta collapse and the assault on the world’s fisheries, the dam-building boom in the 1960s when at least one dam was being built per day on average in the world, the ecological footprint of cities from Delhi and Beijing and Singapore to others, the oil spills in Nigeria and the history of dependence on coal and oil, about medicine and public health and the impact of small pox and its eventual conquest until only “samples of the virus remain in freezers in laboratories in Atlanta and the Siberian city of Koltsovo” and so on and on. McNeill also has a quirky way of looking at world events. Writing about invasive alien species, he says: “So, in the tense Cold War atmosphere of the early 1980s, American ecosystems launched a first strike with the comb jelly and the USSR’s biota retaliated with the zebra mussel. The damaging exchange probably resulted from the failures of Soviet agriculture, which prompted the grain trade from North America: more trade, more ships, more ballast water.”
Writing about the environmentalism and the global fixation on a single-point agenda of economic growth, he also draws on the Gandhi—Nehru divide, quoting Gandhi: “‘God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West…. If an entire nation of 300 million [this was in 1928] took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.’ Gandhi was exceptional: most Indian nationalists, like Jawaharlal Nehru, wanted an industrial India, locustlike if need be.” And how independence from colonial powers did little to transform the trend of human impact on the environment: “In environmental matters, as in so many respects, independence often proved no more than a change in flags.”
McNeill draws a brief history of the environmental movement and how it was fostered by effective communication of science and ideas, singling out the work of the author of Silent Spring. “Successful ideas require great communicators to bring about wide conversion. The single most effective catalyst for environmentalism was an American aquatic zoologist with a sharp pen, Rachel Carson (1907–1964).” Yet how has the movement fared in bringing change? Mc Neill writes: “When Zhou Enlai, longtime foreign minister of Mao’s China and a very worldly man, was asked about the significance of the French Revolution some 180 years after the event, he replied that it was still too early to tell. So it is, after only 35 years, with modern environmentalism.”
In the end, McNeill highlights how both ecology and history are highly integrative disciplines (as this book itself highlights) and that they need to understand and work with each other if we are to make sense of our environmental movement, past and future.
Article for download (courtesy Current Conservation, CC-BY 3.0)
Fifty years ago, on 14 June 1972, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi gave a landmark speech at the plenary session of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, Stockholm. Both the UN conference and her speech were significant events in modern environmental history. The significance of her speech was recently recounted by Jairam Ramesh in an op-ed in The Hindu and in some detail earlier in Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature, his biographical account of Indira Gandhi’s life and connections with nature and conservation. In this speech, pertinent then and prescient now, she addresses a number of concerns that are still with us: why poverty eradication through development is essential, why development should centre human well-being in multiple dimensions and not narrowly focus on economic growth, why equity in global environmental efforts is essential, why we should only take from the planet what we can put back and sustain, and how people can be motivated towards better alternatives.
Although the speech is quite famous it is not easily available online from reliable sources or references. Her speech is available in volumes of her collected speeches, including Peoples and Problems (1982), Indira Gandhi: speeches and Writings (1975), and The Years of Endeavour: Selected Speeches of Indira Gandhi, August 1969 – August 1972 (1975). I have also made available an extract of the full text of speech from the pages of the latter volume here. The above versions differ in minor respects in punctuation and sentence construction (presumably to align the grammar from the spoken to the written word). I have referred to the above sources and present below the full text, with a few very minor text edits of my own, in order to make her speech more widely available. It is a remarkable speech and well worth reading or re-reading today.
It is indeed an honour to address this Conference—in itself, a fresh expression of the spirit which created the United Nations: concern for the present and future welfare of humanity. It does not aim merely at securing limited agreements, but at establishing peace and harmony in life—among all races and with nature. This gathering represents man’s earnest endeavour to understand his own condition and to prolong his tenancy of this planet. A vast amount of detailed preparatory work has gone into the convening of this Conference, guided by the dynamic personality of Mr. Maurice Strong, Secretary-General of the Conference.
I have had the good fortune of growing up with a sense of kinship with nature in all its manifestations. Birds, plants, and stones were companions and, sleeping under the star-strewn sky, I became familiar with the names and movements of the constellations. But my deep interest in this, our ‘only earth’, was not for itself but as a fit home for man.
One cannot be truly human and civilised unless one looks upon, not only all fellow men, but all creation with the eyes of a friend. Throughout India, edicts carved on rocks and iron pillars are reminders that twenty-two centuries ago, Emperor Ashoka defined a king’s duty as not merely to protect citizens and punish wrong-doers, but also to preserve wild life and the trees of the forest. Ashoka was the first, and perhaps the only monarch until very recently, to forbid the killing of a large number of species of animals for sport or food, foreshadowing some of the concerns of this Conference. He went further, regretting the carnage of his military conquests and enjoining upon his successors to find ‘their only pleasure in the peace that comes through righteousness’.
Along with the rest of mankind, we in India—in spite of Ashoka—have been guilty of wanton disregard for the sources of our sustenance. We share your concern at the rapid deterioration of flora and fauna. Some of our own wild life has been wiped out. Vast areas of forest, full of beautiful old trees, mute witnesses of history, have been destroyed. Even though our industrial development is in its infancy, and at its most difficult stage, we are taking various steps to deal with incipient environmental imbalances. The more so because of our concern for the human being—a species which is also imperilled. In poverty, he is threatened by malnutrition and disease; in weakness, by war; in wealth, by the pollution brought about by his own prosperity.
It is sad that in country after country, progress should have become synonymous with an assault on nature. We, who are part of nature, and dependent on her for every need, speak constantly about ‘exploiting’ nature.
It is sad that in country after country, progress should have become synonymous with an assault on nature. We, who are part of nature, and dependent on her for every need, speak constantly about ‘exploiting’ nature. When the highest mountain in the world was climbed in 1953, Jawaharlal Nehru objected to the phrase ‘conquest of Everest’, which he thought arrogant. Is it surprising that this lack of consideration and the constant need to prove one’s superiority, should be projected into our treatment of our fellow men? I remember Edward Thompson, a British writer and a good friend of India, once telling Mahatma Gandhi that its wild life was fast disappearing. Remarked the Mahatma: ‘It is decreasing in the jungles but it is increasing in the towns!’
