The Real Emergency in “Climate Emergency”: Consumption, Social Anomie, and Loss of Meaning

Concluding part of “The Politics of ‘Climate Emergency'” 

Viewed in totality, and over a long-term historical perspective, the one and only inescapable conclusion is that the United States remains, by far, the worst polluter in the world.  Some 400 billion tons of CO2 had been released into the atmosphere between 1751 and 2017, and the United States accounted for 25% of these emissions.  It is no longer the manufacturing Goliath of the world, just as its share of the world’s CO2 emissions has decreased to the point where another colossus, China, has now overtaken it to claim this dubious honor.  Nevertheless, it is unimpeachably true that the 340 million residents of the United States, constituting some 5% of the world’s population, consume a quarter of the world’s energy.  The average American consumes as much energy as 13 Chinese, or 31 Indians, or 128 Bangladeshis.  The levels of consumption in the United States are, in a word, obscene; and to the extent that the ‘American Dream’ has become everyone’s dream, the obscenity of consumption is the regnant pornography of our times.  The rest of the world has for decades watched America consume.  There is a voyeurism of consumption, too; and Indians, Chinese, Nigerians, Egyptians, Indonesians and others want nothing more than to consume much like the Americans—and their country cousins, the allegedly benign Canadians and the allegedly easy-going Australians who have their own sordid, or rather I should say, malignant history of exterminating and cordoning off ‘undesirables’. Those who have been left out of this grand narrative want not only cars, refrigerators, and flat-screen TVs, but meat on the table, the chimera of choice, the luxury of luxury goods.

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The predominant account of climate change still treats it as a subject that is properly the domain of scientists and environmentalists.  However, as Christine Shearer puts it, in her short book on Kivalina, a small village of 400 people in Alaska at the outskirts of ‘civilization’ that is now on the brink of extinction, “although climate change is often discussed as an environmental problem, its root causes are social.”  Shearer’s account is far-reaching in its understanding of some of the problems that underlie the catastrophe of global warming, extending beyond the more familiar accounts that we have of the unmitigated greed of fossil fuel companies and the complicity of many politicians with vested business interests.  She describes the arrogance of contractors and experts who claim to know more about the “cold and remote Arctic than longtime residents”, and the supposition that local and traditional knowledges are inferior to modern “scientific research”.  Moreover, as I have already argued, it is rather more difficult to put a “human face” on the story of global warming since, unlike the catastrophes induced (say) by bombing from the air, the effects of global warming are generally experienced over a period of time.  The point is made rather more forcefully by Robert Jay Lifton, who has spent a lifetime devoted to the study of nuclear annihilation and forms of genocide such as the Holocaust.  “A problem for climate researchers”, he writes in his 2017 book The Climate SwerveReflections on Mind, Hope, and Survival (2017), “that makes their mental struggle different from that of their nuclear counterparts is that images representing global warming catastrophe can never match those of nuclear threat.”  The very fact that his study is essentially informed by a comparison of the “nuclear and climate threats” suggests the extent to which he recognizes that the problem of climate change is to our age what the threat of nuclear annihilation was to those who lived during the heyday of the Cold War.


The village of Kivalina, Alaska.  Photo source:

To return, however, to the question of consumption, it is worth asking whether it is merely a coincidence that the Oxford English Dictionary, and the Western world, have awoken to what is now being described as a “climate emergency” at precisely the time that countries of the Global South, and in particular China, have lifted many of their people into the middle class? China and India alone account for 34% of the global emissions, also proportionate (taken together) to their share of the world population.  The per capita CO2 emissions of an Indian, at 1.84 tons, is still a fraction of the per capita CO2 emissions of an American which stands at 16.24 tons.  We may anticipate that the per capita emissions in both China and India, as well as in all the countries of the Global South, will in the ordinary course of affairs continue to grow—and perhaps exponentially, if the ambitious plans in nearly every country to diminish poverty and bring people into the middle class, which is nothing but a consuming class, whatever its historical role in the countries of Western Europe in effecting a fundamental social transformation in the 19th century, come to fruition.

