by Ramachandra Guha
THE COUNTRIES I know best are India and the United States. Both have vigorous environmental movements, and both also have robust traditions of environmental scholarship
There is, in fact, a direct connection between the one and the other. In both countries, it was social movements that provoked scholars to study aspects of their history that they had previously ignored. In India, the vast records of the Forest Department were untouched by, indeed unknown to, historians—until the celebrated Chipko movement sent them to search for the roots of peasant discontent with state forestry. In the United States, the environmental movement of the Sixties likewise catalyzed interest in forgotten precursors—so much so that, through the labors of historians, the likes of John Muir and Aldo Leopold have become much better known now than they ever were in their own lifetimes.
There is much to be said in favor of "movement scholarship." By taking cues from society, rather than from only academic journals or books, we were able to fashion the new and exciting field of "environmental history." By animating our work with passion and commitment, we were able to write histories more readable and more compelling than those authored by our more detached, so to say "objective," contemporaries.
However, this hitching of the scholarly cart to the movement wagon has come at a cost. Activist historians are prone only to see what the activists themselves do. Or they tend to take partisan sides on behalf of one ideologue or another, one sect or another. Above all, they neglect, in their scholarly work, themes and topics that are neglected by the movement as a whole.
One illustration of this is the neglect by American historians of the question of consumption, which, back in 1958, John Kenneth Galbraith had referred to as the "forbidden question" of the environmental movement. That it still remains; thus, American environmentalists are notably insular in their concerns—seriously worried about the threats to the American wilderness and waters, but somewhat unconcerned about the global consequences of the consumer society, the impact on land, soil, forests, and climate elsewhere. At the time of the first Gulf War, the leftwing British newspaper, The Guardian, joked that the war was carried out to safeguard not democracy but the American Way of Driving. (One might say the same of the second Gulf War.) American historians, however, have failed to heed the wisdom in that throwaway remark, thus to reveal in all its starkness the ecological imperialism of the sole superpower in the world. They have reproduced in their own work the insularity of the environmental movement as a whole, with the singular exception of Richard Tucker, whose book Insatiable Appetite points the direction in which future research might, rather should, go.
By the same token, the chief deficiency in Indian environmental scholarship merely reproduces the major weakness of the Indian environmental movement. Following its main inspiration, Mahatma Gandhi, this movement has turned its back on the city, choosing to work instead with peasants, pastoralists, tribes, and fisherfolk. The historians have done likewise. Thus we have had major struggles against commercial forestry and against large dams (on behalf of the rural communities to be displaced by them); and thus also we have numerous historical studies of forest policy and water management. The urban environment is neglected by activists; and predictably, by scholars as well. India soon will have the largest urban population in the world, yet we know far less than we ought to about the history of ecological conditions within cities or of their claims on the resources of the hinterland.
This then, is my own wish list for environmental history: that we will soon have fine, detailed studies of the "ecological footprint" of the United States, and of the cities of modern India.
Ramachandra Guha's books include The Unquiet Woods and Environmentalism: A Global History. He is completing a book whose working title is Gandhians and Greens: The Practice and Theory of Environmentalism.