The problem

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IN a world where most of us are busy earning and spending, where the dominant ideology is one of ‘consume now, worry later’, and where the wizardry of information technology has given society a strong sense of techno-optimism and freedom from material constraints, it is a minor miracle that environmental issues are still on the table.

The sustained efforts of environmental activists, scientists, and the media have not only made issues like deforestation, air pollution, water pollution, climate change, ozone hole, and tiger extinction an integral part of the coffee-table but also penetrated political and bureaucratic spheres. From ‘poverty being the biggest polluter’ at Stockholm 1972, the rhetoric has moved to ‘sustainable development’, and conventions on climate change, biodiversity and forestry are being actively pursued at the international level. With the World Bank undertaking a major ‘greening’ exercise for itself, it would seem that environmentalism has finally arrived.

But in fact, environmentalism is also under severe attack. The attacks come from different ends of the political spectrum and adopt different strategies. In the North, conservative groups are questioning the very existence or seriousness of many environmental problems, and attacking the underlying belief that there are biophysical limits to human activities that should not be transgressed. In the South, in addition to this angle, the more powerful and demoralising attack comes in the casting of environmentalists as ‘anti-developmentalists’, ‘anti-poor’ and ‘elitist’. Deforestation should not be contained at the cost of the lives and livelihoods of those who have encroached the forest to make a living. The tiger should not be protected at the cost of those living in and around the tiger habitat. The Narmada valley should not be saved because the millions living in north Gujarat have a ‘basic human right’ to water.

Admittedly, much of this pooh-pohing of environmental decline flies in the face of serious analysis or even just a walk through our fast polluting cities. Similarly, much of the criticism of environmentalist opposition to development projects as elitist is simply a distortion. Over the past two decades, many environmentalists have consciously reached out to grassroots development activists, have (as in the case of the Narmada) argued convincingly that it is not a case of environment versus people, but a conflict between a monument-oriented pursuit of unjust and illusory development schemes and a vision of an environmentally sound and socially fair development process. This pooh-poohing, this illusory monumentalism, this running down of environmentalism is largely driven by powerful interest groups and facilitated by deeply embedded power structures.

And yet, one wonders if some blame also attaches to the environmental movement. Have they cried wolf too often? Oversold the problem? Hyped up their particular solutions? Is the lack of public acceptance of environmentalist positions at least partly related to socially insensitive, alienating or biased analyses about the existence, nature and causal agents of environmental decline?

The mainstreaming of environmental issues critically hinges on a public dissemination and acceptance of the real and pressing nature of environmental problems. Thus, we are told and have come to believe that flooding in the Gangetic plains is on the increase, that the Saharan desert is moving southward at so many kilometres per year, and that tropical deforestation is occurring at some many million square kilometres everywhere. The global climate is warming up and the size of the seasonal ozone hole is increasing.

Furthermore, solving or ameliorating these problems requires changes in state policies and individual lifestyles. Identifying the necessary changes in turn requires that these cases of environmental degradation be linked up causally with specific human actions. Scientists, activists and the media are engaged in the construction and dissemination of this causal link, this ‘story behind’ environmental degradation. Starting from the link that Rachel Carson drew between the decline of birds of prey and the use of DDT, many of the causes of environmental degradation are also now part of the popular lexicon. Thus, flooding in the Gangetic plain is due to deforestation in the Himalaya, desertification in the Sahel is due to uncontrolled grazing of booming livestock populations, deforestation is due to shifting cultivation in Indonesia and immigrant settlers and cattle ranching in the Amazon. And, in popular discourse, most of these proximate causes are ultimately related to an expanding human population.

The tail-end of these stories, viz., the causal analysis, is obviously a rather debatable matter. The debate over the role of ‘overpopulation’ in the South versus ‘overconsumption’ in the North surfaces persistently at every international meeting on the environment. But within India, population growth continues to be the most widely accepted cause for a whole range of environmental phenomena by natural scientists, journalists, politicians and laypersons alike. The next favourite is ‘poverty’ (in the abstract), which is said to lead to force people to act in a short-sighted manner, or to ‘discount’ their own future heavily. It is also both cause and effect of population growth and thus part of a ‘vicious cycle of poverty-population growth-environmental degradation-poverty.’ Indeed, this vicious cycle theory is at the core of the broad international consensus that has evolved around the concept ‘sustainable development’ as the new paradigm.1 Other factors such as ‘colonialism’, the ‘iron triangle’ of bureaucrats-industrialists-politicians, ignorance, disempowerment of women, and the loss of traditional knowledge also find favour in more academic discussions. But there is no doubt in anybody’s mind about what constitutes environmental degradation, about the fact that it is occurring, and that it is somehow linked to one or two of these factors.