When an emergency is declared, some constituency is asked to bear the price.  There is every reason to suspect that, in keeping with the traditions of the last 500 years when the age of European expansion and the plundering of the world commenced, it is the countries of the Global South that will be burdened with the task of alleviating the “climate emergency”. Every sane person is bound to admit that climate change is an issue of planetary proportions and this is as decisive a time as ever to repudiate a nationalist outlook. Unfortunately, the history of racism, privilege, greed, and self-aggrandizement in the West, to which we may now add the art of killing by kindness, overwhelming the world with philanthropy, and the chicanery which has led to new forms of intervention dressed up as “responsibility to protect” and “the international community”, all suggest that colonialism will be given a new shelf life. We cannot doubt that there is a science to climate change, but a resort to scientific explanations and solutions without a due consideration of social, cultural, and political histories is another form of moral jaundice and blackmail.

Deep ecologists have called for the end of industrial civilization and some have made common cause with ecofeminists, advocates of chaos theory, anarchic tribalists, and neotribalists.  Some of that terrain is usefully covered in Michael E. Zimmerman’s Contesting Earth’s FutureRadical Ecology and Postmodernity, though in the twenty-five years that have elapsed since the publication of the book we have arrived at a richer understanding of climate change and the precipitous descent of humankind into oblivion if the problem of climate change is not addressed forcefully and expeditiously.  But these discussions should not obscure, I have tried to suggest, the politics of emergency behind “climate emergency”.   Climate change cannot be tackled until the affluent nations of the Global North renounce, or are compelled to disown, their privileges and their own lifestyles.  That much is clear; what are less evident, however, are all the signs of loneliness and social anomie that in turn inform the cultures of consumption and acquisition.  Those who are in the Global South at least should be mindful of the fact that the West has a noxious history of rendering science into the handmaiden of a self-serving politics.  There is more than one kind of emergency behind “climate emergency”.

See also Part II, “Global Warming and co2 emissions–in the Here and Now, and in the past”, here.

Part I, “‘Climate Emergency’:  OED’s Word of the Year, 2019”, here.

Global Warming and co2 Emissions–in the Here and Now, and in the Past

Part II of “The Politics of ‘Climate Emergency'”

The periodic reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body charged with assessing the science related to climate change, and the World Meteorological (WMO), a specialized agency of the UN which monitors changes in weather and climate and assesses the behavior of the Earth’s atmosphere, have charted the impending disaster in increasingly ominous language. Extreme climate events, far in excess of the occasional hurricane or drought that made it to the world news twenty years ago, have been aplenty: raging fires in Australia and the United States; record flooding in Europe, Africa, and Kerala; droughts in Argentina, Uruguay, and Afghanistan; and heat waves in London, Paris, and, to add a new gloss to the idea of the surreal, Greenland.  The scenes of devastation are writ large in the language of apocalypse.  “Australia’s hellish fire season has eased,” states a recent article in the New York Times, “but its people are facing more than a single crisis.”  The word “hellish” alerts us to the extraordinarily trying times that Australians have already experienced and will doubtless have to go through before their ordeal is over—if it is over:  the cycle of “drought, fire, deluge” is repeated with intensifying effect.


Perhaps the most iconic image from the wildfires in Australia 2020: A kangaroo rushes past a burning house amid apocalyptic scenes in Conjola, New South Wales. Picture: Matthew Abbott / New York Times / Redux / eyevine)

The dire predictions from merely five years ago now seem considerably understated, and the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres made something of a concerted effort not to appear alarmist when, just three months ago on the eve of the UN’s annual climate conference, he declared that “climate-related natural disasters are becoming more frequent, more deadly, more destructive, with growing human and financial costs.”  But is such language calculated to stir the attention, let alone passions, of those caught up in wars, fleeing persecution, fighting drug addiction, enfeebled by deadly diseases, or struggling to find food?  Are the mortal dangers of climate change in the future, even the imminent future, likely to trouble those who face death, destitution, and pestilence in the here and now?  The panic over the expansion of the coronavirus (COVID-19), which thus far has afflicted some 100,000 people, accounting for something like 3,250 fatalities, has wiped nearly everything else off the news in recent days.  Who is going to be thinking of climate change if the toll from the virus multiplies two-fold, ten-fold, and even twenty-fold in the weeks ahead? Scientific researchers as far back as 2009—and, let there be no mistake, the problem of climate change has increased dramatically in the decade since—had declared that global warming was accounting for 150,000 deaths annually around the world, and in India alone 1.24 million died from toxic air pollution in one single year, 2017.  The Lancet study of pollution in Delhi found that of this figure, 480,000 died from “household pollution related to the use of solid cooking fuels”, and another 670,000 from “air pollution in the wider environment.”  The indisputable fact, though it does not appear as fact to many, is that the toll from global warming already runs into the few millions globally every year.

