The tyranny of scholarship
Many of the 'Green' ideas that are bandied about the Himalaya environment have their origins deep within Germanic culture.
Himalaya: Life on the Edge of the World
David Zurick and P. P. Karan
Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1999
355 pp, USD35
The perceptions of those who have seen the Himalaya, and even of those who have not, are products of their respective cultural milieu. These perceptions not only relate to the aesthetics of mountain landscapes but also to 'scientific' notions about what constitute 'Himalayan environmental degradation'. This social construction of the Himalaya is not unique. It is evident in the perception and attitudes of Westerners to Tibet, as Peter Bishop records in his book The Myth of Shangri-La. My experience with Continental, especially Germanic, field scientists has taught me to critically examine the Himalayan knowledge that encumbers their minds. One major intellectual impediment of these European scientists is that they are invariably urban residents who have 'never done a day's work in their lives', that is, they have never made a living from the land; none of them has been a miner, a farmer, a rancher, a logger, or a fisherman.
I, too, carry my own cultural baggage around, but it is quite different from those of self-styled environmentalists prognosticating doom and gloom scenarios about mountains. I do not have an organic view of the world; moreover, I choose to live in a post-modern mountain landscape. I adhere to a stadial theory of mountain development, which is an outgrowth of the French Grenoble Stage model. In this model, Stage One is peasant life largely unfettered by the nation-state. Stage Two embraces initial modernization with state supervision of resources and the intrusion of wheeled vehicles. Stage Three ushers in motor vehicle routes, eliminating the friction of terrain, thereby stimulating a market economy promoting spatial emancipation for mountain residents. This phase culminates in extensive migration out of a marginal mountain environment unable to support individuals who are imbued with a sense of modernism.
Futurists, like Joel Kotkin, describe the incipient Stage Four, which I now embrace, to be a product of emerging deurbanisation through the telecommunication revolution linked with a desire to live in what is termed a 'mountain amenity landscape'. This is not just an American landscape; we can see a nascent Stage Four landscape in the foothills of the Himalaya, especially, Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal, and around the periphery of the Kathmandu Valley. Unlike the evolution of development in the Alps, the real problem with the Himalaya today is that all four stages of this stadial theory operate simultaneously in several places.
During the past quarter century, considerable attention has been accorded the Himalaya. Claims and counterclaims about the status of Himalayan habitat and society appear on a weekly basis. Zurick and Karan have provided the first attempt to systematically sift through all this detritus (including my own) that has washed off the steep slopes of Himalayan writing.
Outsiders, especially Europeans, have generated almost all the fussover the Himalaya since the 1970s. It is, therefore, worthwhile examining the cultural baggage that Europeans bring to the Himalaya as they make pronouncements about the status of its habitat and society and whether or not the Himalaya can be considered a region. "If persons seek a single vision of the Himalaya, they will remain frustrated, for there is no such thing," say Zurick and Karan. Gazing at the Himalaya is not value-free. It has provoked images of fear and loathing in some local folk in South Asia just as it stimulates adoration and even worship in others. At one time I was also culpable. On my initial visit to Kathmandu in 1966 I bought Toni Hagen's coffee table book Nepal: TheKingdom in the Himalayas.
The frenzy of attention on the Himalaya coincided with the rise of ecologism in the rich countries as many despaired about the slow progress of development in other parts of the world. Used in its normative sense, ecology is the rallying cry of those suffering from urban anomie wishing to return to an Arcadian rural life in a 'balanced' ecosystem—whatever that is. Today's myopic focus on the global environment probably started in 1972 at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. Barbara Ward and Rene Dubos' book Only One Earth predicted a global crisis in a world unable to sustain itself as population mushroomed. Similar predictions are still with us as organisations like Worldwatch churn out dire forecasts that are never realised. For the Himalaya, its environment was brought into focus as a result of the coalescence of external global concerns, like the 1972 UN conference, anxious academics seeking government funding, and the Continental Green movement. In the intervening quarter century, what was called the 'German Disease', so named because of a preponderance of Germanic ideas infused in the movement, has spread around the world.