We are gathered here under the aegis of the United Nations. We are supposed to belong to the same family, sharing common traits and impelled by the same basic desires; yet we inhabit a divided world.
How can it be otherwise? There is still no recognition of the equality of man, or respect for him as an individual. In matters of colour and race, religion and custom, society is governed by prejudice. Tensions arise because of man’s aggressiveness and his notions of superiority. The power of the big stick prevails and it is used not in favour of fair play or beauty, but to chase imaginary windmills—to assume the right to interfere in the affairs of others, and to arrogate authority for actions that would not normally be allowed. Many of the advanced countries of today have reached their present affluence through domination of other races and countries, and exploitation of their own masses and their own natural resources. Their sheer ruthlessness, undisturbed by feelings of compassion or by abstract theories of freedom, equality, or justice, gave them a head start. The first stirrings for political rights for the citizen, and economic rights for the toiler, came after considerable advance has been made. The riches and the labour of the colonised countries played no small part in the industralisation and prosperity of the West. Now, as we struggle to create a better life for our people, it is in vastly different circumstances, for obviously with the eagle-eyed watchfulness of today, we cannot indulge in such practices even for a worthwhile purpose. We are bound by our own ideals. We owe allegiance to the principles of the rights of workers and the norms enshrined in the charters of international organisations. Above all, we are answerable to the millions of politically awakened citizens in our own countries. All these make progress costlier and more complicated.
We do not wish to impoverish the environment any further and yet we cannot for a moment forget the grim poverty of large numbers of people. Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters?
On the one hand the rich look askance at our continuing poverty, on the other they warn us against their own methods. We do not wish to impoverish the environment any further and yet we cannot for a moment forget the grim poverty of large numbers of people. Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters? For instance, unless we are in a position to provide employment and purchasing power for the daily necessities of the tribal people, and those who live in or around our jungles, we cannot prevent them from combing the forests for food and livelihood, from poaching and despoiling the vegetation. When they themselves feel deprived, how can we urge the preservation of animals? How can we speak to those who live in villages and in slums about keeping the oceans, the rivers, and the air clean, when their own lives are contaminated at the source? The environment cannot be improved in conditions of poverty. Nor can poverty be eradicated without the use of science and technology.
Must there be a conflict between technology and a truly better world, or between enlightenment of the spirit and a higher standard of living? Foreigners sometimes ask what to us seems a very strange question, whether progress in India would not mean a diminution of her spirituality or her values. Is spiritual quality so superficial as to be dependent upon the lack of material comfort? As a country, we are no more or less spiritual than any other, but traditionally our people have respected the spirit of detachment and renunciation. Historically, our great spiritual discoveries were made during periods of comparative affluence. The doctrines of detachment from possessions were developed not as a rationalisation of deprivation, but to prevent comfort and ease from dulling the senses. Spirituality means the enrichment of the spirit, the strengthening of one’s inner resources and the stretching of one’s range of experience. It is the ability to be still in the midst of activity and vibrantly alive in moments of calm; to separate the essence from circumstances; to accept joy and sorrow with some degree of equanimity. Perception and compassion are the marks of true spirituality.
I am reminded of an incident in one of our tribal areas. The vociferous demand of elder tribal chiefs, that their customs should be left undisturbed, found support from noted anthropologists. In its anxiety that the majority should not submerge the many ethnical, racial, and cultural groups in our country, the Government of India largely accepted this advice. I was amongst those who entirely approved. A visit to a remote part of our north-east frontier, however, brought me in touch with a different point of view—the protest of the younger elements that while the rest of India was on its way to modernisation, they were being preserved as museum pieces. Could not we say the same to the affluent nations?
The feeling is growing that we should re-order our priorities and move away from the single-dimensional model, in which growth is viewed from a narrow angle and which seems to accord a higher place to things rather than to people.
For the last quarter of a century, we have been engaged in an enterprise unparalleled in human history—the provision of basic needs for one-sixth of mankind within the span of one or two generations. When we launched on that effort, our early planners had more than the usual gaps to fill. There were not enough data and no helpful books. No guidance could be sought from the experience of other countries because their conditions—political, economic, social, and technological—were altogether different. Planning of the kind which we were innovating, had never been used in the context of a mixed economy. But we could not wait. The need to improve conditions for our people was pressing. Planning and action, the improvement of data for better planning and better action, all this was a continuous and overlapping process. Our industrialisation tended to follow the paths which the more advanced countries had traversed earlier. Throughout the ’60s, and particularly during the last five years, we encountered a bewildering variety of problems, some due to our own shortcomings, but many inherent in the process, and in existing attitudes. The feeling is growing that we should re-order our priorities and move away from the single-dimensional model, in which growth is viewed from a narrow angle and which seems to accord a higher place to things rather than to people. Such an approach increases our needs but not our enjoyment of life. We should have a more comprehensive approach, centred on man, not as a statistic but as an individual, with many sides to his personality. These problems cannot be treated in isolation but must be regarded as an integral part of the unfolding of the very process of development.
The extreme forms, in which questions of population or environmental pollution are posed, obscure the total view of political, economic, and social situations. The Government of India is one of the few which has an officially sponsored programme of family planning and this is making some progress. We believe that planned families will make for a healthier and more conscious population. But we know also that no programme of population control can be effective without education and without a visible rise in the standard of living. Our own programmes have succeeded in the urban or semi-urban areas. To the very poor, every child is an earner and a helper. We are experimenting with new approaches and the family planning programme is being combined with those of maternity and child welfare, nutrition, and development in general.
It is an over-simplification to blame all the world’s problems on increasing population. Countries with but a small fraction of the world population consume the bulk of the world’s production of minerals, fossil fuels, and so on. Thus we see that when it comes to the depletion of natural resources and environmental pollution, the increase of one inhabitant in an affluent country, at his level of living, is equivalent to an increase of many Asians, Africans, or Latin Americans at their levels of living.