Yet, even as the grounds for thinking of why a “climate emergency” is called for seem unimpeachably clear, why is it that we should have some misgivings about the use of this phrase? The world has often been inclined to follow the example set by the Americans, who have a penchant for putting everything on a war footing and cannot resist the military metaphor. When there’s an emergency—innocents taken hostage, or, as in the movies, a plot to poison a city’s water supply or wipe out a people by waging a biological attack—the Americans come out with guns blazing. The world has seen the “war on drugs” played out first in American cities, now in a great many places around the world.  It was largely unsuccessful when first initiated in the US and has, in its most recent incarnation in the Philippines, led to wholly indiscriminate and large-scale mafia-style killings by the armed forces of the state, usually of ordinary civilians.  Then came the emergency in the wake of the September 11, 2001 bombings and suddenly the world awoke to the “war on terror”—another colossal failure, judging not from the absence of large-scale terrorist attacks on American soil by “foreign” elements, but from the havoc that this American-initiated war created over large swathes of the Middle East and Afghanistan.  It’s not merely that victory in these wars, whatever that may mean, is unachievable:  what would it mean for the noun “terror” to disappear from the English language, I wonder.  Were the framers of the idea of the “war on terror”, whose war of terror has chalked up all kinds of “collateral damage”, even familiar with the work that a preposition does in the English language?

The “climate emergency”, let us put it this way, is nothing but the call to wage a “war on climate change”, and it has every prospect of producing the same dismal outcomes.  But the idea of “climate emergency” is yet more ominous than the emergencies to which I have adverted and it is potentially fraught with genocidal implications, and not only because there is likely no place in the world which is immune from climate change.  When we consider who the victims of the “war on drugs” and the “war on terror” have been, “climate emergency” begins to emit the stench that arises when the wealthy purport to act in the name of humanity. The world’s largest per capita carbon dioxide emitters are the major oil producing countries, mainly in West Asia:  Qatar, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Brunei, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia.  But these countries have very small populations, and their total emissions are a fraction of the total emissions of countries such as the United States, China, India, and Japan.  Through most of the 19th century, the United Kingdom had the lion’s share of the world’s CO2 emissions, as much as nearly 50% at the time of the Indian Rebellion of 1857.  The second half of the 19th would begin to see the emergence of Germany as an imperial power and, even more pointedly, the westward expansion and industrialization of the United States.  By 1887, Britain accounted for about 30% of the global CO2 emissions, and the United States and Germany 28.54% and 15.82%, respectively.  Just three years later, the United States had assumed its position as the world’s leading emitter of CO2, accounting for almost 31% of the world’s total just as Britain’s share would decline to 27.18%, and for well over a century the United States would remain the world’s largest emitter of CO2.

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Annual CO2 emissions, globally, in 1857.  Source: Copyright: Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser.

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Annual CO2 emissions, globally, in 1893.  Source: Copyright: Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser

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Annual CO2 emissions, globally, in 1946.  Source: Copyright: Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser


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Annual CO2 emissions, globally, in 2017.  Source: Copyright: Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser

At the end of the war, with Germany and Japan in ruins, and Britain triumphant in spirit but gravely hobbled by the decimation of its cities, the United States lorded it over the world in a manner unprecedented in history.  That the United States was at this time the juggernaut of the world’s industrial production may be gauged by the unusual fact that it was singlehandedly responsible for 54.35% of the world’s CO2 emissions. The American flag did not have to fly over the world as did the Union Jack for the United States to have replaced the United Kingdom and even have surpassed Britain at the height of its power.  Indeed, the United States would have been poised, if the data from 1900-1945 is taken into consideration, to reach the milestone it did at the end of the war by the late 1920s had not the Great Depression shuttered down many manufacturing units and led to a substantial decline in household consumption levels. It would not be until 2006 that China’s emissions would exceed those of the United States, and today China’s emissions are double those of the United States; however, viewed in relation to per capita, China is still responsible for less than half of the CO2 emissions of the United States.  Meanwhile, even if for the once colonized subjects of the global South nostalgia for Europe is not a whit too easy, the declining per capita emissions in countries such as France, Germany, Austria, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, in some cases to a very significant degree, suggest that nations are not always self-aggrandizing but may even veer towards responsibility.

