Wednesday, January 18, 2012

How much should a person consume? A review

This is a book by Ramachandra Guha which I read with interest some time back.

At a broad level Guha tracks the history of environmentalism in US and India. This provides a contrast of sorts. The key message being in US it is more of a preserving nature for the urbanites to visit in vacations. Nature takes precedence. On the other hand in India it has been intertwined with the lives of the people (tribals) who are integral to the forests. So the two have to be dealt with together and not in isolation.
This table provides three different environmental philosophies:

Utopias / viewpoints

Famous proponents


Grain based civilization

Modern industrialized


(Dominant env philosophy in India)

Thomas Jefferson,

Mahatma Gandhi

Nasty, brutish, short


Ideal is the peasant society, human scale technology, strong community bonds

Pursuit of wealth

Widlerness thinking (Dominant env philosophy in US)

Jared Diamond “Collapse”

John Muir

The ideal state of hunter, gatherer where man and nature are one.

A fall from the ideal state.

Further distancing of man and nature

Scientific industrialization

(universal – held by experts / scientists

Gifford Pinchot (US Forest Service)

Jawaharlal Nehru

Illiterate, pre-scientific

Illiterate, pre-scientific

Future thinking. Solve industrializations problems (not look back at the past) with scientific knowledge

(Edward Wilson?)

Some other interesting points:

The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom (England) is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts – Mahatma Gandhi, 1928.

One of the key contributions of the Indian environmental movement has been to point to inequalities of consumption within a society or nation.

Analytical Social Ecology framework : omnivores and ecosystem people

Omnivores: Rich farmers, industrialists, state officials and the growing middle class based in the cities – have the capability of drawing upon the natural resources from the whole of India to maintain their lifestyles.

Ecosystem people: Roughly 2/3rds of the population rely for the most part on resources within their local vicinity. These are small and marginal farmers on rain-fed tracts, landless laborers, hunter-gatherers, swidden agriculturists, animal herders, artisans..

Development is the channelizing of ever increasing volume of natural resources via the state apparatus and at the cost of the exchequer to serve the interests of rural and urban omnivores.

1. The concentration of political power/ decision making in the hands of ominvores

2. The use of state machinery to divert natural resource to islands of omnivore prosperity especially through the use of subsidies. Eg: wood for paper mills, fertilizers for rich farmers, water & power for urban dwellers.

3. The culture of subsidies has fostered indifference among omnivores to the environmental degradation caused by them. This has been compounded by their ability to pass on most costs to ecosystem people and to society at large.

4. Projects based on capture of wood, water and minerals such as eucalyptus plantations, large dams and open cast mining have tended to disposess eco-system people who previously enjoyed ready access to these resources.

5. “Development” has created a third class of people – ecological refugees who are permanently displaced in large numbers from their homes and end up in slums and temporary shelters in the towns and cities.

Given Guha's background, his strength in capturing the historical context and putting it into a neat framework shows. The area of solutions (answers to the question raised in the title) seems to be hastily dealt in the last chapter and causes some disappointment. Not that there are easy solutions but it needed some more attention is what I felt.

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