Reading India

Whether I spend my mornings at work on my sabbatical project, or editorial work, afternoons have been consumed with reading about India. This week I’m completing what I began on our trip north: my colleague Brinda Charry’s most recent novel, Naked in the Wind, Rustom Bharucha’s Rajasthan, An Oral History: Conversations with Komal Kothari, and Ramachandra Guha’s How Much Should a Person Consume? Environmentalism in India and the United States.
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Years ago, in graduate school, I read Guha’s “Radical Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation; A Third World Critique.” First published in the journal Environmental Ethics, Guha’s argument emerged from his experiences in the US with the deep ecology movement. As Guha tells it, during the 1970s he heard in the rhetoric of his students at Yale the same kind of oppositional (and reductive) thinking of the leftists he had left behind in Calcutta. His polemic, that the deep ecology movement was an elaboration of the American wilderness movement and, more controversially, that other cultures expressed environmentalism differently, offers much for anyone interested in the ideology of American environmentalism.

I was reminded of Guha’s essay this week as I read his reflections on his 1989 essay in his most recent book, How Much Should a Person Consume? In the introductory chapter, “History sans Chauvinism,” Guha rehearses the various disciplinary and cultural chauvinisms (humanistic, ecological, economic) that claim, essentially, that environmentalism only emerges once a society becomes fully industrialized. His perspective highlights the parochial nationalism that underlies the environmental historian Roderick Nash’s landmark book Wilderness and the American Mind, as well as historical assumptions attributed to the thesis of Lynn White, Jr., in his 1967 “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis.”

My initial response to Guha in the early 1990s was surely sympathetic, as I too become impatient with the oppositional dogma of environmentalism. Today, as I work through Gadgil and Guha’s This Fissured Land: An Ecological History of India (1992), Ecology and Equity: The Use and Abuse of Nature in Contemporary India (1995), and How Much Should a Person Consume? (2006) I am coming to realize how my time in India will make a difference in my thinking about environmental literature and history. My presentations here on John Muir had focused on not only on how his preservationist ideals had made possible something significant in the US, but also on how difficult it is to escape the shortcomings of his arguments about the preservation of land. These shortcomings were delightful to explore with an audience of intellectuals doing work that involves the long and complicated ecological history in India chronicled by Gadril and Guha.

All of this, I am seeing, is a part of coming to know a place, as well as preparing to return to New England, the place I call home.


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