Entering the Anthropocene era in a befitting manner

Haphazard urban planning and drainage congestion means Dhaka is prone to flooding after a heavy downpour. This photo was taken in Dhaka’s Doyaganj area in July 2020. Photo: Firoz Ahmed

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has been a pioneer in terms of developing the Human Development Index (HDI), which is a more balanced way of measuring human development that goes beyond traditional, simple economic indicators of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). They have also been publishing an annual Human Development Report (HDR) which tracks every country’s HDI each year. Each year’s report also has a theme to it, and the 2015 HDR was on the theme of Climate Change and Human Development, which I had the privilege of contributing to.

The 2020 HDR has just been launched and the theme this year is Development in the age of the Anthropocene. I am sure that most readers will not know what this word means, as it comes from the realm of geology and environmental studies. For those of us working in the environment arena, it is a term that we have become familiar with, as we are entering a new geological era where human beings are affecting the planet at a scale that has never been possible before. This new era can be a force for good but unfortunately, it is more a force for bad than good at the moment. Hence, we need to develop a major paradigm shift in terms of how we value what really matters as we develop. The 2020 HDR has shown very convincingly that even for countries that have gone up the HDI in terms of enhanced development, they have done so at the expense of their own environment. The paradigm shift that is therefore needed is to make sure that HDI is combined with environmental considerations at the same time.

Therefore, business as usual is no longer good enough and going forward, we need to develop a new normal for decision-making where economic indicators are not the only ones to consider. We need to give equal value to equity and social capital, as well as environmental protection and climate change considerations.

How can we make this paradigm shift? At the global level, we need to make a paradigm shift for each and every individual on the planet to think of oneself as a citizen of planet Earth first and of our country second. This was never true before we entered the Anthropocene era but is now necessary.

At the national level, in Bangladesh, we can indeed be proud that our Parliament was one of the first to declare a planetary emergency. This was not just a climate change emergency similar to what other Parliaments had done, but the recognition of climate change and biodiversity loss together to create a planetary emergency. While this is an excellent example, it does not mean anything if it doesn’t lead to more substantive changes in the way we do things in the country in practice.

Another positive feature of Bangladesh is its excellent planning systems under the leadership of the Planning Commission, who have prepared the Delta Plan to 2100 and the 2041 Prospective Plan as well as the regular five year plans, of which the 8th Five Year Plan will start from next year. All these plans have actually taken environmental and social issues into consideration in a very thoughtful manner. However, the problem is again with not being able to implement the plans in a manner that actually delivers the promises made in the plans.

There are two very important opportunities for Bangladesh in the immediate future to make this paradigm shift. The first is to do with the soon to be opened Padma Bridge linking the southwestern region of the country with the capital, which will lead to significant development. But if we leave it to the business as usual practice, then we will see haphazard industrial and commercial development around the Sundarbans mangrove forest, which is a world heritage site that Bangladesh is responsible for conserving, not only for ourselves but for the whole world. We need to ensure that only nature-based solutions (NBS) are allowed to be invested in that region and prevent the way things are going now. If we fail to take action immediately, it will not be possible to reverse things later.

The second opportunity we need to make a very quick paradigm shift on is the development of Dhaka city towards the east. While expansion of the capital city to accommodate its rapidly growing population is essential, the way it is done matters a great deal. The whole of the Dhaka region sits on a very substantial series of connected wetlands of rivers, canals and big and small water bodies. The current part of Dhaka city is built over those water bodies and has meant that we have to suffer flooding due to drainage congestion whenever we have a heavy downpour. If the expansion towards the east takes the same path of building over the hundreds of existing water bodies, then we will have learned nothing from our mistakes. The most important point is that the Dhaka Plan is aware of this and we have laws against destroying our wetlands, but that does not stop dishonest developers from breaking the laws and getting away with it. This cannot be allowed to happen.

Finally, let me end on an optimistic note which is to do with the youth, especially the girls of our country. They are, in my opinion, by far the biggest assets in our country and we need to invest in them in a non “business as usual” manner. This will not require a single additional Taka or Dollar, but will in fact require a major paradigm shift in our approach to education. We need to turn away from the rote learning approach and make our young people citizens of planet Earth and problem-solvers, not just for our own country but for all of humanity. This may sound ambitious but it is entirely doable if we make the decision to do so.

Bangladesh thus has the opportunity to show the rest of the world what it means to enter the Anthropocene era in a befitting manner.

Originally this article was published on December 23, 2020 at Daily Star. The author Prof. Saleemul Huq is the director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) at the Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).
Email: saleemul.huq@icccad.org