Saturday, February 17, 2007

How Much Should a Person Consume?

Ramachandra Guha, How Much Should a Person Consume (2006)

Currently based in Bangalore, Guha has also been a visiting professor at the Indian Institute of Science as well as a number of universities in the U.S. and Europe.

Other works include:

Savaging the Civilized: Verrier Elwin, His Tribals, and India

Environmentalism: A Global History

An Anthropologist Amongst the Marxists and Other Essays

The Last Liberal and Other Essays

The Unquiet Woods: Ecological Change and Peasant Resistance in the Himalaya

Social Ecology (ed.)

Nature, Culture, Imperialism: Essays on the Environmental History of South Asia co-edited with David Arnold

A 1989 essay that critiqued the deep ecology movement and appeared in the journal Environmental Ethics, titled “Radical American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation: A Third World Critique.”

A 1998 essay that details some environmental justice struggles in India called “The Environmentalism of the Poor,” in Richard G. Fox and Orin Starn, eds., Between Resistance and Revolution: Cultural Politics and Social Protest.

How Much Should a Person Consume is a comparative history of environmentalism between the U.S. and India, and more broadly, between North and South. There has been much discussion of the origins of environmentalism in the social sciences, and some of the ideas put forward include environmentalism as a “full-stomach phenomenon” (i.e., primarily concerning the affluent), an outgrowth of “post-materialism,” and a manifestation of culture-based cosmologies such as religion. Guha calls the economic explanation an example of disciplinary chauvinism (i.e., a belief that all social and cultural changes can be explained through one academic lens).

He also warns that claims that some cultures may be inherently more or less environmentally conservative could stem from or result in cultural chauvinism. See, for example, the classic essay by Lynn White Jr., “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” which made strong claims re: Christianity’s supposed “domination” tendency towards nature. Interestingly, while “cultural chauvinists” often cite ancient scripture in discussing the ecological ethics of their chosen cosmology, such discussions/claims themselves are a relatively modern phenomenon.

In addition to dispelling notions of cultural and disciplinary chauvinism in explaining the roots of environmentalism, Guha also discusses the role of nationalist and ideological chauvinisms which have influenced various environmental ethics. For instance, he cites quotes by Marx and Trotsky re: bending the natural world to humanity’s will and dominating nature through technology. And whereas the U.S. green movement came of age within the context of a post-industrial capitalist society, and nature protection was its primary focus, in India early environmental conflicts were more directly related to issues of livelihood and survival. Such historical differences help to explain the range of analyses, ideologies, and tactics employed by environmental movements in different contexts, such as the relatively limited use of direct action by U.S. environmentalists as compared with Indians.

Alternatively, Guha’s theory is that environmentalism (understood as a wide-ranging social ethic rather than simply a “sensibility”), while its evolution may certainly be influenced by cultural, economic, and ideological qualities within a given society, is primarily “…a product of and reaction to the Industrial Revolution.” The broad societal changes taking place during the period (roughly 18th and 19th centuries) that we over-generally term the Industrial Revolution dramatically expanded the reach of the average (“modern”) human. Humans have always caused ecological changes, but until modern times, these changes and their consequences were mostly localized. Thus, while varying environmental sensibilities have existed in different times and places, it took the scope and scale of industrialization to birth a more civilization-wide environmental ideology or social movement, what we today call “environmentalism.”

Guha traces the interconnected histories of industrial forestry and environmental activism through a variety of European states, then into their colonies, and finally under post-colonial governments which continued to follow the “…imperial model of forest management.” During the 19th century, the British were, for instance “…unquestionably world leaders in deforestation, having burnt or felled hundreds of thousands of acres of woodland in [its colonies].” India’s Himalayan forests were used to fuel the British war machine during the two World Wars. The model used throughout the colonies was to legislate commercial exploitation of the forests as the only legitimate use, thereby denying traditional subsistence use of forest products by locals. Such an approach inevitably resulted in ongoing breaches of forest policy and even open rebellion by locals.