The inherent conflict is not between conservation and development, but between environment and reckless exploitation in the name of efficiency.
The inherent conflict is not between conservation and development, but between environment and reckless exploitation in the name of efficiency. Historians tell us that the modern age began with the will to freedom of the individual. And the individual came to believe that he had rights with no corresponding obligations. The man who got ahead was the one who commanded admiration. No questions were asked as to the methods employed, or the price which others had had to pay. Industrial civilisation has promoted the concept of the efficient man, he whose entire energies are concentrated on producing as much as possible in a given unit of time and from a given unit of manpower. Groups or individuals who are less competitive and, according to this test, less efficient, are regarded as lesser breeds—for example, the older civilisations, the black and brown peoples, women, and certain professions. Obsolescence is built into production, and efficiency is based on the creation of goods which are not really needed and which cannot be disposed of, when discarded. What price such efficiency now, and is not the word reckless a more appropriate term for such behaviour?
All the ‘isms’ of the modern age—even those which in theory disown the private profit principle—assume that man’s cardinal interest is in acquisition. The profit motive, individual or collective, seems to overshadow all else. This overriding concern with self is today the basic cause of the ecological crisis.
Pollution is not a technical problem. The fault lies not in science and technology as such, but in the sense of values of the contemporary world which ignores the rights of others and is oblivious to the longer perspective.
There are grave misgivings that the discussion of ecology may be designed to distract attention from the problems of war and poverty. We have to prove to the disinherited majority of the world that ecology and conservation will not work against their interest but will bring an improvement in their lives. To withhold technology from them would be to deprive them of vast resources of energy and knowledge. This is no longer feasible, nor will it be acceptable.
The environmental problems of developing countries are not the side-effects of excessive industrialisation, but reflect the inadequacy of development. The rich countries may look upon development as the cause of environmental destruction, but to us it is one of the primary means of improving the environment, for living, or providing food, water, sanitation, and shelter; of making the deserts green and the mountains habitable. The research and perseverance of dedicated people have given us an insight which is likely to play an important part in the shaping of our future plans. We see that however much man hankers after material goods, they can never give him full satisfaction. Thus, the higher standard of living must be achieved without alienating the people from their heritage or despoiling nature of the beauty, freshness, and purity so essential to our lives.
The most urgent and basic question is that of peace. Nothing is so pointless as modern warfare. Nothing destroys so instantly, so completely, as the diabolic weapons which not only kill but maim and deform the living and the yet to be born, which poison the land, and leave long trails of ugliness, barrenness and hopeless desolation. What ecological project can survive a war? The Prime Minister of Sweden, Mr. Olof Palme, has already drawn the attention of the Conference to this in powerful words.
Will the growing awareness of ‘one earth’ and ‘one environment’ guide us to the concept of‘one humanity’?
It is clear that the environmental crisis which is confronting the world will profoundly alter the future destiny of our planet. No one among us, whatever his status, strength or circumstance, can remain unaffected. The process of change challenges present international policies. Will the growing awareness of ‘one earth’ and ‘one environment’ guide us to the concept of ‘one humanity’? Will there be a more equitable sharing of environmental costs and greater international interest in the accelerated progress of the less developed world? Or, will it confine itself to one narrow concern, that of exclusive self-sufficiency?
The first essays in narrowing economic and technological disparities have not succeeded because the policies of aid were made to subserve the equations of power. We hope that the renewed emphasis on self-reliance, brought about by the change in the climate for aid, will also promote a search for new criteria of human satisfaction. In the meantime, the ecological crisis should not add to the burdens of the weaker nations by introducing new considerations in the political and trade policies of rich nations. It would be ironic if the fight against pollution were to be converted into another business, out of which a few companies, corporations, or nations would make profits at the cost of the many. Here is a branch of experimentation and discovery in which scientists of all nations should take interest. They should ensure that their findings are available to all nations, unrestricted by patents. I am glad that the Conference has given thought on this aspect of the problem.
Life is one and the world is one, and all these questions are interlinked. The population explosion, poverty, ignorance, and disease, the pollution of our surroundings, the stockpiling of nuclear weapons and biological and chemical agents of destruction, are all part of a vicious circle. Each is important and urgent but dealing with them one by one would be wasted effort.
It serves little purpose to dwell on the past or to apportion blame, for none of us is blameless. If some are able to dominate others, this is at least partially due to the weakness, the lack of unity, and the temptation to gain some advantage on the part of those who submit. If the prosperous have been exploiting the needy, can we honestly claim that in our own societies, people do not take advantage of the weak? We must re-evaluate the fundamentals in which our respective civic societies are based, and the ideals by which they are sustained. If there is to be change of heart, a change of direction and methods of functioning, no organisation or country—no matter how well intentioned—can achieve it. While each country must deal with that aspect of the problem which is most relevant to it, it is obvious that all countries must unite in an overall endeavour. There is no alternative to a co-operative approach, on a global scale, to the entire spectrum of our problems.
I have referred to some problems which seem to me to be the underlying causes of the present crisis in our civilisation. This is not in the expectation that this Conference can achieve miracles or solve all the world’s difficulties, but in the hope that the opinions of each nation will be kept in focus, that these problems will be viewed in perspective and each project devised as part of the whole.
It will not be easy for large societies to change their style of living. They cannot be coerced to do so, nor can governmental action suffice. People can be motivated, can be urged to participate in better alternatives.
On a previous occasion, I have spoken of the unfinished revolution in our countries. I am now convinced that this can only be taken to its culmination if it is accompanied by a revolution in social thinking. In 1968, at the 14th General Conference of UNESCO, the Indian delegation, along with others, proposed a new and major programme entitled ‘a design for living’. It is essential to grasp the full implications of technical advance and its impact on different sections and groups. We do not want to put the clock back or resign ourselves to a simplistic natural state. We want new directions in the wiser use of the knowledge and the tools with which science equips us. And this cannot be just one upsurge but a continuous search into cause and effect, an unending effort to match technology with higher levels of thinking. We must concern ourselves, not only with the kind of world we want, but also with what kind of man should inhabit it. Surely we do not desire a society divided into those who condition and those who are conditioned. We want thinking people, capable of spontaneous, self-directed activity, who are interested and interesting, and who are imbued with compassion and concern for others.
