Ecological uncertainty, institutions and myths

Vasant K. Saberwal

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THE Malthusian spectre of impending disaster, most typically visualised in the form of Himalayan slopes slipping away and desert boundaries expanding into fertile tracts, have taken centre stage in much of the discourse on environmental degradation of the past century. Within this discourse, Himalayan erosion has invariably been attributed to the subsistence practices of an expanding farmer and agropastoralist population; the expansion of deserts to overgrazing by pastoralist communities in Rajasthan, sub-Saharan Africa, West Asia and elsewhere (Eckholm 1975, 1977; Myers 1986).

There are problems with this discourse, most notably the recent demonstration of the flaws in many of its underlying ecological assumptions. While the occurrence of localised degradation is well accepted, shifts in the boundaries of the Sahara desert are no longer seen as unidirectional and caused by human agents. The ‘advance’ or ‘retreat’ of the desert’s boundaries is increasingly associated with climatic changes rather than anthropogenic pressures (Forse 1989, Binns 1990, Tucker et al. 1991). Large scale erosion in the Himalayan mountains and the annual flooding in the Indo-Gangetic plains, have similarly been linked to geomorphological characteristics and tectonic and climatic events interacting with a wide variety of anthropological pressures, rather than merely the flawed subsistence practices of farming and pastoral communities (Hamilton 1987, Ives and Messerli 1989, CSE 1991, Heimsath in this issue of Seminar). I propose to use this essay to examine the institutional dynamics by which such myths are sustained.

A caveat, and one that will recur: the argument presented here is not that there is a paucity of environmental problems; there are plenty of them. There is, however, an overarching rhetoric about much of the environmental discourse that ultimately clouds our understanding of a given issue, thereby resulting in intervention by the state or by NGOs that is either not required, or misdirected to the point of introducing its own negative dynamic. It is because of this potential for misdirected intervention that there is a need to better understand the nature of environmental myths and the processes by which they come into being.



A part of the explanation lies in the nature of ideas that are available as part of a more general societal discourse on nature and the environment. In a sense these ideas represent source material that feeds into the story telling process. Confronted with an environmental disaster such as a flood or a drought, societies have historically come up with one of three explanations: a natural occurrence, divine retribution for the misuse of resources, or human over-exploitation of limited resources, leading to a disturbance in the ‘delicate balance’ of nature. In the mid-19th century, there was a spurt of writing on this notion of an imbalance brought about by the reckless consumption of resources – particularly in the form of massive deforestation in many parts of Europe and the United States (Marsh 1864).1 It is this notion of human responsibility that has come to dominate the discourse on environmental degradation over this past century. There is limited space provided to explanations of these events as cyclical, natural processes.2

At least two factors have worked to ensure the adoption of such a position. One of these is the uncertainty that characterises our understanding of many environmental processes. The other is the opposition that foresters, conservationists and others have to deal with in implementing any policy that curbs the consumption of resources. I will argue here that these two factors – ecological uncertainty on the one hand and opposition to conservation on the other – interact to produce a specific, alarmist discourse on environmental degradation.



Because of the extreme complexity of ecological systems, it is almost always difficult to identify causality with regard to a given phenomenon. There are often a multiplicity of factors working to generate a given dynamic. These include climatic variation from one year to the next, geologic variations, tectonic instability, as well as human actions that reduce vegetation cover, compact the soil and so on. Separating the relative impacts of these different influences on large scale ecological processes, such as floods, desertification and so on, takes many years of research, requiring the setting up of controls and experimental replicates. In turn, setting up appropriate controls and replicates is difficult owing to the highly dynamic (hence, continually changing) situations one is dealing with (Hilborn and Ludwig 1993) as well as the extreme heterogeneity that characterises most landscapes.3 Experimental research aimed at teasing apart these various influences in shaping the environment, particularly vis-à-vis the Himalaya, is conspicuously absent in much of the literature.