The environmental movement that sprouted in the U.S. has been appropriately labeled a single-issue movement, and one concerned primarily with relationships between human and nature rather than human and human. In India, on the other hand, “…issues of ecology are often linked with questions of human rights, ethnicity, and distributive justice…a defense of the locality, or of the local community, against the nation.” Exceptions to these generalizations of course exist, and the environmental justice movement in the U.S. may very well be more similar to broader movement struggles in India than in its own country. Further, Guha notes that “more recently, there have been signs of the emergence of a classically ‘bourgeois’ environmentalism in India, initiated by the middle class in the cities and seeking the protection of urban parks as well as the shifting out of municipal limits of aesthetically defiling factories.”

Yet despite these exceptions, Guha reports that, in general, the prevailing environmental ideology in India is based upon the “agrarian ideal,” while in the U.S. it is “wilderness thinking” (see the following section for further discussion of these utopian ideologies).

United States

An important biogeographical feature that Guha claims has influenced American wilderness thinking is its temperate climate. Compared with tropical climates, “temperate ecosystems are benign and hence more amendable to scientific exploitation for utilitarian ends. At the same time, for the ordinary city dweller the temperate forest is a good deal more welcoming than the tropical forest.” This point alone would make for an interesting thesis comparing wilderness ethics of North and South; apparently A. Huxley explored this idea in a work titled “Wordsworth in the Tropics.”

Guha describes three distinct environmental responses to industrialization: “agrarianism, wilderness thinking, and scientific industrialism.” Each of these responses “rest on a distinct theory of history which outlines where society is coming from, where it seems to he heading, and in what direction it should go,” i.e., each of them are “utopian.”

Agrarianism “…works to resist the onslaught of commercialism and industrialism where they have not yet made inroads; and where they have, to resolutely turn one’s back on modern society and go ‘back to the land.’” According to agrarians, human societies’ downfall came as they moved away from agrarian-based civilizations. Materialistic philosophy and industrialization are its enemies. Its focus includes right relationship between urban dwellers and farmers, and appropriate technology. Its champions include Wendell Berry (who’s “The Unsettling of America” remains probably his greatest work advocating the agrarian perspective, according to Guha).

Wilderness thinking, which Guha claims came of age in the U.S. The viewpoints within this utopian ideal range from wilderness appreciation and preservation to deep ecology/primitivism, with its utter disdain for modern society (and even to some degree humanity) altogether. Some wilderness thinkers actually look to humanity’s turn towards agriculture as the beginnings of our ultimate ecological downfall.

Scientific Industrialism is a philosophy of wise, science-driven use of “resources” to replace the blindness of the free market. It sees the further development of technology and scientific thinking as harbingers of a sustainable future, and as such enshrines the importance of technocratic “experts” in guiding us towards that future. Unlike Guha, I think that at least in recent years the “scientific industrialist” ideology probably more closely aligns with the generally modern perspective of American environmentalists than the primitivist wilderness ethic. Very few Americans are truly interested in much more than an occasional weekend camping trip in “the woods” and would seriously entertain the idea of giving up a modern lifestyle in exchange for living more intimately with nature.

While Guha sees each of visions as being fully utopian in that none of them can ultimately be achieved, he also thinks that specific values from each can combine into a new synthesis which is achievable. From primitivism he takes the value of diversity, from agrarianism the value of sustainability, and from the modern society in which scientific industrialism arose, he takes the value of equity. “In the modern world and nowhere else challenges to principles of hierarchy have gained moral currency.” I also take some lessons from each of these viewpoints in constructing my own utopian ideal. From agrarianism, I take the central importance of right food production and relationship between the urban and the rural. From wilderness thinking, I take a more biocentric perspective and desire that the human species would reduce its population/consumption sharply in order to leave more available energy/space for many other species to thrive and for the evolutionary process to continue to do its work. And from scientific industrialism I take the importance (though not all-consuming) of looking to the findings and methodologies of science in guiding human decision-making. As a central aspect of all these visions, I adopt the profound sense of wonder that comes with truly seeking to understand and live in harmony with the natural world. I can only imagine how different a place our world might be if, for instance, most of our scientific resources were devoted towards exploration of the natural world rather than building a better Ipod or missile; or if more people spent their free time gardening, bird-watching, or scuba diving rather than watching TV.

In addition to these basic descriptions, Guha also discusses the traditional hostilities which have existed between different camps of both U.S. and Indian environmentalism—e.g., hostility between wilderness advocates and agrarians, and their shared disdain of the scientific industrialist.