It will not be easy for large societies to change their style of living. They cannot be coerced to do so, nor can governmental action suffice. People can be motivated, can be urged to participate in better alternatives.
It has been my experience that people who are at cross purposes with nature are cynical about mankind and ill at ease with themselves. Modern man must re-establish an unbroken link with nature and with life. He must again learn to invoke the energy of growing things and to recognise, as did the ancients in India centuries ago, that one can take from the earth and the atmosphere only so much as one puts back into them. In their ‘Hymn to Earth’, the sages of the Atharva Veda chanted:
What of thee I dig out, let that quickly grow over, Let me not hit they vitals, or the heart.
So can man himself be vital and of good heart and conscious of his own responsibility.
Early monsoon clouds, grey as elephant skin, span the skies over the hillock where we are planting tree saplings. From 500 saplings stacked in black plastic sleeves, I select and heave two over to nearby soil pits prepared to receive them.
These are not just any trees, I think, as I slit open the covers, without disturbing the roots. These are very particular trees. A korangupila or Cullenia exarillata sapling and a wild nutmeg or Myristica dactyloides , picked from the 120 tree species in the stack, all native to this very place in the Anamalai Hills of the Western Ghats. A land of evergreens, a tropical rainforest, a place the great hornbills, lion-tailed macaques, and thousands of other lifeforms call home. As if echoing my thoughts, the loud bark of the hornbill sounds from the mist-breathing rainforest patch in the distance, where a 15-strong troop of macaques also lives.
It’s our 21st year attempting to ecologically restore the tropical rainforest. The slope we are planting on lies open to the sky with only a few trees — a rainforest in tatters. Like other such remnants in the landscape, it has had a long history of being logged, converted to plantations, abandoned, overrun by weeds, and suffering decades of neglect. Today, our team, a dozen strong, is getting its hands dirty trying to bring back the forests that once graced the land. Some are pitting with crowbars, one scatters organic manure on the freshly excavated moist soil. A few are removing invasive weeds like lantana, carefully retaining any native rainforest plant growing alongside. Others distribute saplings, or squat besides the pits planting, mulching, and tagging the plants with biodegradable flagging tape for later monitoring.
Hours later, we visit one of our older sites restored two decades earlier. Where previously deforested open land and smothering tangles of weeds sprawled, now diverse trees over 50 feet tall stand like columns. Some young trees are flush with clusters of bright red leaves, others sprout their first crops of fruit. The harsh chattering alarm call of a giant squirrel sounds from the canopy where a troop of dark Nilgiri langurs munches its way through the foliage — both species having returned to the site in the last few years as the rainforest reclaimed the land.
A million trees
Ecological restoration involves the careful planting of the right species in the right places in the right mix and right manner. Unfortunately, many large-scale tree planting programmes carried out today ignore each of these vital criteria even as they make headlines for having used hundreds or thousands of volunteers to plant lakhs or millions of saplings over hundreds of hectares, sometimes in a single hour or day.
A case in point is Telangana’s Haritha Haram programme that aims to plant 2.3 billion tree seedlings in four years. The programme also adopts the recent fad of lobbing seed balls (seeds embedded in balls of soil) across the State, one district vying for a record of 20 million. Telangana has a diverse range of natural ecosystems including grasslands, tree savannas, dry thorn forests, and deciduous forests, with hundreds of native plant species, from grasses and shrubs to trees. Yet, the official website of the project lists just a hundred tree species, including many invasive alien species such as Prosopis juliflora (mesquite), acacia wattles, casuarina, and ornamental trees. These species are not just inappropriate for Telangana, some are downright harmful. Yet, millions of seedlings are being planted and millions of seed balls tossed around, unmindful of whether the right species are being planted or even whether trees should be planted in that ecosystem at all.
Large-scale record-breaking tree planting makes news, not forests. Which explains why politicians, bureaucrats, and celebrities throng these events, while botanists, ecologists, and indigenous people are conspicuously absent. Besides failing to monitor or nurture the large numbers planted, such tree planting can cause more harm than good.
Across India, tree planting efforts suffer from five main problems: planting trees in the wrong places, planting the wrong species and species mix, planting too few species, failing to consider seed provenance, and planting without considering the rights of local people.
The most egregious harm comes when people plant trees in areas that do not naturally support many trees: open natural ecosystems (ONEs). India has a remarkable diversity of ONEs from the hot desert dunes of Jaisalmer to the cold desert steppes of Spiti and Ladakh; from the thorn scrub and savanna woodlands of the Deccan Plateau to the ravines of the Chambal; from the dry grasslands of Banni to the wet grasslands of Kaziranga; from the montane grasslands of the Western Ghats to the alpine meadows of the Himalayas. ONEs span about 3,29,000 sq.km. or 15% of India’s land area, according to a recent study by ATREE, a Bengaluru-based NGO, and maps by scientists M.D. Madhusudan, Abi Vanak, and Abhijeet Kulkarni.
These open natural ecosystems, mislabelled ‘wastelands’, are ecosystems in their own right, home to many specialised and endangered plants and animals. Two of India’s most endangered bird species — the great Indian bustard and Jerdon’s courser — are birds of open drylands. When tree plantations, including alien or introduced trees, smother open grassland and scrub, native plant and animal species decline and disappear.
Tree planting in ONEs can also affect local hydrology and reduce water availability. Native grasses and dryland plants are adapted to use little water in keeping with local rainfall patterns and infiltration, while helping recharge groundwater. But tree plantations in such areas can increase water uptake and transpiration, depleting the water table. For these reasons, open natural ecosystems deserve protection, including from tree planting. The ATREE study estimates that about 6,452 sq. km. or half the ONEs in Telangana could suffer from inappropriate tree planting. Across India, 51% of ONEs are similarly threatened.
