A view of the landscape and deforestation near Ooty, Western Ghats, India. Photo: AFP

In 2004, India’s railway minister at the time, Laloo Prasad Yadav, proposed a set of innovations that included the introduction of small traditional clay cups called kulhads as a potential replacement for plastic and waxed-paper cups. The former could persist intact in the ecosystem for decades, taking centuries to degrade fully, while the latter would require the chopping down of thousands of trees.

A number of experts, however, soon pointed out that large-scale provision of kulhads would lead to considerable loss of fertile topsoil, in addition to the fact that the traditional artisanal furnaces that make them exert a significant environmental footprint, relying primarily on sawdust or coal dust to fuel them.

Sustainability requires much more than mere good intentions. One needs to go beneath the surface, acknowledge and resolve to the best of one’s abilities the myriad interconnections that exist between various biotic and abiotic components of the world, and subject their optimization to a number of constraints.

Flashy ideas that seem ingenious, or even traditional methods, often fall flat once implemented because their relevance and ramifications were poorly thought out. Scale, timeliness, sourcing, and availability and viability of alternatives are the key factors that need to be taken into account before opting for a novel solution.

South Asia is one of the world’s most densely populated regions, not only by humans but also by floral and faunal species. It boasts numerous biodiversity hotspots, meaning that its ecosystems not only support large numbers of lifeforms concentrated in a relatively small area but also a wide variety of them.

An enormous diversity of species co-existing in such resource- and population-dense biomes also means that there exist myriad points of interplay among the various components of the environments. Such great quantities of lifeforms being confined in relatively crowded and overgrown spaces also mean that there is a greater overlap of individual and community niches than anywhere else in the world.

The problem with proponents of environmentalism is that they act from inside the matrix of capitalism. Capitalism, by its very nature, does not permit any radical reforms within its framework.

The nature of economics

In his seminal essay on the nature of economics, British economist Lionel Charles Robbins wrote: “Economics is the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.” This definition illustrates the flaws of economic libertarianism as well as indiscriminate environmentalism constrained by a capitalistic or progressive framework.

Unlike most other definitions, this succinct wording is both considered and categorical, without disregarding either anthropocentric purpose or obvious natural limitations. A potential way out may also be derived from the same. 

It is important to acknowledge that natural, economic and mutual equilibria tend to restore themselves to a certain point but also evolve and are prone to spiraling out of control if disturbed or deteriorated beyond a certain threshold. Thus the top-down planning and enforcement approach that is typical of South Asian nations is ill-suited to the cause of sustainable development and instead, grassroots-based bottom-up planning and implementation should be the policy paradigm.

Take for instance the case of alienation of indigenous communities from protected and reserved areas. Indigenous communities have co-existed harmoniously with nature for an ecologically significant order of time, tens of thousands of years, more or less stably. Thus the equilibrium that existed before the advent of settled human life slowly and gradually evolved and shifted to attain stability incorporating the expanded influence and role of humans as its major component.

The activities of indigenous tribes became augmented as a part, and eventually an indispensable component, of the delicate ecological balance of the ecosystem they occupied. This happened gradually over the course of millennia and hence the disturbance was slow, steady, and constantly in restorative equilibrium.

Sudden alienation of these communities is a comparatively catastrophic phenomenon, and such short-term acute disturbances cannot be automatically incorporated and made amends to by nature. When drastic and sweeping environmental policy decisions are made in legislatures by people a majority of whom have little to no interaction with nature, they often turn out to be grossly myopic and superficial.

Thus when indigenous communities were either officially expelled or unofficially displaced from protected areas and reserves by authorities in the name of maintaining perfect sanctity, the results were drastically capricious.

For example, in the Indian states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, when the pastoralists were expelled from reserved areas in the hills, the lack of regular grazing (in moderation) led to the grass overgrowing and then falling as debris after its death, preventing new vegetation from emerging from underneath, leading to an overall decay of the ecosystem. A similar problem occurred in the Sunderbans.

If demand exists, illegal routes will be taken and bypasses will be devised. If somehow they too are stanched, there is no escaping the disruption that results.

Failure to acknowledge the connectedness of nature and superficial, singular objectivism directed toward its individual components often underlie pernicious measures that merely shift harm rather than alleviating it. Besides overcoming causative myopia, we also need to broaden our vision field, envisaging the full consequential scope and extent of our actions, not limiting ourselves to the specimen or frame under consideration.

Above all, our initiative and concern toward sustainability is reflected in our empathetic treatment of the environment as an organic, dynamic, and subjective entity rather than just another quantifiable liability in our economic plans.

This is the first article of a two-part series. Read Part 2 here.

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Pitamber Kaushik

Pitamber Kaushik is a columnist, an independent journalist, a writer, and an amateur researcher. His writing has appeared in more than 60 outlets in 30 countries.