Welcome to the beta version of newint.org — we have just redesigned it — more features coming soon!
We care about your opinion. Let us know what you think, or report any problems. Feedback »

A million mutinies

Is nothing sacred? An Adivasi indigenous woman listens to speeches against British company Vedanta’s plans for a massive open-cast mine in her ancestral homeland, in the Indian state of Orissa.


British economist Nicholas Stern famously said that ‘climate change is the greatest market failure the world has ever seen’. But still, leading economists and policy-makers are looking for big answers in the same broken marketplace. Let us be clear: the global financial crash and climate change are inter-related crises. They are linked by the way we have pursued economic growth. Now, the world has to search for new economic models.

Will the answer lie in the activism of the poor, who are dependent on the environment for their survival, or will it lie in the prescriptions of the consuming middle classes? Movements of the poor and dispossessed are demanding more than simple technological changes to fulfil their needs. They want hard and uncomfortable issues surrounding their access to natural resources to be resolved; they want equity and justice to be the bedrock of the climate movement of the future.

These movements – emerging from the bottom of the world’s wealth pyramid in countries like India – are often led by village communities and remarkable individuals. They are products of democracy, as change in any society derives from negotiation and innovation. Today, they are showing the rest of us the way.

Poor-world eco-warriors

In the same era as former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s infamous claim that ‘poverty is the biggest polluter’ – at the Stockholm environment conference in 1972 – the women of the Chipko movement in the Himalayas were showing that the poor _did_ care about their environment. In 1974, years before environmentalism became the fashion, the women of this remote village stopped loggers from cutting down their forests. This was not a conservation movement _per se_, but a movement to demand rights over local resources. The women asserted their primary rights over the trees, which were the basis for their daily survival. They demonstrated to the people of India that not poverty, but extractive and exploitative economies were the biggest polluter.

Today, in every nook and corner of India where land is acquired or water sourced for industry, people are fighting, even to the death. In the Himalayan state of Sikkim, the Government has bowed to local protests and cancelled 11 hydro-electric projects. In Himachal Pradesh, dams have become so controversial that elections have been won by candidates who say they will not allow them to be built. Many other projects, from thermal power stations to green-field mining, are being resisted. South Korean giant POSCO’s Indian iron ore mine, steel plant and port are under fire. Our Prime Minister has promised the South Korean Premier that the project will go ahead by August. But local people are not listening. They don’t want to lose their land and livelihood and do not believe in compensation. In Maharashtra, mango-growers are up in arms against the proposed thermal power station in Ratnagiri.

There are wounds. There is violence. There is also desperation. There are a million mutinies in the country today, because poor villagers know they do not have the skills to survive in the modern world. They have seen their neighbours displaced, promised jobs and money that never came. They know they are poor. But they also know that modern development will make them poorer. In prosperous Goa, village after village is fighting against the powerful mining lobby – they are fed up because mining has destroyed their agriculture and dried up their streams. These are educated, skilled people. But they do not want to drive the trucks of the miners. They want to till their land. Make money. Live well, if not rich.

In vast parts of the poor world, where these voices are becoming a shout, eco-warriors have a different relationship with their environment. They live on and off it – the land, the forests. They use its resources – medicinal plants, building material, firewood to cook and fodder to feed their animals. They get their water from streams, rivers and ponds. The destruction of the environment affects livelihoods and lives and not just lifestyles. High population pressure also means that there is no piece of land or water that is not used – and used with intensity – for daily survival. In these circumstances, if the environment is degraded or the margins of subsistence threatened further, conflict is inevitable. This is why dissent and dialogue have to be part of the alternative economic model.

Small answers to big problems

There is a fundamental difference between the rich and poor’s response to climate change. The environmental movements of the rich world emerged after periods of wealth creation and during their period of waste generation. So they argued for containment of the waste, but did not have the ability to argue for the reinvention of the paradigm of waste generation itself. However, the environmental movement in India has grown in the midst of enormous inequity and poverty. In this environmentalism of the relatively poor, the answers to change are intractable and impossible unless the question is reinvented.