Tree planting in forests can go wrong, too, as best seen in India’s flawed compensatory afforestation, where plantations are established ostensibly to compensate for forests destroyed for development projects. A November 2017 report by Community Forest Rights–Learning and Advocacy (CFR-LA), a group working on forest rights issues, examined 2,479 compensatory afforestation plantations in 10 States listed in the Government’s E-Green Watch website, and found that 70% were on forest lands instead of non-forest lands. This signifies a double-loss: the original forest is wiped clear for built infrastructure, while double the area in a new ‘afforestation’ site is scoured by earthwork, trenches, and concrete structures, only to introduce alien and inappropriate trees neither native to the original destroyed forest nor to the ecosystem in the new location. In effect, three times the area of some of India’s most remarkable forests are being destroyed or disturbed at taxpayer expense in the name of compensatory afforestation.
Planting the wrong species and species mix is legion in tree planting programmes. The species planted are often alien, such as eucalyptus, mesquite, senna, and wattles, or include naturalised species such as gulmohar or neem. Even where planters claim to use native species, they are generic native species found widely elsewhere in India (such as amla, banyan, or jack) rather than those native to the ecosystem at the planting location.
Worse, the seeds or seedlings are not sourced from local ecosystems or appropriate seed zones, but randomly sourced and trucked in from whichever nursery or market happens to sell them. Only a few tree planting programmes take the required care to identify the correct natural ecosystem and vegetation and bother to ethically source seeds or raise seedlings in local, native plant nurseries.
In afforestation sites, State forest departments and implementing agencies also plant a pitifully small number of tree species, usually less than 10, often as few as two or three. One study found that more than half of the 2,35,000 ha afforested between 2015 and 2018 used ﬁve or fewer species. To take just one random example from 2015, to offset the diversion of 103 ha of forest land for the trans-Arunachal highway, the State planned compensatory afforestation in 310 ha of land in a village forest reserve. Both the original forest and the village reserve would have had hundreds of plant species, but the afforestation, according to details published online, planted five unnamed species at a cost of ₹28 lakh.
Tree planting programmes often fail to consider the roles and rights of local communities, enshrined in the landmark Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006. The CFR-LA report found that of 52 compensatory afforestation plantations in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Odisha, all were established on community forest lands vested in the village gram sabhas by the FRA, but all were carried out without gram sabha permission. Even during the pandemic in 2020, States such as Chhattisgarh and Odisha continued such afforestation on lands belonging to and used by indigenous people, excluding them by building fences and walls. Under rules framed by the present government in August 2018, the requirement for gram sabha consent has been done away with, violating local rights and compromising traditional land use, such as for fodder and grazing. Crucially, it also fails to empower communities as agents of restoration.
Meanwhile, destructive development projects are poised to destroy millions of native trees in some of our best forests. A science college in Dehradun set to fell over 25,000 trees, the Buxwaha diamond mine in Bundelkhand set to hack over 2.15 lakh trees, the Ken-Betwa river-linking project slated to destroy 23 lakh trees, the proposed trans-shipment terminal on Great Nicobar island that will kill untold millions in some of India’s most extraordinary forests, and the list goes on and on. Efforts to protect these existing trees in our forests could do a lot more good than misguided tree planting.
A rainforest returns
Back in the Anamalais, I mulled over our own small-scale tree planting for rainforest restoration. Over two decades, we had planted around 70,000 trees to restore about 100 ha of highly degraded rainforest, working hectare by hectare, chasing neither targets nor records, but aiming to bring back a semblance of the original rainforest ecosystem as best we could. Three local plantation companies, Parry Agro Industries, Tata Coffee, and Tea Estates India, had also stepped up to protect over 1,075 ha of existing rainforest patches within their tea and coffee estates.
Taken together, our work was an attempt to show that protecting remaining forests was the first priority and tree planting could be done and done well, when and where it was really needed. We hoped it would serve as a model of ecological restoration that would motivate others to plant ecosystems and not just trees. Ecological restoration of the appropriate ecosystem — whether grassland, desert, savanna, or rainforest — is preferable to blind tree planting.
For us, there was another salient reason to plant rainforest trees, year after year, decade after decade. If all went well, one day, a few decades hence, from the nearby rainforest patch, descendants of the troop of macaques would comb the canopy of the Cullenia, and future hornbills would whoosh onto the Myristica to feed on the fruits of the very trees we had planted.
Two bullets passed through three brothers and killed them as they sat side by side.
The secretary wrote, “The first bullet killed one and… the second bullet after having gone through one struck the other, which was behind it, and killed it also.”
Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo pulled the trigger in 1947. In Surguja District in central India, he shot them by night from a vehicle. It was his private secretary who later chronicled the passing of the last cheetahs shot in India.
When the three men arrived by boat at the island of Eldey in Iceland on June 3, 1844, they found the Great Auk pair standing side by side tending to the last egg.
Jón Brandsson “crept up with his arms open” to the female who moved to a corner. Sigurður Ísleifsson followed the other, who walked to the edge of a cliff. He said, “I took him by the neck and he flapped his wings. He made no cry. I strangled him.”
Ketill Ketilsson found the egg on a lava slab. He picked up the egg, saw it was broken, and put it back. Some say he crushed the egg under his boot. It would have made a squelching sound.
The sound would have been drowned by the waves battering the cliffs, as the ocean currents passed the desolate cliffs of Eldey.
The epitaph for the last male reads: “Male near Baghownie… 21st June 1935”. Charles McFarlane Inglis, the Englishman who had shot the bird in Darbhanga, Bihar, in India, does not say more in his journal article. He does not say whether the last bird was rushing overhead, wings gusting the air, or pedalling glassy waters among reeds and swamp, swimming quietly and alone, when the bullet struck. The article was published five years later. Scientists now know this was the last confirmed record from the wild of the Pink-headed Duck.
The Englishman himself died on February 13, 1954, aged 84. Months later, someone wrote in the pages of another journal, like an epitaph at the end of his obituary: Molliter ossa cubent. May his bones rest softly.
