World Environment Day: Are Development and the Environment at Odds With Each Other?

A series of articles think through whether development and the environment are in conflict with each other, using examples from multiple regions.


Development and environment are often framed as being in conflict with each other. A closer look at environmental movements complicate this binary, bringing in questions of livelihood, community resources and rural-urban linkages. How do we, then, think about the links between environment and development? A reading list: 


1. What is the Difference between the “Environmentalism of the Poor’’ and the Lifestyle Environmentalism of the Middle-classes? 

There is a continuing tension between those who espouse growth and those who call for environment protection. The two groups do not talk to each other—they are talking at each other and with every passing day, the gap seems to be widening. This article explores how the real conflict is not between conservation and development but between environment and the reckless exploitation of man and earth in the name of efficiency.

This environmentalism of the poor as opposed to lifestyle environmentalism of the privileged sections, manifested itself on the national scene first in the mid-1970s with the birth and growth of the Chipko movement in the hills of Uttarakhand. The women were asserting the rights of local communities over the use of local resources. Such assertions are visible in different parts of the country today. We misread such assertions as the conflict between environment and development when they actually are about establishing a fundamental right to livelihood security and a fundamental right to determine the nature of what we call development that impacts their daily lives in a profoundly disturbing manner. Such assertions are also, I may add, a product of our boisterous democracy which the growth-fundamentalists are uncomfortable with and the empowerment it has engendered. Sustainable development, we need to remind ourselves every now and then, is as much of politics and involvement of local communities as it is of innovation and new technology.


2. Is there an ecological critique in trade union/labour responses to industrial projects?

In India’s specific context, how can the coming together of the concerns and imaginations of the industrial worker and the Adivasi peasant/farmer facilitate a conversation between “red” and “green” imaginations? This paper looks at the responses of organised labour to the “development” project exemplified by the steel plant, the big dam and the power plant, by delineating some of the specific processes and conditions which can facilitate the entry of ecological issues into the imaginations of a trade union.

Delivering the Vikram Sarabhai Memorial Lecture in 1985, Anil Agarwal—the then director of the Delhi based Centre for Science and Environment—mapped out an ambitious agenda. Indian environmentalism, he argued, would have to “move beyond pretty trees and tigers” . Implicit in this articulation was a clear understanding that “Western” models of environmentalism and conservation could not be merely adopted and transplanted in India. Such models would have to be adapted and reframed to suit India’s varied ecosystems, communities, economies, land use patterns and livelihoods. Besides, in this framework, the poor are not merely “allies” of the environmental movement. Adivasis, fisherfolk, nomads, peasants and artisans would thus shape and drive Indian environmentalism, bearing as they did a vastly disproportionate share of the burden of ecological damage. 



3. How can thinking about the Forest Rights Act (FRA) help us understand the conceptions of “environment” and “development” in India’s political discourse? 

This paper argues that the FRA’s original purpose—as a weapon of struggle—is being vindicated every day. Are these “environmental” or “developmental” victories? The paper claims that they are both, and that the FRA created spaces for genuinely new conceptions and processes of development.

Conflict over control of India’s forests and forestlands is very much a reality in most parts of the country. When such conflicts are discussed, there are two ways in which they are usually framed. One is as “environmental” conflicts—clashes between the “imperatives” of “environmental protection” and “development.” The second sees them as conflicts over “displacement” (when large projects are involved) resulting from “acquisition” of land, once again, either for “development” or “conservation” purposes. It is striking that in one of these framings, environment and development are seen as in a zero-sum game, and in the other, considered as reasons for displacing or expropriating people. This contradiction is rooted in the obvious, namely, that both “environment” and “development” mean different things at different times and to different people; these terms acquire their significance from the context.


4. Is Rapid Urbanisation Incompatible with Sustainable Development?

Over the next 40 years, India could experience one of the most dramatic settlement transitions in history, with its urban population growing from about 300 million to more than 700 million. This article explores a limited set of emergent issues that will have to be considered as India develops its domestic approach to urbanisation, while negotiating its international position on climate change. 

At a broader level, climate change-induced disruptions will force Indian cities to alter their extractive relationship with the countryside. RUrbanism or “keeping the balance between rural and urban areas” could become increasingly important, as resource and socio-economic conflicts becomes sharper (Revi et al 2006). Maintaining two-way flows of food, biomass, water, energy, livelihoods, products and services across this “RUrban” continuum will be crucial to the development transition. Climate change strategy for cities may thus need to encompass areas outside traditionally defined urban boundaries. 



Some more questions to consider:

1) How is the development-environment interaction embodied first in global policies, and secondly, in national policies on agriculture, industry and trade, to transform the economy?   

2) What about the waste we produce? 

3) Would  social ecology or environmental sociology be a useful disciplinary approach for explicating the relationship between ecology and development?

4) How did new resource frontiers, made possible by corporate transnationalism replace existing systems of human access and livelihood and ecological dynamics of replenishment with the cultural apparatus of capitalist expansion?
5) Do aesthetic sensibilities shape how ecological landscapes are valued?


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