Background Reading

Here is some information on the literature available on Environmental movements and Environmentalism in South Asia


Review – Environmentalism: A Global History

Ramachandra Guha’s landmark work Environmentalism is an historiographical study in the development of environmental conscious in post-industrial societies across the globe. Modern environmentalism, as it has come to be known to us today, is necessarily a reactionary product of industrialisation and the perceived negative effects of this system of sustenance on man and his natural surroundings.

Although the widespread nature of environmental movements is a “child of the sixties” according to Guha, he traces the birth of counter-industrial green movements back to 18th century England, the birthplace of industrialism. This book is split into two sections: Environmentalism’s First Phase & the Age of Ecological Innocence. The first phase of environmentalism can be seen to begin with the growth of back-to-the-land movements in 18th century Europe as exemplified by the poetry of the Romantics and other literary works from the period. In India, a similar counter-industrial trend Guha finds in Gandhi’s urge to return to a simplistic lifestyle. From back-to-the-land movements, environmentalism develops through a deeper interest in nature and a period of scientific conservationism, whose history in the global south has its own colonialist overtones, and finally to the growth of the preservation of wilderness ideas that sought to govern and inform man’s interaction with nature.

Environmental consciousness reached a period of relative dullness between the 1940s and 60s – a period Guha calls the Age of Ecological Innocence. This was only a mulling period, however, as environmentalism would reemerge in the 1960s with the help of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Being situated in a period of general cultural rebellion, Carson’s publication helped inspire a strong wave of environmental movements characterised by protest and active resistance – radical environmentalism. In the global south, radical environmentalism significantly attached to social justice since the inhabitants of these natural regions share a relationship of material reliance with their natural surroundings. From relatively local pockets of activity, environmental movements grow into global spaces of interaction with the Earth Summit that brings the global North and South together to deal with issues of environmental degradation and preservation.

Ramachandra Guha’s book provides an interesting take on the development of an idea that runs strong to this date. The various movements thrown up by the 1960s (civil rights, feminism, counter-culture) have reached periods of relative decline while the Green wave seems to grow in importance. As readers, if we resonate with Guha’s belief that this framework of thought is of significance in our world today, this particular book aptly elucidates its progress. The author’s research examines a wide range of cultural and scientific material, which makes the book not only tremendously informative but Guha’s connections make it extremely captivating as well.


Review – Nature in the Global South: Environmental Projects in South and Southeast Asia

Although the title may lead one to believe that this book may be some sort of synthesis of ecologically concentrated projects in the global south, cataloguing is hardly a main focus of this work. Instead the editors of this compilation of essays, Paul Greenough and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, concentrate more on the cultural construction of nature in Asia. This book examines interactions between nature, indigenous communities and wider social and political relations.

As more reading into the topic is leading me to believe, this exploration of nature and environmentalist projects in the global south comes with its fair share of postcolonial dialogue. Development agenda in the newly formed nations of later 20th century Asia was evidently of utmost importance. It is in this context that environmental movements emerged, with greatest vigour in the 1990s according to Greenough and Tsing, of both the urban and middle class as well as grassroots varieties. As noted by Ramachandra Guha in his book Environmentalism, green movements in Asia were deeply tied to issues of social justice as colonial resource management practices, these being often carried forward by postcolonial states, alienated large numbers of indigenous populations.

The book is divided into two distinct sections: the first understanding the communal construction of nature and natural landscapes, the second taking a closer look at campaigns and movements developed in south and southeast Asia. A large variety of case studies are explored by a range of contributors bringing varied perspectives to the diverse landscape of man-nature relationships in the tropical regions of Asia.


Review – Sacred Groves and Local Gods: Religion & Environmentalism in South India

Eliza Kent’s 2013 publication is a document exploring a form of Indian environmentalism that out-dated the European modernist variety of environmental consciousness. It is an ethnographic study through which the author herself explored five different ecological destinations in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu to better understand the relationships the local residents shared with their natural environment.