People still look for the duck. Their bones and feathers rest softly in museums around the world.
The last Carolina parakeet, Incas, died on February 21, 1918, a year after his mate Lady Jane’s passing. They both died in the same cage in Cincinnati Zoo. The writer J Drew Lanham imagined an epitaph for Incas. He thought it would serve as the “final rites for the passage of one of the most unique birds ever to sweep across the skies of the American psyche.”
Martha, the last passenger pigeon, too, had died in the same cage on September 1, 1914.
A century had passed since 1810, when Alexander Wilson had observed during his own passage between Frankfort and the Indiana Territory, a single flight of migrating pigeons that he estimated to number two billion two hundred and thirty million two hundred and seventy two thousand birds. In 1947, the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology erected a bronze monument to the passenger pigeon in Wyalusing State Park. Aldo Leopold said, “But no pigeons will pass, for there are no pigeons, save only this flightless one, graven in bronze on this rock. Tourists will read this inscription, but their thoughts, like the bronze pigeon, will have no wings.”
But another stone is inscribed and mounted in the Bronx Zoo, New York, on a memorial wall to many species that have passed for ever. I recall the words carved in stone, which said that the Jerdon’s Courser, a “quiet bird” that “stretched up on tiptoes to look for predators”, went extinct after 1900.
Nearly a century had passed when the bird was found in Andhra Pradesh in 1986, with the help of bird trappers. The Sri Lankamalleswara Wildlife Sanctuary was established as a refuge and a canal partly rerouted to save their habitat. The biologist, P Jeganathan, saw the bird in 2008 and caught images in a field camera. He once heard three birds calling by night. A two note call, neither cackle nor lament, just one urgent note following another, ringing through the long night.
The Isha Upanishad proclaims,
Those who see all creatures in themselves And themselves in all creatures know no fear. Those who see all creatures in themselves And themselves in all creatures know no grief. How can the multiplicity of life Delude the one who sees its unity?
The Upanishads, by Eknath Easwaran (2nd edition, 2007)
I think of all the species in all their unique perfection and voices irredeemably gone and lost to the screaming bullets and machines and pillage but thrill to know that the night can yet carry the clear, poignant, plaintive, astonishing, exhilarating voice of one quiet bird.
Now India aims to bring back the cheetah. A rewilding project plans to bring new life to the grasslands and savannas where the cheetah once roamed and coursed behind antelope. And yet, in the grasslands and savannas lives another tall, stately bird, the Great Indian Bustard, in great peril. Down to the last hundred or so, the birds continue to lose their habitat to solar and wind farms, concrete and road, their lives colliding with the power lines humming with the currents now passing through their landscape. One great effort trying to bring back a species driven extinct. And one great power driving another to the edge of extinction.
If we can find it in us to offer remembrance, epitaph, memorial, and long for what we have lost, we can find it in us to cherish what we have and keep it from passing from this earth. And we can stand for it side by side and our thoughts can once again have wings.
This essay was inspired by Brian Doyle’s essay “Leap” (2001). It appeared in the Indian Express Sunday Magazine Eye on 22 August 2021.
Wild and free: in one sense of each word, to be wild is to be free. In nature, each life form is free to grow and flourish, free to confront every peril, with the wisdom of survival encoded in genes, volitions guided by intelligence, thwarting vagaries of contingence. But to an ecologist, such freedom remains axiomatically entangled in a web of relationships. “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe,” wrote John Muir famously.
The Covid-19 pandemic brought this home: humans are a part of nature, even if as people—imbued with culture, cloaked by modernity, amped by technology—we imagine we rise apart from nature. It just took a tiny virion, 100 nanometres in diameter, a hundredth the size of a pollen grain, to shake the planet. No Trump, no Bolsanaro, no Modi, no Putin comes even close—in a tenebrous way that is strangely reassuring, too. Our freedoms remain vulnerable to intersecting crises worldwide: the climate emergency, the Covid-19 pandemic, the sixth extinction, and the assault on democracy. Each breath we take is our own, but the air we breathe is from a shared atmosphere. Individual freedoms depend irrevocably on collective actions.
For me, the forced distancing from parents, relatives, and friends, and inability to travel have been the most unbearable curbs on freedom. It deepened how I valued my relationships and my travel. Being alive, I also realised I am among the fortunate ones.
There are many moments in Viju’s book Flood and Fury that belie the title that this is just a book about the recent floods and ecological disasters in India’s Western Ghats mountains. One telling moment is recounted in the voice of Sandeep Sawant, a resident of Sawantvadi, in Maharashtra’s Sindhudurg — the state’s greenest district in the Sahyadri belt of the Western Ghats. As people from Asniye – a Sindhudurg village where tigers are worshipped as the Vagh Devata – perform pujas at Shiroda beach on the auspicious occasion of Somvatri Amavasya, Sawant says, “The heritage villages of Sindhudurg … are being destroyed by miners supported by our elected representatives. For us, culture without nature is as good as being dead.” Sawant’s words as recounted by Viju underscore the main point of Flood and Fury that unscrupulous and poorly- regulated exploitation of the Western Ghats both caused and exacerbated much of the death and destruction. But it also echoes the subtext of the book: all along the Western Ghats nature and culture are enmeshed, and when those connections fray and snap, disaster ensues to lands and lives.
The book unfolds
with a brief introduction to the Western Ghats mountain range, its
landscapes and many rivers, its diversity of plants and animals, and
the peoples and problems of the region, which served as a backdrop
for the extreme rainfall and floods of August 2018. Viju outlines a
trajectory of decline, beginning with colonial timber extraction from
forests and their conversion to large plantations, magnified in
recent years by rampant and destructive development, which has
transformed the relationship between people and land from one of
respect and veneration to one of consumption and exploitation. In the
remaining chapters, Viju attempts a view from the ground, capturing
voices of local people, to understand the causes and the impacts of
the floods, taking the reader to many locations along the Western
Ghats from Kerala to the Sahyadri of Maharashtra. A more detailed
introduction to the region and its ecological history and human
diversity would have been helpful, but the reader gets a sense of an
author impatient to get started on the journey.
