With the passing of Sunderlal Bahuguna on May 21, the great social activist who added the “Chipko Movement” to the glossary of environmentalists worldwide, COVID has found one of its most illustrious victims. Bahuguna was hospitalized on May 8 after testing positive for the coronavirus and breathed his last nearly two weeks later, dying from complications arising from COVID. His death is rightly being mourned as a monumental loss to the Indian environmental movement. He was also, however, one of the last great witnesses to the Gandhi era—that is a loss which is almost inestimable.Continue reading
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.
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.
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.
(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 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?