Sacred Groves themselves are patches of forest set aside by a community for religious purposes. These spaces are sacred and often serve in the mythology of the region as the abode of a deity – the local residents exempt these spaces during the daily search for resources. This indigenous ecological tradition shows considerable variation in practices and mythology throughout the country; however, their existence is a pan-Indian phenomenon. Little is known about the origins of many sacred groves as this tradition is largely associated to non-Brahmin rural areas. Although Kent does not deal extensively with the origin narrative, she does assert her belief that it is more likely they arose in 18th century Tamil Nadu with more complex social structures than the Palaeolithic era as proposed by earlier researchers.

Although some schools of environmental thought view sacred groves as a phenomenon governed by backward superstition, Kent’s research has led her to believe that they are in fact the result of positive ecological insight. These patches of land have managed to survive the surges of British and independent Indian and, as Gadgil highlights, they serve as essential zones for species recuperation as they are free from human predation. Many plant species that are revered individually, often found in sacred groves, themselves are keystone species and essential for the ecology of the area. Kent moves to refute Gadgil’s belief that sacred groves are always untouched and pristine areas of land as they are often shaped extensively by outside influence, including that of the state. This is a precarious position as the culture could either be positively influenced by conservationist knowledge or threatened by an increased level of land pressure.

Kent’s book is divided into five chapters, each giving a detailed description of the beliefs, myths and rituals surrounding the sacred grove being examined in that chapter. Her fieldwork was conducted on separate visits between 2001 and 2007 and each chapter begins with a section on the social and economic history of the region, tied to Kent’s belief of the great social and economic significance the groves have to bear on the communities that maintain them.


Review – Conceptualising the Environmentalism in India

This piece by Shulan Zhang is part of the anthology of essays “Eco-Socialism as Politics: Rebuilding the Basis of our Modern Civilisation.” Zhang’s article is a useful synthesis of the conceptions of Indian environmentalism produced over the last two decades. The author has carried out an extensive review of the literature on the subject examining prominent researchers such as Ramachandra Guha, Madhav Gadgil, Patrick Peritore and Simi Krishna. Zhang’s primary focus for this essay are the origins and development of Indian environmentalism, organisation structure prominent in this system and the claims and related policy issues raised by organisations involved with environmental work.

According to Zhang, her research has led her to believe that Indian environmentalist projects are characterised by their association with issues of social justice, non-violent methods and a focus on grassroots democracy and local economy. This essay also suggests criteria by which we can segregate Indian environmental movements into categories – these categories being drawn from the literature studied by Zhang herself. While Peritore marks three categories of Greens, eco-developers and managers, Gadgil and Guha see three sections of crusading Gandhians, Marxists and Appropriate Technology. The database section of this blog draws from this article to create thematic categories to distinguish movements in India as well. Although not a detailed study, this article is a convenient and useful tool to conceptualising Indian environmentalism in a glance.


Review – Environmental Movements in India

P. Karan’s article in a 1994 edition of the Geographical Review, is a short analysis of modern environmental movements in India. In agreement with much of the literature present on the subject, Karan reinstates the deep link between environmental movements and human rights in the Indian subcontinent. These movements are characterised by democratic values, decentralised decision-making and a shift away from resource-intensive modes of production to a greater stress on an ‘ecological’ principle.


The article gives the reader a brief history of three massively influential environmental movements in modern India: the Chipco movement of the Himalayas, Narmada Bacchao Andolan of Gujurat and the Silent Valley movement of Kerala. These three movements, Karan asserts, were powerful enough to cut across social boundaries and unified different strata of society under the banner of protecting their natural homes. These are essentially grassroots movements working with the support of urban intelligentsia where women take prominent roles in decision-making. The mode of action is the Gandhian, non-violent protest and the focus is on the equal distribution of both resource benefits and ecological costs.


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