The problem

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THE future of the environment is perhaps at greater risk today in more ways than one. And yet, this is also a time of many levels of engagement with alternative ways of keeping ecosystems productive, safe, and habitable for today and tomorrow. This paradox is not special to India, but due to the unique mix of diversity, size and economic and social conditions, the challenge as well as the opportunity appears daunting as well as fascinating.

The last half century or so saw a range of legislative, executive and societal initiatives that aimed to keep environmental degradation in check and to promote repair and renewal. While the record was mixed and the approaches contested, over much of the last decade – and in keeping with larger global trends – many of these systems have faced new threats and subject to fresh constraints. Changes within the socio-ecological fabric of and in India are also closely related to, though not directly determined by, wider transformations in Asia, the Indian Ocean and the world at large. In turn, the way events unfold in India vis-a-vis key ecological questions such as species extinctions and climate change, the habitability of urban landscapes and rural settlements, and the uneasy fit between egalitarian aspirations and inequitable socio economic systems – all this will have wider global consequences.

While it built on earlier precedents and systems, much of the regulatory frame in India evolved from around the end of the 1960s. Around 1991, and some might argue even earlier, there was a shift in the role of government from being the main investor in the organized sector to a facilitator of investment. Though there have been major new initiatives in the subsequent period, such as provisions for legal forest rights or the more recent emphasis on renewable energy, the wider pattern is clear. The ability or the willingness of governments at the federal, state and local level to enable growth outmatches the regard for environmental upkeep and renewal. This has also come at a time of wider citizen awareness and engagement in a host of ways from peaceable protest to constructive work and from critiques at a meta level of the model of development to local level attempts to blend in different ways the distinct if related issues of equity, sustainability and justice. The flowering of such debates is not by any means restricted to ‘civil society’ but has implications across the body politic. This goes a long way to explaining why elected representatives of different hues make a special effort to draw on the idiom of environmental awakening and awareness. That such idioms are not always matched by similar actions is part of the challenge of the future.

It is no accident that mainstream environmental debates frequently advocate the need for either more sustainability science or for adopting approaches of sustainable development. Sustainability science postulates to help advance our understanding of the ecological and environmental systemic interconnections that impact the functioning of the Earth system. However, a purely science or ecology focused approach is not sufficient to advance more sustainable ways of living by itself. Indeed, such epistemologies are increasingly critiqued for their techno-centric focus, often leading to simplistic governance ‘solutions’, and a limited, even inadequate understanding of social, cultural and economic aspects. Sustainable development, another common idiom preferred by many, from governments to businesses, aims to integrate sustainability concerns with human developmental aspirations. This approach poses challenges too. It has especially been critiqued for enabling ‘green washing’, and simplistic discourses of ‘win-win’ solutions that expose an unwillingness to deal with real-life tradeoffs, instead seeking to smooth over exposing faults in dominant narratives of environmentalism.

Consequently, current discourses are often polarized, either revealing a preference for an industrialized society co-dependent on relentless economic growth, or nostalgic ideas of returning to paradigms of wilderness or rural utopia, driven by ideas of deep ecology and/or the need to rekindle spiritual connections with nature. Simultaneously, the articulation of visions for the future for India vary considerably, between images of an almost-there global super power, an industrialized and ‘developed’ country, and a rapidly industrializing poor, yet to ‘develop’ country, which requires development before we can afford to think of ecology. Both extremes are problematic. At the same time that we need an understanding of ecological limits, we need to couple such aspirations with explorations of societal well-being and normative principles of justice and equity. The latter in turn has to be specially attentive to groups of humans and non-human species that are often rendered even more marginal by even the best of environmentalisms by default or design.

But making peace with nature is as much a challenge for the natural sciences and allied disciplines as for those immersed in the study of the humanistic sciences. It is heartening that the same period saw an efflorescence of both natural and humanistic sciences, exploring ways to deal with ecological dilemmas and challenges. Approaches to understanding human-nature relationships have seen considerable changes in recent decades. Today, humans are recognized as being an integral part of the biophysical world. Nature is also imperative for humanity’s survival. There are complex interactions and multi-scalar feedback systems between the social and ecological worlds.

There remains, however, enormous scope for more dialogue and debate. Given India’s unique position as one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, with a variety of ecosystems ranging from deserts to high mountains, coastal to riverine ecosystems, and dry scrub areas to dense tropical forests – as well as the fact that it is the second most populous country in the world, with over 400 people to every square kilometre and with only four per cent of the fresh water on earth – making and keeping peace with nature in the coming half century will not be an easy task. Add to this the fact that the waters and land are also home to an array of over 400 mammal species, 1300 each of birds and reptiles, and over 50,000 plant varieties, making the scope of the issues of survival staggering. The cycles of repair and renewal of water systems, the soil and air are not only under strain due to new kinds of pollutants, but the declining diversity of wild (and cultivated) flora or fauna saps the way the web of life keeps nature’s systems in order. How do we best achieve different mosaics in varied settings of human existence or presence with the living landscape?

