Environmentalism of the Poor: What Democracy Is Teaching Us

Triple Crisis is pleased to welcome Sunita Narain, Director of India’s Center for Science and the Environment and editor of “Down to Earth” magazine, as a regular blogger.

In India, where I live and work, the environmental issue is at an important juncture, which has important lessons for the world, if we care to listen.

Today, all over the country, there are growing protests against what are considered development and infrastructure projects. At the site of the coal power plant in Sompeta in Andhra Pradesh, the police opened fire on some 10,000 protesters, killing two. People were fighting against the takeover of their water bodies by the thermal power project. In the alphonso mango-growing Konkan region farmers are up in arms against a 1,200 megawatt thermal plant, which, they say, will damage their crops because of pollution. In Chhattisgarh, people are fighting against scores of such projects, which will take away their land or water. I have just written about yet another such fight, where farmers told me that the proposed cement factory, being built in their watershed, can only be built after killing them.

In fact, it would not be wrong to say that virtually all infrastructure and industrial projects are under attack today from communities who fear loss of livelihoods. These communities are at the forefront of India’s environmental movement. They are its warriors.

For them the environment is not a matter of luxury; it is not about fixing the problems of growth, but of survival. It is fixing growth itself. They know that when the land is mined and trees are cut, their water source dries up or they lose grazing and agricultural land. They know they are poor. And they are saying, loudly and as clearly as they can, that what others call development will only make them poorer. It is an open challenge to the development paradigm that we know today.

This is what I call environmentalism of the poor (for more read my K R Narayanan lecture: Why environment needs equity: learning from the environmentalism of the poor to build our common future). The fact is today development projects take local resources—minerals, water or land—but cannot provide employment to replace the livelihoods of all those they displace. It is for this reason that the country is resonating with cries of people who are fighting development itself.

The question is what will the country do to ‘deal’ with these million green mutinies? India’s democracy will be tested as it finds that the need for new and vital industrial and infrastructure projects will have to be balanced with the growing dissent against it. I believe we will learn that we cannot build against the will of our people.

But it will be the sweetest fruit of democracy if it can provide us the opportunity to reinvent the way to development. The fact is that growth today requires doing much more with less resource. Frugality and innovation will have to be our way to growth. Our challenge is to provide the gains of development to vast numbers of people. This requires inventing growth that is both affordable and sustainable.

But what all this adds up to, in my view, is to define a new chapter of environmentalism in the world. I say this because it is only now that we are being forced to confront some tough questions on how to be or not to be an environmentalist. In fact, these movements of the poorest teach us that techno-fix solutions, of cleaning up pollution even as we continue to emit more, are not good enough. The rich world has failed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions through its investment in efficiency. It now needs to find ways to reinvent growth without fossil fuels and to grow within limits. The world failed us in Cancun because the rich are still not prepared to accept the writing on the wall: there are limits to growth, unless we can grow differently.

This when it is clear the world cannot sustain the current growth models, which are energy intensive, in a situation where both the sources are limited, the risk are enormous and the needs are great. It is imperative that it finds new ways to use less energy, different energy and more energy, all at the same time.

This is also when drastic reductions are needed, but no country is talking about limiting consumption. This is when every analysis proves that efficiency is part of the answer but it is meaningless without sufficiency. Cars have become more fuel efficient but people just drive longer and have more cars. Emissions continue to grow. This relationship can only change if there are limits to this growth, if growth has to be shared.

So, the only driver for change is democracy and more democracy. It is only when the most powerful nations in the world accept the limits on their growth that the world will find that new pathway to progress. It can be done. It must be done.

The question is if the vast numbers of urban and middle-class in India (and the world) will learn this lesson quickly. We cannot afford this environmentalism of costly solutions that want to put band-aids on what is so badly broken. We must understand that our future lies in being part of the environmentalism of the poor, as this movement will force us to seek new answers to old problems.