2 january 2013

[4C note: Ramachandra Guha is the author of India After Gandhi. The History of the World's Largest Democracy, as well as of important studies of Indian social problems.]

The return of environmentalism

Ramachandra Guha, Financial Times December 2, 2013

In September, the environmental community marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. That book highlighted the threats to human health and natural systems posed by unregulated industrialisation - and did so in such a compelling way that it sparked a major global popular movement.

Carson identified two reasons for the lack of attention to environmental abuse. "This is an era of specialists", she wrote, "each of whom sees his own problem and is unaware of or intolerant of the larger frame into which it fits. It is also an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged." Carson offered the integrative science of ecology as a corrective to specialised approaches By the late 1980s, however, there was a backlash against sustainability.

In the US, the Reagan administration dismantled environmental laws and safeguards. In China, and soon afterwards in India, the motto of "get rich quickly" led to the interests of miners, developers and industrialists being placed above those of people who lived on (and by) the land. Environmentalists were, once more, dismissed as party-poopers.

The environmental and social costs of unregulated development are increasingly visible. Superstorm Sandy brought climate change back into public debate. At a more everyday level, hundreds of millions of people struggle with the consequences of rampant air and water pollution, the depletion of groundwater aquifers, the decimation of forests and the decline of biodiversity.

Next year, and in the years to follow, these and other such conflicts will slowly make their way back into the mainstream of public discourse. The disparagement of environmentalists by the "End of History" wallahs, the gung-ho free-marketeers, the "what is good for the Ambanis is good for India" ideologues, has and must run its course. Otherwise, we are on the way to collectively stripping the world bare like locusts.

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