Updated: November 14, 2012 17:05 IST

Towards a science rooted in public interest

Sanjay Chaturvedi
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Can billions in Global South ‘develop’ the way millions in the Global North have, without seriously compromising the ecological resilience of the natural environment they inhabit? How to interpret and analyse the multifaceted domain of what is rapidly emerging as ‘environmental governance’ in a globalised world facing environmental degradation and climate change?

The issues at stake go beyond traditional agencies of governance and encompass the diverse interests of communities, the corporate world and the broad human societies. What constitutes the ‘appropriate knowledge’ of diverse natural ecosystems, wide-ranging threats they are facing (in all segments of the natural environment) and the solutions that might be needed? Can this knowledge be created with a disciplinary approach? What is the most appropriate scale (local, national, global) for decision-making with regard to environmental governance, especially in view of uncertainties induced by climate change? How does one assess and calculate in terms of conventional economic accounting of the impacts of environmental unsustainability and climate change on sacred geographies of indigenous peoples’ homelands or rights to land or ecological values?

The edited volume by Bandyopadhyay et al is in contrast with the burgeoning literature on environmental issues and climate change that deploys fear-inducing, unsubstantiated alarmist scenarios of doom and disaster in order to draw the immediate attention of the public at large, This book makes a serious and systematic attempt to show how the challenge of persisting asymmetrical access to information and deficit of knowledge can be hopefully met through interdisciplinary, policy-oriented research, new as well as reformed institutions and change in human behaviour.

In a thought-provoking introduction, the editors rightly point out that the authority, legitimacy and effectiveness of environmental governance does not depend on disciplinary or interdisciplinary knowledge alone. It is only through ensuring that this body of knowledge is made both accessible and intelligible to various social institutions that continued availability of ecosystem services and related human wellbeing can be realised. In other words (and this is an outstanding insight emanating from this volume), bottom-up perspectives on environmental governance demands that ‘public interest science’ plays a crucial role in supporting environmental movements and ‘public interest litigations’. In an excellent analysis of the pros and cons of ‘judicialisation’ of environmental governance, Geetanjoy Sahu concludes that judicialisation of environmental governance no doubt has certain merits which demand and deserve institutionalisation and democratisation, but it would be vital to ensure that its ‘negative implications’ and ‘unwanted effects’ are minimised to the extent possible.

Climate change

In another sharp contrast to some of the dominant discourses on climate change that tend to privilege either a particular scale (i.e. global over the local) or a particular response (i.e. mitigation over adaptation), or a particular domain of knowledge (i.e. earth climate science over indigenous knowledge) well-researched contributions to this volume underline the need to map out in sufficient detail, the diversity of understandings, representations and values related to climate change. They underline the importance of articulating the plurality that has come to prevail with regard to preferred responses or ‘ideal’ solutions to climate change. In his chapter, Tim Forsyth skillfully grapples with the complex politics of environmental science and argues in favour of acknowledging the intimate links between environmental scientific knowledge and social-cultural perceptions. His contention is that most useful scientific progress can occur when we consider who (and for whose benefits) we collect scientific information and create scientific “laws”.

Sounding a note of caution against politically appealing as well as intellectually convenient tendency in favour of reductionism and abstraction when confronted with extraordinarily complex environmental problems, Richard B. Norgaard’s contribution underlines the importance of both theorising and practicing diversity in all its interrelated, interactive forms (e.g. biodiversity being understood in terms of genetic, eco-diversity etc.), as graphically brought out by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. He questions fundamentalism of various kinds (i.e. scientific, free market, religious), which, in his view, either individually or in combination, will expedite the “collapse of the very multi-levelled ecological, socio-economic, and cultural diversity on which we depend.”

The proverbial billion-dollar questions raised by Norgaard are these: “Why do modern people build organizations that end up pushing particular underlying [universal] principles, rather than organizations that embrace diversity of our world and how we understand it? How can we organize ourselves, so that we can use the multiple frameworks and information from the multiple disciplines, and combine this with practical knowledge.”

In any worthwhile pursuit of environmental governance, as important as the acknowledgement of diversity is the recognition of unprecedented “increase in the scale and depth of the human impact on the ecosystem” and globalisation of the “geography of interdependence”, which in turn demands a serious engagement with the issue of ‘equity’. There is a complex geography to the impacts and implications of both environmental degradation and climate change.

The notions such as ‘risk’ and ‘uncertainty’ also often carry different meanings for the affluent and the marginalised since the capacity to ‘innovate, integrate and anticipate’ varies considerably among classes and groups. Nitin Desai’s fascinating argument in favour of the ‘politics of cooperative action’ on climate change rightly identifies several obstacles to imperatives such as cooperative management of open access resources such as atmosphere, securing consensus on issues related to both the economics and the ethics, acknowledging both the intra- and the intergenerational equity, and working together towards mutual trust and reciprocity.

Further enriching this collection is the section devoted to a few case studies drawn from different parts of South Asia. Meaningfully titled, ‘Imperatives and Instances’, it begins with J. Martinez-Alier’s forceful engagement with the notion of ‘environmental justice’ in the context of tribal areas around the world being turned into some kind of ‘commodity frontiers’; “where bulk commodities essential to the metabolism of rich economies (oil, coal, gas, bauxite, copper, timber, hydroelectricity) or preciosities (diamonds, gold, mahogany, aquaculture shrimp) are supplied.”

This volume successfully combines innovative theoretical arguments with empirical case studies. The editors have done a highly commendable job of skillfully demonstrating the linkages among various contributions and highlighting the crosscutting issues with regard to the discourse and practices of environmental governance both on land and at sea. The overall intellectual-academic appeal and interdisciplinary value of this work is rather global and likely to draw serious attention of both academics and practitioners. Research on and teaching of environmental studies will benefit greatly from this book.

ENVIRONMENTAL GOVERNANCE — Approaches, Imperatives and Methods: Edited by Jayanta Bandyopadhyay, Kanchan Chopra, Nilanjan Ghosh; Bloomsbury Publishing India Pvt. Ltd., VISHRUT Building, DDA Complex, Building No.3, Ground Floor, Pocket C-6&7, Vasant Kunj, New Delhi-110070. Rs. 1200.

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