December 06, 2006

How Much Should a Person Consume?

Still too distracted to post sensibly and regularly here ...

Business World this week carries my review of Ramachandra Guha's recent book, How Much Should a Person Consume? Thinking Through the Environment. Appended below. Comments welcome.


Ever wonder what exactly an "environmentalist" is? I do. For example, Medha Patkar, mentioned in this book, is often called that. Yet Patkar's and the Narmada Bachao Andolan's original focus, and the core of their struggle even today, is about the rights of people displaced by a large dam. The concerns about environmental damage, while very important, came later; as did the doubts on the ability of the project to deliver on its promise in the first place.

So why do news reports refer to NBA activists as "greens"? Would "human rights wallahs", for one unwieldy example, be better? Maybe "ecologists"? Really, why are they called "environmentalists" at all?

In some ways, this book offers an answer: that environmentalists, almost by definition, must focus on more than issues of the environment itself. Those are important, but they cannot be delinked from all else that happens around them. This is a caution both to environmentalists and to those who critique their work. Meaning, not only is it important for people concerned with environmental matters to consider other issues; it is just as important for critics to understand that (some) activists are immersed in wider issues, important not to pigeonhole them as "just" environmentalists.

Then we might have a fuller understanding of "environmentalist". Which is one lesson from this thought-provoking book.

Ramachandra Guha sets out to build a context for environmental movements, particularly in the US and India. He explains how the different histories and geographies of these two large democracies have forged the different paths ecologists have taken, and what that means for each country. That's the base for this effort at "thinking through the environment."

And this "think through" is no half-hearted dabbling. Guha's concerns are pointed, his analyses impeccably researched. He is unsparing in his criticism -- note his use of "profoundly unhistorical", "unapologetically authoritarian" and "deeply hypocritical" to characterize a pillar of the effort to save the Indian tiger. Equally, he is unstinting in his praise: Guha's heroes are larger-than-life figures of learning, dedication and commitment.

Case in point, Madhav Gadgil, with whom Guha has written two books. Gadgil comes across as a true Renaissance man, as comfortable with scholarly debate as he is tramping forest and hill. The fieldwork fuels his scholarship. In fact, he doesn't even see a distinction: fieldwork is scholarship is more fieldwork.

In contrast is Guha himself: his "real taste" is for library and archival research, he says, and he is "more comfortable conversing with 'dead' documents than living people." Yet he did a one-week trip with Gadgil in Karnataka in 1992, which made Guha re-evaluate this preference. For he tells us that his "hero", the historian Marc Bloch, would have been pleased that Guha did that trip. After all, Bloch "once said historians needed thinner notebooks and thicker boots."

But with that mild self-rebuke, there's also Guha's self-deprecation. Does he take it too far? Repeatedly, we hear that Gadgil was the real intellectual spirit behind their collaboration. Through that 1992 trip, Guha "talked little, being content to ... listen to [Gadgil's] vast stock of knowledge." Elsewhere, "the inspiration and ideas in [a joint paper] must mostly have been Gadgil's"; and "the ideas that are original in our ... books are all his."

But is this plausible? This book is not the first of Guha's works to demonstrate how thoughtful and deep a writer he is, an intellectual in the best way. Why make out that, at least in comparison to Gadgil, he is a tyro with nothing to offer? Why this almost naive posturing?

Luckily, the deprecation is only in relation to Gadgil. Elsewhere, Guha writes with confidence, elan and refreshing intellectual courage, painting a rich panorama. "Wilderness thinking" is the foundation of American environmentalism, whereas "agrarianism" is the Indian tradition: and somehow those very words convey a sense of each country's experience. He raises questions about what we easily call "development": how can it work if it is based on a "basic and massive asymmetry" between the two groups of people it affects? Guha's respect for Lewis Mumford is a subtle slap in the face for Mumford's country where he "continues to be neglected"; his tribute to Chandi Prasad Bhatt, father of the Chipko movement, should serve to bring back to public notice a quiet hero of modern India.

And there is a telling little anecdote Guha relates. On a Delhi street that's "redolent with power and privilege", he once watched khadi-clad Bhatt and colleague walk past, chat while waiting for a bus, board it ... "and [they] were lost to me."

The wistfulness in those last few words is striking. Is eminence of that unpretentious kind lost to us too? Oddly, the worth of that unfashionable unpretentiousness is the lesson I take from this book.


Anonymous said...

Yes, the environment is definitely important for sustaining human life.

Social activists raise their voices against atrocities done towards people and nature. Demarcating them strictly is not necessary.

What we need is more of people working for the environment.

Anonymous said...

I need to ask you this question about Medha Patkar. I had read a very damning article on her by Madhu Kishwar a year ago in Outlook. I had always upheld Medha Patkar as an ideal and when I read that article I was very disappointed. As someone who knows everything there is to know about the Narmada issue, what is your take on the points raised by Madhu Kishwar?

Dilip D'Souza said...

Aparna, I know and have great respect for both Madhu kishwar and Medha Patkar. I can't claim to know "everything" about the Narmada issue. But I think in this particular debate, Kishwar is mistaken on different counts.

I am currently reading Jacques Leslie's Deep Water. Try it for one (among many) accounts of how misguided the R&R efforts have been.