There are no quick-fix techno solutions that can be suggested to people who are battling for their survival. In this environmentalism, there is only one answer: we have to reduce needs and increase efficiency for every inch of land, every tonne of mineral and every drop of water used. It will demand new arrangements to share benefits with local communities so that they are persuaded to part with their resources for a common development. It will demand new ways to growth.

I say this because the environmental movement of the relatively rich and affluent is still clearly looking for small answers to big problems. Today, everyone is saying, indeed screaming, that we can ‘deal’ with climate change if we adopt measures such as energy efficiency and new technologies. Their message is simple: managing climate change will not hurt lifestyles or economic growth. It’s a win-win situation where we will all benefit from green technologies and new business.

Agro-fuels – growing fuel in order to run the cars of the rich – is one such techno-fix. There has been no discussion as to whether agro-fuels, already competing for land with food crops, depleting water resources and raising prices, will indeed reduce emissions whilst vehicle numbers continue to increase. The rich world (in the North and the South) wants to keep its cars and add more. It believes it can do this by simply growing its fuel. It does not matter if agro-fuels can only ever be a small blip in the world’s total consumption of oil (all the corn in the US can only meet 12 per cent of current US petrol use). These are small parts of the big change we need.

Is it ironic that, despite the science telling us that drastic reductions are needed, no country is talking about limiting its people’s consumption. Yet efficiency is meaningless without sufficiency. Cars have become more fuel efficient but people just drive longer, have more cars, and emissions continue to grow... The transition to a low-carbon economy is not just about technology but about re-distributing economic and ecological space. This change will hurt, as will climate change itself.

Along with understanding the still obtuse science, we must start putting a human face to the climate change that is beginning all around us. We must see climate change in the faces of the millions who lost their homes in the cyclones which ripped through Bangladesh and Burma this year; in the faces of those who have lost everything in floods caused by extreme rainfall events. And we need to be clear that the thousands who have died did so because the rich have failed to contain their emissions in the pursuit of economic growth.

Paying the ecological debt

Today, the world talks big but gives small change. Clearly, it is time we put forward a framework for an effective climate agreement for the entire world. The framework must be based on two imperatives. One: to share the global commons equitably, because we know that co-operation is not possible without justice. Two: to create conditions so that the world, particularly the energy-deprived world, can make the transition to a low carbon economy. It is here that the opportunity lies.

The tragedy of the atmospheric commons has been the lack of rights to this global ecological space. As a result, industrialized countries have borrowed heavily and without control. They have emitted greenhouse gases far in excess of what the earth can withstand, ‘free riding’ on the planet’s natural capital. Some have called this the ecological debt of the North, which stands as a counterweight to the financial debt of the South.

In this situation, curtailing global emissions can only be done through the creation of rights and entitlements of each nation to the atmosphere. The world needs to adopt the concept of equal per capita entitlements to greenhouse gas emissions. This needs to be agreed between nations, and also within each nation.

Take India: it is not the rich who emit less than their share of our global quota. It is the poor who do not have access to energy who provide us with breathing space. Currently, it is estimated that only 31 per cent of rural households use electricity. Connecting all of India’s villages to grid-based electricity will be expensive and difficult – and result in high greenhouse gas emissions. But if India were to assign its national entitlements on an equal per capita basis, then the option of leapfrogging to off-grid solutions based on renewable energy technologies becomes economically viable. In this way, a rights-based framework will stimulate powerful demand for investments in new renewable energy technologies.

The answers are obvious. The challenge is for us to find ways of learning from the environmentalism of the poor, so we can all share our common future.

*Sunita Narain* is one of India’s leading environmentalists. She is Director of the Centre for Science and Environment and editor of _Down to Earth_ magazine.