Friday, December 20, 2013

Book review: How much should a person consume

How much should a person consume: Thinking through the environment
Author: Ramachandra Guha

Couple of years ago, on vacation from my US job,  i went to see a waterfall near Ranchi with my family during pre-monsoon season. Few decades ago, Ranchi was considered to be a hill station, known for its cool winds and scenic mountains. It is quite difficult to imagine so given the hot weather and rapid urbanization that exists today. The viewpoint to see this waterfall was about 15Kms away from the nearest highway. It was a kaccha road with a desolated wilderness on both sides. Anticipating a scenic fall, we didn't minded the bumpiness of our ride, nor the warm weather. But finally it was all a dud as the waterfall was running dry at this point of time. But this was not the only thing that had disappointed me. At the viewpoint, local villagers had setup small stalls selling pepsi, coke, packed Lehar chips and mixtures bags along with the Indian special chai. Their children pestered us to buy from their respective stall.  At the bottom of this waterfall, I could see empty Pepsi and Coke bottles, along with plastic wrappers of the very same chips packets floating on the remaining small pool of water.

My US stint  had already Americanized me sufficiently and i was, and still am, a big fan of the national parks there. The comparison of this poorly managed waterfall viewpoint to well maintained US national parks was hard to escape. Two questions remained as i left that spot - (1) Why are there local people there? Why this area can not be quarantined off and maintained by state or central government. Basically mimic a state park for this waterfall. (2) What all needs to be done to ensure that plastic is kept away from this ecosystem? Remove those stalls, cleanup the pool, educate masses, impose fines were some of the ideas but without state intervention none of them were practical.

Since that trip I had always maintained that the only way to preserve natural ecosystems is to keep humans away from them. No marks for guessing, but American influence of the concept of national parks is quite high in shaping up such a conclusion.  I was fairly confident about my solution and considered it to be the only way to go forward. It is a remarkable feeling when you read something that changes fundamentally on what you have strongly believed in earlier.  While reading How much should a person consume, i experienced that feeling and no longer subscribe to this theory anymore.

Guha in this book argues that traditionally environmentalists have looked at this problem of environment degradation through an individualistic lens. Social elements and  contextual conditions are largely ignored in this process. In the chapter Three Environmental Utopias, for sure the best and most informative,  Guha buckets the entire breed of environmentalists based on their ideal outcome scenarios in three buckets - agrarian, primitivists and scientific industrialization. Agrarians wants everyone of us to practice agriculture:  plant our own food, cook our own meals and live a life that is village like. Primitivists want us to abandon societal elements and live like how hunter-gatherers used to live. In both Agrarians and Primitivists utopian scenario, environmental degradation would be under check as there are not enough avenues to hurt sustainability. Scientific Industrialists discard both of them and argue for a measured, checked and a closely monitored industrialization as the way forward. It understands that modernity and technological progress are inevitable; it instead argues for a controlled and sustainable progress. Guha points that among the three, scientific industrialization is the only one that has a forward looking approach.  Interestingly, Guha adds, Indian environmentalists wish for a agrarian model while their western counterparts want a primitivist model.

However, Guha discards all three utopias as each one of them are quite individualistic in nature. Guha bases his argument based on movements such as Chipko movement and Narmada Bachao Aandolan. He also gives examples of how Indian tribals and villagers have been living in a close relationship with nature for such a long time and this human contact has not resulted in any degradation.  Not only this, these communities have also resisted degradation at the hands of industrialists or greedy government agents. Citing research of various other on-field researchers, who have been largely ignored by the environmentalists, Guha argues for a new kind of utopia that has its roots in diversity, sustainability and equity. Guha calls it as social ecology.

Outside of this chapter, rest of the book does not reflect the quality as is expected of him. The book starts off as a memoir wherein he reflects how he got introduced to this field. Three chapters, are dedicated to Lewis Mumford, Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Madhav Gadgil respectively. Guha's main focus appears to correct wrongs committed by historians in forgetting these unsung heroes.  Guha's prose is laden with praise for them but it does not go into much detail about their respective works. The chapter on Madhav Gadgil does discuss some of his constructive points but those points are stated as a matter of self-evident facts without due diligence or research behind them.  The chapters titled Democracy in the Forest, and Authoritarianism in the Wild, are nice historical accounts but they lack sufficient context as Guha covers too much time in too few pages. However, the biggest setback is the title of the book because the book's contents has nothing to do with it. The book is an historical biography of environmentalism and the title betrays this fundamental motif. Guha does dedicate the last chapter to this question and offers a range of answers, each without due justification or research.

Off the people fighting in the name of environmentalism, Guha mocks them by categorizing them as "the fallacy of a romantic economist" or "the fallacy of a pessimist biologist". Economists with their growth focussed models fail to notice that sustained growth is impossible as a long term solution, especially when it involves raw natural materials. Similarly biologists with their "we are all doomed" future does not offer any solace either. Guha offers his own insights into this problem.  Guha's account fails to stand when judged by the same yardstick as used by him on other solutions.  However, here i will put the blame on his literary skills not on the content.  I  find his solutions agreeable based on my own research. Decentralization, transparency, accountability, active participation by local communities is the way forward. Each context, each situation will require a novel application of these fundamentals to preserve our environment.

I was frequently drawn back to that Ranchi waterfall trip as i was reading this book. The solution here is to not isolate the locals away from waterfall but to empower them to protect it. They should be educated, and may be incentivized, to not sell plastic products, or atleast have proper waste disposal mechanisms to keep the ecology clean. Given the state of things as they exists, a state or central body may be insufficient to maintain our waterfall. However, with local participation, the tasks suddenly seems tractable.

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