(to be continued)

For Part I, “Climate Emergency:  OED’s Word of the Year, 2019”, click here.

Climate Emergency:  OED’s Word of the Year, 2019

Part I of The Politics of “Climate Emergency”

(in three parts)

In 2004, the Oxford English Dictionary, better known to most by its acronym OED, commenced the practice of choosing a word or phrase that through “usage evidence” reflects “the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year,” and is likely to “have lasting potential as a term of cultural significance”. The Dictionary’s choice of the word of the Year 2016 was simply chilling:  post-truth. Every religion has posed the question:  is there life after death? A new question has come to the fore in our times: is there life after truth—and what kind of life? Post-truth:  post-chronology:  let us keep in mind that post as a noun also signifies pillar, and that “the noblest minds”—a quaint, even archaic, phrase to some—have sought to make truth the pillar that steadies them as they sojourn through life.  The noun “post” has still another meaning, signifying “station”, as in our “station” in life.  Donald J. Trump had, before the year 2016 was brought to a close, just been elected President of the US, and whatever did not agree with him then—and consider the precipitous decline since, three years later—was already being branded as “fake news”. But OED’s choice pointed to the fact, even if those who exercised this choice did not fully realize the implications of their decision-making, that we are living in near totalitarian times, even as more societies continue to display the necessary outward accoutrements of what is called ‘democracy’. Many have been the definitions that have been put forward to explain totalitarianism, a political ideology that necessitates the massive and total accumulation of power and a rigid intolerance for dissent, but the essence of it is a system where it becomes difficult to distinguish truth from falsehood.


For 2019, OED’s word, more a phrase, is “climate emergency.”  “Democratic Totalitarianism” might have been a better choice for 2019, but I suspect that it is likely to be a very good candidate in the years ahead.  For all I know, had the Covid-19 outbreak happened somewhat earlier than December 31, the top candidate might have been “coronavirus”.  For the present, we are stuck with OED’s “climate emergency”. It augurs something not less petrifying than post-truth:  the prophets of doom, who have been warning of the deleterious effects of global warning, will have some reason to congratulate themselves.  But first we have to get past the word “emergency” which, as the lexicographers at OED perforce know but seem loathe to acknowledge, is rather anodyne if not outright banal.  That might appear odd to some readers, for surely an emergency is nothing but an emergency?  But surely they must know, for instance, that emergency is used most often in apposition with “family” and “medical”.  The literate will recall that famous opening line from Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  Every family known to the present writer has been in some emergency or the other and many families are so dysfunctional that they are best described as being in a perpetual state of emergency.  The more cynically minded commentator might quite reasonably even be inclined to view the bizarre institution of the family as indicative of why humankind itself appears as something of an emergency. As for “medical emergency”, the United States furnishes ample evidence of why the word “emergency” is abused as a matter of course.  People land up in emergency rooms routinely since, at least in the US, the chances of being randomly shot at are rather high; but they also land up in the emergency room for no better reason than a coughing fit, mild leg pain, or some other mundane or temporary disability which would scarcely even call for intervention in many other cultures.


A patient being rushed to ER–a stock image of Hollywood and Bollywood films alike, too.  Photo credit: VM/ISTOCK.COM.  Source:

One might have thought that “climate crisis” was equally a candidate for the OED word or phrase of the year and it appears to have had more currency than “climate emergency” the last few years. The statistical evidence from usage aside, the lexicographers, writers, and editors who are called upon to choose from all the words that have been nominated for the honor might however have balked, and rightly so, at the word “crisis”. Talk of “crisis” is endemic in modernity; there is always this or that crisis.  It is not only that crisis jargon is often grating to the sensibility.  The objection to it is more fundamental:  as Walter Benjamin had observed, the thinking person is always in a state of crisis. What is there that would not call forth the sense of crisis in the person who feels powerless to prevent the everyday oppression of the poor, who has to watch in silent rage the murder and permissive deaths of dissenters and supposed enemies of the state, who is witness to rank misogyny at every turn, or who can only look upon in anguish at the ever increasing numbers of those around the world who are fleeing war, genocidal attacks, hunger, or sheer economic misery?  How can a thinking person not be in crisis considering that the misfortunes of a fictional character move a reader to tears but leave the same reader cold at the news of the neighbor’s death?  The crisis is not always induced because one is constantly placed at the ethical crossroads, and there is (after Robert Frost) the road not taken:  but thinking is demanding, painful, and all the more difficult to bear in these shrill times given its solitary nature.


