a history of indian environmentalism

yesterday’s hindustan times printed my review of ram guha’s newest book, “how much should a person consume?” here, with massive tweaks and additions, is it again.

…After chronicling the Chipko movement, the life of Verrier Elwin and the history of environmentalism, Guha is now chasing a larger, grander question. In his promisingly titled How much should a person consume?he cuts straight to the heart of the debate on overpopulation and dwindling resources and how many people the earth can support and, if we wanted to fit everyone in, just how much should everyone consume anyway?

that said, the book is something of a strange beast. it begins with an overview of environmentalism. and answers the big question posed in its title only in the last chapter. mentioning this in my review, i wrote, “Talking at the book’s launch ceremony at Delhi’s India International Centre, DSE’s Jean Dreze mentioned a thought that crossed his mind when he had read about two-thirds of the book. With the original question nowhere in sight, he said he had wondered if Guha was aiming for a grand climactic finish where he would give the answer only on the last page.”

which is how it almost is.

that said, the first 220 or so pages are quite good fun. he begins by rubbishing some assumtions about environmentalism.

Like Lester Thurow’s statement that environmentalism is found only in affluent societies. Or like the claim that India’s environmental consciousness can be traced all the way back to the scriptures. Environmentalism, he states bluntly, is a consequence of industrialisation. With the dawn of the industrial age, with all the accompanying environmental degradation, protection and conservation of natural resources became a widespread movement.

then, in what is easily the most enjoyable part of the book, guha burrows into a comparative history of environmentalism in the united states and india (two large democracies, he said at the book launch, when asked why these two).

He then contrasts the movement in the United States and India. In India, says Guha, environmentalism pivots more around social justice than biodiversity per se. “Issues of ecology are deeply linked with questions of human rights, ethnicity and distributive justice. These movements, of peasants, tribals, and so on, are deeply conservative in the best sense of the word, refusing to exchange a world they know, and are in partial control over, for an uncertain and insecure future. In the US, on the other hand, the movement is concerned less with relations within human society than with relations between humans and other species. The concern here is with “the use of the environment and who should benefit from it; not with environmental protection for its own sake.”

there are, i don’t know, three observations that can be made here. one, how did the indian version of environmentalism take shape? two, it isn’t the only variety of environmentalism going around. it seems to me that both forms of environmentalism co-exist in this country (just look at the debate over the tribal bill. with those fighting for unviolate wilderness slugging it out with the local communities and all those arguing on behalf of them). and third, what does this form of environmentalism portend for the country’s wildernesses anyway? given a rising population, would the pressures on a forest eventually soar far beyond what it can sustainably meet?

guha answers the first question superbly. this part of the book reminded me of another great book i had read a few years ago. michael lewis’ inventing global ecology. books on the science and principles of conservation biology are a dime a dozen. there are even more books on india’s wildlife and national parks. lewis’ book, however, linked the two, detailing how the western science of conservation biology was implemented in india. similarly, guha traverses a large terrain. in a chapter titled ‘the indian road to sustainability’…

he points at the pioneering work done by the likes of Patrick Geddes, Radhakamal Mukerjee and JC Kumarappa, as he explains how Indian environmentalism took shape. Take Geddes. A Scotsman who spent ten years in colonial India, he was “especially concerned with living conditions in the industrial city, and with the city’s one sided exploitation of the resources of the hinterland.” He strongly recommended the preservation and maintenance of tanks and reservoirs, remarking that “any and every water system occasionally goes out of order and is open to accidents and injuries of very many kinds; and in these old wells, we inherit an ancient policy, of life insurance, of a very real kind, and one far too valuable to be abandoned.”

words, writes guha, that should be posted above the office desks of planners working today in chennai, hyderabad, and a dozen other cities of india.

or take mukerjee, a student of geddes, this is what he wrote. “…men should work in harmony with the balanced relationships in nature, so as to accelerate and not put brakes on nature’s continuous operations of recuperation and regeneration.” and did i mention he was born in 1889?

of course, after independence, all this was forgotten as india embarked on the development decades. things began to change again in the early seventies. thanks to rising worries that the country’s environment was indeed taking a hammering, we saw chipko and project tiger. and, here come three chapter, one on madhav gadgil, another on lewis mumford and the third on chandi prasad bhatt. each, in a sense, shapers of the pro-poor strand of the environmental movement in india.

and then comes the larger point that the book seeks to make. try as i might, i cannot discern a clear thread between the first 220 pages and the forty or so that follow, as guha tries to answer the question he posed in the title. but that might just be me. and so, am reading a author that guha extols hugely in his book — joan martinez-alier. (am reading his environmentalism of the poor).

so, what about sustainability? how many people can the earth support? and, conversely, how how should every person consume if, in a mumbai local sort of way, we want to fit everyone in? and how would guha answer this complex question anyway?

