On one hand, the modern world is galloping with technology, on the other, it is grappling with increasing fundamental environmental issues. It is time we make amends, but how? Speaking to Ashish Kothari, environmentalist and expert on biodiversity and development policies, and co-founder of Kalpavriksh, a not-for profit environmental action group based in Pune, gives us some answers.
Where did it start for you, when did you perceive you could use your knowledge to do good and positively impact the society?
AK: My interest in wildlife issues and rights started in high school. Growing up in Delhi, my friends and I used to visit the Delhi Ridge Forest for walks and birdwatching. There, we came across a lot of destruction which made us realise that we can’t just sit around and do nothing; we must protect it. That was one of my earliest motivations. Also, in those early years we were lucky to meet with senior environmentalists and groups like the Chipko movement.
We learnt a lot about the interconnections between wildlife, environment, and various economic, political, and social aspects. We travelled to many parts of India, and met a lot of movements. In Tehri Garhwal region of the Himalaya, it was actually the women protecting forests which showed us the relation between gender and environment. We learnt a lot and believed that as young citizens, it was our responsibility to try and do something, not only for ourselves, but also for the people and wildlife who have been affected but whose voices are never heard.
What are the challenges of being an environmental activist?
AK: Honestly, many things. Both governments and private players, before and after modernisation [of the Indian economy]. One big challenge is that such people give us superficial solutions, such as recycling or carbon trading, which does not tackle the root of the problem of waste, climate crisis, etc. Another challenge is that protesting is somewhat easy (though often it brings on threats from those who we are protesting against), but
actually solving the problem is harder and more complex.
“The vested interests behind the destruction are very powerful. We realised soon enough that it is a huge challenge to try and change the set of power relations. The biggest challenge is that those who have political and economic power do not care for the environment and the poor. The private and government forces are often united, so they are able to continue their destructive ways.”
The third big challenge that we face is the inequalities within society. Urban environmentalists have traditionally not dealt adequately with casteism, gender inequalities etc; only in recent times have we realised that these are all inter-connected.
How detrimental is the advancement of technology for nature?
AK: Technology has not necessarily “advanced”, it has grown exponentially in power and reach, and the pathways on which it has blossomed, are disruptive. For example, it might have taken a full day to cut a fully grown tree, but today, with machinery, it’s a two-minute job. There are hundreds of such examples and this is the overall trend, especially where these technologies are in the hands of the state or corporations. But there are also technologies that facilitate ecological sensitivity and social awareness. For instance, decentralised solar technologies, which are becoming simpler and cheaper; or open source technologies that are democratically accessible. So, it depends on the sector; but in general, technology is not the main solution, it can only contribute.
Bill Gates recently wrote a book on climate change. He depends heavily on technology to solve the problem, but fundamental socio-political and economic problems like inequality, hunger and relationship with nature is something that technology cannot solve. Take India’s food security scenario, there are 200-300 million people who don’t have adequate access. If there is hunger, it’s not because of lack of food, it’s because of lack of justice. So technofix is sometimes useful, but not the fundamental solution.
What are your views on this statement: The safest place on earth is the one not found by humans yet.
AK: Humans are amongst the newest species on Earth. So, to say that nature cannot exist without us, or that we can improve it, is rubbish. Safest place is where nature is still able to continue evolving the way it has for millions of years. Yes, it would be where human beings are absent, but we should also remember that human beings are part of nature, and our sheer presence is not destructive. It depends on the levels of exploitation and intensity. So we argue that in the quest to conserve nature, we should not be displacing indigenous peoples and other local communities that have demonstrated relatively harmonious co- existence for millennia; what needs to change dramatically is the consumption and production patterns of industrialised parts of humanity, and in particular elites and the rich.
What, in your opinion, is the biggest global environmental concern presently?
