World Environment Day: Old play, new actors.

It began like every other year. I am talking about the frenzied activities that usually take place in various parts of the world in the last week of May. This year too, Mission Cleanup was on in full swing to give our grimy planet that fake spruced-up look on 5 June, when the global community celebrates ‘World Environment Day’.

Star-studded concerts and exhibitions; media-managed beach cleanups, seminars and online competitions to name endangered baby gorillas in Rwanda (the moniker chosen, by the way, was Zoya… sweet, no?). From serious to cute, from sombre to downright brazen, the offerings were plenty but predictable. After all, the world has been celebrating the day for many years now. And it has far too little to show for impact.

So when I accepted with promptness an invite from the government of Himachal Pradesh, to ‘talk’ about the environment, on that day, to school students and teachers, it was not because I was expecting new horizons to unfold before me. I went because interacting with this particular community of people (irrespective of  region, country or continent) is always more refreshing than with any other. And since this interaction was going to take place in the hills of Shimla--away from the suffocatingly hot Delhi--the invitation was absolutely irresistible.  But I have come back deeply ashamed of my cavalier attitude. I am no longer a cynic. I am a believer again and proud of it.

Was the celebration different from what I had seen before? Not at all. There were the same rallies, with the same jargon and posters, the oh-so-predictable skits and songs and dances. The hardware was the same. But the software had undergone a magical change. Yes, what was so spectacularly, gloriously different was the spirit of the participants, which reflected in their voices, their gestures and their clearly spelt out opinions.

Let me begin with an example. I had just settled down comfortably, ready to listen to a series of run-of-the-mill ‘odes to Mother Nature’ kind of speeches, as a group of barely-teens were called up on stage to deliver extempore talks on topics handed out to them. “Do you think celebrating World Environment Day is fruitful?” was the first one on the table. The pigtailed student of eighth standard took my breath away as she smartly walked to the centrestage, waving aside the moderator’s request to take a few seconds to ‘think’. She turned towards the large group of students in the audience who had just reassembled after a  long, exhausting rally and asked if they truly believed processions and demonstrations were all that were needed to fix the ‘problem of environment’. “We have had enough of these already, and it is no longer enough. Let’s take some responsibilities in our everyday life, or we shall have no environment left to grow up in!”, she declared.

I sat up, and remained wide-eyed, as speaker after speaker came on stage, expressing their opinions on the state government’s policy on hydel power projects; the impact of global warming on their revenue-earning apple orchards; and the dirty footprints of their garbage-spewing tourist population.

The trend was not limited to these speeches alone. The skits, at least some of them, were hugely entertaining. The next generation is clearly no longer in awe of the grandiloquent environmental terminologies that ours coined in the past decades. Gone were the boring laments over lost natural resources, the contrived stage tears over drying river beds and rotting soils. They are now ready to laugh at themselves (and us!), and at the mess that we have made of this planet.  So a group of amateur, adolescent actors had the audience in splits as they enacted a scene from a planet far away, which sent a team of spies to Earth to unearth the secret of its ‘development’. Of course, they go scurrying back with horrifying reports of ‘masked’ human race, which inhaled pure poison and struggled to survive in a barren, bleak land. The message was ominous and unmistakable but it was delivered in a style that was rip-roaringly funny. The performers had managed to grab the attention of their peers, and to hold it. Yes, a very successful production indeed, that could give adult professionals a run for their money.

I have to confess that I was unusually nervous when it was my turn to speak. Here I was facing an audience that had just been challenged, provoked and entertained by their own friends who led the same life, faced the same problems and spoke the same language. Did I really have anything to add at all to convince this group that it needed to take care of the environment? Not really.  I had just been made redundant, along with the rest of my generation.

It was an exhilarating experience. Maybe the seemingly futile rituals on World Environment Day did leave a mark. Maybe not. Either way, I am a believer again.
Oh yes, I am.