A tidewater glacier melting in southeast Greenland in the summer of 2018.  Photo copyright: ERIC RIGNOT.

What, then, are we to make of the “climate emergency” which the most authoritative dictionary of the world’s most global—though not most widely spoken—language has pronounced is upon us and is perhaps poised to bring untold suffering on millions and more likely billions of people in the very near future?  What is the overwhelming and unassailable evidence that humanity is at the brink of a catastrophe?  Global emissions increased eighteen-fold from around 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide in 1900 to 36 billion tons in 2015, and after stabilizing in 2015-17 they have risen again. The four warmest years on record are the four previous years, 2015-2018.  The sea level not only continues to rise, but has risen at a much faster pace than anticipated by scientists in recent years. In 2019 alone, Greenland suffered net ice loss of 350 billion tons, about 20% more than the average of the last several years, while the Himalayas, which are home to the world’s third largest deposit of ice and snow in the world after the Antarctica and the Arctic, have suffered a loss of 25% of glacial ice in the last 40 years.  As a consequence, the rise in the global sea level is just about one-fifth of an inch every year.  The likelihood is that within two generations, some places—the Maldives, Houston, Dhaka, to name only three likely candidates—may go under water. The very thought that global metropolises with staggeringly large populations, such as Jakarta, Manila, and Bangkok, could be submerged seems outlandish. Add another generation, and, as the climate change debunkers would say, a dose of sentimentality, and it is very likely that the glaciers will merit mention in textbooks as something akin to rare endangered species.  Glacier melt is so colossal a problem that it might warrant inclusion as the word of the year before too long.

(to be continued)

Gandhi and the Ecological Sensibility

(Second of a long series that will continue through the year on the occasion of the 150th birth anniversary of Mohandas Gandhi.)

The word ‘ecology’ appears nowhere in Gandhi’s writings and similarly he never spoke on environmental protection as such. Yet, as the Chipko Movement and the Narmada Bachao Andolan, or, in a very different context, the manifesto of the German Greens and the action against the Mardola dam in Norway have clearly shown, the impress of Gandhi’s thinking on ecological movements has been felt widely.  The Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, who traveled through India in 1969 with Johan Galtung and Sigmund Kvaloy, and with whose name “deep ecology” is associated, confessed that it is from Gandhi that he came to the realization of “the essential oneness of all life.”  Gandhi was a practitioner of recycling decades before the idea caught on in the West and he initiated perhaps the most far-reaching critiques of the ideas of consumption and that fetish of the economist called “growth” that we have ever seen.  Thus, in myriad ways, we can begin to entertain the idea that he was a thinker with a profoundly ecological sensibility.

In one of several books that he wrote on India, the late V. S. Naipaul skewered Gandhi for his narcissism.  Adverting to the three years that Gandhi spent in London as a law student, Naipaul points out that his autobiography is stunningly silent about the landscape, trees, vegetation, or the much vaunted English notion of ‘nature’.  It is certainly the case that Gandhi was sparse in his discussion of the relationship of humans to their external environment.  Similarly, though Gandhi was a great admirer of Thoreau, and had read, besides his famous essay on the duty of civil disobedience, Walden and the essay on ‘Walking’, I wonder what he made of Thoreau’s enterprise of retreating into the woods for a two-year stay.  Gandhi was no naturalist. When the English historian Edward Thompson once expressed his concern to him about the rapid disappearance of wildlife in India, Gandhi reportedly replied, “wildlife is decreasing in the jungles, but it is increasing in the towns.”

