Guha's Diatribe

by Lorna Salzman

Ramachandra Guha's recent piece ("The Authoritarian Biologist and the Arrogance of Anti-Humanism", The Ecologist January/February 1997) is a not-altogether persuasive blend of politically correct sociological observations with virulent diatribes against the disciplines of biology and ecology. I would like to take the time to unravel these often conflicting strands because I think that many of his assumptions and assertions are spurious and contrived in the interest of argument rather than that of broader ecological comprehension.

Quite clearly it is not necessary to romanticize or embellish indigenous cultures with noble attributes in order to grant them their right to self-determination, cultural continuity and democratically controlled development. No one contests these rights. But the plain hard fact about the laws of nature and ecology is that they apply to rich and poor, powerful and powerless, privileged and oppressed, and that the violation of these laws produces ecological disaster, whether done in the name of social justice and equity, or done in the interests of foreign corporate domination and industrial growth. And today native cultures, modified as they have been by contact with the industrialized world, are often no more or less ethically and ecologically sensitive than any others. For instance, many native American tribes insist on whaling rights even though their tribes now utilize modern technology for the hunts and are fully integrated into a cash economy. In the US, some native American tribal reservations have dived headfirst into the egregious casino gambling inferno; others have welcomed the burial of nuclear reactor waste in exchange for monetary compensation.

While in some cases indigenous peoples have tried to resist the entreaties of industrial development and consumer trappings, they are often unable to. And if such native peoples fall into the industrial model trap, their populations will increase to the point that they will eventually surpass the capacity of their local environment to support their needs, and their activities will become as destructive as ours.

Guha makes a totally specious comparison regarding utilization of species and resources when he states that Hindus who worship cows do not require others to do so but that "those who cherish the elephant, seal, whale or tiger try to impose a worldwide prohibition on its killing." Needless to say, cows are not an endangered species! While we need not accept what marine mammal and fisheries commissions say about the population size of an endangered species without scrutiny, by the same token we need not accept the unsubstantiated "cultural" opinions of native peoples about the abundance of endangered species they hold sacred as a totem or utilize for subsistence.

In my experience on Long Island, an area reliant on commercial fishing and shell-fishing, I have seen local fishermen on one hand complaining about estuarine pollution and factory fishing causing fisheries depletion (as they have), and then getting up to oppose the imposition of fishing limits, claiming that their own experience and observation "prove" that the depletion is not so bad as to justify such limits. These fishermen need to present their own evidence, not just hearsay or popular culture, to show that fishery limits should not be imposed. When it comes to protection of endangered species and the global commons, there cannot be a double standard regarding scientific evidence. To assume that all indigenous and local cultures have all the correct information all the time, while assuming that ecologists act only in self-interest and do not care about human needs, is a very dangerous and indefensible position.

Incidentally, Guha notes that "tribals and tigers have co-existed for centuries," which may be technically true, and it is a cliche to say that reduced habitat puts pressure on tigers so they become a greater menace Local communities have always shot tigers and continue to do so but it matters more today because tigers, for whatever reason, are a severely reduced population. To infer that communities should be allowed to shoot tigers now just because they weren't responsible for its decline is precisely the kind of unthinking anti-science reaction that undermines the implementation of land use and settlement planning that could serve human needs as well as those of the tiger. Both the tiger and the community need preservation and protection, not for ecotourism but out of ecological and social justice exigency.

What is truly amazing in Guha's diatribe is how he blames the conservation biologists rather than the industrial growth society, transnational corporations and compliant Third World governments and elites for the destruction of habitat, species and ecosystems. Moreover, he seems unaware of, or disinterested in, the serious issue of habitat fragmentation, attacking the US belief now taken over by the Third World that wilderness has to be "big, continuous wilderness." Surely he is aware, or should be, of the many biogeography studies that have been conducted that show how fragmentation from suburban development, highways or other factors has reduced the populations of many species. As for human intervention or presence, only a few hard-core groups maintain such a purist stance now because it is both impractical and may not have any ecological justification (though one could certainly justify it in terms of sensitive ecosystems such as tundra, which is threatened in general by global warming).

It is always tempting to set up an extreme example in order to demolish it and promote a personal alternative viewpoint. Guha does precisely this, by inferring throughout that the conservation biology community is uniformly behind the notion of the "punitive guns and guards approach", which he says is "favoured by the majority of wildlife conservationists." I am truly sorry that these are the only ones he has met. Not all revered order systems are appropriate or necessarily ethical - or, more important, ecological. There are many cultural and nature traditions which involve far more intrusion upon Nature than "nature groves". These traditions, insofar as they reinforce both human rights and the rights of non-human Nature, need to be respected and preserved. But they must be judged by the same ethical and ecological criteria that we seek to apply to corporations, developers, hunters, and all the other despoilers.

The only "politically correct" answer we must finally acknowledge, is that which is ecologically consistent.

Source: The Ecologist, 1996.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.