City City Bang Bang, Columns

Reframing the Green movement

Jairam Ramesh has deepened the divide between those who believe that we need to do everything possible to save the environment and those who think of the Green movement as a fad perpetrated on the human race by a bunch of soft, left-leaning bleeding hearts forever looking for a cause to adopt that helps them express disaffection with the dominant discourse of growth and development.

His supporters heave a sigh of relief that we finally have a minister genuinely interested in the environment (Posco notwithstanding), one who is enforcing the laws that have existed for long on our statute books.

For the others, he is an indulgence the country cannot afford, particularly at its current stage of development. Worse, this side feels that it marks a return to the licence-permit raj of yore, albeit in today’s garb.

It is particularly interesting that the ‘soft’ narrative surrounding the Green movement continues in spite of the fact that it receives overwhelming support from the world of hard science. This has to do in part with the fact that environmental consciousness asks us to sacrifice significantly in the tangible today for intangible and uncertain benefits in the future, an entity in which our stake is a somewhat abstract one.

But another factor is that the Green movement has become a lightning rod for all kind of anti-establishment concerns. The most vocal opponents of environmental degradation also happen to take predictable positions on other issues giving rise to a feeling that they are pre-disposed to opposing the mainstream, no matter what the subject.

Even the manner in which Jairam Ramesh is pursuing the cause adds weight to this feeling for it seems like a lonely crusade by a single individual, rather than as a part of a coherent long-term vision. It is almost certain that with a new minister, the government’s apparent interest in this cause will abate substantially, re-inforcing the feeling that the issue of the environment is at best an erratic indulgence that the government occasionally gives in to.

The characterising of the Green-minded as soft idealists uncomfortable with the pragmatism realities of the day is not restricted to India. Although a lot of progress has been made in enhancing the environmental consciousness of different sections of society, the narrative around the environmental movement has always been the same- it has always been cast in opposition to the hard-headed pragmatists concerned more with human beings in the here-and-now than with rain forests and exotic species of blue-bottled finches. Rather than worry about saving nature and miscellaneous animals we have barely heard of, we are better off, this argument goes, on focussing on generating employment, growth and generating prosperity. The earth has always looked after itself and always will, is the implicit certainty.

But is the framing of environmental concern as a ‘soft’ issue meant for people who like their world all touchy and feely as inevitable as it appears to be? It could be argued that the human race does not really need to preserve the environment or offer protection to nature. There is nothing intrinsically good or bad that can be done to the environment for it exists as a value-neutral condition. Nature is the word we use for set of conditions that prevail on our planet and these will have been subject to change since the beginning of time and will continue to be so.

There is nothing fundamentally desirable about forests and nothing that terrible about rising temperatures insofar as the planet goes. Other planets have their own environments that are violently different from ours and the planets continue to survive. The problem is not about saving the planet, it is about saving us, the human race. And since the human race is part of an unbroken chain that binds everything in this planet, the interest in the environment is a consequence of our interest in self-preservation. Concern for the ecology is nothing but the absolutely hard-headed and completely pragmatic concern about saving our skins.

We tend not to see the issue of environment protection through the lens of human selfishness, because the movement is almost exclusively owned by people who are uncomfortable with this characterisation. Of course, we need environmental activists with strong, sometimes extreme views, for only then can a change of this magnitude, one that involves making sacrifices today for an uncertain pay-off tomorrow, be possible. But when the issue gets framed exclusively by this group, then it serves to exclude others and set up a conflict that is larger and more entrenched than it needs to be.

Organic food is another examples of how framing distorts meaning. Given that food in its natural unaltered form enjoys wide cultural currency, the idea of organic food should have many more takers than it currently does. This is true everywhere, but more so in India, where the idea that food today is artificial and hollow is part of our everyday vocabulary.

The myth of a time when food was plentiful and bursting with the goodness of natural nutrition and which bred a generation of hyper-healthy people is alive and well. Most families would have their own stories about the hardy robustness of some family members- my grandmother for instance loved climbing lofts on rickety ladders till she turned the age 0f 90 and she was no means a stray exception. It is interesting that we tend to see organic food not as a return to a healthier, more traditional life, but as a fastidious form of modernity, where the dominant motivation is a heightened concern for maintaining the presumed preciousness of the individual. Instead of representing a stripped -down return to a healthier, whole some and more naturally connected style of living, organic food today lives in the world of post-consumerist sophistication.

Dominant reactions to ideas often result as a consequence of how these notions are framed. Since the framing is implicit, it tends to be taken as being the most natural and almost inevitable way of seeing the issue. Perhaps the reaction to the green movement would be very different had it been framed differently. It is still not too late.