AK: That’s a little difficult. Everybody thinks of the climate crisis, but from even before this, the biodiversity crisis has been humongous. The number of species that have become extinct or endangered over the past few decades is huge. Seas and oceans cover 70% of the Earth, and each one of them is already suffering decline in marine species. This also affects the fishing community’s livelihoods. People in general who depend on nature for food, medicine, livelihoods are seriously threatened. Other serious problems include the widespread contamination of water, soil, air by toxics of all kinds; how astoundingly stupid we are to create plastics that have ended up halving the sperm count of men in many industrialised countries!
Is there a permanent solution to the environmental problems that persist today, or is there no respite in sight?
AK: I think we must discard fatalism. We must get rid of the thought that karma or a god controls the future. If we have created the problem, then we should find a solution. This has been our work for the past few years, to document and help network the thousands of fantastic solutions and problem-solvers that are already transforming lives. These are not necessarily scientists; they are ‘ordinary’ people with extraordinary innovations, skills, generosity, and goodwill. Our sites www.vikalpsangam.org and https://radicalecologicaldemocracy.org have many stories of this kind on food, water, health, education etc.
“An inspiring example is of four to five thousand Dalit women of Deccan Development Society in Telangana who revived their agriculture based on bajra, jowar, ragi, local dal and rice varieties, with traditional seeds, organic inputs and rainwater. With only their skill and knowledge, they eradicated food shortage, generated their own income, and also gained respect in a society that earlier looked down on them. If they can progress without damaging the environment, why can’t we?”
There are many such examples: of water sovereignty by decentralised harvesting and local management even in low rainfall areas, of alternative health and learning that reaches everyone and builds on local knowledge, of local governance of nature and natural resources, and so on. We can learn from them and apply their principles; we can’t replicate and we should not ‘upscale’ these, but we can observe, learn, adapt, and what I call ‘ouscale’ them. This is something we’ve been promoting through Vikalp Sangam and Global Tapestry of Alternatives.
How can green or eco politics solve developmental problems and raise environmental awareness?
AK: If you mean setting up a green party and fighting elections, I am not so sure that is the way to go. An attempt was made to create a green party, but it has not gone anywhere. Whereas in the UK and Germany, they’re quite strong. But even there, its only partially and temporarily beneficial because it does not fundamentally change society. Politics needs to be grounded, organisations and parties have to redefine themselves to remain grounded in people and communities, and to balance power with responsibility, or else it’s of no use. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “first duties, then rights”.
Democracy is not about electing politicians, it’s when people are in power. Several central Indian adivasi villages have adopted this. They have full control and take collective decisions and implement them. If this is what you mean by green politics, then yes, it can bring solutions. These villages also fully control their forests, and through the Forest Rights Act, they have taken over from the Forest Department and pushed out private companies who were using the forests unsustainably. They use the forests’ resources with their own measures of sustainability, and a part of the consequent income is reinvested in the betterment of the village. Today, these funds are helping migrant workers returning due to the pandemic.
That is real Swaraj, radical or grounded democracy, but with responsibility towards other humans and the rest of nature (so we call it eco-swaraj or prakritik swaraj). An interesting idea arising from this is replacing current political constituencies with ecological and cultural regions. For example, dividing the Sundarbans between India and Bangladesh makes no economic, ecological or social sense; the same for desert/mountains between India and Pakistan, high altitude desert between India and China, marine areas between India and Sri Lanka, etc. These could be areas of ecologically sustainable, local governance, with peace as a central objective.
Any means of production should be with the workers and stakeholders. The economy must transform itself and fit within the ecology. One thing most economics students are never taught is, Economics and Ecology are both from the Greek word oikos, which means ‘home’. Economics is about managing a home; Ecology is about understanding it. How will you manage something without first understanding it? You will destroy it, which is what modern economics (and ‘development’ based on it) has done. Also, economics is not only about financial transactions; why should we not relate to each other through non-monetary exchange, caring and sharing, and goodwill like often used to happen earlier? There are many global examples of the revival of such relations, e.g. time banking and community currencies. Economics needs to be holistic; development is not about increase in GDP, but about well-being for all, including the non-human.
The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.