Environmental Crisis: Challenges in the 21st Century

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The crisis in global environmentalism has deepened more than ever before. While some advocate a ‘return to the earth’ path, involving lifestyle changes to save global population from starvation, others put forth a strong case for tough regulations through proper institutional frameworks for realizing a larger, shared global sustainability. However, there is no denial of the fact that environmental crisis is increasingly becoming globalised and local initiatives, although important, are not enough to address the present crisis.

At the same time, global efforts at saving the earth from further devastation have also run into rough weather, thanks to the enormous political, economic and social differences between the North and the South, as well as the changed nature of Nation States. The cautious optimism of the Rio World Conference in 1992 (popularly known as the ‘Earth Summit’) which tried to hammer out a cooperative path toward long-term sustainability, linking development with environment has given way to skepticism, mainly due to bickering about increasing spending and cost–sharing between the rich and the poor nations. The North’s concern about climate change and biodiversity preservation have gained primary focus, pushing the South’s worries about clean water, food scarcity, and healthy agro-eco systems to a secondary status, leading to bargaining and crafting multilateral treaties.

The summits that followed have become a theatre for replaying the already existing global divisions based on an uneven balance of power, even becoming vehicles for legitimizing further industrial growth, providing more opportunities for MNCs and big corporate players to reap more money in the name of sustainable development. The very premise of such global summits is increasingly being questioned for its flawed notions of sustainability and ‘economic modernization’ which are inherently capital-intensive. The criticism is that such a globalised approach while promising marginal gains, has ignored more fundamental social, political and economic changes needed to achieve true sustainability. This has led many to see with greater clarity, that economic relations can never be seen as independent from ecological systems that sustain life on the planet.

The ‘Reformist/ Survivalist’ Approach

The present approach to environmental problems differs substantially from those that were prevalent when the first concerted efforts began in the late 1960s. The primary concerns then were about the negative environmental consequences of unregulated industrial development,
depletion of resources and increase in population pressure. Some of the path -breaking books of that decade like, ‘Silent Spring’ (‘62), ‘Limits to Growth’ (’72) and ‘Blueprint for Survival’ (’72) argued for an ‘authoritarian’ and ‘survivalist’ strategy as the basis for environmentalism. These terms signify harsh measures necessary to control the effective use of finite and limited resources. The ever increasing population, these books argued, would result in scarcity and struggle for survival. The focus, therefore, was on social control since, left to themselves individuals do not self-regulate their consumption or profits. The belief was that adequate eco-friendly technological development would answer the ‘survivalist’ crisis and that an effective combination of social control and technological innovation would lead to better environmental management. Thus, it showed a firm faith in the adaptability of institutions, along with a belief in the application of science, rationality and managerial ingenuity.

However, it should be recognized that early environmentalism was reformist in its content, and manipulative (i.e. human skill and knowledge could transform nature into a ‘desired garden’). For instance, though it demanded social control, it did not dwell into its mechanization like, who controls social organizations and whose interests they serve. In other words, it did not raise hard political questions about power relations that govern the mode of production and distribution. The ideological basis of this approach, which is generally termed ‘techno-centric environmentalism’, is still active and wields considerable influence among many contemporary environmental initiatives. It has now taken the form of new taxes, governmental sanctions and penalties, standard setting of emissions and other pollutants. As O’Riordan puts it, it has produced a ‘superficially alternative reform’, which is essentially a survival strategy for the political status quo. According to him, the techno-centric environmentalists ‘believe that they can upgrade the quality of existence for the entire world’s people so long as the right entrepreneurial conditions hold’.

The debates that happen within global summits, in a way, uphold this view. In spite of severe disagreements, which sometimes veer towards a total breakdown, they are in general agreement about maintaining a status quo in the structures of power. More often than not, the summits function like pressure groups to push establishments in certain directions without altering the exploitative nature of the state or raising some fundamental questions about the North-South divide. The globalization of environmentalism is also a part of globalization of economy
and hence without questioning the roots of globalization, new environmental praxis is difficult to emerge.

Take for example, how global pacts on environmental protection finally end up serving the interests of multinational companies like Cargil, Monsanto, or Du Pont. These agrobusiness giants have been pushing GM food as a technological alternative to food crisis. These efforts at tackling the problem of agricultural production through biotechnology have drawn sharp criticism from environmentalists themselves, if one sees the severe protest demonstrations that take place at every global summit. The critics point out that MNCs are using environmental crisis to engineer their cause and increase their hold on farmers, which has only ended up in pushing agriculture into a debt trap, particularly in Third World societies. All these developments have brought in a realization that the crisis today cannot be solved by a technological approach and
attention to social, cultural, political and economic dimensions are crucial.

Bio-centrism or Deep Ecology Approach

In opposition to the techno-centric, regulatory forms of solution to the environmental crisis, some have put forth the idea of an eco-centric approach, also known by other terms like bio-centrism or deep ecology. In spite of some important differences within, this approach shares certain common concerns which can be characterized as promotion of self-reliance and sufficiency, focus on a new environmental ethics that includes respect for all life forms, and an emphasis on decentralized, democratic, small-scale communities using ‘soft technology’ like reliance on renewable resources, organic farming etc. The well known slogan, ‘Act locally and think Globally’ stems from this position.

