“The ultimate test of man’s conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard.”Gaylord Nelson
Envision yourself being caught in the leaping flames of a forest fire, a predicament no one would want to get used to. Can you visualize forested hills wrapped in a devil’s fiery cloak as you choke on air filled with smoke? Can you picture well-tended homes getting reduced to scorched concretes? Can you imagine the agony of families relocating to find a safer shelter? It’s seemingly convenient to say you don’t know, but it is much harder to commit to an actual low probability estimate in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence. If you devote some time thinking about what could threaten your livelihood, your thoughts would be pretty focused on significant, obvious threats- things like bombs and earthquakes. But with the world seemingly imploding, a global pandemic spreading, and world economies tanking, it is more evident than ever that we’ve been preparing for the wrong crisis.
Climate change activists forewarned us about the abysmal state of our environment time and time again, but scant attention was paid towards the execution of corrective measures. An acknowledgment of these issues can help elevate the public discourse on an agenda of paramount significance- our planet’s future. But the sheer ignorance of humankind, the fact that a surging inferno in Odisha couldn’t capture the nation’s attention, exemplifies what happens in Similipal stays in Similipal. Devastating wildfires around the globe are just an annual occurrence at this point. Days turn to nights as fumes extinguish all the light in split seconds before the flaming crimson glow announces the advent of the inferno. Conflagrations cover the entire city with smoke.
Wildfires of the kind that the United States and other countries witnessed in the past few years, have just become tempestuously real for India. A wildfire at the Similipal Biosphere Reserve in Odisha rampaged for over ten days, wiping out nearly a third of the national biosphere reserve. While the state is now reporting that the firefighters have eventually gained control over the fire, the source of the inferno is yet to be determined. The fire in this biosphere reserve coincidently occurred when Odisha topped the list of forest fire incidents, with 12,614 fire spots since 27th February, as per the reports of the Forest Survey of India.
“It seems madness to think that a society would rate marginal economic growth above a livable earth, but there you are.”Bill Bryson
Similipal Biosphere Reserve has occasionally seen fires, especially in the summer months, when a prolonged dry spell coupled with a sudden rise in temperature triggered forest fires. Located within the Mahanadian eastern coastal region of the Oriental Realm and the Chhotanagpur biotic province of the Deccan peninsular zone, Similipal is the abode to 94 species of orchids and about 3,000 species of plants. The distinguished species of brute creation include 12 species of amphibians and caecilians, 29 species of reptiles, 264 species of birds, and 42 species of vertebrates, all of which conjointly highlight the biodiversity affluence of Similipal. While poachers set alight dry shrubs to drive out animals, villagers from the area often engage in controlled burning to enable better picking of the mahua flowers. So, what exactly is a controlled burn? A controlled burn is a wildfire that the inhabitants set deliberately for a specific purpose. According to WWF, well-thought-out and well-managed controlled burns can be profitable, especially for forest management, as they can help stop an out-of-control wildfire. But this doesn’t mean all calculated wildfires are good; some are far from it. Innumerable fires deliberately set for agriculture and land clearing are at best half-baked, and at worst calamitous. Slash and burn fires are placed every day to destroy large sections of forests. Undoubtedly, these forest fires remove trees and kill and displace wildlife, alter water cycles and soil fertility, and threaten the inhabitants’ lives and livelihoods. In 1997, wildfires set intentionally to clear the grasslands in Indonesia intensified into one of the largest wildfires chronicled in history. Hundreds of people died, millions of acres burned, endangered species like orangutans perished, smoke and ash haze hung over Southeast Asia for months, curtailing visibility and resulting in acute health risks. To minimize that threat as much as possible, controlled burns must be well-considered, well-planned, and ignited, and maintained by schooled specialists. But the crux and nitty-gritty of this scenario? Fire can be a gizmo for conservation, but only when used appropriately. Fortunately, thanks to rainfall and hailstorm at the Pithabata range, the fire has been finally contained after raging for the past two weeks.
Throughout the world, forest fires are out of control, fundamentally because governments, international agencies, and most importantly, communities have failed to agree on how fires should be managed. This dearth of transparency, further confounded by fires and their risks being used to publicize a heterogeneous mix of narrow interests, means that forest fires will remain an antecedent of bitter controversy, expense, and catastrophe even in the future.
Another issue that I would like to shed light upon is the systemic bias and neglect fostered by mainstream media. By systematically under-reporting a particular event, media organizations convey potentially contradictory information about how an event is likely to unfold and whether outside intervention is necessary to stop it. These reporting biases affect not only statistical and demographic intrusion but also public knowledge and policy preferences. The current trend of paying heed to the news that is brought to light solely for political agendas has left us shocked and unaffected. Both the media and civilians frequently talk about climate change as a phenomenon to worry about in the future. This kind of rhetoric is detrimental and undermines the on-going struggles of millions around the world. While it’s true that conditions will worsen, considering climate change as a future event gives the privileged more reason for not evaluating it as a present crisis. As the effects of climate change are already being felt, the situation is no longer theoretical.
Complacency is deadly, and I think it’s time to start talking a lot more about climate privilege. But before this fire disappears, I hope it, at least, does the job of burning our apathy. We can apply ourselves better to focus on environmental issues. Optimism is essential. We can unanimously use our privilege to learn more about the harm our daily activities cause to the environment around us and, thus, initiate conversations among our peers to spread awareness. Amplifying the measures to reduce our carbon footprints and leaving no stone unturned to reduce the present threats is the first step for redeeming what has been lost. The second is to support climate activists who have been striving around-the-clock with an unabating spirit to save the environment. And perhaps the most crucial part is to create an uproar such that every influential personality and political leader is forced to use their privilege as a platform to aware the masses about the impending climate crisis. It’s the beginning of change. Because, whether we like it or not, we are all in this together, in Odisha or elsewhere.