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Environmentalism sans excuses

Published : Jun 29, 2016, 6:30 am IST
Updated : Jun 29, 2016, 6:30 am IST

This is not just another book on the environment or environmentalism. It serves many a purpose including imparting education on problems in environmentalism and the discourses around it.

Smoke streams from the chimneys of the E.ON coal-fired power station  in Gelsenkirchen, Germany 	—AP
 Smoke streams from the chimneys of the E.ON coal-fired power station in Gelsenkirchen, Germany —AP

This is not just another book on the environment or environmentalism. It serves many a purpose including imparting education on problems in environmentalism and the discourses around it. Having been an insider to the world of environmentalism for over three decades, Sunita Narain brings to the fore several issues, problems, policies and practices that the contemporary world is engaged in and is aware of but not willing to address. Deliberate and not so deliberate actions and practices of the government and people today are discussed in a manner in which the issue is directly broken down as anecdotes, events and processes involved in developments over the last four decades, and the book suggests ways and means to overcome them to make earth a better place to live in.

‘Tolerance’ may be the most frequently discussed word after the present government assumed power more than two years ago in India. Narain has chosen to tell us about more serious and much larger aspects of environmental tolerance — the rich tolerating some of the environmentally unfriendly actions of the poor; why poor nations need to come out of the good old argument that they also need to undergo the processes of wealth production i.e. development that has an impact on the environment that the west underwent; why the problems of drainage and toilets in urban India is not addressed, or why the governments don’t want to address them, among many other things. All is said in a crisp manner. The merits of the essays lie in their succinctness and brevity — somebody said long ago that brevity is the soul of wit and this is seen in every essay, for no piece is longer than three pages, but each tells tales in depth, some are disturbing and some damage belief in practices that are said to protect the environment.

With the nine themes on environment viz. climate change, excreta, energy, governance, urbanisation, air pollution, health, water and forests, Narain makes a case for a comprehensive and inclusive rethink on the environment and the need to reflect on much-debated environmentalism issues. The one thread that runs all through the essays is the western model of growth and countries like India and China that are trying to emulate it. She says in her preamble, “The Western model of growth that India and China wish most feverishly to emulate is intrinsically toxic.” In the eye-opening essay ‘Two cities, two cultures’ she juxtaposes the Romans and the people Edo, which has become the city of Tokyo. The Romans could not manage human waste, which resulted in the destruction of their rivers while the people of Edo managed their waste outside the city, far away from rivers and water bodies. She tells us the Romans’ rivers are now history while Edo’s still live on. She says, “Today we are all children of Rome, not Edo.” She cautions us, ‘Literally, no small or medium river today is clean. Every river that passes through a city or a town becomes a stinking sewer.’ None can deny this.

The essay, ‘Why excreta matters.’ shows how the water you flush into toilets (in cities) is robbing water from rivers, where it is sent back, making them drains. ‘Coming generations will forget that the Yamuna, the Cauvery and the Damodar were rivers. They will know them as drains, only drains.’ This reminds us of Chennai’s Koovam, now a big drain, which was a river a hundreds year ago.

The essays induce guilt over ‘human acts’ that have been detrimental to the environment and, in due course, will prove dangerous to humans. There has been unmindful use of natural resources and complete lack of any sign of concern that our actions are leading to a kind of degradation, and — as scientist Stephen Hawking said — the fight for resources will be the final war on earth and between planets.’ In one of the essays in the chapter ‘Urbanisation’ she discusses the smart cities project of present government. This, the author believes, will work only if it can reinvent the very idea of urban growth in a country like India. She further argues that our cities have been built to be car-free. We are now desperately shoving, pushing and parking vehicles down the narrow lanes. Instead, the idea of mobility itself should be changed and the city must be built for walking, cycling, bus and metro.

The chapter on air pollution has three essays: ‘Cars, more cars’, ‘Lifeless on the fast lane’, and ‘The right right’. All three deal with the how our roads — particularly urban roads function and are used today. Citing the example of Chennai, which has seen 10 per cent growth in population and a staggering 108 per cent growth in private vehicles in the last decade, Narain claims this can be accidental because public transport in many cities cater to 50-70 per cent of commuters while private vehicles constitute over 90 per cent of all vehicles. Also narrated is the story of the Nano and its desire to meet an aspiration. The right of every Indian to own a car reveals how the subsidy that the government gives to cheap car production acts as a booster for the people (who may not actually need) to buy cars. The questions asked by the author have to be answered: Can the government write off the costs — Nano style — so that everyone can buy the car Can the government pay for our parking, our roads and our fuels, so that everyone can drive the car ”

I still remember what environmental historian Ramchandra Guha asked in his book How Much Should a Person Consume “If everybody owns a car, where will we have space to park them ” It is not that Narain attempts to provoke the powers that be; she is also offering solutions to them.

The chapter ‘Forests’ has a caption that reads ‘If you alienate people from their habitations, you will only beget violence and lose productivity’. Managing and conserving forests are a burden on states and they are no longer able or willing to undertake these activities. The statement

‘Our forests are too important to be left unused and uncared for’ makes sense for conservationist like Madhav Gadgil, and Guha too advocates the protection of forests. Similarly the essay, ‘Money does grow on trees’ makes a case for using trees for productive purposes. The essays awaken readers to the fact that they are part and parcel of all these happenings and that they must reflect, introspect and initiate action.

As an educator I feel this book is a must-read for teachers, school students and students at the university level, so that they learn real environmentalism, not simply the theories of how pollution happens. Most children study the ill effects of using plastic bags and wasting water, but they do use such knowledge in the real life. This book will make a dent in the minds of the youth and teachers. It is also a must read for those at the helm of affairs — policy planners, leaders, implementers and, above all, the common public who are in a way made to feel ‘I can’t do anything about this. It is irreversible.’ This book is also a prescription to those who speak for and believe that urbanisation alleviates poverty. The question is ‘Can we make all the people from rural areas move to cities, even smart ones, in the name of reducing poverty ’ The book, while presenting the despair that underscores environment crises the world faces today, instils hope by suggesting doable remedies. Finally, a word about the production of the book: It has a great cover, readable print for all — the old, young and middle aged, and the essays, which are based on the themes, are arranged well. Narain successfully conveys what she wants to convey and what has to be conveyed. We should all heed her words.

Ramanujam Meganathan is an associate professor of English