Anthropocene India

August 26th, 2018

With a regional focus on India, this initiative seeks to dissolve the boundaries between knowledge practices and create cross-disciplinary exchange.

State of Nature in India—An Interdisciplinary Conference

The ecological crisis today is foundational and multidimensional, and addressing it requires cutting across traditional disciplinary categories of knowledge. It necessitates a sharing of perspectives and the recovery of multiple ways of knowing and relating to nature. Solving the crisis demands that our gaze be turned inwards in order to examine our notions of power and ethics. Planetary futures are at stake.

In recent times, India’s rich biodiversity has been under tremendous pressure from its accelerated economic growth. The issues and conflicts which surround this change are evident. The forest cover has been vastly reduced, wildlife and ecosystems, like those in the Himalayas and the Western Ghats, are under threat, rivers are polluted with pesticides and industrial toxics, food is contaminated through polluted irrigation water and air pollution, and Indian cities are choking on waste and dirty air as automobiles multiply. Even as macroeconomic indicators grow, the quality of life of many simultaneously shrinks, especially those who cannot join the new economy, like forest dwellers, artisans, or agricultural workers who migrate to join the labor force as waste-pickers, construction workers etc. The growing urban middle classes seem to care less about the ecological footprints of their prosperity. Historically, India’s current ecological crisis can be traced back to the colony, which imposed exploitative systems and exploited natural resource for imperial purposes. Today, as a newly emerging economy and a democratic nation-state, the country cannot escape the responsibility for addressing its growing internal inequities and habitat destruction. Hence the crisis is part of both an imposed idea of nature, but also its current developmental aspirations.

Simultaneously, India has had a long history of peoples’ struggles, especially those whose lives have been intertwined in centuries-old cultural and economic relationships with the natural world. The Chipko Movement (1970s, women saving forests from tree logging), the Narmada Bachao Andolan (1980s until now, against big dams and displacement), the Bhopal tragedy struggle (since 1984, for environmental justice from large multinationals), or the Nyamgiri movement (2000s– saving a sacred hill from being mined for bauxite) are but a few that demonstrate how the ideas that people have of their futures, could be different from those driving modern development processes.

The scientific approach to “nature” is not new, but has had a long, post enlightenment trajectory. Nature was posited as separate from man, and in the “service of mankind.” This man-nature binary, led to centralized approaches, such as the top down conservation of forests and wildlife, and control of rivers and water (replacing community-based management), or the mapping of land to mobilize them for commerce and/or Nation-State building. This replaced local and diverse understandings based in complex, cultural and lived relationship of men and women with nature. This position of nature in the service of man helped facilitate its merciless exploitation. This was further aided by technology and capital, leading to massive global flows of labor and materials to fuel an increasingly seamless and exploitative global economic system.

Along with global capital becoming increasingly free-floating, high technology has infused all aspects of human life. One response to the crisis has been to reduce nature to abstracted monetary values, which are traded on “big data” based computerized monetary markets, and where carbon is currency. Other proposals are for massive geo-engineering of planetary weather systems. These almost fantastical attempts take the centralizing approach to a new level, and yet have not even begun to bend the trajectory of the ecological crisis. It is a signal that more diverse approaches are called for.

Download full essay by Ravi Agarwal at