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A Call for Social Ecology

social ecology (

illustrates the historical antecedents for social ecology (‘The Indian Path to

A Call for Social Ecology

Sustainability’) as well as three chapters

How Much Should a Person Consume? Thinking Through the Environment

by Ramachandra Guha; Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2006; pp xiv, 262, Rs 595.


nvironmentalism often acts as the guilty conscience of modernisation. Washing machines for clothes, stoves and refrigerators for food, personal computers, the freedom of movement granted by combustion engines – these things are good, are they not? Modernisation – particularly industrial development and the science upon which it is based – allows many of us in the transnational comfortable class to live a lifestyle that is kingly in historical terms. But even as we sit at our desks and computers, we are aware that our lifestyles are neither environmentally sustainable nor universally replicable. Most of us use far more energy than our proportional global “share”, and our comforts come at a high environmental and human cost, whether measured by greenhouse gasses or despoiled landscapes. So how should we understand development and modernisation: should we not try to help more and more of the world’s population to enjoy these comforts and opportunities? But how can we honestly hold this out as a possibility (short of highly-unlikely techno-utopias) given the environmental realities of such a lifestyle? And if everyone cannot live as we do – what should we do?

Social Ecology

Ramachandra Guha’s latest book, How Much Should a Person Consume? takes this quandary as his central theme. And this is well chosen, for much of Guha’s scholarship over the last 25 years has focused upon the need for an environmentalism that takes account of equity, what he calls social ecology. To Guha, environmentalism, properly construed, is the place to begin to imagine a better world, for environmental factors (including what others sometimes gloss as “natural resources”) are the Achilles heelofmodernisation. In a world of no limits, we all could consume to no end. With infinite oil, metal and rubber, and no air pollution, we all could drive cars. But in the world that we live in, such a vision is impossible. And in a world deeply divided by wealth and access to opportunity, it seems that every society that succeeds in becoming prosperous (these people Guha calls the “omnivores”) consigns those left behind to even fewer resources and more pollution (Guha’s ecosystem people, meaning those reliant upon their local ecosystems for food, water and survival). Guha sees well the complexity of these issues, and eschews the two easy solutions held out by what he calls romantic economists (we all can be prosperous omnivores) and romantic environmentalists (living without electricity is so pure and beautiful

– the poor should be happy to escape the stress of modern lives). But by repudiating these two extremes, he is left with no simple answers.

If you have read Guha’s earlier work, much that is in this collection of essays will be familiar. Ideas and evidence from books and articles on Himalayan forest protests, Verrier Elwin, social ecology, Indian environmentalism, American wilderness thought, authoritarian biology and global environmentalism, among others, are all reprised here, in some cases almost verbatim but in others expanded with new insights. Although many of these essays do not immediately seem to relate to the book’s title (and its final essay by the same name), they are united by Guha’s concern that environmentalism has in many cases fallen short of its potential, particularly as it has developed in the west, but in India as well. Here he proposes that environmentalists focus more upon social ecology as a way out of the modern dilemma, and he illustrates that such a move has a distinguished intellectual and historical pedigree.

Sustainable Distribution

In Guha’s formulation, environmentalism (or social ecology) ought to provide a moral basis and political agenda for a more equitable as well as sustainable distribution of the world’s resources. Towards this end, he provides one chapter that focused upon figures that Guha believes should be the “heroes” of social ecology

– the American Lewis Mumford, and the Indians Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Madhav Gadgil. He criticises three utopian tendencies in environmentalism: scientific industrialism (the dominant mode of development, found throughout the world), primitivism (exemplified by the orientation of US environmentalists towards wilderness) and agrarianism (exemplified by many Indian environmentalists’ “denunciation of the urban-industrial way of life”). And in two chapters, he gives brief histories of the conflicts over forestry in India, and the authoritarian tendencies of wilderness preservation in India. Finally, his last chapter directly confronts his title question. Guha repeatedly prepares the reader for ambiguity in his answer; his epigraph is a Eugene O’Neill quote claiming that he cannot see just black or white. Similarly, his first chapter ends with an extended discussion of the need for scholarly moderation, in which scholars “might be sympathetic to the broad goals of the environmental movement, but, I believe and argue in this book, they must never take sides on behalf of any particular sect, faction, group, or ideology within it”. But no need to worry – Guha still has opinions, and you will certainly be able to discern them. It is only easy answers that are missing. Guha’s goal is understanding more than prescription.

