Environmental ethics deals with issues that are related to how we utilise and distribute resources. Can individuals justifiably use resources so differently that one individual uses resources many times more lavishly than other individuals who have barely enough to survive? In a just world, there has to be a more equitable sharing of resources than we encounter at present. The just distribution of resources has global, national and local concerns that we need to address. There are rich and poor nations. There are rich and poor communities in every country. And there are rich and poor families. In this era of modern economic development, the disparity between the haves and have nots is widening. Our human environments in the urban, rural and wilderness sectors, use natural resources that shift from the wilderness (forests, grasslands, wetlands, etc.) to the rural sector, and from there to the urban sector. Wealth also shifts in the same direction. This unequal distribution of wealth and access to land and its resources is a serious environmental concern. An equitable sharing of resources forms the basis of sustainable development for urban, rural and wilderness dwelling communities. As the political power base is in the urban centers, this itself leads to inequalities and a subsequent loss of sustainability in resource management in the rural and even more so for forest dwelling people.
In 1985, Anil Agarwal published the first report on the Status of India’s Environment. It emphasized that India’s environmental problems were caused by the excessive consumption patterns of the rich that left the poor poorer. It was appreciated for the first time that tribals, especially women and other marginalized sectors of our society, were being left out of economic development. There are multiple stakeholders in Indian society who are dependent on different natural resources which cater directly or indirectly to their survival needs. Anil Agarwal brought forth a set of 8 propositions which are of great relevance to the ethical issues that are related to environmental concerns. These include:
1. Environmental destruction is largely caused by the consumption of the rich.
2. The worst sufferers of environmental destruction are the poor.
3. Even where nature is being ‘recreated’, as in afforestation, it is being transformed away from the needs of the poor and towards those of the rich.
4. Even among the poor, the worst sufferers are the marginalized cultures and occupations, and most of all, women.
5. There cannot be proper economic and social development without a holistic understanding of society and nature.
6. If we care for the poor, we cannot allow the Gross Nature Product to be destroyed any further. Conserving and recreating nature has become our highest priority.
7. Gross Nature Product will be enhanced only if we can arrest and reverse the growing alienation between the people and the common property resources. In this we will have to learn a lot from our traditional cultures.
8. It is totally inadequate to talk only of sustainable rural development, as the World Conservation Strategy does. We cannot save the rural environment or rural people dependent on it, unless we can bring about sustainable urban development.
Who pays for the cost of environmental degradation?
Most sections of society do not feel the direct effects of degradation of the environment till it is too late. Those who suffer most are the poor, especially rural women, and tribal people who are dependent on forests. Traditional fishermen who are dependent on streams and rivers, and coastal people who fish and catch crustacea, are seriously affected by the degradation of aquatic ecosystems. Fuelwood gatherers from different types of forests, and pastoralists who are dependent on common grazing lands suffer when their resources are depleted. Several marginalised sectors of society are most affected by deforestation, or the loss of grassland tracts, or the deterioration of perennial water sources. All these effects can be linked to unsustainable increasing pressures on land and natural resources.
The well to do educated urban dweller consumes much larger quantities of resources and energy, than the traditional rural individual. Urban dwellers who are far removed from the source of natural resources that sustain their lives thus require exposure to a well-designed environment education program to appreciate these issues. While the rural people have a deep insight on the need for sustainable use of natural resources and know about methods of conservation, there are however several newer environmental concerns that are frequently outside their sphere of life experiences. Their traditional knowledge of environmental concerns cannot be expected to bring about an understanding of issues such as global warming, or problems created by pollution, pesticides, etc. These people thus require a different pattern of environment education that is related to their gaps in information. With the rapidly changing rural scenario the development that is thrust on unsuspecting rural communities needs to be addressed through locale specific environment awareness programs designed specifically for rural school children and adults. This must also use their local traditional knowledge systems as a base on which modern concepts can be built, rather than by fostering concepts that are completely alien to their own knowledge systems. Common property resources in India once included vast stretches of forests, grazing lands and aquatic ecosystems.
When the British found that they were unable to get enough wood for ship building and other uses they converted forest areas into Government ‘Reserved Forests’ for their own use to grow timber trees. This alienated local people from having a stake in preserving these resources. This in turn led to large-scale losses in forest cover and the creation of wasteland. In the past, in traditional villages that were managed by local panchayats, there were well defined rules about managing grazing lands, collecting forest resources, protecting sacred groves, etc. that supported conservation. There was a more or less equitable distribution that was controlled by traditional mechanisms to prevent misuse of common property resources. Any infringement was quickly dealt with by the panchayat and the offender was punished. Common property resources were thus locally protected by communities. As landuse patterns changed, these mechanisms were lost and unsustainable practices evolved, frequently as a result of an inadequately planned development strategy.