Kaise jeebo re?

A visit to a mall can be a rather schizophrenic experience. Even while delighting in the wonderful cornucopia of temptations, one cannot help but feel a vague disgust at one's hedonism. This feeling of self-loathing is joined with one of absurdity at the sight of the starving beggar outside, seeking morsels of generosity from the more fortunate. The conscience winces at the sight of abject poverty in the backyards of modern temples of consumerism.

These are two importantly different reactions. The first is an aesthetic revolt against conspicuous consumption; the second, an ethical shiver in the face of conspicuous deprivation. Nature or environment, however, rarely triggers such guilt pangs, because there is a complete disconnect between the city and nature. Urban, capitalist society does not encourage knowledge of the origins of the products sold in its shops. Indeed, for all we know, things that we derive pleasure from – computers, clothes, books – could well be made from materials carrying the bloodstains of some indigenous tribe or the scars of a decimated forest.

Such inchoate feelings will undoubtedly find resonance with many readers. But the acquiring and honing of a sophisticated environmental consciousness is a difficult task: it requires sustained thinking through the politics of the competing desires of communities, classes and nation states, in search of diversity, sustainability and equity in an increasingly interconnected world. Ramachandra Guha's anthology of essays is just such a journey – a fascinating if sometimes bumpy ride through towns, villages and forests of ideas about that most enduring philosophical question: How should one live (Kaise jeebo re)? Or, to couch it in ecological terms, how does one reconcile the modern ideals of equality, liberty and fraternity with the fact of an increasingly fragile and imperilled environment?

Most of the pieces in How Much Should a Person Consume? are expanded versions of previously written essays and lectures, the overarching theme of which is a comparative history of environmentalism in India and the US. Guha knows of what he speaks; he has been a teacher in several American universities, and has had a long engagement with environmental movements in India. Although he began his scholarly career as a Marxist, he is quick here to repudiate allegiance to any ideology. Instead, one of Marx's popular maxims is inverted to proclaim Guha's motto: "Environmentalists may wish to change the world, but environmental historians should seek merely to understand and interpret it."

Battling the omnivores

Throughout Guha's narration of the topography of environmental history in these two countries, readers meet with an endless stream of interesting personas, while the author elicits from each their musings on ecology. The entire journey revolves around three utopian philosophies of nature and development, each of which places its emphasis on a different locale: the wilderness, the village and the city. Guha dubs these three as primitivism, agrarianism and scientific industrialism, and characterises each as both romantic and chauvinistic – as unable to offer the world an alternative that is both socially progressive and ecologically sustainable.

Guha describes the American preservationist John Muir's save-the-wilderness movement as the dominant theme of environmentalism in the US. He contrasts this with India's environmental movements – Chipko, for instance, or the Narmada Bachao Andolan – which he says are essentially radical critiques of received notions of development, as well as a defence of people's rights over their environment.

Two essays included here, "Authoritarianism in the Wild" and "Democracy in the Forest", narrate the clash of ideas over control of India's forests, relating how the conservationists sought to oust Adivasis from reserved forests, and how peoples' movements fought to restore the indigenous peoples' rights over their lands. This disagreement between conservationist and humanist goals remains far from over, as thousands of forest-dwellers continue to be displaced from their homes. How Much Should a Person Consume? is particularly harsh on wildlife conservationists.

Equally interesting is Guha's account of the Gandhian brand of environmentalism, which rejects the West's industrial model, instead adopting the village as the sustainable unit of economic life. He contrasts Gandhian ecology with the impassioned critiques of rural life by people like Dalit leader and Indian Constitution architect B R Ambedkar. In a speech during the Constituent Assembly debates, Ambedkar had said, "I hold that these village republics have been the ruination of India … What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism?" The ripples of that contest are now turning into waves as, to use Guha's coinage, 'ecosystem people' and ecological refugees join hands to battle over land, water and forests with the omnivores, the all-consuming beneficiaries of the market economy.

Guha's three favourite ecological thinkers each inhabits the intellectual borderlands between the three utopias described above. The first is the Scottish scholar Patrick Geddes, who conceived of the city as an organic extension of the countryside. He came to India in 1914, and was involved in the planning of several cities, including Madras. The second is the American philosopher Lewis Mumford, who during the 1930s wrote prescient ecological histories of the city, tracing its evolution in relation to technology and ecology. Guha writes: "Mumford is rare, possibly unique, among environmental philosophers, in his ability to synthesise and transcend partisan stances on behalf of wilderness, countryside and city." Guha's third favoured ecological thinker is the ecologist Madhav Gadgil, with whom Guha co-authored two books. A PhD in Ecology from Harvard, Gadgil combines a passion for fieldwork with a commitment to solving practical problems – a talent that eventually resulted in a more democratic framing of environmental policy in India.

Sensible bromides
Having given the reader a taste of a wide variety of ideas on the environment, Guha finally tackles the book's titular question: How much should a person or a country consume? If we reject – as the author does – the three environmental utopias, what are we left with? Any attempt to strike a golden mean between equity, sustainability and diversity would deliver a hopelessly complicated mess, amidst a web of individual and national desires. From this perspective, one can certainly sympathise with the utopian turn of a John Muir or a Gandhi, or even some modern economists who, like Mumford, believe that a 'humanising technology' – that is, a technology that is subordinate to human values – could eventually broker a lasting harmony between the city and the countryside.

Guha's question is not merely ecological; it challenges us to think about ethics, aesthetics and the politics of living together. It forces us to consider whether capitalism, which thrives on multiplying desires, may not be fundamentally antithetical to the environmental cause. Of course, this is not to say that a state-controlled economic system would treat the environment any better; but as we are living in an age of triumphant capitalism and globalisation, the context is inescapable.

As for what the future holds for his readers, after moving though a fascinating tour of ecological history Guha lets the delicate tension between the activist and the scholar burst into a six-commandment sermon. While his prescription sounds sensible, it resembles a refrain of familiar bromides – participatory democracy, greater literacy, land reform, health care. All of this sits rather uncomfortably with his call for the privatisation of the production of goods and services, although he does say that social and environmental costs must be taken into account.

At the risk of sounding cynical, such platitudes will not be of much help to those Southasian readers who are as confused as this reviewer when it comes to real-life dilemmas. Should we, for instance, allow extractive industries to flourish, despite the fact that they are socially and ecologically disastrous? Should we continue to build large dams, despite mounting evidence that they cause irreparable damage to the environment? Should we build more nuclear reactors just because they emit less carbon than do thermal power-stations? Indeed, can we continue to grow at annual rates of up to ten percent without irreparably compromising our environment?

Guha's reflections on ecological history make for an excellent introduction to this complicated and crucial subject. But while his optimism – clearly inspired by the pragmatism of the heroes he discusses with such empathy – with regard to a liberal, democratic solution to ecological problems is admirable, it is not reassuring to the perplexed. Perhaps this reviewer came to How Much Should a Person Consume? looking not just for a historian who could excavate the past to illuminate the present, but for a philosopher who could enlighten us about where we should be heading.

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Himal Southasian