The ecological dimensions of Gandhi’s thinking cannot be comprehended unless one is prepared to accept that ecology, ethics, and politics were deeply enmeshed into the very fabric of his being. Take, for example, his practice of observing twenty-four hours of silence on a regular basis. The maun vrat has a honorable place in Hindu religiosity and one might be tempted into thinking that Gandhi was only following Hindu tradition, and, to take the argument further, it was his way of entering into an introspective state and making himself receptive to the still voice within. A more political reading might suggest that it was also his way of bending the English to communicate on his terms.  But it was also an ecological gesture, a mode of conserving energy and a devastating indictment of the modern industrial culture of noise and consumption.  We talk too much, eat too much, and consume too much.  The phrase “noise pollution”, and India is the most egregious example of it in the world, is nowhere in Gandhi but he tacitly had a full-fledged critique of it.

There are other respects, and I shall take up only three, in which the ecological vision of Gandhi’s life opens itself up to us.  First, he was of the considered opinion that nature should be allowed to take its course.  The environmental crises and “extreme weather events” that are upon us have been precipitated by the gross and appalling instrumentalization of nature. The earth is not merely there to be mined, logged, farmed, domesticated, and hollowed out.  However, we have to first preserve the ecological equanimity of the body.  Nature’s creatures mind their own business:  if humans were to do the same, we would not be required to legislate the health of all species.  Thus Gandhi did not, for instance, prevent others from killing snakes but a cobra entering his room was left alone.  “I do not want to live”, he said, “at the cost of the life even of a snake.”

Secondly, Gandhi mounted a rigorous critique of the “waste” that is behind modern industrial civilization in more ways than we imagine.  European colonization the world over was justified with the claim that natives and indigenous people “wasted” their land and did not render it sufficiently productive. But Gandhi also held to the view that humans are prone to transform whatever they touch into waste.  His close disciple and associate, Kaka Kalelkar, narrates that he was in the habit of breaking off an entire twig merely for four or five neem leaves he needed to rub on the fibers of the carding-bow to make its strings pliant and supple.  When Gandhi saw that, he remarked:  “This is violence. We should pluck the required number of leaves after offering an apology to the tree for doing so. But you broke off the whole twig, which is wasteful and wrong.”

Thirdly, as is well known, Gandhi was a staunch vegetarian, and he would have been pleased with a great deal of modern research which has established that the extreme pressures upon the soil and water resources have also been induced by the meat industry and the massive increase in levels of meat consumption when people start entering into the middle class in countries such as India.  But to be ‘ecological’ in sensibility also means harboring a notion of largesse towards others; it is a way of being in the world.  European visitors to his ashram, where only vegetarian meals were prepared, had meat served to them if they desired.  To inflict a new diet upon someone who was habituated to meat at every meal was, in Gandhi’s thinking, a form of violence. As he once told Mirabehn, “People whose custom it is to eat meat should not stop doing so simply because I am present.”

Gandhi strikes a remarkable chord with all those who have cherished the principles of non-injury, cared for the environment, practiced vegetarianism, worked energetically to conserve our air, soil, and water, resisted the depredations of developers, recycled paper, or accorded animals the dignity of humans. In contemplating his life, his anticipation of the Anthropocene is striking. “God forbid that India”, Gandhi told an interlocutor in 1928, “should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West.  The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom (England) is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 millions took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.” What if, Gandhi is also asking, nature was the bearer of rights?  What would nature have to say on this subject?

Not less remarkably, though Gandhi wrote no ecological treatise, he made one of his life.  This is one life in which every minute act, emotion, or thought was not without its place:  the brevity of Gandhi’s enormous writings, his small meals of nuts and fruits, his morning ablutions and everyday bodily practices, his periodic observances of silence, his morning walks, his cultivation of the small as much as of the big, his abhorrence of waste, his resort to fasting—all these point to the manner in which he orchestrated the symphony of life. No philosopher of ecology could have done as much.

(First published in a slightly different form as “An Environmentalist by Nature”, The Hindu (2 October 2019), special supplement, Gandhi@150, 18-19.)

This article is also available in a French translation by Mathilde Guibert here:


*Climate Change:  A Catastrophic Future for India?

In India’s recently concluded elections, there was much that divided the BJP from an array of political parties constituted as the opposition, among them the Congress, the CPM, and the parties that forged the so-called mahagathbandhan.  But there was also much that was common to all the parties, nothing more so than the fact that climate change was almost entirely obscured as an issue deserving of the voter’s attention.  What does it mean for the country that not one political party has shown any real sensitivity to the question of climate change and any awareness of the catastrophic certainty that it will seriously erode any possibility of “normal life” for hundreds of millions of Indians unless the country changes course?