Popular histories of U.S. environmentalism point to figures such as John Muir and Aldo Leopold as the movement’s forefathers, yet often neglect the equally important visionary thinker Lewis Mumford. Unlike more celebrated figures, Mumford turned his attention less to nature-appreciation and more towards an inclusive ecological history of human civilization and envisioning of a sustainable, democratic economy and culture. He referred to this vision as “regionalism,” and its focus was decentralization and planned urban communities that were human in scale and existed in greater harmony with their surrounding environs. He also recognized the fact, where the modern U.S. environmental movement has still failed to, that the “destructive potential of modern warfare” represents one of the greatest threats to civilization and the biosphere upon which it depends. In fact, it was likely his witness of the massive destruction wreaked by WWII which dulled his earlier optimism regarding the inevitability of human society’s evolution in a more sustainable direction. Guha notes “Abandoning the hope that modern technology would develop in a benign direction, [Mumford] now believed that modern science and technology bore the impress of capitalism.” Further, “The development of atomic energy and the perfection of weapons of mass destruction, he argued, undermined democracy by fostering secrecy by and within the state…He compared the state of American democracy unfavorably to the USA of a century earlier, when there had indeed been a great diffusion of property, wealth, and political power…The humanizing of technology and the protection of diversity were both contingent on a fundamental change in values. As Mumford’s biographer has perceptively noted, while other radicals ‘expected such a value change to occur after the revolution, for Mumford this value change was the revolution.’”


India, says Guha, “…certainly has the most vigorous environmental movement in the non-Western world.” According to Guha, “the first wave of Indian environmentalism ran from the early twentieth century to the outbreak of WWII.” The intellectuals associated with this first wave included individuals close to the Indian national movement, as well as “dissident scientists working within or on the fringes of the colonial administration.” These prophets were largely ignored by the colonial government and by India’s indigenous leadership post-independence, the former because of rapaciousness and the latter (somewhat more innocently) because of a desire to industrialize India as rapidly as possible. Hence ecological concerns would be largely relegated to the backburner until the early 1970s, until the second wave of Indian environmentalism would begin.

Among the first-wave intellectuals were Patrick Geddes, a Scot born in 1854. The intellectual influences which shaped Geddes’ perspective included English craft socialists, from whom he learnt to view industrialism with a critical eye; Continental historical geographers, from whom he learnt to view culture and economy in their ecological context; and Russian anarchists, who reinforced his ecological focus while also promoting skepticism towards centralization. He became a “prophet” of the burgeoning urban planning movement, advocating intentional allocation of green space for recreational and cultural purposes, as well as for the ecological services such spaces provide. He also detested the automobile and the disproportionate amount of urban space devoted to it. Lewis Mumford, discussed earlier, became his greatest-known disciple.

Another disciple of Geddes was Radhakamal Mukerjee, born in 1889. Mukerjee worked early on to establish a different industrial path for his native India, through works such as his 1916 Foundation of Indian Economics. He was also an early advocate of “an ecological approach to sociology,” and what has come to be called “social ecology” through an important article in the American Journal of Sociology and a book entitled Social Ecology. Finally, in his Regional Balance of Man: An Ecological Theory of Population, Mukerjee utilized a set of social and ecological indicators to distinguish between “social regression” and “social evolution” in the development process.

Another early Indian intellectual cited by Guha is J.C. Kumarappa, born in 1892. “In a number of books written in the 1930s and 1940s Kumarappa attempted to formalize a Gandhian economics…Kumarappa was virtually the only economist to question the centralized and resource-intensive path of development adopted in independent India.” For instance, this classic quote “Under the economic system of [industrial society]…we find that variations from nature are very violent in that a large supply of goods is produced irrespective of demand, and then a demand is artificially created for goods by means of clever advertisements.” The American Gandhian Mark Lindley has just completed a study of Kumarappa’s economic ideas.

One important note re: all of these early figures is that they were all committed public intellectuals, and saw that “…theoretical reflection was merely the prelude to prescription and social action.”

