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Environmental protection needs more than just the pure sciences and scientists

Thu, 30/03/2023 - 15:46

The Indian Environmental Protection Act, 1986, states that the term ‘environment’ includes water, air and land and the inter-relationship which exists among and between water, air and land, and human beings, other living creatures, plants, micro-organisms and property. The word ‘inter-relationship’ plays a key role in our understanding of the environment. Most often, ‘environment', as we understand it,  commonly or colloquially refers to our surroundings, natural resources and living organisms other than human beings. But human beings play an important role in the environment as we continuously consume from the environment and alter its natural course. Most of the changes and anomalies that occur in the environment are driven by anthropogenic activities. These activities and subsequent impacts do not often manifest uniformly throughout the globe or a country or even a city since the sociological, economic, political and cultural factors add multiple dimensions to the problem. Also since it is largely caused by humans, it comes back to impact the lives of human beings, on a ‘reap what you sow’ basis. Environmental problems should therefore not be seen as merely an issue or disturbance in our external natural surroundings. Instead,  understanding the interaction among human beings and interaction between human beings and the ecosystem is crucial in our understanding of the term ‘environment’.

Environmental studies are often considered to be the study of natural sciences and environmental problems are often addressed with applied science solutions. The problem with viewing environmental issues and solutions as merely falling within the scientific domain  is that we completely ignore  the human element underlying it. Keeping aside nature’s cyclical changes, human beings are the unbalanced force acting on the environment and disturbing its motion at constant speed (like in Newton’s first law) albeit causing changes in  (often) unexpected trajectories  Therefore, this calls for the social sciences to analyse environmental problems. As mentioned before, environmental issues are multi-faceted in nature and therefore cannot and should not be viewed in isolation.

There is  growing support among researchers to use a transdisciplinary approach to environmental problems. Interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approaches involve the intersection and integration of various disciplines coming together to illustrate, explain and address a common problem. Transdisciplinary approach on the other hand stands apart for the inclusion of academic as well as non-academic stakeholders to address a common problem. For instance, climate change is a global phenomenon which is most often seen as an environmental problem which requires scientific solutions. But when we use a transdisciplinary approach to view the issue of climate change, we understand that climate change threatens food, water, energy and humanitarian security and heightens existing problems such as poverty, hunger, unemployment, access to healthcare, crumbling economies etc.

Every State is responsible for protecting the environment within its territorial boundaries to the fullest extent. They do it through their statutory agencies commonly referred to as environment protection agencies. In India, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) is the nodal agency in the administrative structure of the Central Government for planning, promotion, coordination and overseeing the implementation of India’s environmental and forestry policies and programmes. Similarly, the Department of Environment, Forests and Climate Change is the nodal agency executing these functions in the states. The statutory bodies responsible for protecting the environment for the Centre and state governments are the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and State Pollution Control Boards (SPCB) respectively. India is one of the countries which still views environmental issues as a pure science issue. The CPCB and SPCBs have often been criticised for ineffective regulation owing to lack of expertise and resources. While many studies have pointed out that the ineffectiveness is largely due to lack of human resources and a clear roadmap, another striking reason is that the qualification/expertise of existing personnel is insufficient.


India has always tried to address environmental issues with scientific and technological solutions alone while overlooking the sociological factor. This is represented by the fact that almost all of the personnel in PCBs are environmental engineers or scientists. While science plays a huge role in identifying and addressing environmental problems, the absence of social scientists leaves a huge lacuna in India’s environmental governance. This is a problem because when we address environmental issues using a mono-disciplinary approach, what may be a prima facie solution for one problem may directly or indirectly give rise to other problems. For instance, India is overwhelmed with millions of tonnes of unsegregated mixed waste lying in open dump yards polluting land, air and waterways and also adversely affecting the communities near the dump yards. Instead of focussing on ensuring and enforcing segregation at source, producers taking responsibility and developing decentralised waste management models, the solution used to deal with solid waste is to incinerate it. On the face of it, incineration and waste-to-energy mechanisms, a scientific and technological solution, seem to solve the problem of waste management. However, incineration of solid waste, particularly plastic, releases harmful and toxic chemicals into the air causing air pollution, noise pollution, foul odour and a wide array of health issues such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer, asthma, etc. When we consider the social impact of incineration, it is alarming to learn the socioeconomic inequities which lie underneath this scientific solution. A study by Greenpeace’s Unearthed has revealed that an increasing number of incinerators in the UK are three times more likely to be disproportionately built in low-income neighbourhoods and in areas with high populations of people of colour. This finding seems to hold good in India as well. In Chennai, most of the thermal power plants and incinerators are located in North Chennai which is a deprived area.

Therefore we need to move away from the age-old mindset of addressing environmental problems with engineering solutions alone. When we say ‘science’, people often only think of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) and forget that social sciences is also a science. Since pollution is often caused by humans’ influence on the environment, it calls for the inclusion of disciplines such as anthropology, archaeology, criminology, conflict resolution, economics, law, politics, public policy, psychology, sociology, etc. The case of USA’s Environmental Protection Agency serves as an example of good practice since it comprises personnel from 25 different disciplines including biologists, chemists, ecologists, economists, engineers, epidemiologists, social scientists, life scientists, intelligence research specialists, etc. Therefore, the ineffectiveness of our regulatory bodies cannot be resolved by increasing human resources alone, we need appropriately qualified personnel from variegated disciplines so as to address environmental problems holistically. For effective environmental problem solving, it also becomes necessary to involve non-academic stakeholders such as local communities, marginalised sections of society, CSOs, etc in policy making and implementation to not only ensure an effective solution but also a just solution.

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