Ramachandra Guha Essay

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Ramachandra Guha is a social historian of environmental change. Trained as a sociologist, he has also been called an anthropologist, ecologist, journalist, and historian. Born in Dehradun, India, in 1958, Guha studied at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, and took his doctorate at the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta. Between 1985-95 he held academic positions in India, Europe, and North America. Since 1995 he has been a full-time writer based in Bangalore, India.

Ramachandra Guha’s first book, The Unquiet Woods: Ecological Change and Peasant Resistance in the Himalaya (1989), is a social history of the Himalayan forests, from the 19th century to the Chipko movement in the 1970s and 80s. This seminal study explores the intersection of ecology, social structure, and peasant politics. Guha shows how the Chipko movement, in which Himalayan villagers protected their traditional forests from industrial loggers by hugging the trees, is part of a century of protests by villagers. For Guha, this contemporary environmental crisis in the Himalayas is not a new phenomenon, but a new expression of old peasant resistance against the ruling elite.

In Varieties of Environmentalism: Essays North and South (1997), Guha and Juan Martinez-Alier examine environmental philosophies around the world. The authors maintain that it is a mistake to see environmental movements only through the lens of the United States, where environmentalism is a middle-class concern for nature protection and is seen as a consequence of affluence rather than poverty. By looking at the “environmentalism of the poor,” they show that environmental struggles in southern countries are about control over the land, forest, and water resources needed for subsistence livelihoods.

This book challenges the long-held twin beliefs that the United States is the home of the pioneers of environmental thought-such as Henry Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold-and that the protectionist paradigm of wilderness conservation is the only valid global model. In sum, this book presents a very different view of environmental concerns and priorities in the Southern Hemisphere.

One of Guha’s most influential essays, Radical American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation (1989) has been reprinted in more than a dozen anthologies on society and the environment. Here he decries what he calls the “imperialist manifesto” associated with northern conservation agendas as they are forced on southern countries. Guha feels this preoccupation with wilderness preservation compounds the neglect by the American environmental movement of more pressing environmental problems in the third world.

Guha’s work contributes to two critical issues in environmental studies: how do we theorize the intersection of society and nature? And how can marginalized voices (ironically often the voices of the people most dependent on nature for survival) be brought into mainstream thinking on environmentalism? He worries that creative voices in the developing world are being pushed out of the current dialogue. By amplifying these marginalized voices, Guha challenges the assumption that the northern ideology of environmentalism is the best way to achieve sustainable resource use at a global scale.

Guha cautions contemporary environmentalists against extremist positions that demonize industry, government, and markets. Instead, to balance conservation with development, they need to work toward the ideals of economic efficiency, social equity, and ecological stability. Guha’s idea of balancing ecology with social justice is best summed up in a poem by Cheradanaraju, used as the epigraph to Ecology and Equity, which Guha coauthored with Madhav Gadgil:

I will not stop cutting down trees

Though there is life in them

I will not stop plucking out leaves,

Though they will make nature beautiful

I will not stop hacking off branches,

Though they are the arms of a tree

Because-

I need a hut.

Bibliography:

  1. Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha, Ecology and Equity (Routledge Press, 1995);
  2. Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha, This Fissured Land: An Ecological History of India (Oxford University Press, 1992);
  3. Ramachandra Guha, “The Authoritarian Biologist and the Arrogance of Anti-Humanism: Wildlife Conservation in the Third World,” Ecologist (v.27/1, 1997);
  4. Ramachandra Guha, Nature’s Spokesman-M. Krishnan and Indian Wildlife (Oxford University Press, 2002);
  5. Ramachandra Guha, The Unquiet Woods: Ecological Change and Peasant Resistance in the Himalaya (University of California Press, 1989);
  6. Ramachandra Guha, “Radical American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation,” Environmental Ethics (v.11/1, 1989);
  7. Ramachandra Guha and Juan Martinez-Alier, Varieties of Environmentalism: Essays North and South (Earthscan Publications, 1997).

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