With regards to the history of industrial forestry in India, a few individuals stand out. The first is Verrier Elwin, a Briton born in 1902. Elwin was an Oxford scholar and “renegade priest who became the foremost interpreter of adivasi (tribal) culture in India. He was also a pioneer of ecological anthropology. Elwin was the first foreigner granted citizenship of free India after 1947, and continued to work until the end of his life on a sustainable and just Indian forest policy, especially with regards to India’s tribals. Dietrich Brandis, India’s first Inspector General of Forests, became yet another important advocate of community-based forestry, although unfortunately too far ahead of his time. Only in the 1920s and 30s, and only in response to serious rebellion in a “…sensitive and strategically important border region,” did the British government experiment with community forestry models, establishing the van panchayat (community forests) system in Kumaon and Garhwal. In the Indian National Forest Policy of 1988, the nation would finally begin to articulate a forestry policy which emphasized sustainability and human needs. This legislation authorized the formation of Village Forest Protection Committees and an underlying Joint Forest Management model in West Bengal. This model, while still imperfect, has enjoyed enough success for “…scholars, activists, and sympathetic civil servants to demand its replication in other parts of India.”

The second wave of Indian environmentalism (beginning in the 1970s) was largely an outgrowth of popular movements against destructive industrial development (e.g., pollution, dams, mining) and infringements on local peoples’ access to natural resources (forests, fish, grazing resources) that they depended upon for survival. Collectively known as the Chipko movement, Guha credits it as being the first major environmental movement anywhere outside the Western world. The first publicly-acknowledged protest of these sorts took place on March 27, 1973, when a group of peasants in the upper Gangetic valley blocked a group of loggers from felling a stand of hornbeam trees that they themselves had previously been denied access to. The difference was that the peasants wanted the trees to make farming implements, while the loggers intended to cut them on behalf of a sporting goods company in distant Allahabad. The Forest Department was an early target of these movements, owing to its possession of more than a fifth of India’s land. In some northeastern Indian states, such conflicts have even resulted in or contributed to secessionist sentiments by people feeling abused and abandoned by India’s industrial development.

The often unacknowledged founder of Chipko, according to Guha (though there are different versions of the movement’s history, such as Sunderlal Bahuguna and Vandana Shiva, who trace this vein of direct action as far back as the 17th century), was Chandi Prasad Bhatt, a native of the region and a man who has demonstrated a lifelong commitment to service to his people. Bhatt first became publicly active in his early 20s (mid 1950s), through the post-Gandhian social movement Sarvodaya (or “Service-for-All”). He started a labor cooperative, and was involved from the early stages in “Dashauli Swarajya Seva Sangh” (DGSS), the organization considered the “mother organization of the Chipko movement.” Apparently, it was he who suggested that the villagers take to “hugging” the trees to prevent them from being cut. Calling him the “first environmentalist of the poor,” Guha praises Bhatt for his holistic approach to community organizing, emphasizing both resistance and renewal, and for his understanding of the limitations and opportunities inherent in modern science, a view which Guha states is “far closer to Gandhi’s position.”

A striking feature of environmental movements in modern India has been the crucial role played by women. For instance, Medha Patkar, “the most celebrated environmental activist in contemporary India” and leader of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (andolan=”movement”); and Gaura Devi in the Himalayas, leader of the first group of women in the Himalayas to take part in Chipko actions. Ultimately, women would play a central role in the Chipko movement and related actions, and it is unfortunate that Guha does not offer more thorough biographical sketches of some of these women leaders.

Since the early 1970s, Indian environmental activists have passed through roughly three broad phases, according to Guha. The first he characterizes as “the struggle to be heard,” which lasted through much of the 1970s, and throughout which much of the grassroots action and protest was broadly ignored by the central government. The second stage, corresponding with the 1980s, saw broader recognition of environmental issues by the media and wider society, and more slowly, by the State. The Centre for Science and Environment (where I’ll be interning), was founded by “…the engineer turned campaigning journalist Anil Agarwal” in 1980. The third phase, brought about by changing global geopolitics and an industry-propagandist sponsored backlash, has been a counter-attack on environmentalists. In this latter phase, the American model of a consumer-driven economy without limits has found many powerful proponents, while discredited critics such as environmentalists have struggled to voice a critique to this development path.