Many of the 'Green' ideas that are bandied about the Himalayan environment have their origins deep within Germanic culture. The Nazi years brought many of these ideas to the fore and some are still with us. The quest for mystical ruralismwas seen in Hitler's correspondence with the Dalai Lama and in Himmler's visit to Tibet, presaging the Schaefer Nazi expedition there in the late 1930s. The annual Nazi scientific expeditions to the western
Himalaya from 1933 to 1939 exemplify this fusion of the aesthetic and the scientific. Even today we have similar large systematic German organised 'scientific' studies spread across the Greater Himalaya. One particularly noxious idea underlying the notion of 'sustainable development' is the tyranny of place once seen in Nazi agriculture minister, Walther Darre's Blut and Boden, 'blood and soil', that reinforces the ties that bind and, I would say, doom people to the land.
It is not surprising, too, that food fads enter into this equation. Your breakfast muesli as conceived by the Swiss German medical doctor, Bircher, is meant to replicate the ideal food of Hunza at the western end of the Himalaya. The emphasis of local ngo's and 'community development', not individual initiative these days, reminds one of the voelkisch sentiments expressed in Germany in the 1930s. Nature worship, health and nature cures seem to be in great demand among these people coming to the Himalaya for the first time. It was, however, in the realm of forests that German ideology first saw its impact on the Himalaya. Dietrich Brandis, appointed conservator of forests in India, was brought in to devise, for the British, forest planning and management on a large scale in the 19th century.
As Simon Schama has pointed out in his book Landscape and Memory, Germans are foremost a forest people. With this visage of vegetation and mountains, it was no surprise that by the early 1970s there should be a substantial German concern about mountains and forests. In 1974, the German Foundation for International Development held a workshop that highlighted supposed problems in the mountains. The workshop volume, edited by Mueller-Hoehenstein, foretold an impending disaster in the Himalaya. One ecologist stressed the need for an 'ecological balance' in the examination of mountains, as if mass wasting, glacial lake outburst floods and erratic monsoon rain deluges, and forest fires—all of which periodically shred the Himalaya—were not known. There never was any 'ecological balance' in the Himalaya. Migration, instead of being viewed as a progressive individual positive action by the mountain resident toward modernisation, was viewed as a 'negative spiral'. Further reinforcement of these cultural perceptions of the Himalaya, in particular, came at the 1976 Heidelberg Seminar of the Himalayan Ecosystem Research Mission to Nepal. The subsequent report has echoes of Friedrich Ratzel's raubzvirtschaft—the exploitative economy—with references to deforestation and environmental degradation. This 19th century sentiment does not wither away easily as United Nations reports, like the UNESCO MAB-6 projects about mountains, contain references to a 'Stability-Instability Thesis'.
These concerns about the Himalayan environment neatly meshed with the academic ideas of the day, notably geoecology, the successor to 'landscape ecology', that was born in 1938 as a product of a Nazi sponsored Himalaya expedition. These Nazi expeditions were sent to the Himalaya, ostensibly for mountain climbing but often including in their scientific objectives the enumeration and gathering of wild and domestic plants grown by local people who were to be certified as Aryan. Physiognomic measurements of skulls and noses of the local residents would certify that the Himalayan plant species that were to be planted in the colder, drier parts of the new lebensraum, in conquered Poland and the Soviet Union—once the local population was displaced—were indeed grown and eaten by authenticated Aryans in their native habitat.
Nanga Parbat to Namche Barwa
Zurick and Karan, a young American from the Midwest and an older, sometime Indian, carry with them their own cultural perceptions of the Himalaya. They acknowledge that, "Scholars, politicians, and visitors continue to see the mountains in significantly different ways, and differently from the views of the native residents." Thankfully, they diverge from the Germanic view of the Himalaya. In writing their book on the Himalaya, they tackle the predominant environmentalist perception of reality head-on. I use the term environmentalist here in its contemporary sense and not in its traditional meaning of a person who believes in environmental determinism.
