About a year ago, biologists woke up to a startling phenomenon: Amphibians — frogs, toads, salamanders and newts — were vanishing. No one knows why, but the results are pretty uniform across the world. Many people will not spare much anguish for the amphibians, but the fate of the frog is worth pondering today. Not only because June 5 is World Environment Day, but because amphibians breathe through their skin, which makes them especially sensitive to changes in the environment. Think of the amphibian as augury for the future that awaits us all.
That “all” is important. All too often, environmental degradation is considered a problem for the have-nots, who are especially hard-hit by resource shortages. For example, one-half the people living in developing countries suffer from diseases caused directly or indirectly by contaminated water. Cleaning up those supplies would prevent 3.35 billion cases of illness and 5.3 million deaths each year.
The magnitude of the problems and the scale of the challenges are intimidating. Since one person cannot make a difference, many people do not even try. That sort of thinking is the biggest threat to our future.
Although it is tempting to see the fate of the planet as “someone else’s problem,” the urge must be resisted. As Dr. Hans van Ginkel, rector of the United Nations University in Tokyo explains, “the problem is nearer than people realize.” China’s air pollution is killing Japan’s forests. Soil erosion destroys arable land; overfishing is depleting the seas. Those shortages raise food prices everywhere. The impact is felt in other ways too: Conflicts over natural resources can cause wars or trigger waves of refugees.
Our obsession with national borders blinds us to the reality of environmental degradation: It is an equal-opportunity threat, and the list of dangers is a long one. There is degradation of the ozone layer, global warming, air pollution, water pollution, soil erosion, dwindling supplies of natural resources and biodiversity — just for starters.
In an effort to combat complacency, over 100 countries around the world are observing World Environment Day: Tokyo is the site of the official United Nations celebrations. The United Nations University in Omotesando is hosting an open house today, as are its affiliated institutions, the Global Environment Information Center and the Institute of Advanced Studies. In addition, a two-day seminar to teach leadership on environmental issues will be held in Kanagawa Prefecture.
Leaders are needed, of course, but each of us can make a difference. That is why the theme of this year’s World Environment Day is “individual action.” Just as we have all contributed to the environment problem, we can all begin working on the solution. Start at home. Thirteen percent of Japan’s carbon-dioxide emissions come from households; since 1970 that figure has grown by almost one-third. The GEIC has published comparative data on appliance CO2 emissions to help consumers make eco-friendly purchases. Shop smart.
Bicycling is fun, healthy and good for the environment, especially since over 20 percent of Japanese CO2 emissions come from the transportation sector, a figure that has grown 16 percent between 1990 and 1995. Passenger vehicles account for 40 percent of the total. Those individuals who must use transportation should try to stick to public services. Those who cannot should consult the GEIC data on vehicle emissions to become smarter consumers.
The mantra of the nongovernmental organization, “think global, act local,” is overused, but the sentiment is still correct. Protecting the environment — and undoing the damage that has been done — requires concerted efforts by everyone. Success depends on a partnership between science, political authorities and grassroots activists. Examples of this type of alliance are visible in Japan: GEIC, which aims to find solutions to global environment problems, is a partnership between the U.N. and Japan’s Environment Agency.
Six billion people, one planet. The numbers are daunting. But unless we change our thinking and our lifestyles, the future will be grim. The 1992 Earth Summit that was held in Rio de Janeiro marked the beginning of a shift in global consciousness about environmental problems. Progress since then has been slow and patchy, but there has been progress nonetheless. Today is an opportunity for us all to appreciate the world we live in and to ponder the legacy we will leave to our children, their children and the other inhabitants of our planet.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.