While there is insufficient evidence to support the idea that the Sahara desert is moving southward, the imagery of an expanding desert is strongly linked to famine in sub-Saharan Africa. Famine has, of course, been very real in this part of the world over the past two decades, and has been responsible for extreme deprivation suffered by many millions of Africans. Similarly, there is an undeniable reality to the flooding within the Indo-Gangetic plains and huge losses of life and damage to property are reported annually. Once again, the imagery of water rushing off the Himalayan slopes owing to the absence of protective vegetative cover is a powerful call to afforest the Himalaya, even though such afforestation is unlikely to reduce flooding damages in the floodplain (see Ives and Messerli 1989, CSE 1991).

We have here an intermingling of fact and uncertainty, and it is the reality of each situation that allows for the development of a powerful and coherent ‘story’ with regard to environmental degradation. As pointed out above, a major problem with each of these situations is in the attribution of causality. How does one separate anthropogenic pressures from naturally occurring phenomenon such as climate, tectonic instability and geomorphology in the shaping of particular features of the landscape? Is desertification caused by changing rainfall patterns or by overgrazing? Is Himalayan erosion caused by tectonic instability, overgrazing, faulty road-construction, high levels of rainfall? How do these factors interact with each other in creating conditions that lead to massive landslides?4



Attributing primary to one or another of these factors in shaping the environment is a complicated task, and yet one that has been done routinely, and often with a great deal of conviction. Remarkably, in each of these instances, bureaucracies and environmental scientists have come up with the same causal explanation, time after time, despite the tremendous variation in issues and sites under discussion: it is the growing pastoralist population that is held responsible for the civilisation-threatening southward advance of the Sahara desert; it is the growing human population pressures that are held responsible for the declining forest cover in the west African savanna (see Leach and Fairhead in this issue of Seminar); and it is growing human population pressures in the Himalaya that are held responsible for the flooding in the plains.

A large part of the problem, as outlined above, lies with the difficulties of understanding large scale processes in nature. But that’s not the only problem, for were that the case, one would expect explanations of degradation to vary from one context to another. Instead, there is a highly predictable ascription of causality of degradation to human, and more specifically subsistence, land use practices. Also, a general suggestion of environmental doom pervades much of the writing on the subject. Why is this so?

I will make the case below that the explanation for this shaping of the environmental discourse lies in a selective pressure that operates on environmentalists to adopt specific positions.



Selective pressure comes from the overwhelming absence of popular or political support for conservation policies. Such opposition is natural, given the conservationists’ focus on restricting individual access to resources and imposing curbs on resource consumption. Those immediately affected by restrictive policies – cultivators, pastoralists and others dependent upon forest resources for their livelihood or survival – have of course opposed such measures. More interestingly, however, there has also been a great deal of resistance from within the government, particularly from government departments whose political clout declines with the ascendance of conservation departments, such as happened with the Indian forest department.

Within India, the single most important department to object to policies proposed by the Indian forest department was the revenue department. Until the mid-19th century, the revenue department had sole control over land resources. With the emergence of the forest department in the 1850s, and particularly with the introduction of the Indian forest acts of 1865 and 1878, there was a significant increase in the prominence of the latter and a corresponding decline in the revenue department’s control over forest lands. Consequently, revenue departments in most parts of India mounted a concerted effort to clip the forest department’s wings as it were.

Within Himachal Pradesh, for example, the revenue department successfully resisted the handing over of large tracts of forest land to the forest department, on grounds that the policies of the latter restricting local access to forests would translate into heightened local dissatisfaction and consequently, increased political activity. In was only in the 1970s and 1980s that the forest department managed to gain control over most forest lands in the state. The revenue department also successfully subordinated officials of the forest department to the control of the revenue department, ensuring that a revenue official could always overturn a decision taken by a forester. There remained a strong undercurrent of hostility between the two departments well into the 1950s (Ravi Rajan 1994), and in many parts of the British Empire. Similar accounts of departmental jostling for administrative prominence and, therefore funding, are also reported from the United States (Schiff 1962 and Dodds 1969).