The preservation of biodiversity and ecosystems are critical for human survival. Traditional conservation models, with their focus on conserving ‘wild’ ecological landscapes and species, has typically focused on approaches of fortress conservation, models that seek to expand Protected Areas from which local communities are excluded. These approaches continue to find favour with many conservation biologists. However, the societal and governance limitations of these pathways to the future are clearly becoming apparent, both in terms of their failure to protect biodiversity and ecosystems, and their impact on local and indigenous communities, who can no longer be confined to the margins of development, but are increasingly making their own visions and aspirations for their own futures explicit, in louder voices, strengthened by collective efforts and networks with local and global allies. There is a growing questioning of the factors that preclude the inclusion of social considerations in conservation planning in environmentalist visions, not just by social and humanistic scholars, but by local communities/citizens themselves, demanding that conservation planning and decision-making uphold values of local democracy.

The growing climate crisis has serious implications for India’s environmental future, impacting as it will India’s agriculture, water availability and quality, and ecosystems like coastal zones. Climate change will also have an influence on the frequency and magnitude of natural disasters. Changes in the weather system can potentially affect millions of small, marginal, and poor farmers and the extended network which depends on agriculture for their livelihood. Even small changes in temperature can have major impacts, including changes to water availability and crop productivity, the loss of land due to sea level rise and the spread of disease. Impacts within and across regions will not be distributed equally. A combination of geography, high population density, and immense poverty will continue to make India especially vulnerable. Human health, biodiversity, agricultural production, food security, water, energy, and coastal settlements will be imperilled, as natural disasters worsen – intensifying stresses on migration. People and communities already facing the worst impacts of environmental exposure will have lower capacities to prepare for and cope with extreme weather and climate-related events, to take the brunt of the impacts.

The urban is also emerging as a new frontier of contestation for future environmentalism. While the urban constitutes around three percent of the land area, the majority of human population on earth – more than 54 per cent – today live in cities. Cities demand voluminous amounts of energy to support industry and manufacturing, and for electrification, construction and cooking. Most Indian cities also consume large amounts of energy to ensure water supply. Cement production, in large volumes for cities, demands energy. Most of the electricity that lights up homes, malls, and offices, and powers our industries, comes from coal, which generates most of the country’s energy needs. Although the supply from ‘clean’ sources such as solar and wind energy is growing, renewable energy supply has been unable to keep pace with the accelerating demand for energy in India’s cities. Urban Indian already accounts for one in three Indians and the number of urban residents is set to grow, with the demand for energy. Coal contributes to the runaway trajectory of the planet towards extremes of temperature, while the petrol and diesel that powers the tens of millions of vehicles on India’s city streets further fuels global warming. The greenhouse gases emitted by landfills and dumps, waste-to-energy plants, thermal power plants and the smoke from factory chimneys add up, increasing the scale of the problem.

Undoubtedly the environmental impacts both within cities, and resources that cities consume from beyond their boundaries, have a huge impact on human-nature relationships, and on future imaginations of environmentalism. Cities are especially challenging places for the future of nature, where the dynamic and unpredictable nature of human-nature interactions, the special challenges of governance and environmental protection against demands of intensive economic growth and infrastructure development, and the rapidity of change, makes urban environmentalism an especially ‘wicked’ challenge. Purely technological solutions are unlikely to work to address these wicked challenges. Nor are there any easy solutions to balancing the imperatives of economic growth, ecological sustainability and social justice in cities.

These issues, complex as they are, relate to a world beyond India. While never an autarchy, India’s economic engagement and development philosophy has seen shifts over the last three decades or so to a more market friendly and globalized track. While the country’s ecological reservoirs have only shrunk over time, the economic growth trajectory has been starkly positive, even accelerating. The environmental capacity that supported this economic growth of capital, and buffered people and biodiversity from the worst effects of environmental pollution because of this growth, is now hanging by a thread. Despite its ecological and environmental advantages, because of the huge increase both in population and most markedly, in consumption footprints, India is a major importer of fossil fuels, edible oils and wood.