He begins by trashing the two prevalent paradigms. First, limitless growth (of technology stepping in with solutions). There is the romantic economist point of view, says Guha, that holds that there are no limits to growth. But “can there be a world with four billion cars? A China with 700 million cars? A India with 600 million cars? Where will the oil and gas to run them come from? The metals to build them with? The tar to drive them on? The world, he asserts, doesn’t have enough to convert all Indians and all Chinese, leave alone all the global poor, into the equivalents of Americans. At the same time, it is inhuman to extol the joys and simplicity and advocate that the have-nots stay the way they are.

that is not to say that guha is furnishing any mathematical answer to that question. his is a more philosophical response.

There is, don’t you see, a connection between ecological entitlement and affluence. The poor, disenfranchised from their own natural resources, stay poor. The global north consumes far more than it should, and is far richer as a result. This will change, he says, surely if slowly. “within countries, access to water, land, forests, and mineral resources will be fiercely fought between contending groups. between countries, there will be bitter arguments about the environmental space occupied by richer countries.”

that leaves us with the last question unanswered. what does environmentalism of the poor portend for biodiversity itself? guha doesn’t answer that. i am hoping that martinez-alier will.

a snake called boiga irregularis

the latest issue of businessworld features my book review of out of eden. am posting the original draft here. take a look. i hope it makes you want to go and read this somewhat philosophical book on conservation biology.

Have you heard of a gifted survivor called the Brown Tree Snake? Boiga Irregularis, as it is known, reached Guam about 50 or so years ago, probably as an accidental passenger in American military planes. Since then, in the absence of predators and in the presence of plentiful prey, all utterly unprepared to deal with this new predator that arrived so abruptly, it has driven several of the island’s indigenous bird species to extinction.

In Out of Eden, Burdick goes in search of these invasive species. The result of that labour is rather good. Nature writing can be predictable. A mere catalogue of cases where invasives are creating chaos (I should probably mention that invasives are the largest threat to biodiversity today after habitat destruction). But burdick is after larger, more philosophical questions.

As you move through the book, the questions keep changing. The Brown Tree Snake is indeed one of the best known instances of invasives. But is it representative? All invasives do not end up as wildly successful as Boiga Irregularis. Even if, given that they hail from crowded, competitive ecosystems, and might therefore fare well in island ecosystems (which have more niches available, and are less competitive), that doesn’t mean they will decimate the local species. How do invasions work anyway? Do they happen at a species level, or are they a larger phenomenon than that, with one ecosystem gradually replacing another?

There has always been species invasion. A bird blown off course by a storm. A python, too dim to hope it will make landfall, wrapped around a log bobbing through the sea. But the process has accelerated in recent times. Take ships. They have carried ballast water across the world in their holds. When the time came to take on cargo, they dumped that ballast, containing all sorts of species from the original port. Settlers travelling to colonise new lands invariably lugged their favorite species to make their new homes more familiar, more welcoming.

There is a huge, gnarly, man-made question lurking around here. How does one even begin to quantify the extent of invasions? When one is studying an environment, what does one compare it to? The wake of human maritime history, writes Burdick, washed over marine biological history so thoroughly, and so long ago, that it is impossible now to envision what the seascape might have looked like without us.

The answer lies in distinguishing between alpha and beta diversity, he concludes towards the end. All invasives may not annihilate local species. there might indeed be a jump in the number of species in a location. That is alpha diversity. Beta diversity is the relative diversity among such locations, between, say a new york harbour and the san francisco bay. It is, as he says, a fancy measure for homogenisation.

The same damn species everywhere.

while on that topic, also read this article by david quammen. and, before i close, a small excerpt from the book so that you know how well-written it is.

How does nature work? How should one visualise it? Is it a finely tuned machine, like cogworks or the insides of a watch, liable to grind to a halt if too many loose screws are tossed in? Or is an ecosystem instead like an airplane: remove some critical rivets – the native species integral to its structure – and the entire infrastructure crashes to the ground? Some scientists refer to these rivets as “keystone species”, evoking less an aircraft than a vaulted cathedral. Or perhaps an economic analogy is more apt: an ecological free market of producers and consumers, all competing for limited natural resources, all buying, stealing, or otherwise exchanging the nutritional equivalent of energy vouchers. Is it a machine, an edifice, an organism, a community-watch programme, an international bank?