Human beings are among the most fortunate of God’s creations, residing on possibly the only planet with life. Nature offers flora and fauna for food and coexistence. Earth, located in the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ around the Sun, provides the right balance of air, water, and heat. It’s the only known planet with ‘soil’.

Earth’s biodiversity (today is Earth Day) implies an equilibrium among humans, animals, and plants — a mutual dependency where one species’ output benefits another. Yet, a significant portion of the global population, including the educated, disconnects from nature, recklessly destroying trees and forests meant for other living beings.

Human disruption

Humans have breached limits on six of the nine planetary boundaries crucial for Earth’s habitability as evidenced by:

Climate change: A 1.5 degrees temperature rise since 1900 and significant rainfall pattern changes.

Biodiversity loss: Extinction of 680 vertebrates and 600 plant species since the 16th century, and a 69 per cent wildlife decline since 1970.

Freshwater scarcity: India’s per capita availability dropped 75 per cent, from 6047 cu. metres to 1486 cu. metres.

Land use: Forests in India reduced from 33 per cent in 1952 to 21 per cent.

Nutrient pollution: Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution causing water ‘eutrophication’ — turning the water green, malodorous, blocking sunlight, and releasing toxins.

Plastics pollution: 19-23 million tonnes of plastic waste enter aquatic ecosystems annually; plastics manufacturing emits 3.3 per cent of global greenhouse gases.

The other three boundaries, ocean acidification, air pollution, and ozone depletion remain within limits. Though crossing the six boundaries does not immediately cause disaster, it’s a high-risk warning, similar to high blood pressure.

Human arrogance has upset Earth’s equilibrium, impacting animal, plant, and insect species. The Covid-19 outbreak in 2019 exposed the consequences of this imbalance. An integrated approach addressing health, socio-economic development, climate change, biodiversity, and the war against plastics, the theme for ‘Earth Day 2024,’ is crucial to transform the global economy.

The plastics threat

Plastic’s invention in 1907 by Belgian Leo Baekeland led to its widespread use due to affordability, durability, and aesthetic appeal. Major single-use plastic applications include: Food and Beverages – 31 per cent, Bottle and Container Caps – 16 per cent, Plastic bags – 11 per cent, Straws, Stirrers, Beverage Bottles, and Containers – 7 per cent.

Additionally, 99 per cent of toys are plastic. Plastics take up to 1,000 years to decompose, accumulate on/under the top soil restricting the ingress of rainwater to the ground.

Environmental degradation from plastics arises from:

1. Improper disposal and incineration releasing toxins into air and water.

2. Fragmentation into Microplastics contaminating soil, water, and air.

3. Harmful chemical release threatening wildlife and human health.

4. Ecosystem disruption altering habitats and reducing biodiversity.

The usage of plastic products has grown in keeping with consumerist societies that symbolise human greed with constantly increasing consumption. In the Indian context of climate change, the plastics industry generates around 4 million tonnes of waste annually.

Potential solutions

To respect mother earth the munificent divine provider to all living beings, some solutions include:

1. Reduce-Reuse-Recycle and adopt a circular economy

In our quest for material prosperity, external possessions have become a vehicle for happiness. The true nature of happiness as per the Vedanta philosophy, lies within — Ananda, the bliss of the self; more material consumption and prosperity does not necessarily increase happiness. Hence, it is prudent to reflect and examine what is important and determine ‘what and how we consume’. A research study estimates the present value (PV) of the social cost of continuing a business-as-usual (BAU) structure in the plastics industry in India for the period 2025-2030 at $541 billion and the PV of adopting a 100 per cent circular plastic value chain by 2030 at $370 billion. Thus, the net present value of implementing 100 per cent circularity by 2030 is $170 billion. This necessitates improved Recycling Infrastructure and novel technology adoption, for example the use of plastic waste along with bitumen and asphalt in road construction.

2. Changing mindset and adopting ‘Bio mimicry’ which is the practice of ‘learning from and mimicking the strategies found in nature to solve human designed challenges’ and recognising that economy is a subset of ecology. In this regard, waste is a human concept and does not exist in nature.

3. Some radical measures would include:

a) Implement sweeping bans on non-essential plastics, such as straws, plastic utensils, and excessive packaging, pushing for more sustainable alternatives.

b) Producer Responsibility Laws to hold manufacturers accountable for the entire lifecycle of their products, including collection, recycling, and proper disposal of plastic waste.

c) Heavy taxation on virgin plastics and plastic products to promote the use of recycled materials and drive consumer behaviour towards eco-friendly choices.

d) Establish Plastic-Free Zones promoting a culture shift towards zero-waste living and sustainable consumption practices.

e) Incentivise innovation to businesses and entrepreneurs developing solutions for plastic alternatives, recycling technologies and waste management.

f) Community-led initiatives through grassroots movement for clean-up projects and educational campaigns, showcasing environmental stewardship and collective responsibility.

The munificence of Mother Earth provides us the food we eat, the air we breathe, the water for drinking and irrigating crops and within the ecosystem, the forests, rivers, oceans and soils are intimately connected and thus germane to our very existence. This lone thought hopefully should be a motivation to save our Planet Earth, otherwise we are killing ourselves as well as the future generations.

Mony is Advisor, Rajagiri Vidyapeeth, and SCMS Kochi; and Member PanIIT Alumni India; Narasimhan is Founder and Director, PlaySolar Systems Pvt. Ltd. Both are members of the Societal Impact Action Group’ of ‘IIT Madras Alumni Association