According to the Global Footprint Network, we will need two Earths to support us by the mid-2030s if population and consumption trends continue. Natural resources are finite and are dwindling at a rapid pace.
Changes in population can have a variety of economic, ecological, and social implications. One population concern is that of the number of individuals an ecosystem can support without having any negative effects.
This realization came in the most unexpected of times, like any self-realization!
I had paid visit to river Yamuna which flows by the Taj Mahal, in the majestic city of Agra, my hometown. I have always been fascinated by the idea of bridges, be it in poetry or as an architectural piece to facilitate transport and connectivity.
Returning back from Chennai after 2 years of studying Constitutional Law, I had gone to my hometown which had been one of the sources of my connection with nature. Water wasn’t flowing in it. It was dry. The birds and the fish were gone. There were froth-like things emerging from the foul smelling river. I couldn’t sleep.
Around the same time, I was invited for an awareness program in Delhi. That’s where I was shocked to discover that many people were complaining about shortage of water supply and, in a few cases, urine-smelling water being supplied for consumption. Water purifiers were a new fashion for a specific class of people, whereas others spent money buying canned water bottles for daily consumption.
I felt restless. So, I went to my mother and expressed my urge to do something of more meaning in life, like her. That’s when I decided to do something, and to create more awareness through writing and public speaking.
I had the chance of working as a Judicial Clerk to the National Green Tribunal, Principal Bench, New Delhi. During this time, I absorbed some really valuable insights about the workings of a Tribunal, the nature of cases and how far law alone could remedy the failing human activities.
In a seemingly hyper-connected world like the one we live in today, the connection between humankind and nature has been lost. The main element that drives this disconnect, and which makes it grow, is the fact that we often lack a clear understanding of the consequences of our actions. This is a common problem when we talk about climate change.
I had learned about the concept of “Carrying Capacity” as an evolving tool for monitoring sustainable development, while researching for a case at the Tribunal. Interestingly, the concept originates from animal ecology and is based on the logistic growth curve theory by Belgian mathematician, Verhulst. In 1990, researcher Kozlowski argued about the existence of certain thresholds, beyond which the natural environment will be irreversibly impaired. It was a moment of realisation for me! I felt this concept had immense potential of marrying law with empathy, of producing environmental awareness backed with the support of research.
To understand this better let us take a simple example of carrying capacity is the number of people who could survive in a lifeboat after a shipwreck. Their survival depends on how much food and water they have, how much each person eats and drinks each day, and how many days they are afloat. If the lifeboat made it to an island, how long the people survived would depend upon the food and water supply on the island and how wisely they used it. A small desert island will support far fewer people than a large continent with abundant water and good soil for growing crops.
Living within the carrying capacity means using those supplies no quicker than they are restocked by the island’s environment. A community that is living off the interest of its community capital is living within the carrying capacity. A community that is degrading or destroying the ecosystem on which it depends is using up its community capital and is living unsustainably.
In 1994, researcher Onishi analyzed the carrying capacity conditions of Tokyo’s inner city. His study compared the supply-demand relationship of physical man-made resources, such as road, water, sewerage and waste disposal etc. and his findings revealed the areas of infrastructure that needed improvements as a matter of priority. The study was limited because of difficulties in securing data about the sense, attitudes and anticipations of the public which can only be assessed by social survey. Future research efforts are expected to dedicate efforts in this field.
In China’s cities, various sustainability challenges are posed because of rapid and widespread urbanization. It has been suggested that the Beijing city government considers, for example, the following strategic solutions to improve the carrying capacity:
(1) “Decentralization policy” is widely recognized as being effective for relieving congestion. The rapid influx of urban population is the immediate cause for the over-development of Beijing. It generates substantial pressure on every aspect of urban development such as: urban facilities, public services and welfare etc. It impairs sustainable development and the quality of life of urban residents.
(2) Investment and resource allocation are proactive means to improve urban carrying capacity. The government could increase investment and emphasize key projects in the field of resources/waste reutilization, environmental preservation, infrastructure development and social welfare.
(3) The urban planning department could improve land use efficiency. For example, the relocation of habitation and economic centers to the suburbs can alleviate the heavy use of urban facilities. According to the “compact city” theory, the government could legally designate high floor area ratios for new construction.
(4) Transforming the current consumptive lifestyles to conserving and environment-friendly lifestyles.
The concept of carrying capacity is subject to hot debate because of the development versus environment debate, and because of the difficulties in harmoniously reconciling these.
There are also still few existing studies and these frequently raise questions of fragmented and incomplete understanding; a lack of credible assessment methods; and limited applications.
Best practice models are present worldwide, hopefully opening the doors for more grounded studies and deliberations. No one formula could be applied uniformly however, owing to the diverse countries on the map.
One thing is for sure, the issue needs attention and what one city could achieve could prove to be a motivation for others.
Research initiates the dialogue, the results of which can be used to analyse, observe and draw solutions. But, what is next?
Being a member of International Society of Therapeutic Jurisprudence, and developing an interest in minimalism, I had learned about the value of empathy, forgiveness and the application of human touch to law for a better world. I personally feel that development of environmental empathy is also important because the present generation may experience the impacts of climate change in more diverse ways in the future, when they have adult responsibilities. Thus, for present-day children, an understanding of the natural world may be one of the most vital actions that educators can take to prepare them for the difficulties and decisions that they may face as adults.
Scientists can help to address this formidable challenge by pursuing prospects for collaboration with educators in innovative ways. One way that scientists can potentially contribute would be to help children gain environmental literacy which should be in consonance with the prevailing research. It is overwhelming to see that people have started discussing waste management, dying rivers and illegal mining. In India, environmental issues are increasingly becoming part of everyday media reporting and ordinary, everyday conversation.
The most crucial way to effect change however is to bring it about by oneself. Little things all come together to create huge environmental solutions.
Turning off the power supply, when it’s not in use, taking quick showers, recycling paper etc. help reduce our ecological footprints. Even more beneficial would be maximization of the use of public transport with colleagues, peers and friends. A group of four colleagues sharing the ride contributes only a quarter as much to the ecological footprint than each of them individually. Of course, these are personal matters and only an individual’s conscience can compel him or her toward the path of sustainability.
It is time to rethink Karl Marx’s “. . . to each according to his needs.” The thoughts stimulated by these thinkers are generous thoughts, whereas speaking of local responsibility for local environments may seem too many people, a miserly and selfish way of looking at the world’s problems.
The world needs kindness and empathy towards environment coupled with research that brings out compassion towards environment. The rewards of making changes now will one day be apparent; maybe not in our lifetime, but most certainly in that of our grandchildren.
As Gandhiji has very profoundly said: “There is enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.”
NABEELA SIDDIQUI is a member of All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) and the International Society of Therapeutic Jurisprudence (ISTJ). She was awarded with the prestigious President of India, Gold Medal for her Masters in Constitutional Law in 2018. She has also worked as a Judicial Clerk at the National Green Tribunal, Principal Bench, New Delhi, India.