In a modern adaptation of the State-peasant conflicts over access to forest resources, many “farmers, herders, swiddeners, and hunters” throughout the developing world, who have long depended upon nature for subsistence, are now finding themselves under attack by so-called “conservationists.” Guha notes: “The rise of conservation biology in the late twentieth century has an uncanny similarity to the rise of scientific forestry in the late nineteenth century.” These conservationists—an ideologically heterogeneous mix of ruling elites and urbanites, foreign tourists and international conservation organizations, government bureaucrats charged with protecting state-owned wild lands, and conservation biologists—have frequently demonstrated little concern for the human inhabitants of the natural areas they seek to conserve. In response to the eco-imperialist notions of the Westerners in this group, Guha observes “…what we have here is an ecologically updated version of the white man’s burden.” Efforts to find a middle way which preserves both wild lands and the communities that depend upon them and would set India upon a more sustainable development path have frequently been assailed by conservationists as inadequately biocentric or by the State as too unfriendly to economic interests. What both these groups tend to overlook is that the primary reason these areas are threatened to begin with is encroachment caused by the ever-widening ecological footprint of the urban-based “omnivores.”

One Indian thinker whose work presaged these debates is Madhav Gadgil, an activist scientist “whose lifelong endeavor has been toward democratizing science, democratizing the state, and not least democratizing the environmental movement,” according to Guha. Guha’s account of Gadgil is probably my favorite section of the book dealing with Indian history, not only because I strongly resonate with Gadgil’s work and analysis, but also because Guha uses this part of his narrative to provide some insights into modern Indian scientific communities. Harvard educated and a mentee of E.O. Wilson, Gadgil nevertheless demonstrated a level of “patriotism” rare for Indian scientists by returning to India and waiting to have children until he had done so, and by publishing much of his most important work in Indian journals. In the mid-1970s, both Gadgil and his wife—a top-notch atmospheric scientist in her own right—were invited to join the Indian Institute of Science’s “Centre for Theoretical Studies” in Bangalore. The IISc, according to Guha, is the “leading center of scientific and technological research in India.” All the more appropriate then that the Gadgils would take a position there, given that the Institute often seems in the past to have contributed to the “brain drain” phenomena and has arguably done much more for the careers of the individual scientists there than it has for India as a whole. Shortly after the Gadgils joined the IISc, a new program arose called the Centre for Appropriate Science and Technology for Rural Areas (ASTRA). ASTRA was a truly ground-breaking institution in the history of Indian academe, and it “developed and widely disseminated a range of environmentally sound, low cost, decentralized technologies…conducted studies of the flow of energy and biomass in village ecosystems [and]…was also alert to the sociological dimension; to the interplay of caste and gender within the village and to factors that constrained or promoted the social adoption of new technologies.”

Early on, Gadgil also broke ground rarely tread by natural scientists through forming an enduring academic partnership with anthropologist Kailash Malhotra, a partnership which has borne much fruit over the years. The two were early and strong proponents of the democratization of natural resource management and the use of “techno-environmental-socio-economic” indicators to assess India’s development path in a 1980 survey they carried out on behalf of the government titled “A People’s View of Eco-Development.” And their partnership extended to more direct activist efforts, such as their involvement in the “Save the Western Ghats” movement in the late 80s. Gadgil’s own research focus has been on indigenous conservation systems, forest policy, and biodiversity conservation, and throughout each of these realms he has been able to offer both critique of and alternatives to official government policy. Guha notes that in contrast to many of the so-called “conservationists” he discusses earlier in the book, “no scientist worldwide has done as much as Gadgil to deepen and democratize the idea and ideal of biodiversity conservation.” Beyond all this, he has also pioneered some very interesting environmental education programs in order to more fully engage future generations in the cause of environmental conservation. This work is much-needed in light of a recent Supreme Court of India mandate that “awareness of the environment and its problems…should be taught as a compulsory subject” across the Indian school system, despite a severe lack of training for Indian teachers on this subject.

