Virtually any form of human activity has an effect on the environment. The application of science and technology to agriculture has vastly improved its productivity, offsetting the crisis of inadequate food supply predicted by Malthus in 1798. At the same time, the application of science and technology to medicine and public health, has also enabled an ever-increasing world population. The economic systems prevalent in many countries which focus on economic development rather than sustainability, which fuel insatiable desires for ‘worldly goods’ among an increasing population has brought environmental issues to the very forefront of academic, social and political discourse throughout the world.
There are many contentious environmental issues facing Sri Lanka today including mining for sand and mineral resources, utilization of wetlands and conservation of forests. Conservation of forests is a particularly sensitive issue where the demands of the local communities for land can be in conflict with national priorities. Sri Lanka’s forest cover has declined from over 80% a hundred and forty years ago to around 20% today. On the other hand, Sri Lanka’s population has more than tripled over the last 70 years. These changes have contributed to many environment related problems including the tragic ongoing human-elephant conflict. Quite apart from the importance of forests as ecosystems, current research also suggests that loss of forest cover promotes outbreaks of zoonotic and vector borne diseases. The solutions to many environmental issues lie in using a scientific approach coupled to the use of technology, supported by a legal and administrative framework. The cleaning up of the river Thames in England which was considered “dead” in the 1960’s to one which today has over a 100 fish species is a good example of what can be achieved with such an approach.
At a more fundamental level, to be able to balance development with environmental conservation, a change in perspective and a change of direction is needed. Humans need to see themselves as a part of nature. The definition of the word “Natural” in the Oxford English Dictionary; “……not made, caused by or processed by human kind….” is indicative of the deep-seated perception we have that humans are not a part of nature. The change of direction required is to consider seriously the need for sustainability in planning any development activity, taking heed of Mahatma Gandhi’s view that “There is a sufficiency in the world for man’s needs, but not for man’s greed”.