I recently attended my daughter’s graduation from Cornell University. The important day - one of pride and happiness for our entire family - recognized her four years of hard work in two fields: Mathematics and Statistical Science. For me it had additional significance. That’s because me and my son also graduated from the same university.
Compared to my time there almost forty years ago, Cornell had many new buildings, classrooms and dormitories, but its magnificent hilly terrain remained the same. Walking through its grounds evoked mixed emotions. Sometimes I felt I was treading on my own footsteps from decades ago, but at other times, changes accumulated over the decades weighed heavily on me. Through ceremonies and receptions, parades and cheers, photographing and saying goodbyes, I found myself reflecting on ways the world has changed in forty years.
Back then, 4.5 billion people made Earth their home. Today it has almost doubled at 7.7 billion.
Back then, the world was divided into East and West. Tension between the United States and the Soviet Union – the Cold War - shaped the global political landscape. Since then the Soviet empire has collapsed. China has risen. Globalization has led to prosperity for many.
Back then, several revolutionary technologies were nascent. Today, advances in those technologies have changed human life on this planet.
And this change has been vastly positive. For example, the United Nations’ Human Development Index shows the quality of life in poorer countries – with some exceptions – has steadily increased over the last four decades. Changes in richer nations have also been dramatic.
Back then, Bangladesh was impoverished. Today she holds her head high among nations, being self-sufficient in food, a roaring tiger in exports, and well on its way to become a middle income country. Life expectancy of her people has increased from 43 to 74 years in forty years.
This improvement in the planet’s overall human condition has come at a cost. Consumption of earth’s resources has had a dire effect.
We are in the middle of the sixth Mass Extinction in history with plant and animal species becoming extinct at an alarming rate. The previous five Mass Extinctions before us – including the death of dinosaurs – had natural causes, but this one is man-made. Earth’s climate is changing due to greenhouse gases we generate. Plastics have spread themselves to every nook and cranny of the planet in the form of microplastics. Not a week goes by when we are confronted with another environmental disaster in the making.
So this question haunts me: what kind of a planet are we leaving for our children?
In the midst of despair I see rays of hope. They come from those who will inherit the planet from my generation, youngsters like Greta Thunberg, the Swedish schoolgirl whose climate strikes have mobilized thousands of schoolchildren, like Rajit Iftikhar, young Bangladeshi-American engineer who took Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, to task for not doing enough for our planet. Back in Bangladesh I draw inspiration from dedicated younger conservationists and scientists who ceaselessly work in the field for conservation and the environment. One such group that I know is the Bangladesh Bird Club. Its members have worked for twenty years researching the birds in Bangladesh and reached out to numerous schoolchildren teaching them about birds and nature.
If anyone can clean up this mess, it is our younger generation. We can help by not aggravating their task.
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