A view of Ladakh from Leh Palace. Photo: Sandeep Kr Yadav/Unsplash.
On the eve of World Environment Day, we were struck by images of an elephant in despair who lost her life after feeding on fruit stuffed with crackers that were meant to ward off wild boars (from agriculture fields) in Palakkad, Kerala. It was no surprise that the initial news was put out without the full background and details.
But even as the facts slowly emerged there was an outpouring of rage across the social media. ‘Murder’ exclaimed many, including industrialist Ratan Tata. ‘Shoot them’ or ‘hang them’ others appealed, pointing at the perpetrators. Snide remarks on communist Kerala’s literacy rate were made by the saffron brigade and the fake-news factory churned out tales to monger hate against Muslim people. The selective moral indignation was called out by others. But this ‘calling out’, with the ‘where were you when…’ prefix, does little to unravel the depths and the interconnected roots underlying the crisis that has been staring at us in the face, ever more since we became the modern industrial civilisation that we are.
As we flinched at the site on our screens, it did not once strike us that perhaps we are complicit in this atrocity. The complicity does not arise from the mere fact that we are human. We would like to believe that we believe so. But if we really were true to this thought then we would not be asking for capital punishment for ‘them’, ‘the cruel’ farmers, the ones we have promptly ‘otherised’. The ones who live off and on the land, who have lived in close proximity and perhaps harmony, with wild animals, until a generation or two ago. Cultural practices and lifestyles reveal that this relationship is not dead yet.
We failed to question what disturbed this relationship, what brought them into conflict with their surroundings and why they had to resort to save their farms using these methods. We did not ask what makes the elephants and other beings for whom forests are their most loved places venture out into farms and human habitations. What is the condition of the abodes they once occupied today? Were they swallowed by an airport, a dam, a mine, a city? Or were they shrunk to a calculated and fenced-off area called a ‘park’ or a ‘sanctuary’, the boundaries of which are not apparent to animals?
The answers are not unobvious. We should know, if we already do not, that it is large scale deforestation and rampant change of landscapes that has led to a loss of habitats of wild fauna as well as displacement of land and forest dependent people for several decades now. The proverbial ‘elephant’ in the room that took the life of the real one is what we commonly understand as ‘development’ today. This is the ‘development’ we partake in. This is the ‘development’ by which the Tatas, the Ambanis and the Adanis created and amassed wealth.
It is convenient to draw upon the ‘anthropocentric’ versus ‘eco-centric’, the ‘human’ versus ‘nature’ binary that cleverly clubs all humans into a single homogenous category, thus letting the real culprits off the hook. The visible atrocity on nature and its beings is just a manifestation of protracted structural exploitation put in place by design and made deliberately invisible by the powerful. It is not non-human living beings that are the oppressed here, but humans too. The class, caste, gender, race inequities that we see all around us stem from the same utilitarian system of commodification, extraction and accumulation on which modern development thrives, too.
Those who are dominant in the hierarchy are the engineers and beneficiaries of this system that has impacted our ecology the most, and rendered oppressed people more and more vulnerable. Those at the receiving end are forced by this system to be in a state of constant internal conflict, scampering for space and resources just to survive. And yet this domination, as a whole, is rarely ever called out. Capitalism, neoliberal development, casteism, racism, patriarchy, the military-industrial complex and fascist nation-states as interrelated systems of domination that perpetuate structural violence against fellow humans and against nature are not called out enough. At least not by many who proclaim concern for the environment.
Where this emerges from and what it leads to is an environmentalism of the rich and powerful. This environmentalism uses language, concepts and ideas that came from the same international institutions promoting the agenda of neoliberal globalisation, the very driver of ecological destruction. For instance, ‘sustainable development’, which has thus far translated to how to sustain ‘development’ and ‘polluter pays’, essentially means pollute and pay.
This environmentalism excludes those proximate to nature and turns them into enemies. Especially in the courts of law, where the adivasi and forest-dweller is labelled an ‘encroacher’ or as destroyer of the forest, and where, ironically, the submergence of a whole ecosystem is hailed as being in the ‘national interest’. This environmentalism propagates a technocratic and managerial approach to environmental regulation, where ‘environment impact assessment’ studies are churned out by paid consultants and ‘experts’ who are really rubber stamps to assess the environmental feasibility of a ‘development’ project. It commodifies nature further with financial instruments like ‘payment for ecosystem services’ and ‘compensatory afforestation’, which legitimises deforestation and then continues to displace livelihoods of forest-dependent people and replace natural forests with ‘human’-made ones.
This environmentalism separates us from nature, which is to be preserved as ‘inviolate’. So forest-dependent people are moved out of forests, which are to be declared ‘protected areas’ that are to be free of humans, where urban tourists take their children for a vacation to let them experience first-hand, through an outsider’s gaze, how the forest smells and how tigers roar. This environmentalism morphs itself into spiritual enlightenment, guided by a godman who can and intends to bring alive all the rivers of the country. This environmentalism will push for green growth. And that means lithium will be mined from forests to produce solar energy which we will call ‘clean’ as we continue to be the power-guzzling millennials that we are.
Also read: But Why Is the Cauvery Calling?
This environmentalism is a COP-out, pun intended. We do not need sermons on how climate-change negotiations of governments led by corporate greed will and can stop the boat from sinking. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, we used the ‘we are all in the same boat’ analogy to comfort ourselves. But fool ourselves is what we did, or even lie to ourselves. A counterview expressed how we may be in the middle of the same storm but the boats are differently sized, with a few on the biggest ship. What we missed is that this storm and many more have been historically whipped up by the big ship, and will continue to be.
Any real engagement on the ecological crisis will have to be driven by a quest for justice and truth, which calls for delving into political, social, cultural and economic contexts minus the blinkers. An ideological shift is warranted that begins with understanding the intersectional nature of multiple oppressions and building sensitivity and solidarities. The collective agenda as well as the approach will have to be driven from the ground based on this solidarity. It is then that we may stop considering ourselves the ‘saviours’ of nature and truly understand how we are a part of it.
Manshi Asher is an environmental justice activist and part of the Himdhara Collective.