The book is advertised as a comparative history of environmentalism in India and the US, and there are few, in any, people in the world as well qualified to undertake such an endeavour. In addition to his voluminous work on Indian environmentalism (including an essay declared the best of 2001 by the American Society for Environmental History), Guha is also recognised in the US for his smaller, but no less significant, body of work on that country. Guha’s critique of the American version of deep ecology published in 1989 has been the most significant article ever written by a non-American about US environmentalism. It helped to start a massive debate among American environmental historians about wilderness and environmentalism that spilled from academic journals into the popular press, and dominated much of American environmental history through the 1990s. He has spent time at some of the leading

Economic and Political Weekly December 9, 2006

universities in the US, and his book Environmentalism: A Global History is widely admired for its transnational scope and even-handed analysis. It is a staple of undergraduate courses in the US.

Comparison on Environmentalism

Given the book’s ambitious scope, however, there was simply not enough space to do justice to the complexity of a full comparison between environmentalism in the US and India while also providing a history and rationale for social ecology. Guha made the choice to simplify his task and focus upon only one aspect of the environmental movement in both countries – thus, he only mentions in passing that there is a vibrant wilderness movement in India, and an active environmental justice movement in the US. The Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), WWF-India, and Sanctuary have no place in this narrative, in spite of the wilderness and national park movement in India having played a key role in the national and local politics since the 1960s. Similarly, Guha does not mention the extensive US literature from the last 15 years on the negative effects of national parks and wilderness conservation upon US minorities and the poor (a literature, notably, that was spurred in many ways by Guha’s own work). Guha suggests that the US environmental movement has been unaware of the role of over-consumption in environmental problems, but David Brower, the charismatic head of the Sierra Club through the 1960s and a leading wilderness advocate, explicitly drew attention to the global role of US resource use in his standard fund-raising speech (Brower hyperbolically claimed that “6 per cent of the world’s population is using 60 per cent of the world’s resources”) [McPhee 1971]. Similarly, the annual US ‘Earth Day’ held each April since 1970 has centred more upon consumption, pollution and resource use than wilderness.

Had Guha focused more upon the complexities of the environmental movements in both countries, the book would have been even stronger. He might have pointed out that Brandis, the German forester who was so crucial in establishing the Indian Forestry Service, was also the mentor of Gifford Pinchot, the first US forester. He could have shown that national forests in the US, as in India, have been the site of protests and struggles over local use (whether grazing, hunting or firewood gathering), but that these protests have taken a different political resonance in the US, as they have often fed into the right wing politics of Reagan and Bush. He might have mentioned that early in his career, Madhav Gadgil advocated national parks (such as Silent Valley) and biosphere reserves in India, including pristine core areas in which people would have had to be removed – perhaps this latter unsuccessful experience helped to persuade Gadgil of the need to focus upon social ecology. Had Guha looked for more connections between the environmental movements in the two countries, he would have found them, and his argument would have benefited from the added complexity. In Chapter Two, Guha compared the direct action of an American and an Indian in protesting dams in their respective countries. His analysis of the differences in their motivations and reception was superb – I would have enjoyed even more of this.

As much as anything, this book acts as an intellectual autobiography of one of India’s leading environmental scholars. Guha’s effective writing style mixes personal anecdotes with more scholarly evidence, and he positions himself throughout the text in relationship to the ideas and people that he explores. And in so doing, he charts his intellectual evolution: from sociologist to historian, from Marxist to conditional liberal, from a city dweller to a colleague of Madhav Gadgil in the field. The book also illustrates a good deal of consistency in his thinking throughout his career. He clearly continues to be concerned about the plight of the disenfranchised throughout the last 25 years, and his heroes are similarly disposed. And although he has travelled the globe, he continues to love his native India – its people and landscapes – and cares deeply about its future (though he makes a point in his first chapter to decry chauvinist histories). I trust that this book is by no means Guha’s final word on the subject, but it ably sums up a quarter-century of careful thought on how to reconcile the need for development with a sustainable and just world.




McPhee, John (1971): Encounters with the

Archdruid, Farrar, Straus and Giroux,

New York.

Economic and Political Weekly December 9, 2006

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