There are, however, serious problems even with the earlier part of the story. In some cases, the physical process linking cause and effect may simply not exist. For instance, it now appears that deforestation in the Himalaya, even if it is happening, has little to do with floods in the Gangetic plain.2 Declining productivity of the Sahelian rangelands has little to do with overgrazing.3

But surely, one would say, whatever the cause, floods themselves are increasing, soil itself is eroding, rangelands are declining? Unfortunately, apparently ‘clear’ trends in an environmental variable often disappear when examined on a longer time frame or with better data. Recent research on the Saharan desert shows that the movement of the desert boundary is not unidirectional but rather fluctuates in response to cyclical patterns of rainfall in the region, exploding the ‘Myth of the Marching Desert’.4 Similarly, in a rather delicious irony, the very Centre for Science and Environment which highlighted environmental degradation across the country in so comprehensive a manner in its first two Citizen’s Reports5 has argued in its third report6 that increasing damage to property and life in the Gangetic plains is not due to increase in flooding intensity or frequency but rather due to growing density of human settlements in flood-prone areas.

To further complicate matters, even where good science demonstrates incontrovertibly the existence of a trend, it is not clear that this trend is necessarily socially ‘bad’. Conversion of forests to agriculture is an age-old phenomenon occurring across the South Asian landscape, and surely agriculture is also a social ‘good’? Thus, in many cases, the very definition of degradation comes under challenge. Ultimately, ‘degradation is a social construct’.7 What looks degraded to one person may seem very productive to another. Foresters look for straight, tall timber stands, whereas ecologists look for diverse ecological communities, while the local person may simply want to use the landscape for meeting his/her subsistence goals. As with all social constructs, one’s socialization and social (or socio-ecological) position directly influence one’s definition of ‘good forest’. Coming up with an overarching, consensual definition of degradation is a highly challenging, if not impossible, task at the best of times.

Unfortunately, rather than confront this socially relative nature of degradation openly, most of us fall prey to the pressures of our institutional situations, gloss over differences in definition, discrepancies in data, and doubts about causal links to come up with ‘convincing’ stories about impending or ongoing environmental ‘disasters’. Scientists might pay lip-service to the equal importance of ‘negative’ results, but in practice, statements like ‘we could detect any convincing and statistically significant signs of degradation’ are rarely seen as publication-worthy. For activists, the alarmist rhetoric is a directly driven by one’s own interventionist agendas; the greater the alarm the greater the justification for intervention.

Admittedly, to be heard at all above the ambient cacophony of glorious consumerism, one has to raise one’s voice very high. If, in the process, it sounds a little shrill, well, surely it is a small price to pay? For the mainstream to pay any attention, issues need to be summarized in two-minute sound bytes. If this leads one into simplifying complex issues, surely again it is better to do so rather than not raise the issue at all? We would argue, however, that in the long run such insensitivity to questions of social definition of degradation, scientific complexities in determining its ecological presence and processes, and the concomitant oversimplification in the analysis of its social causes is bound to be disastrous for the environmental movement itself.

On the one hand, it will raise doubts about the legitimacy of other environmental problems such as climate change or pollution where scientific opinion is in fact converging. On the other hand, we would do well to keep in mind that historically environmental degradation has been routinely used to deny marginalized communities access to resources that are then made available to (or have already been destroyed by) the elites. In many parts of colonial Africa, local hunting was banned on the grounds that it posed a threat to animal populations, while hunting sprees by white colonists were permitted and even extolled.8 Banning shifting cultivation in Indonesia or cattle herding in India ostensibly to save a climate of which the buffering capacity has been destroyed largely by unbridled fossil fuel consumption in the West is but a repetition of this age-old saga.

It is not that degradation is not taking place; by all means let us be concerned about it. But let us recognize that our social position and cultural bias, our training as scientists or agendas as activists, influence our perceptions of the situation as much as the evidence we bring to bear on our story. Too often, there is no evidence, only a story. There is a critical need for greater nuances in talking about degradation, particularly where there is a call for intervention in the lives of communities with few options for and little voice in the use and management of their natural environment.

Sharachchandra Lélé and Vasant K. Saberwal


1. Sharachchandra Lélé, ‘Sustainable Development: A Critical Review’, World Development 19(6), 1991, pp. 607-621.

2. L. Hamilton, ‘What are the Impacts of Himalayan Deforestation on the Ganges-Brahmaputra Lowlands and Delta? Assumptions and Facts’, Mountain Research and Development 7, 1987, pp. 256-263; J. Ives and B. Messerli, The Himalayan Dilemma: Reconciling Development and Conservation, Routledge, New York, 1989.

3. R. Mace, ‘Overgrazing Overstated’, Nature 349(6307), 1991, 280-281.

4. B. Forse, ‘The Myth of the Marching Desert’, New Scientist 4, 1989, p. 3132; C.J. Tucker, H. Dregne and W. Newcomb, ‘Expansion and Contraction of the Sahara Desert from 1980 to 1990’, Science 253, 1991, 299-301.

5. Anil Agarwal, R. Chopra and K. Sharma (eds.), The State of India’s Environment: The First Citizen’s Report, Centre for Science and Environment, Delhi, 1982; Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain (eds.), The State of India’s Environment 1984-85: The Second Citizen’s Report, Centre for Science and Environment, Delhi, 1985.

6. Centre for Science and Environment, Floods, Flood Plains and Environmental Myths. State of India’s Environment: Third Citizen’s Report, Centre for Science and Environment, Delhi, 1992.

7. P. Blaikie and H. Brookfield (eds.), Land Degradation and Society, Methuen, New York, 1987.

8. J.M. MacKenzie, The Empire of Nature: Hunting, Conservation and British Imperialism, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 1988.