This past September, the environmental community (especially in the US) marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. That book highlighted the threats to human health and natural systems posed by unregulated industrialization—and did so in such a compelling way that it sparked a major popular movement across Europe and North America.
Next March, the environmental community (but especially in India) will mark the 40th anniversary of the birth of the Chipko Andolan, a movement of Himalayan peasants against unregulated felling by timber contractors. Politicians and intellectuals in the developing world had tended to see environmentalism as a “full stomach phenomenon”: a rich man’s fad irrelevant to their concerns. Chipko changed all that. It demonstrated that degradation hurt the life chances of peasants, tribals, pastoralists and fisherfolk too.
Long before Chipko—and Carson—a certain Mohandas K. Gandhi had warned of the unsustainability, on the global scale, of Western patterns of production and consumption. “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialisation after the manner of the west”, he said in 1928. ‘The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom [England] is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300m took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.”
Gandhi was ignored then, but the questions he posed in the 1920s came once more to the forefront in the 1970s and 1980s. Silent Spring was followed by such influential books as the multi-authored The Limits to Growth; Chipko was followed by other articulations of the environmentalism of the poor, such as Chico Mendes’s rubber-tappers movement in Brazil and Wangaari Mathai’s tree-planting campaigns in eastern Africa. These books and struggles spawned a wider debate on the meanings and dimensions of what was now being called “sustainable development”.
Rachel Carson had identified two reasons for the lack of attention to environmental abuse. ‘This is an era of specialists’, she wrote, “each of whom sees his own problem and is unaware of or intolerant of the larger frame into which it fits. It is also an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged”. Carson (and Chipko) offered the integrative science of ecology as a corrective to specialized approaches, while outlining the costs to ordinary people of the state always privileging the demands of industry.
By the late 1980s, however, there was a backlash against sustainability. In the US, the Reagan administration dismantled environmental laws and safeguards. In China, and soon afterwards in India, the motto of “get rich quickly” led to the interests of miners, developers and industrialists being placed above those of those who lived on (and by) the land. Environmentalists were, once more, dismissed as party-poopers, or as agents sent by the west to keep the Motherland backward.
The environmental (and social) costs of unregulated development are now increasingly visible. Hurricane Sandy has brought climate change back into public debate. At a more everyday level, hundreds of millions of people struggle with the consequences of rampant air and water pollution, the depletion of groundwater aquifers, the decimation of forests and the decline of biodiversity. In India and China, in Nigeria and Mexico, villagers battle townsfolk who dump untreated garbage on their lands. Farmers fight other farmers for access to a shrinking water table. Fishermen protest at the gates of a factory that pollutes their river and destroys their fish. Everywhere, infants in cities are treated with steroids to combat pollution-induced asthma, while infants in villages die because of water contaminated by chemicals.
Next year, and in the years to follow, these and other such conflicts will slowly make their way back into the mainstream of public discourse. The disparagement of environmentalists by the “End of History” wallahs, the gung-ho free-marketeers, the “what is good for the Ambanis is good for India” ideologues, has and must run its course. Otherwise, we are on the way to collectively stripping the world bare like locusts.