Economic growth interrupted, is how the environmental challenge is viewed in India today. Development and wealth creation, likewise, are to be impatiently pursued. Simply put, there are far fewer takers for a romanticised nature. Rather, many would prefer that we unsentimentally harness natural resources. If you wish to turn the wheels of progress, you cannot suffer an emotional loss for a forest cut or a valley mined for uranium.
This is perhaps being harsh. Emotions have become, more than ever, an inescapable part of New India. The consumer-citizen holds up the market because of tastes, fashions, fancies, whims and passions. Such wants are strong sentimental emotions that translate into aspirations for quality-of-life and lifestyle pursuits; by which New India intends to acquire the standards of the first world and all that has been revealed to it by Hollywood and 24x7 TV channels. This consumer-citizen, wired with immeasurable abilities to calculate price and satisfaction, is not expendable. More so in the last decade, consumer demands plus citizen rights are now equal to national interest. Against this formidable equation the environment stands no chance if it is posed as a call for restraint, pause or hesitation. Thus, if the environment is an obstacle to development, then development wins. If the environment slows down economic growth, then the former must give way.
An unsentimental environmental imagination for New India, however, cannot be consumed by a sentimental citizen. This is a moment for drastic repackaging because children and futures are involved. So we ask: can environment and development be made to hold hands, and make endearing and honest eye contact? We now find that it is indeed possible to harmoniously triangulate development, economic growth and the environment. The spin on this is now an accomplished act.
People want to hear about things they know. They are aware that life is crowded, noisy, polluted and full of potential
hazards. Add to that, forests are disappearing, water bodies have become toxic soups, the planet is heating up and statistically speaking, many species might have become extinct. We hear these gloom-and-doom stories almost every day. But New India is not one to give up. Stories of alarm, therefore, are juxtaposed alongside stories for hope. What environmental havoc we may have wreaked from bad judgment and greed can also be righted by our greatest human capacity: modern science and technology. A feel-good possibility exists. For this, there is an entire range of inventions, contraptions and devices.
The CFL bulb cuts energy costs; the hybrid car is less polluting; solar and wind energy are fantastic renewables. Bacteria can be used to eat up oil spills. Entire rivers can be restored to pristine flows after their sewage is treated.
Electrostatic precipitators can hold back tonnes of coal exhaust. Vermiculture allows earthworms to fertilise soil by
simply gorging on them. And, my favourite: carbon sequestration — technologies that help you capture and then inject huge volumes of carbon dioxide into deep underground storage sites.
Such are these hopes and feel-good stories that it is almost impossible not to be convinced by them. Technology enables you to have your cake and eat it too. But, this is not enough. The consumer needs to make choices. One should be able to vote with buying power, redirect markets and exercise green options. Otherwise, the picture is incomplete. This is where you can run to save the tiger, buy washing machines or air conditioners with an eco rating, raise consciousness by participating in television and radio shows on green issues. And last , but not least, attend a music concert with a T-Shirt that loudly states ‘stop global warming’. Celebrities, socialites and pop stars here will hold your hand as you save the planet.
This is the environmental imagination of the consumer citizen, made up of alarm, anxiety, hope and individual agency.
Driven by the extraordinary power of the instant sound bite and the emotional ooze of the image, while remaining stoically unsentimental about development, economic growth and uninhibited consumption. But such an environmental imagination is most remarkable for an altogether different ability: the use of power in any dream project. Because the consuming citizen must never know the source of their suffering nor have an analysis of their destiny -- they are perforce required to have one immense point of blindness. In India, it refers to the trauma of livelihood, as opposed to lifestyle and quality of life.
Livelihoods that are attempted by hundreds of thousands of subsistence cultivators, forest communities, traditional fisher people, nomads, pastorialists and others who live in nature or on the edge of the market. As they make way for infrastructure, large dams, roads, factories and nuclear plants, their ecological imaginations are also exterminated. The New India has nothing to learn from such pasts and cultures. No alternative to unrelenting desire can be allowed.
To grab or divert resources and annihilate other ways of living, however, does not constitute hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is of ancient vintage and is not a modern condition. But to conjoin hope, alarm, anxiety and individual agency with livelihood destruction requires the consuming citizen to carry out a deep physiological manoeuvre. If these contradictions are to be held closely, the consumer must survive naturalised schizophrenia. New India’s environmental imaginations must be able to see double and walk sideways, if the consumer citizen wants to eat cake.
Rohan D’Souza is Assistant Professor, Centre for Science Policy Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi