Daily Archives: January 3, 2013

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.

In Britain, the fate of the coalition government continues to hang on what happens to the economy. The prospect of a sustained recovery is forecast by some. This, it is assumed, will lift the country’s mood and the coalition parties’ poll ratings. Equally, others believe that UK growth won’t be looking much different in a year’s time, notwithstanding the rise in employment. In which case the gossip of last summer that George Osborne, UK chancellor will be reshuffled in a straight swap with William Hague at the Foreign Office could become reality. While if things continue to look sticky for Nick Clegg you could see the pressure mounting on him to stand aside for Vince Cable.

Both moves would represent earthquakes for the coalition. A shift sideways by Mr Osborne, as well as signaling a failed economic strategy and the need for alternative policies,would severely test his close relationship with the Prime Minister. David Cameron would be seen to be sacrificing his chancellor in order to protect himself. In my view, it would make an already vulnerable Mr Cameron shakier still. The two of them succeed or hang together.

Of course, Labour would enjoy the mayhem. And a Cable succession, too, would strengthen the prospect of Labour co-operation with the Lib Dems. Would Clegg allow himself to be evicted so easily? He is a reasonable man, more public servant than grasping politician, so he might do the decent thing. On the other hand, he might want to hang on until the decision on Britain’s next European Commissioner is taken in mid-2014. I am not sure his wish would be fulfilled. The Conservatives have nothing to gain electorally by helping Mr Clegg out of his job, and the anti-Europeans in the party (i.e. almost all of them) would be appalled at promoting such a europhile into the influential Brussels post.

But, for Labour, what if the economy did show definite signs of revival during 2013? This could work one of two ways. It would either vindicate the coalition’s no gain without pain policies and put Labour sharply on to the back foot; or it would encourage the public to forget and forgive Labour’s alleged past economic mistakes and see it as the party, now that better times were returning, best placed to bring greater fairness and decent public services. Nonetheless, voters would still need to have confidence in the two Eds’ economic responsibility. Lowering trust in Labour’s fiscal credentials remains the Tories’ main aim. Removing this target will be Labour’s chief objective in 2013.

Looking beyond Britain, the Tories will harden their anti-Europe stance, the Lib Dems will struggle to stop this being translated into coalition policies and Labour will resist a dutch auction in euroscepticism. In 2013, the political battle lines will be drawn over Britain’s continued EU membership.

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