New Delhi: Capital of India, and world capital of air pollution. Is this the royal city that the architects dreamt of?

To the extent that there is any discussion of climate change in India, it is most commonly viewed, rather erroneously, as being synonymous with “global warming” and that, in turn, has been reduced to the question of pollution.  It is unquestionably true, of course, that air pollution has altogether altered the landscapes—physical, social, economic, emotional—of everyday life in India.  The highly respected British medical journal, the Lancet, in a study published in December 2018 noted that 1.24 million deaths, accounting for 12.5% of all deaths in India, could be attributed to air pollution in 2017.  Delhi did not have a single day in 2018 when the air quality was recorded as “good”; alarmingly, it has the distinction of being the most polluted megalopolis and capital in the world, even if there are smaller cities, such as neighboring Gurgaon, that are still more polluted.


Air pollution level monitor in Lodhi Colony, New Delhi.

Seven of the world’s 10 most polluted cities are in India.  Schools over most of north India have to be shut down every winter for at least a few days since the air poses a peril to children.  While the poor are disproportionately affected, and constitute the bulk of those who become “climate refugees”, elite South Delhi neighborhoods cannot escape altogether the dire consequences of hazardous levels of air pollution.  In a country where little these days is democratic, air pollution at least promises to be unsparing of the rich and the poor alike.


Gurugram, formerly Gurgaon: not much is visible of this satellite city ringed by skyscrapers and fancy restaurants, as well as massive potholes and the usual ramshackle structures that constitute the Indian ‘city’. It has been named the most polluted city in the world alongside neighboring Delhi.

However, climate change signifies something even more ominous than global warming, which is a reference to the earth’s rising surface temperature on account of the greenhouse effect caused by increased levels of carbon dioxide, chlorofluorocarbons, and other gases and pollutants.  In consequence of this warming, glaciers are melting, sea levels are rising, and the habitats of most wildlife are being decimated.  Though the process whereby nature has been altered by the impress of human activity has been going on for thousands of years, the Industrial Revolution precipitated a massive increase, by several orders of magnitude, in global warming; over the course of the last five decades, especially, the hand of man has “achieved”, if that is the word, in the span of one human lifetime what would have normally have been done over hundreds of thousands of years in geologic time.

Smoke billows as a truck drives past the waste of leather tanneries at a dumpyard in Kanpur

Kanpur in 2019: in British times, it was known as Cawnpore, and it is today another contender for the world’s most polluted city. The assault on the senses is of a magnitude scarcely comprehensible to those in the affluent West or Japan.

To live in the anthropocene age, then, means that we have to for the first time contend with the fact that human history intersects with geological history in unprecedented ways.  The complex planetary weather and climate systems have been altered by the hand of man.  Some parts of the earth are cooling, if in the short run, even as most others are warming; extreme weather events are becoming more common worldwide.  Himalayan glaciers have been melting at record pace, and the Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment, jointly authored by scientists from Nepal, India, China, Tibet, and Bangladesh, suggests that most of these glaciers will have disappeared by 2100, and in the Central and Eastern Himalayas by as early as 2035.  The loss of forest cover in India over the last 17 years is about four times the size of Goa:  the carbon locked up in the tissues of trees that are felled is released into the air and further contributes to the greenhouse effect. The entire phenomenon of climate refugees, often displaced when their farms and livelihood have been destroyed by an environmental disaster, and climate migrants to India, fleeing rising sea levels in Bangladesh and increasing salt-water intrusions in the Sundarbans, has barely registered in public discourse.  “By 2020,” the World Bank notes, “the pressure on India’s water, air, soil and forests is expected to become the highest in the world.”


This picture taken on November 22, 2018 shows a general view of the Imja glacial lake controlled exit channel in the Everest region of the Solukhumbu district, some 140km northeast of Kathmandu. Photo Credit: PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP/Getty Images.

