Shades of Green: Environmentalism in Two Continents

Shades of Green: Environmentalism in Two Continents

Ramachandra Guha, Visiting Lecturer in Social Ecology

The objective of this study is to provide a historical understanding of the growth of environmental consciousness in a non-Western setting, viz. India, and to contrast the Indian experience with the richly documented American one. It hopes thereby to hasten a union of two scholarly discourses that have run somewhat parallel to each other. The first discourse is environmental sociology, whose rise in recent decades has been quite spectacular. Its geographical setting is the advanced industrial nations; its practitioners, chiefly English and American scholars; its concerns, the growth of environmental consciousness in the West. The second discourse is the sociology of development, a somewhat older field that emerged shortly after World War II. Its geographical setting is the Third World; its practitioners, both Western and non Western academics; its concerns, the historical and structural factors facilitating or retarding industrial development and modernization in “underdeveloped” countries.

While environmental sociology is quite innocent of the dimensions of environmental degradation in the Third World, and especially of social responses to such degradation, the sociology of development, for its part, has barely acknowledged the environmental limits to economic growth. The present study hopes to overcome these limitations by drawing upon the distinctive strengths of the two approaches. Thus the concepts and categories of environmental sociology, while reminding us that humans are not above and exempt from natural processes, are vital to a comparative analysis of environmentalism in industrialized and industrializing countries. Likewise, the analytical frameworks of the sociology of development, particularly strong in understanding relations of power between and within nations, can with a little imagination be used in interpreting environmental degradation in terms of the dynamics of class relations and the role of the state.

One way of fruitfully synthesizing the two discourses is by recasting the environment debate as a debate about industrialization. In my view, the literature on environmentalism has focused rather narrowly on human attitudes towards nature without trying to explore their underlying social bases, or conversely, what implications different social philosophies ostensibly innocent of environmental concerns have for the relationship between nature and humans. However, a study of environmental consciousness claiming , as this one does, to be an exercise in historical sociology must view the development of such a consciousness against the backdrop of its “other”, viz. the growth and maturity of industrialization, not merely as a mode of economic organization but as an overarching social philosophy. The several centuries of the industrial and post industrial revolutions have had a far greater impact on the ecological and social fabric of human society than the preceding millenia of human habitation on this planet. In this sense, the growth of environmental consciousness may justifiably be viewed as an integral element of the wider response to the most far-reaching process of social change since the Neolithic Revolution: the coming of age of modern industrialization. Like socialism, feminism, and democracy political trends with which it has an elective affinity ecological thinking has been formed in the crucible of industrialization.

The empirical content of this project will consist of a historical comparison of environmentally oriented thinking in the United States and India. At one level, the two countries have much in common. They are both large and ecologically complex democracies: democracies is the operative word here, for it is not possible to conceive of an environment debate (or any other debate for that matter) in a undemocratic social system (such as the Soviet Union). Moreover, in both countries environmentalism seems to have come in cycles; (i) an early conservation movement asssociated with key personalities (Muir, Pinchot, Gandhi) concerned with the pace and direction of industrialization; (ii) an intervening period of “ecological innocence” following World War II, when there existed a widespread social and intellectual consensus on the benefits of industrial development; (iii) the reemergence of environmentalism since the 1960's, this time as a social and political movement able to mobilize large numbers of people.

Inevitably, there are significant differences in the ecological and cultural histories of the two countries. The histories of settlement have followed radically dissimilar time frames. For most of recorded history the Indian subcontinent has been dominated by a complex agricultural civilization with relatively high population densities. In contrast, the North American continent was sparsely populated till the arrival of the white man, while the technologies of rapid resource expolitation brought by the European have heralded an ecological transformation of unprecedented scope and intensity. More recently, India was under foreign domination for close to two centuries. High population densities, the history of colonialism, the Hindu-Muslim religious heritage and the fact that it is still dominantly an agrarian society all distinguish India from the most powerful country in the Western industrial world.