The eco-centric worldview has led to the formation of green politics based on ecological balance, social responsibility, grassroots activism, and the philosophy of non-violence. Most of the third world down-to-earth activism, like our own Narmada Bachao Andolan, are examples of this approach. These movements succeeded in fusing environmental concerns with those of social justice and equity, thereby making environmental issues into a political question. However, some brands of deep ecology most notably that of Lovelock and Capra, tend to perceive ecological crisis as rooted in the spiritual impoverishment caused by industrial society and an enlightenment-driven, rationalist worldview. As a cure to the ills of techno-rational modernity, they call for awareness about the ‘embeddedness’ of nature where everything is connected to everything else. It also highlights the deep connections between nature and the feminine self, leading to eco-feminism. It rejects a reformist approach to solving the crisis since reforming a system, which is fundamentally flawed, will not do. But, this approach is not without its limitations either. Taken to its limits deep ecology, with its emphasis on self-purification, could remain inimical to the complexities of social structures that are equally embedded with the question of political economy.

Eco-Feminist Approach

The aspirations of eco-centricism promoting close linkages between ecology and feminism on the one hand and an ecological world view that upholds right of nature (including animal rights) as a spiritual value on the other, can be traced back to those heady days of the 60s, when several counter cultural movements emerged along with environmental concerns. Two such movements deserve mention: feminism and civil rights. Together, these ideas heralded a new turn in the human history of intellectual growth that continue to influence much of contemporary thought. By unsettling many accepted notions of knowledge, culture and political theories, they ushered in new forms of questioning the status quo, including orthodox Marxism.

For instance, the period witnessed a marked disillusionment with economybased class struggle as the only form of ‘authentic’ revolt against authoritarianism, exploitation and social injustice. By inserting the notion of gender and race, they drew attention to the ways in which class was structured through gender and racial relations. The patriarchal technology of governance subjugated women, which in many ways was similar to the subjugation of nature for “man’s” needs. Marxism came under attack for sidelining these markers of exploitation and promoting economic reductionism and Soviet brand of authoritarianism. It cannot be denied that in spite of its radicalism, the left-thinking ignored both women and environmental issues to a secondary status relegating them to the domain of the super-structure.

Eco-Socialist Approach

As far as their faith in technology and progress was concerned, there was very little difference between the right and the left. In spite of the basic difference as to the means of production, both the orthodox left and its capitalist other believed in unlimited growth and exploitation of nature for human ends. The Marxist practice had very little sympathy with environmental issues, even though Marxism as a philosophy had emphasized the emergence of a ‘new man’ under socialism who is not alienated from either labour or nature. The rigidity of left thinking in India with regard to environmental issues becomes clear when one sees their cold-shouldered approach to NBA and big dams. The communist parties were conspicuously absent in many environmental movements in Karnataka like ‘Save Kuduremukh’ or anti-nuclear struggles. On the contrary,
the CPM-affiliated youth wing DYFI brought out a pamphlet in support of continuing Kuduremukh Iron Company, as closing it would affect the workers’ livelihood. Even today, though both the CPI and CPM oppose nuclear bombs, they are not averse to nuclear power stations.

The challenges thrown up by the advent of new ideas altered the theoretical underpinnings of left thinking, leading to what is called the ‘greening of the left’. By absorbing many concerns of feminism and environmentalism, Post-Marxist critical theory has grown sensitive to the issues of gender, race/ caste as well as to those of ecology. The mapping of Marxism with ecology and women issues has developed into a new paradigm in environmental studies called eco-socialism.

The socialist analysis of environmental issues is to be seen as a part of the rebuilding of the left. While upholding several aspirations of eco-centricism, ecosocialism tries to locate the ecological crisis within a dominant capital structure. Unlike the followers of deep ecology,
left environmentalists would like to go beyond mere lifestyle or behavioural change and look into the structures of governance that prevent a full realization of personal changes. It is now becoming increasingly clear that a few experiments in organic farming, however important such initiatives are, will not be enough to tackle the larger issue of agricultural crisis, which is intricately connected to a new-liberal policy of market economy and privatization. In a situation where national sovereignty in terms of trade and resource use are at stake and poorer nations are forced to accept economic liberalization, there is very little scope for meaningful change towards a sustainable agricultural development. Bringing lifestyle changes and developing a close bond with nature that eco-centricism favours, do not happen in a vacuum. Economic and political conditions shape environmental attitudes far more deeply than psychology or spirituality.

Similarly, eco-socialism has its differences with feminism that essentialises women as ‘natural associates of nature’ and can slip easily into an apolitical understanding of gender relations. While acknowledging the deeper connections between domination of nature and of women, eco-socialism tends to view the gender relations as intricately woven with those of class, race and caste. For instance, it is usually the poor and socially marginalized women who bear the brunt of ecological crisis, be it the scarcity of food or water. As many have noted, the link between destruction of nature and the destruction of women’s livelihoods manifests both materially and ideologically. Vandana Shiva, for instance, observes that globalization has
created a new form of ‘environmental apartheid’, which ‘restructures control over resources in such a way that the natural resources of the poor are systematically taken over by the rich, and the pollution of the rich is systematically dumped on the poor’.

To conclude, it can be said that the environmental crisis of the 21st century has thrown open multiple challenges and a wide range of issues that can be addressed only through multiple ideologies and practices. Given the realities of capitalism, resource-conserving and non-consumerist practices will never be promoted as a viable solution for they work against market economy of profiteering. The expectation that a set of policy changes, along with technological innovations, could bring a renaissance in environmental protection is unrealistic. It calls for a more radical transformation in the social, political, cultural and economic arenas with a clear focus on a more socially just, economically viable and environmentally sound alternatives. Environmental degradation has to be seen as a major contradiction of the 21st century capitalism, an awareness that is crucial to pave way for an equitable society. The various struggles of adivasis and poorer sections of society against mining, SEZs and other corporate appropriation of resources that have spread all over the country is an indication as to where the future challenges and solutions lie.

Dr. V.S. Sreedhara is a Professor of English at Vijaya College, Bangalore. He is also a human rights activist, and has edited numerous books in Kannada. He has been part of textbook committees at both pre-university and degree levels.