The metropolitan centers in India have had something of a public discourse around pollution—caused largely by industrial emissions, household emissions, and vehicular traffic—since environmental activists such as Anil Aggarwal brought this matter to the fore in the 1980s.  Every winter there is something of a hue and cry over the unbearable levels of pollution, especially if schools are closed for a few days, but the country as a whole appears to be both singularly ill-informed about, and indifferent to, the entire question of climate change.  Academic work in India, barring a voice here and there, has continued apace as though speaking of climate change was a luxury in a country where issues of grinding poverty, resurgent nationalism, xenophobia, conflicts over caste, staggering unemployment, and violence against women stare one in the face.  The poor, of course, are more likely to be pushed into the ranks of climate migrants and refugees; they will be disproportionately affected by rising sea levels, climate-induced droughts, or rising temperatures.  The poor are also far more likely to be susceptible to respiratory problems or succumb to heat waves.  These are doubtless some of the reasons why the question of climate change remains to the elites and the country’s middle class something of an abstraction, though if they think that way they have yet to awaken to the fact that the devastations wrought of climate change will spare no one.


School children in Delhi on a polluted winter morning.


As the recent elections demonstrated, political parties in India have shown little awareness of the critical importance of climate change.  The political manifesto of the Congress party devotes several paragraphs to “environment and climate change”, but strikingly Congress politicians made absolutely no mention of climate change when they were canvassing for votes.  People do not read manifestos, as the BJP surely surmised.  Not surprisingly, the BJP performance in this matter is, if anything, more pathetic.  The BJP manifesto speaks of increasing India’s “renewable energy” capacity, and how climate change and terrorism are issues which the country seeks to address. Just how climate change is to be addressed is altogether ignored.  Some politicians may think that installation of solar panels is enough to address the question of climate change, but that is only a reflection of how singularly ill-informed they are of the gravity of the problem.

Many people of liberal disposition with whom I’ve spoken have pointed to China’s apparent success in greatly diminishing pollution levels in the country’s huge metropolises, including Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.  Some readers might recall the headlines that appeared regularly in newspapers around the world in the early parts of this decade, through 2015-16, excoriating the Chinese government for unregulated development that had turned cities into death traps.  The Guardian, relying upon a study completed at the University of California, noted on 14 August 2015 that “Air pollution in China is killing 4000 people every day”. “Smog so Thick, Beijing Comes to a Standstill,” declared the New York Times on 8 December 2015 as an environmental emergency was declared and schools, factories, and major roads were shut down.  The latter newspaper, three years later, found it apt to reverse itself with this unequivocal headline:  “Four Years After Declaring War on Pollution, China is Winning” (New York Times, 12 March 2018).  Though the air pollution level in Beijing is still five times higher than the limit set by WHO, Beijing is not even half as polluted as Delhi, and air pollution levels in Beijing dropped by 40% over 2016-18.


The pollution levels in Beijing and Delhi on 31 October 2018.

One is scarcely surprised, then, that Indians are being advised that the Chinese should be emulated.  One major Indian English-language daily’s view on this matter is representative:  “A Lesson or Two Delhi Can Learn from Beijing, Once Most Polluted,” declares the writer, suggesting that China’s “all-out-war against air pollution” is a model that India must follow if it seeks to save itself from “airpocalypse.”  The metaphor of “war” should itself be cause for concern:  we’ve had the war on terror, the war on drugs, the war on poverty, and all such ‘wars’ have, to use an euphemism with its own unsavory histories, collateral damage.  In the case of China, as a very recent scientific study suggests, a decrease in pollution levels in the large cities was achieved by moving energy production with the concomitant increase in air pollution levels to the countryside.  There is a larger problem here, and subject for other blog essays, namely that the countryside exists in most countries as ancillary to the city, as a place whose inhabitants are routinely called upon to sacrifice themselves for the nation.  The ‘Great Leap Forward’ exacted the lives of tens of millions nearly six decades ago, largely from the countryside where peasants dying from hunger were treated as disposable excess matter, and I suspect that the very same attitude persists to the present day, even if the sugarcoating has become more sophisticated.

This is not to say that there may be not be some “lessons” to be learnt in India from China’s attempts at reducing air pollution levels.  But there is far from being a policy on climate change as a whole in China that is worthy of emulation.  The only thing that is certain is that if we in India do not start addressing the question of climate change at once, there will be little, if anything, left to discuss a few decades from now.


For the French version of this article, translated by Jean-Etienne Bergemer, “Changement climatique: un avenir catastrophique pour l’Inde?”, click here.