The first six
chapters focus on parts of Kerala, the author’s home state. From
the mountains of Idukki to Pathanamthitta and to the Kuttanad coast,
the first three chapters cover the mountains, midlands, and coastal
tracts emphasising how the latter, too, are “an integrated
extension of the Western Ghats” (p 86), a point that governments
often seem ignorant about. The Idukki chapter outlines the five
phases of deforestation that the region has witnessed due to the
opening up of plantations in the colonial period, the expansion of
agriculture from the 1940s, the resettlement of people in forests,
the proliferation of hydroelectric projects and dams, and finally,
from the 1990s onward, a phase of exploitation by illegal quarries
and unregulated tourism that still threatens and sullies the
mountains. From the Munnar tea plantations to the Periyar Tiger
Reserve, from tribal villages in forests to expanding towns, Viju
traces a litany of challenges facing the region, speaking to local
people and experts to understand and document the impact of the rains
Viju discusses an issue that has got little attention so far: the
effects of pilgrimage tourism and places of worship on the ecology
and conservation of the Western Ghats. Viju’s account of the
Sabarimala temple –its forest setting, myths and rituals, and the
recent Supreme Court order to allow women of menstruating age entry
into the temple – while a little long and digressive, brings to the
forefront the disturbance, pollution, and forest degradation caused
by 5 million people visiting the temple every year and the
indifference of the authorities. Viju follows the Pamba River down
through the midlands blasted and gouged by quarries to Aranmula at
the foothills, devastated in the floods that destroyed land, property
and the livelihoods of the traditional metal mirror makers. The
floods did further damage downstream in the Kuttanad region, around
Vembanad Lake, where agricultural expansion over the last two
centuries has brought with it both prosperity and problems of
pollution due to excessive use of agrochemicals.
Moving north to
Chalakudi and Palakkad in the next two chapters, Viju chronicles the
threats from dams proposed at Athirapilly and Silent Valley and also
the resulting resistance movement that brought together tribal
communities, non-governmental organisations, scientists and the lay
public, which successfully opposed these patently destructive
projects. Viju also swings through Attapady, the Nelliampathy Hills,
and along the Bharatapuzha River giving the reader a flavour of the
people and landscapes, as well as aspects unique to each place:
tribal distress and forest regeneration in Attapady, destructive road
expansion in Nelliampathy that has led to landslips and forest
degradation, the sand mining and riparian forest loss that has
affected the water availability in the Bharatpuzha and its environs.
One of the longest
chapters in the book, on Wayanad, documents the multitude of issues
impinging on the area: deforestation, plantations, dams, urban
expansion, tourism, exploitation of timber and bamboo, land
distribution and alienation of local people. Read as a series of
vignettes, this brings an appreciation of how a holistic
understanding of a place and its ecological and historical context is
essential if the plight of Western Ghats needs to take a turn for the
better: piecemeal understanding or implementation of ‘solutions’
can only lead to conflict and disaffection.
The book thins out
as Viju journeys further north into Coorg (Kodagu) in Karnataka,
Bicholim in Goa and Sindhudurg in Maharastra. While the chapters are
short and sketchy, they articulate serious contemporary threats to
the Western Ghats, which are increasing the risk and reducing the
safety and resilience of ecosystems and people in the region. Coorg
has suffered road expansion and unregulated construction on steep
slopes, partly spurred by unregulated tourism, which along with the
extensive replacement of forests by plantations keeps the region
susceptible to devastating landslides. In Goa and Sindhudurg, mining
has wrought widespread destruction, accom- panied by loss of forests
(including private forests), fertile agricultural lands, and
traditional livelihoods. Reading these chapters, one wishes the
author had expanded his scope a bit more: on the fight led by the Goa
Foundation and other groups against mining, on other cases such as
the Supreme Court- mandated closure of the Kudremukh iron ore mine in
Karnataka, on the distinctive geology and terrain and communities of
the northern Western Ghats and their cultural connect with nature. A
little bit of the wider context and a prognosis does appear, though,
in the two short closing chapters.
There are a few
other places where the book falters. For a book that talks of
“ecological devastation” there is little accurate description of
ecology or the findings of ecological research. Viju’s repeated use
of “virgin” forests and streams does not cohere with current
scientific understanding of forests in the Western Ghats and other
tropical regions that have had a long history of human presence and
association. Some of the details are inaccurate: for example, the
Malabar Giant Squirrel and Nilgiri Langur are not among the
“most endangered species on earth”; the population of Lion-tailed
Macaques in Silent Valley region does not comprise half the entire
wild population of the species, and so on. To make specific points,
Viju often relies on conversations with a few experts and references
to a few technical reports. Tables and Figures are inserted into the
text (without being referred to or adequately explained) carrying
columns of numbers (including statistics like standard deviations)
providing detail that seems unintelligible. The book can stand on its
own without these inserts. Many citations listed at the end of the
book are to media articles rather than primary research. When he
cites a scientific journal article while describing a study that
established new bird genera (mistakenly referred to as ‘genre’ by
the author) of Laughing Thrushes (mistakenly called laughing birds),
it seems almost like an aberration to the general pattern of the
book. This is a pity, since the Western Ghats is one of the
best-studied regions among the mountainous regions in India, with
valuable research on ecology, hydrology, climate and climate change,
geology and land stability, which could have informed, enriched and
supported the narrative.
In writing about the
destructive development and exploitation of the Western Ghats and the
resulting opposition—as at Athirapilly, Silent Valley, or mining in
the Sahyadri—one wishes that Viju had explored further how
different players such as tribal communities and NGOs and scientists
came together to offer resistance. These were not merely protests
against something, they were also vibrant movements that spoke
for forests and mountains and particular ways of life in which
culture and nature remain inseparable. These movements at least
partly contradict a premise Viju makes in the Introduction that
“Academicians too, though they conduct brilliant research and
publish reports, have failed to address the livelihood concerns of
the communities living in the Western Ghats.” True, there are
academicians and reports viewed with mistrust, but Viju appears to
paint with too broad a brush. The Gadgil Committee Report that
the author lauds at several points along the book is the work of
academicians, too. While scientists working in the Western Ghats
could certainly do much more to communicate the pertinence of their
findings for both ecology and livelihoods, a similar expectation
could be placed on journalists reporting from the region and books
like Flood and Fury, too.
