Between the mountain and the sea: China, India, and sustainability

Nilanjan Ghosh reviews a deeply informed book on how China and India have dealt with the contradictions thrown up by models demanding high growth, and how demands of sustainability are now making themselves felt
<p>Community organiser Drakyom Palzang at a re-greening point [Image: Feng Hao]</p>

Community organiser Drakyom Palzang at a re-greening point [Image: Feng Hao]

“The [Chinese and Indian] academies [of sciences] could exercise strong leadership in highlighting environmental issues, initiating joint actions, and fostering scientific exchanges,” wrote Bawa et al in Science in 2010.

Along those very lines, Environmental Sustainability from the Himalayas to the Oceans: Struggles and Innovations in China and India (Springer International, 2017), is one of the seminal attempts by Chinese and Indian scholars to report on critical issues of environmentalism in the two countries.

The uniqueness of the book lies not in its mere reporting of Chinese and Indian cases by respective scholars – and providing a comparison between each nation’s approach – but in the comparative and objective analyses by its authors; Shikui Dong, Jayanta Bandyopadhyay and Sanjay Chaturvedi.

The underlying ‘tacit’ framework

The book focuses on ‘struggles’ and ‘innovations’. In terms of the drivers-pressures-state-impacts-response (DPSIR) framework developed by the European Environment Agency, urbanisation and industrialisation create pressure points, such as pollution and environmental degradation, which can create environmental conflicts and concerns over food security –  the ‘struggles’.

Response in the DPSIR framework can be institutional; setting up river basin organisations (RBO), judicial processes for conflict resolution, institutional reforms such as demand management, and technological changes – the ‘innovations’. This causality appears in the book through clear and empirical evidence.

The struggle of paradigms

Of the many interesting passages in the book, the first relates to the struggles for the existence of treatises. The book highlights how growth fundamentalism, promoted by neoclassical economic thinking, has compounded environmental problems and affected human wellbeing. Shifts from neoclassical growth fundamentalism, to Herman Daly’s steady-state economy, to the ongoing de-growth movement have not been free of scholastic antagonism.

The second and third chapters present historical threats, problems and challenges of environmental governance, again through the lens of ‘struggles’ and ‘innovations’. Bandyopadhyay presents details of these experiences through community-based resistance to commercial forest felling in Uttarakhand, and the introduction of the public interest litigation (PIL) by the Supreme Court of India.

Bandyopadhyay is probably the first to compare the fluvial geomorphology and hydrology of the nations’ major rivers; the Yellow River and the Ganga. He describes how river science has been perceived and used to different effect in the two countries, delving into an interesting discussion on environmental flows. China has defined these holistically, with the intention of restoring the health of their rivers. In India, however, the notion has been reduced to a certain percentage of the total flow. While this has been done for policy convenience, it fails to conform to the original definition of the notion or stand up to scientific scrutiny.

A masterly treatment of scientific enquiry reveals the importance of the Himalayan grasslands in terms of their ecosystem services for upstream and downstream communities, and the problems associated with grassland degradation. Shikui Dong reports that local pastoralists have developed adaptive strategies through social innovations to combat the challenges brought about by global warming and climate change.

In chapter six, the authors discuss institutional innovation; developing regional institutions, in close collaboration with national governments of member countries, for an integrated approach to institutionalise trans-boundary biodiversity conservation. Nidhi Srinivas weaves together various cases to support his hypothesis of local networks, including NGOs working in tandem with state governments, to mobilise local people. This offers an interesting solution to incentivise local people to work for the collective needs of social-ecological systems.

In an important cornerstone of the book, Chaturvedi uses case studies of the Indian Sundarbans and the Zhangjiangkou Mangrove Forestry Reserve in China’s Fujian province to reveal how typically-marginalised communities view and deal with the impacts of incremental climate change and unsustainable environments. Chaturvedi brings a deep, theoretical understanding of power relations, scale, spatial dimensions, and highlights the roles of micro-geopolitics and social justice.

To conclude the book, Bandyopadhyay et al recount the debate around growth-fundamentalism and call for an alternate definition of development that clearly lashes out against the myopic growth philosophy.

“…Yet another timely reminder to the two most populous, fastest growing economies with enviable human capital in a globalising world that ‘Rise’ comes with enormous responsibility of planetary scale, especially in the era of climate change and growing scarcities of two of the five basic elements of life: clean air and clean water,” they write.

A trans-disciplinary knowledge base

When it comes to research in such a trans-disciplinary interface, it is expected that gaps in compartmentalised disciplinary thinking will be addressed, which this book does so well. At one level, the book acknowledges that environmentalism, as explained by struggles and innovations, has emerged from developmental thinking of growth-fundamentalism. This has been prevalent in emerging economies, especially China and India. At another level, the book presents a statement on the possibly symbiotic relation between the two apparently contending notions of biodiversity conservation and human development, through the evolution of appropriate institutional frameworks for environmental governance.

To engender the goals of environmental governance, elements of physical, natural, social and economic sciences have been combined to create a base of trans-disciplinary knowledge. For physical and natural scientists, the book provides an opportunity to understand and appreciate the social realities and changes brought about by flawed and correct designs. For the social scientists, it is important to understand the nature and role of engineering and natural sciences to analyse social drivers of struggles and innovations that have characterised the history of environmentalism in India and China.

For the economists, there is a redefinition and recasting of developmental philosophy from a narrow, myopic growth- fundamentalism, to a more ecologically informed, socially responsible developmental philosophy, upholding the important concern of distributive justice.

Environmental Sustainability from the Himalayas to the Oceans: Struggles and Innovations in China and India is available here.