The hypocrisy of the environment vs development debate

There have been social movements across the country for the protection of the environment. Campaigns against the setting up of a nuclear power plant in Kudankulam and the Sterlite Copper plant in Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu, against the Narmada Valley project, and the Chipko movement in Uttarakhand have indicated that protection of trees and forests, of soil, of rivers, of wildlife and biodiversity is essential for sustenance of human life. These movements show that the government’s approach to development must be reconsidered.

Environmental experts have assiduously gathered evidence to highlight how mining, construction of steel plants, atomic energy plants, coal-based power plants, highways and railways, dams, canals and bore well irrigation, the use of hybrid seeds, chemical fertilisers and pesticides have caused massive ecological disasters. Examples of development leading to environmental degradation include unusual weather patterns such as violent storms, excessive rainfall, flooding, heat waves, pandemics, smog and pollution.

Yet, we cannot do without it. When we gained Independence, we embraced the idea of development through rapid industrialisation. The government thought that planned economic development would transform India’s traditional society and backward economy into a modern nation that can take its due place in the world. Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj model promoted cottage industries and handicrafts along with community development in the hope of recreating village republics that Gandhi had envisioned.

In the beginning, only the government focussed on “development”, but this was soon advocated for by the people as well because of the emphasis on development as the panacea for all social ills. It became a matter of rights of individuals, castes and communities. In the 2014 general elections, the BJP won on the platform of development, a strategically obscure term to accommodate a wide range of aspirations.

Conspicuous consumption and consumerism mark the convergence of these aspirations, which the Gandhians and environmentalists despise. But development is also about sustained efforts to improve the wellbeing of individuals and oppressed castes and communities. Since consumption style is a marker of social status, many belonging to oppressed classes assert their sense of self-respect by adopting the lifestyle of the upper strata. Such behaviour can be construed as crass consumerism by the urbane elite, but they are displays of assertive social identities and a defiance of the hierarchy.

Festive offer

It matters to the working-class poor if they can access modern technologies and means of production which can reduce the drudgery involved in manual labour. If manual scavenging can be rendered obsolete by new machines, the opprobrium associated with it can be eliminated.

There is much romanticism attached to the khadi cloth produced by the charkha, but the hours spent on spinning yarn and weaving can barely provide a statutorily fixed minimum wage. It might be fashionable for the rich to display their austerity by wearing khadi clothes, but the producers of khadi prefer synthetics and machine-made clothes that are longer lasting and require minimum maintenance. Instead of being passive beneficiaries of development policies, the oppressed classes also want to participate in decision-making processes on production, consumption and distribution. In other words, development also has an emancipatory side. No wonder the United Nations regards the Right to Development as a Human Right.

Scholars and policymakers have been striving to resolve this dilemma of development. Earnest attempts have been made to search for models of sustainable development or alternative development. So far, sustainable models have not proved to be so sustainable. The green party in Germany closed down atomic energy plants because of the long-term threat to life from the radiation of its spent fuel. This decision only increased the country’s dependence on fossil fuel from Russia as we discovered in the wake of the Ukraine war. Similarly, lithium batteries are regarded as an alternative source of clean energy, but we have to factor in the pollution caused by mining lithium and in the disposal of spent batteries. Such questions can be raised about other green technologies that have been invented so far as well. There is the promise of abundant nuclear energy through controlled fusion, but it is a little too early to hope that fusion energy will soon be a reality.

The problem is, if we heed the words of our wise environmentalists, we have to roll back development. Maybe the Palaeolithic way of life that revolved around hunting and gathering was the most evolved and ecologically friendly way of life. True development then is about reverting to that age. Homo sapiens perhaps took a wrong turn in their evolutionary path when they discovered the pleasures of settled agriculture.

But does that mean we should roll back development? A new school of thought is emerging that questions the climate change thesis that has dominated environmentalism. It holds that increased volume of carbon dioxide is good for vegetation. Evolutionary biologists also argue that vast changes in climate have been occurring due to geological forces and that what is claimed to be disastrous consequences of human induced development is part of the larger epochal cycles that have occurred in the past and are likely to repeat in the future. Climate changes and can change violently. If these sceptical scientific views are considered, it seems wrong to blame development and condemn human aspirations for a longer and better future.

A critic of environmentalism once commented that when environmentalists adopt sanctimonious attitudes towards development, they are merely acting out their long suppressed authoritarian desires. This is supported by criticism of environmentalists for their occupational hazard that requires them to heavily rely on fossil fuels. Be it in connection with their air travels and stays in five star hotels necessitated by their commitments to deliver keynote addresses at plenary sessions of international conferences, or their frenzied activities to raise funds by hosting gala dinners and shows for environmental protection, they realise that it is difficult to walk the talk and unite their practice with their preachings. Que Sera Sera.

The writer taught at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi

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