Ramachandra Guha’s How much should a person consume?

book coverAs I was writing my previous post on debates about conservation approaches, my brother remarked that many of the ideas in the point-counterpoint between Marris, Marvier, and MIller et al. (2014) were captured in a 2006 book by Indian historian and writer, Ramachandra Guha. Within a day, How Much Should A Person Consume? was in my hands and three days later, I’d read it from cover to cover. My brother was right–Guha’s book tackles exactly the question at hand, but from a different angle. He describes the interplay between human livelihoods and environmentalism through a comparison of environmental movements and philosophies in India and the United States. By highlighting the work of underappreciated environmentalists from both countries, and by explicitly tracing the parallels and antiparallels between the two environmentalisms, Guha brings historical context to the questions of whether and how humans and the environment can fit together.

I’m not going to summarize the whole book–take a look at these reviews (1, 2, 3) or better yet, read the book–it’s very worthwhile if you’re even marginally interested in conservation. I am going to talk a bit about the chapter called Authoritarianism in the Wild, wherein Guha eviscerates the “traditional” biocentric approach to conservation, what he calls wilderness thinking. Emanating primarily from North America and espoused most recently by Miller et al.(2014), wilderness thinking has been adopted by many Indian conservationists, largely urban, wealthy, and privileged conservationists with the backing of much of the international conservation community. Though several types of people fall into this class of conservationist, Guha focuses his ire on biologists.

Guha suggests that biologists’ “direct professional interest in species other than their own…blinds them to the legitimate interests of less fortunate members of their own species.” He follows this with some choice quotations from several leading conservation biologists, quotes that reveal and emphasize the arrogant extent to which conservation biologists believe that they are the “only ones in any position to know the kinds, the abundances and the geography of life,” completely disregarding the possibility that people who have lived for generations in the lands that conservationists seek to preserve likely have knowledge and experience to contribute. This results in a conservation paradigm that is dissociated from local cultural, economic, and environmental context. For example, Guha quotes Zambian biologist E.N. Chidumayo, who thinks that “the only thing that is African about most conventional conservation policies is that they are practiced on African land.”

Dissociation from local context brings with it hypocrisy. Conservationists who demand the preservation of a particular favourite species or ecosystem at all costs are hypocritical in demanding that someone else, usually someone far less privileged, make the sacrifice deemed necessary for that preservation. Usually this sacrifice involves being uprooted from one’s home when it is declared part of a “protected” area. Guha’s words on this subject are withering:

Cynics may fairly conclude…that tribals in the Madagascar and Amazon forest are expected to move out so that men in London and New York have the comfort of knowing that the lemur and toucan have been saved for posterity. Evidence of all this conservation is then provided them by the wildlife documentary that they watch on their home theatre screens.

None of this is to say that biologists have no role in conservation. The most interesting example in this chapter of a “pragmatic scientist” is elephant biologist Raman Sukumar, who melds detailed knowledge of elephant biology with acute awareness of the detrimental impacts that elephants can have. For example, we know that lone male elephants are most likely to raid crops and we know that elephants are polygynous, with only a fraction of all males in a population actually involved in reproduction. Sukumar therefore recommends “the selective culling of male elephants identified as inveterate crop raiders or rogues” as a means of protecting both people and elephants, a suggestion that would be anathema to many traditional conservationists.

Guha believes that the sort of scientist we need involved in conservation is the “democratic scientist.” His description of a democratic scientist resonates with some of the directions suggested by proponents of “new conservation.”

[The democratic scientist] moves beyond his “pragmatic” colleagues in at least three ways. First, in being more ecumenical with regard to scale, whereby small patches of refugia…are given the same loving attention as large areas of wilderness. Second, in being more ecumenical with regard to species, with rare plants, including cultivated plants, and insects being valued along with large mammals. Third, in respecting not just human rights but also the knowledge systems of local communities so that folk ecological knowledge is incorporated within the management of conservation regimes.

That both historical and contemporary considerations of the state of the environment in very different parts of the world point us in similar directions suggests, to me at least, that we should take these approaches to conservation seriously.


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