These differences and similarities will be elucidated in the comparative analysis. The strategy would be to identify prominent individuals in each country who exemplify a particular social philosophy, and explore the development of their thought against the backdrop of their times. Tentatively, I have identified four major strands: (i) the Agrarian Ideal, e.g. Jefferson and Gandhi, who believed that a society of peasant farmers could escape the moral depravity and rampant individualism of a commercial-industrial culture; (ii) the Pre-Agrarian Ideal , e.g. Thoreau, Muir and the great Indian anthropologist Verrier Elwin, protectors of the wilderness for whom hunter-gatherers and shifting cultivators were the prototypes of ecological wisdom; (iii) Marginal Scientists , e.g. Aldo Leopold, Lewis Mumford, and in India, the pioneering organic agriculture proponent Albert Howard and the advocate of “ecological sociology” Radhakarnal Mukherjee. These individuals worked for the most part within the scientific enterprise, but their sensitivity to ecological issues made them marginal to, and subversive of, “mainstream” science; (iv) Imperial Scientists, e.g. forestry experts and irrigation engineers, whose vision of large scale, centralized, and expert controlled resource management held sway for many decades but has recently come under close scrutiny. The analysis of these four strands will bring to the fore their contrasting visions of ecology and society, as well the different articulation of each strand in the two cultures.

The concluding section of the study will deal with the modern environmental movement. I will argue that while in the U.S. environmental degradation has become a social issue only after a certain level of industrialization, in India (due to high population densities, colonialism, etc.) it is part of the very process of industrialization. Moreover, it directly threatens the livelihood of rural populations living close to the subsistence margin. If in the U.S. environmentalism is primarily a class struggle over access to leisure, in India it is primarily a class struggle over the use of nature between competing groups (typically industry and peasants). I shall explore the manner in which these different motivations for the environmental impulse inform different stategies of political action. Finally, I shall trace the organic links between earlier debates and the growing schisms within the contemporary movement. In the U.S. the mantle of Muir is claimed by the “Deep Ecologists” with their celebration of wilderness and aboriginal populations. Meanwhile, there is also a revival of Jeffersonianism which integrates environmental concerns with the agrarian ideal (e.g. Wendell Berry). And in India, Gandhian style environmentalists are split into two camps, each claiming to be the inheritor of the Mahatma's mantle. One strand, invoking Gandhi's mystical side, rejects Western science in its totality; the other strand, drawing upon Gandhi's social activism and village reconstruction work, believes in a synthesis of modern and traditional technology.

The primary research on the American side is substantially complete, while the research on Indian materials will commence when I return to India in July 1987. I hope to have a draft of the book by end 1988. While the research on Indian environmentalism will be wholly original, my research on American environmental history will hopefully recover the vision of key figures notably Lewis Mumford who have been neglected by American environmental historians. Finally, while a comparative history provides its own justification, I would like to enter a special plea for my reanalysis of American environmentalism. For too long have Western scholars studied the Third World without a corresponding interest being expressed by non-Western scholars in the study of Occidental societies. While such an exercise will reveal my own biases, an outsider's appraisal of the American environmental movement may provide a perspective missing in internal assessments.

Select Bibliography

Agarwal, Anil, and Narain, Sunita, editors. 1985. The State of India's Environment 1984-85: A Citizens Report. New Delhi. Centre for Science and Environment.

Burch, W.R. 1971. Daydreams and Nightmares: A Sociological Essay on the American Environment. New York. Harper and Row.

Guha, R. in press. The Unquiet Woods: Commercial Forestry and Social Protest Movements in the Indian Himalaya. New Delhi. Oxford University Press.

Williams, R. 1973. The Country and the City. New York. Oxford University Press.

Worster, D. 1977. Nature's Economy: the Roots of Ecology. San Francisco. Sierra Club Books.

Citation of Original Article

Guha, R. 1987. Shades of Green: Environmentalism in Two Continents. TRI News 3, 5–6.