While the focus is often on carbon emissions, growing pollution along the 8000 kilometre coastline and the fate of the great mountain chains to the north and east also have a bearing on oceanic and montane ecology in the greater Asian region. In turn, recent floods and dry spells and uneven precipitation in many locations presage wider concerns about possible sea level rise that may inundate costal landscapes including cities, key ecosystems like the Sundarbans as well as rural areas. India is poised to exceed many planetary boundaries, not just of climate change, but also of other parameters including biodiversity extinctions, nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer use, air, water and soil pollution, and fresh water extraction, which indicate that the country may reach a number of environmental tipping points in the future. Further, planetary issues like biodiversity collapse and climate change are interconnected to each other, and at the same time to local issues like urbanization, industrial pollution and disease outbreaks. The tipping points that can emerge will be points of systemic shift, leading to rapid, even exponential changes that can place the country and its people on a very different trajectory, one that may lead us towards a path that may not support current standards of living, leave alone future aspirations for growth and betterment.

Our understanding of pathways to future environmentalism thus needs to both integrate a core understanding of sustainability as a normative goal linked to ideals of justice, and of sustainability as a complex system, with sudden shocks, points of potential collapse and tipping points of transformation. Broader societal discussions of aspects like gender and inequities in consumption need to be better integrated with environmentalism intentions such as moving forward on climate action, as the ecological cannot be tackled in absence of the social, and vice versa. Finally, there is much to be gained from asking how landscapes of work and living within India will effect changes and in turn be transformed by wider human induced ecological shifts.

Ironically, many of the responses to environmental threats often reproduce the very issues they were to address. This is most evident in the rush for renewable energy with small hydel projects on streams that run water only a few weeks each year, or solar and wind projects in open areas vital not only to rare species but for livelihood. The adage of ‘very old wine’ in a new bottle rings true. Rather than unpack each so-called silver bullet, it helps to step back and ask how the future can be crafted anew by re-thinking earlier premises. The ideas of ‘development’, ‘growth’ and ‘green growth’ require hard thinking as much as action.

We need to understand whether and how new global dialogues about degrowth and steady state growth, and ideas of doughnut economics, where planetary boundaries are respected alongside a common human foundation for a good life, can be integrated themselves into conversations about alternatives in India. We also need to investigate how to balance the trade-offs of ecosystem protection with the needs of resource dependent communities, and ensure that imbalances of power do not dominate the search for such alternatives.

It is clear that nature or the environment in terms of resources, water, land or minerals, or habitable living spaces such as housing, sanitation and safe work conditions are not equally accessible to all. Income divides are further complicated by other lines of opportunity or the lack of it such as gender and caste, region or origin by birth. Even as all humans live on one planet, how they relate to it hinges on where they live (nation, state, or region within), what they do (occupation), their levels and position in society (tribe, caste, class, gender or more than one of the above) and kinds of entitlement (economic and in a wider sense social). It is no surprise that in many societies and India is no exception, the costs of protection and the benefits therein are uneven, grossly so. The authoritarian route to securing nature has had a long precedent. Landed classes, princes and imperial rulers with exclusive forests or hunting grounds have their modern counterparts. But the converse, to combine democracy of nature with an egalitarian order in society, is easier said than done. The last half century has had its own tragedies and triumphs in this regard: how does the future look? Of special significance will be the greater degree of risk due to environmental factors (many human-induced or human-driven in part). Another important factor will be the changes brought about as the rate of population growth further slows down and India moves from a young-heavy to an old-dominated population, with higher levels of consumption.

Our lack of a clear future vision does not mean we do not know enough to act. On the contrary – we do know enough to predict that our current ways of dealing with nature, largely by ignoring or exploiting it, cannot continue. However, while signals of challenges abound, we cannot predict exactly whether, when and to what extent any future catastrophes will strike. Human-nature interactions in today’s interconnected world lead to wicked systems, like tangled knots, where it is difficult to predict which thread one needs to pull, indeed whether pulling a thread will help at all, or make things severe by leading to unintended consequences and further knots and tangles. Wicked systems are fundamentally difficult to predict. Systems theorists have a word for this – unknowability. We must plan for an unknowable environmental future. How do we act in conditions of uncertainty, when the most common human response is to believe that nothing needs to be done unless we are certain of its impact?

To sum up, emergent challenges, both societal and ecological in India in relation to the wider world deserve and require critical engagement from different standpoints. The search for equality and justice among and between people in a multilayered society was bound to be complex given the choice of democratic polity as the means. But the environmental dimension, though explicit over the last half century has become more central than ever before. For more than a narrow issue of technology or economic policy or political justice or how the cake is divided, it takes us to the core of issues that now afflict human civilizations in general. Can a future for nature be ensured by mainstreaming social and economic considerations into conservation, or must we only seek either incremental changes or radical revision of the entire current economic system? Can this be done drawing on knowledge, old and new, in more just and open ways? In doing so, how is the frame of equality to be reworked to make space for other species and future generations?

It is of course not possible in this issue of Seminar to answer such fundamental questions. But it is necessary, nay, imperative to make a start. In unravelling the issues we can perhaps help pose new questions as well as relook old ones in ways that are fresh. Enquiry and debate is but a first step on a journey of hope.