Upon more fully examining the histories and lessons of environmentalism in the Indian and American contexts, Guha begins in the third section of his book to more fully articulate what he sees as something of a response to these lessons. He refers to this new utopian vision, one which places sustainability, equity, and diversity at its core, as social ecology, a phrase adopted by thinkers within both contexts. But first he returns to the question raised by the title of his book, and traces the history of dialogue (and silence!) surrounding the unprecedented model of human consumption that the U.S. has built at home and marketed to the world. The title of his book, it turns out, is a throwback to a 1958 essay by John Kenneth Galbraith called “How Much Should a Country Consume?”, which raised warning flags about the cult of consumption and the worship of “growth” that were being imposed upon the post-war consciousness of Americans. As Guha paraphrases Galbraith, “…this was a society so dedicated to affluence that the possession and consumption of material goods was its exclusive standard of individual and collective achievement.” This ideology not only infected the average American, but could be observed even in the selective analysis of the American conservation movement (with some exceptions, Wendell Berry being foremost among them), which instead focused largely on pollution and wildlife preservation, disconnecting these concerns from an emphasis on American consumption patterns. As a sort of synthesis to the endless appetite of the consumer and the shortsightedness of the environmentalist, the U.S., through the glories of globalization, has been able to have it both ways—preserving (to some degree) its own landscapes while pillaging the resources of other lands. What Guha does not point out is that this process is actually just a continuation of the colonialist program, with the great “accomplishment” of the U.S. its ability to more successfully distribute the wealth of its plunder to the largest and most profligate middle class the world has ever seen.

Guha contrasts the green movements of the U.S. and western Europe in this regard, and shows significantly more awareness on that end of the Atlantic when it comes to the relationship between consumption and sustainability. Such prescience was also apparent in Indian visionaries such as Mahatma Gandhi, who wrote “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialization after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom (England) is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million [now more than 1.1 billion] took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts” and “…the distinguishing characteristic of modern civilization is an indefinite multiplicity of wants.” Unfortunately, India, as with much of the developing world, has not heeded Gandhi’s advice, and instead charges headlong into designer clothing, personal automobiles, and fast food. Without the same access to foreign environs to plunder that the West had, these nations initially have instead pillaged their own natural resources and rural populations. As a result, a “key contribution of the Indian environmental movement has been to point to inequalities of consumption within a society or nation.” Guha characterizes this inequity as a conflict between two groups, the “omnivores” and “ecosystem people,” distinguished from one another by the difference in size of their “resource catchments.” Whereas omnivores are able to draw upon resources from throughout the whole of India, and increasingly, the globe, ecosystem people, “who include roughly 2/3 of the rural population or about 400 million people—rely for the most part on the resources of their own vicinity, from a catchment of a few dozen square miles at best.” He goes on to characterize the dominant paradigm of “economic development” over the past sixty years as “…the channelizing of an 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.” As a result of this model of development, inequity multiplies, communities are uprooted causing ecological refugees to relocate to the cities, and our societies move ever farther away from sustainability. In the process, the larger nations such as India and China begin to move on the resources of their more impoverished neighbors, expand their militaries, and become less forthright players on the international stage as their economic interests, like those of the West have for centuries, begin to expand far beyond their own borders.

Contrasting with that of the globalizers, who believe fallaciously that everyone can become omnivores if the market is given free reign, Guha offers the vision of social ecology. This vision embraces neither the unrealistic optimism of the globalizer nor the eco-imperialism of the conservationist, both of whom force their ideals upon ecosystem people. The primary elements of this vision, which Guha unfortunately fails to elaborate on at any real depth, include:

-participatory democracy and strengthening of local governance,

-ending the economic practice of undervaluing natural resources and the externalities of industrial production,

-conscious design of sustainable policies for specific resource sectors (e.g., transport, energy, agriculture, and water),

-and a greater emphasis on equity as a core societal value (with strong implications for areas such as education, health care, and land reform).

Of course, as Guha acknowledges, such a tremendous reorganization of society, especially in the decadent West, would involve tremendous upheaval, and, if not handled carefully, significant backlash: “The social needs and demands of the economy have to be made consistent with the natural constraints of ecology; and both have to be harmonized with the political imperatives of democracy.” Especially in the face of a global advertising machine which incessantly promises more and better things to come, the vision of social ecology may well be utopian indeed. Yet Guha closes by predicting that, ready or not, “sometime in the middle decades of the twenty-first century, Galbraith’s great unanswered question ‘How Much Should a Country Consume?’—with its Gandhian corollary, ‘How Much Should a Person Consume?’—will come finally to dominate the intellectual and political debates of the time.”