The authors pronounce any generalisation about the Himalaya as untenable; such is the great range of habitat use in the mountains. They do this on the basis of field studies in seven locations, Kulu and the Sutlej in Himachal Pradesh, Alaknanda in Uttaranchal, the Annapurna region in Nepal, Sikkim, and two, Tongsa and Mongar, in Bhutan. The 15 chapters are written in a highly readable style for the non expert, providing the reader with four historical chapters in the middle of the book, a template if you will, on which to lay out the conditions of the sampled locations. The seven sample sites were selected to examine the role of natural processes and development. I know of no other single volume that has embraced such a wide coverage of the Himalaya. Usually, when one reads about the Himalaya the focus is only on Nepal—just one quarter of the Greater Himalaya. However, in this volume the authors adhere to its geologically defined extent, Nanga Parbat to NamcheBarwa. Topics tackled include the impact of roads, agricultural projects, tourism, and population growth producing environmental change. Perhaps, the most significant contribution of the book is the set of maps of 120 Himalayan districts. Once more, this is the first time a panoptic vision of the Himalaya has been published, despite the fact that one institution at least, ICIMOD in Kathmandu, is mandated to provide a comprehensive view of the entire South Asian mountain rimland. Only a co-edited volume produced by a Swiss-German alpine geomorphologist, Bruno Messerli, HimalayanEnvironment; Pressures, Problems,Processes: Twelve Years of Research,has attempted to cover 'zones' of the Himalayan environment.
The authors sketch in some of the pertinent historical ramifications of Europeans in the Himalaya, especially in the past quarter century. Most of the conceptual thrust is aimed at examining the purported 'Theory of Himalayan Degradation' that was an outgrowth of the above mentioned field studies by Messerli and his colleagues in the late 1970s into the 1980s. Messerli's 'Stability- Instability' thesis provided the conceptual basis for a Swiss study of three sample sites chosen to represent his idea of the typical Himalayan environments: Khumbu representing the high mountains (where annual foreign visitors now outnumber the local population by a ratio of 5:1); Kakani on the metropolitan outskirts of Kathmandu; and a low hills location in India near the state capital of Chandigarh. Zurick and Karan sift through this early period of Eurocentric concern, much of it faithfully recorded in a Swiss financed journal, Mountain Researchand Development. They state that "the theory of environmental degradation in the end described a situation that was never the case".
Opportunism by foreign development organizations flush with consultants, coupled with the commodification of the Himalaya by temporary sojourners, has diverted attention away from the basic fact that today, mountain dwellers with the aspirations of consumer society cannot fulfil their desires in resource-scarce mountains. Many, like their counterparts in the Alps in the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, will migrate to the plains, as pages 212-219, about migration and town life, describe. Maps in the book reveal the central theme of the authors' credo that no generalization can be made about the Himalayan environment. Some districts exhibit increases in forest cover, others indicate a decline. Insofar as the notion that population increases cause the extension of agricultural land into forests is concerned, the authors state that, "there is no general condition of population and of the mountain resources although it is a critical factor at numerous specific locations".
While settling many claims and counter claims about the status of the Himalayan environment, I think the book also goads other researchers into examining in greater detail the meso- and macro-level features of the South Asian mountain rimland. Scholarly and scientific astigmatism has diverted attention away from working with data sets, accumulated over the decades at a range of scales, to an emphasis on village studies. Almost all these village studies suffer from the universal fallacy of generalizing from the attributes of the particular.
We know for Nepal, at least, that it does not really matter whether you live in the terai, hills, or mountains, the poorest districts of Nepal, as measured by the UNDP Human Development Index, are all concentrated at the western end of Nepal, the region farthest from the capital and the donor agencies
The book under review demonstrates the advantages of an overview based on accumulated data. With the data at their disposal, I expected to see a comparative analysis of a set of variables common to all seven sample sites. I am sure the authors, however, did not want to overload this book intended for a general and not scholarly readership. For the same reason, I suggest, they did not want to enter into a slugfest about the contemporary cultural perceptions of Europeans viewing the Himalaya that gave rise to the 'Theory of Himalayan Degradation', as I have done. One commentator, K. MacDonald, not mentioned in the book, in a lengthy review article on Messerli's work in the 1994 issue of Environments: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, states that there never was a 'theory' of any kind.
With the limited resources available to two investigators, courtesy of the U.S. National Science Foundation, Zurick and Karan have brought to public attention a level of resolution about life in the Himalaya that hitherto was unavailable. Many more lavishly funded efforts have only accomplished a fraction of the product of this book. Himalayan district maps and 27 pages of tabular material on a whole array of worthwhile topics in the book's Appendix should stimulate further interest.
For their part, Himalayan dwellers are voting, and they are voting with their feet; they are taking a hike down to the plains and settling into lowland life. Stage Three beckons.