These are minor quibbles on what is otherwise a good book and a welcome addition to the literature on the Western Ghats and on environment and development in India in the context of climate change. The reportage is easy to read and the book gives voice to myriad people from the region. It is an important book that must be read to understand the variety and immediacy of threats to the Western Ghats and the challenges faced by people living on the mountains and all the way downstream to the plains. It acquires further urgency and relevance in the light of the ongoing climate crisis. One hopes it lands in the hands of all people, including policymakers and administrators, connected with the region or concerned about the challenges and imperatives of conservation.
Splashes of red dot the evergreen canopy, like blood on green canvas. The canarium, stately white and tall, holds a red flush of new leaves above verdant, multi-hued forest. Skimming spectacularly over the trees, a great hornbill brushes grandeur onto the canvas. In the company of hornbills, a new year dawns on an unsuspecting rainforest.
A primary concern in conservation is the extinction of species. Our work often leads us to ask: what should we do to save a species from extinction? The answer, or the search for answers, to this question spurs much of our research, our efforts. Yet, living as we are in the middle of an extinction spasm of the greatest import, we rarely ask the corollary: what should we do when a species does go extinct? In effect, when we fail to stave off an extinction? When a species passes on, should we just heave a collective gasp, drape a commiserative arm around our collective shoulders and move on to the next threatened species? Do we add another sample to the ever-growing database of extinct species for performing many-dimensional analyses of extinction that incrementallydevelop our knowledge of why species go extinct? Or should there be something more to it? For with the passing of a species, we also lose any connection we have once had with it.
What would our life be like if we could see, but not discern? If we could hear, but not listen, and if we could touch, but not feel? How would we experience life if we could taste and smell, but not savour? What would we be like, as a species and as individuals, if we could sense everything, yet make sense of nothing? Would our life be the same? Would we be the same? Would we even be human?
How far can one keep going straight up an apparently unscaled peak without falling off a precipice? How far can the march of the human footprint on Earth continue without exceeding planetary boundaries and leading to environmental catastrophe? In an important recent paper in Nature, strangely reminiscent of the publication of The Limits to Growth by the Club of Rome in 1972, a group of scientists poses and develops tentative markers of planetary boundaries being reached or exceeded.
The paper in Nature, an accompanying editorial, the seven commentaries from leading experts, available here, are worth a read for anyone who wants an overview of what the major human impacts on the planet are and where they are headed. Specifically, the authors deal with the following nine issues:
stratospheric ozone depletion
the global cycles of nitrogen and phosphorus
atmospheric aerosol loading (to be quantified)
chemical pollution (to be quantified)
The paper suggests that three boundaries related to climate change, biological diversity, nitrogen and phosphorous dumping into the biosphere, may already have been exceeded. A brief summary of the findings with relevant links is also available here at the website of the Stockholm Resilience Centre where the lead author Johan Rockström is based. The seven commentaries along with some other recent research highlights are also available here. The real meat of the paper is actually in a parallel publication in the journal Ecology and Society. Although this paper is in press, it is available here and this contains the details of the issues at stake, the underlying rationales, and references to the scientific literature based on which the conclusions are drawn.
In our context, given India’s demographic profile and dependence on agriculture, the aspects related to freshwater use and nitrogen-phosphorous cycles are really worthy of note. Water shortages in the country and the severe depletion of groundwater were recently again in the news following a paper in Nature. Anthropogenic nitrogen loading is already affecting our terrestrial ecosystems, coastal and marine areas, and rivers. Reporting high values of dissolved and sediment-bound nitrogen in Indian rivers, partly due to excessive fertiliser use and associated run-off, the authors of the last study grimly conclude: “Hence, our freshwater aquatic systems can no longer be considered natural, at least with respect to nitrogen transport.”
A quick survey of the debate emerging from the papers by Rockström and colleagues indicates two main questions are being asked (among others spurred by the publications). First, is it sensible to set a tipping-point benchmark, however scientifically tenuous it may be given the current state of knowledge? There is concern that this might cause complacence among policy makers and administrators, who may avoid responding to the situation until the benchmark is reached or exceeded. The second is the issue of benchmark itself: for instance, in the case of biodiversity loss. The authors of the study use extinction rate as a measure of biodiversity loss. In Table 1, they indicate a pre-industrial value of rate of extinction at 0.1 to 1 species per million species per year. The current rate of extinction is >100 species per million per year and the proposed boundary is 10 species per million per year. What makes this an acceptable boundary or rate of loss of species?
The overall picture that emerges is alarming, to say the least. The climate crisis is familiar; our newspapers are full of it now. Other concerns appear less commonly in the media. For instance, that our oceans, which absorb some 25% of human CO2 emissions, are undergoing acidification at a rate 100 times higher than at any time in the past 20 million years. This makes a whole range of marine organisms, such as corals and molluscs, susceptible to corrosion of their shells (made of calcium carbonate in the form of aragonite). The decline of aragonite-forming organisms and coral reefs could substantially alter marine ecosystems. Another global concern is that of human tampering of the planetary nitrogen cycles. Human activities now input more reactive nitrogen into the planet than all natural processes combined. As a large part of this enters the biosphere, it alters terrestrial ecosystems, as well as freshwater and marine ecosystems.
The paper will doubtless spur more discussions and research into the various benchmarks and their utility in tracking the human footprint. Despite the debates and shortcomings, one real value of the paper as it appears to me is that it brings into one page—onto one figure even, superimposed ominously on the globe—an assessment and visualisation of the nine-fold stranglehold that humans as a species have on Earth. Looking at it we have to keep asking: is the human journey reaching the edges of the Earth?
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