The above is a sketchy and rather brief outline of a power struggle that took place between the forest and revenue departments between the 1850s and the 1950s. There is ample evidence for this conflict (see Guha 1990, Ravi Rajan 1994, Saberwal 1999, Sivaramakrishnan 1999), and so I will not dwell further on the conflict itself. What is more interesting is to examine the manner in which such opposition towards conservation policies interact with an uncertain understanding of ecological processes to generate specific kinds of myths about the environment.

For the forest department to suggest an unclear understanding of the problem, or any level of uncertainty, would be unthinkable, if only because such an admission would play into the hands of those favouring a loosening of environmental controls. To suggest that flooding in the plains and large scale erosion are primarily naturally occurring processes would be equally unthinkable, since it would open the door to increased timber harvesting in the Himalaya. After all, the basic premise of the current ban on timber harvesting from the Himalaya is the idea that the presence of forests are the best safeguards against flooding in the plains, and that the removal of these forests would greatly exacerbate an already bad situation. Similarly, any attempt to downscale the importance of the environmental services provided by Himalayan forests from one of preventing flooding to one of providing fuelwood and fodder to people living within the region – both of which are in short supply – would dramatically reduce the significance of the measures suggested by the forest department.



A downscaling of the problem from the national to a local context, would of course, have consequences for the huge amounts of international and central government aid that pours into these regions, with consequences for both the indigenous and the western bureaucrats running ‘last ditch efforts’ to prevent the Sahara from moving south, or of the Himalaya sliding away forever. It is important to note here that such last ditch efforts have been ongoing since the early 20th century, if not earlier.5

At least two other analysts have linked ecological uncertainty to the formulation of conservation policy. Wargo (1996) and Beck (1995) argue that the U.S. and German governments respectively have understated the threats from pesticides and industrial pollution, and invoked an insufficiency of knowledge or an uncertain understanding of ecological processes, to counter environmentalist demands for a reduction in pesticide use and industrial growth. In particular environmentalist concerns about global warming and ozone depletion are challenged by governments and industry supporters on the grounds of the difficulty of separating the climatic impacts of industrial emissions from naturally occurring climate change. Identifying causation, in other words, is problematic. The imposition of restrictions that would slow economic growth, argue powerful economic interests, would be unwarranted given our poor understanding of the links between industrial emissions and environmental concerns. Although Wargo and Beck focus primarily on the politics of pesticide and industrial pollution in the western world, the same argument is likely to be made in the developing world, at least in the context of industrial pollution.



One observes an interesting twist in the relationship between ecological uncertainty and environmental degradation, within the context of issues such as soil erosion and deforestation, overwhelmingly linked to subsistence land use practices of a poor and exploding human population. Invariably, descriptions of land degradation impute a high degree of accuracy to our understanding of ecological processes, with regard to both the magnitude and the causal agent responsible for the problem. The difference in the expressed state response to the two issues, industrial pollution on the one hand and deforestation and soil erosion on the other, despite the uncertainty common to both, appears to relate directly to the agents considered responsible for the degradation – industry in the first instance, and pastoralists, shifting cultivators, and settled cultivation in the latter. This inconsistency is internally consistent with a class analysis of who profits from and who bears the costs of state imposed curbs on resource consumption.



The greatest environmental myths, of course, have been composites of a certain reality to large scale human suffering, uncertainty to our understanding of complex phenomenon, and a great deal of opposition to government agencies attempting to control a given resource. The reality of the misery associated with the famine in sub-Saharan Africa is undeniable, as is the destruction that accompanies the annual flooding in the Indo-Gangetic plains. Such suffering requires a response from the state and from society. It is the experts within a bureaucracy who have to deal with these situations, yet a poor understanding of processes has often resulted in a poorly developed intervention response.

This is not to suggest an intentionality to forester/environmentalist distortion of facts. The argument, rather is that the institutional/political space does not exist within which conservationists can admit of an uncertainty to their understanding of ecological processes. Doing so would merely undermine their own authority, particularly so in the face of concerted opposition to conservation policies.

Once again, I am not suggesting the absence of environmental degradation. There are numerous contexts in which there is a continual whittling away of resources, with significant consequences for people in terms of fuelwood and fodder. There is quite clearly a need for better management of these resources. Yet, when couched in an overarching rhetoric that links a decrease in vegetation cover in the hills with massive levels of soil erosion and with the annual flooding in the plains, the focus of attention turns to the obviously much larger ‘national’ issues of flooding and soil erosion. The solutions are tailored to accommodate our understanding of the problem – not enough tree cover leads to high levels of erosion and heightened flooding in the plains. Solution – plant more trees, preferably fast growing species.6

A consideration of the problem at the local level, on the other hand, leads us down an entirely different path – the provisioning of local communities with adequate supplies of fodder and fuelwood. How we go about doing this must vary from one place to the next – but the planting of fast growing pine species is clearly not part of the solution, particularly since pine species greatly reduce the local availability of forage. Forage producing trees may need to be planted in certain areas, but there could also be the planting of grass, an equally effective means of ensuring the conservation of soil and water, while providing much needed forage to villagers.



This essay examines what I consider key elements that have contributed to the construction and sustenance of myths regarding environmental degradation. In many ways the argument that opposition to curbs on resource consumption will force a conservation agency to exaggerate threats of environmental degradation, is embarrassingly obvious. It should come as little surprise to hear that bureaucrats in every sphere of activity will use whatever evidence and argument they can to justify the continued existence of their office, or, better still, to justify an increased establishment for their office.



We are all familiar with grandiose tales of success and achievement – tales that further justify the continuance of a given department. Such tales are one component of a conservation agencies claims to continuance, the other is the doomsday scenario that will unfold in the absence of environmental restrictions imposed and monitored by the same agency. What is perhaps less obvious, however, is the lack of accuracy to much of our knowledge on the environment, the extreme difficulties of separating natural from anthropogenic influences in shaping the environment, and the manner in which this uncertainty can be shaped into a particular, alarmist discourse on degradation.

By engendering overarching, and therefore simplistic explanations of degradation, environmental discourse often precludes an effective understanding of how landscapes are shaped, even as it provides a rationale for highly targeted conservation programmes premised on an accurate understanding of system functioning. The consequences of such a discourse include a poor handling of the actual problem – flooding, desertification – while also posing potentially serious livelihood and subsistence problems for local communities.



1. This was not, of course, a new idea, for the idea that ‘nature’ was in a state of delicate balance, probably of divine creation, can be traced to Christian mythology (Worster 1995).

2. Such an acknowledgement would not imply the need for adopting a fatalistic acceptance of these processes. It would, however, suggest the need for adopting different interventionist strategies as a means of alleviating the very real suffering that accompanies these events.

3. Unlike laboratory situations, where all variables can be manipulated, experiments replicated and controls easily established – each of these key ingredients of scientific research – doing the same in environmental research is rarely possible. Where suitable experimental designs can be devised, these tend to be over extremely small areas, and the extrapolation to the level of the watershed or a similar landscape is generally unwarranted.

4. Since other articles in this issue of Seminar have addressed some of these questions, and examined the relative impacts of different factors in causing erosion, flooding, desertification etc., I will not attempt to provide answers to these questions. My primary interest in this article deals with the issue of why certain kinds of environmental myths are created, not in examining the myths themselves.

5. Saberwal (1999) demonstrates a long-term continuum with regard to an alarmist discourse on environmental degradation in the Himlaya.

6. But even here, one must note the high levels of timber extraction by the forest department over the past century, with well over 20 million cubic feet of timber being removed annually, as late as the 1970s. There is a clear contradiction in the stated concern of the forest department and its own role in the deforestation of the Himalaya.



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