What Does It Mean To Be An ‘Environmentalist’?

Posted on October 16, 2011 in Environment

By Pranietha Mudliar:

“…In the first few months of 1973, the ‘ecological question’ made a dramatic re-entry into national life. In the space of a mere few weeks 3 events occurred:”

It is with these words that Guha goes on to describe the Project Tiger, a paper by B.B.Vohra on soil and water conservation and the Chipko Movement in a distant village which marked a watershed in the history of environmentalism in India. These 3 unconnected events shook India out of its post-independence industrialisation stupor and created an environmental consciousness in the nation.

This question of what it means to be an environmentalist has plagued me since I joined my Masters for Environmental Science. For me, the woman peasants in Mandal were the finest environmentalists because they had the courage to stand up and probe the questions of justice, fairness, sustainability and equity.

Till the 1960s environmentalism was the pursuit of the rich because during that time America saw the emergence of the post-materialistic society and the urban middle class could devote time and thought towards the degradation of their ecological bounty. But India followed a very different path towards environmental action. India in the 1970s saw the environmentalism of the poor emerge. Nature based conflicts (land and water) were played out in India because they formed the crux of livelihood and survival of the marginalised (the peasants, displaced tribals, fisherfolk, etc). The Narmada Bachao Andolan was a movement where tribals resorted to action by taking the Gandhian path that was most familiar to them- hunger strikes and dharnas.

But there is a hitch in this too. Environmentalists have a set of war cries with which they have come to be associated with over the past 4 decades. No dams! No mines! No industries! No nuclear power! No displacement! Climate change! They are perceived as anti-development and as a threat to the growth of the nation. Environmentalists have often been dismissed as hypocrites and elitists who sit comfortably in their plush air-conditioned homes wearing “save the planet” t-shirts. They have been guilty of creating mass hysteria as demonstrated in the recent alarmist claims that the Himalayan Glaciers were melting due to global warming. This claim had no factual basis and was retracted by the IPCC. Radical environmentalists such as Greenpeace put up startling claims in July 2009 such as “Ice free summers in the Arctic by 2030”. They had to admit within a month that their claim was false and misleading and they did it only because they as a pressure group have to ‘emotionalise’ issues. This is when environmentalists lose credibility and invite ridicule.
Vedanta, Posco, the airport at Navi Mumbai and the Lavasa projects generated a lot of heat in 2010. They came to a stand still and then again progress unabated. But it showed the country the lax ways of the government machinery in conducting impact assessment studies and giving clearances. Since the past 5 years, locals at Jaitapur have been protesting the nuclear power plant (the largest in India) and the government even while admitting that the compensation given is not enough is also ever ready to forcibly evict people. People are becoming poorer by the minute to satisfy our needs of energy, coal, cement, paper, steel, etc. It is not development when it is achieved at the cost of depriving the poor of their livelihood. Nevertheless, this does not mean that building infrastructure has to be viewed as separately from the environment. The challenge lies in reconciling these 2 objectives by taking into account the will of the people involved. We are after all known to be largest democracy in the world!

The environmental movement in India has seen environmentalists compartmentalised into conflicting groups which are always at loggerheads with each other. There are the hard core wild life conservationists such as Valmik Thapar who demand that wild life habitats be cleared of all human settlements while there are social ecologists such as Madhav Gadgil who speak for the tribals and forest co-existence. Such divisions between environmentalists only worsen the issue at hand with no clear cut policy in sight. Only too recently on 7th Feb, 2011, there was the glaring example by the MoEF when it declared certain zones as ‘critical wildlife habitats’ and called for clearing the tribals out of the forests. This triggered protests in BRT, Karnataka and Kaziranga National Park, Assam. Only after civil society organisations pointed out the many lapses with regards to the social, ecological and technical identification of the zones, the relocation of tribals was dropped and the guidelines were withdrawn on 4th March, 2011.

While researching for this essay I was struck by the fact that without the usual quota of protests and strikes the government never realises the repercussions of its actions. Why is it that they always have to wait for someone else to point out the lacunae in all its grandiose plans? Will it not be easier for the government to conduct an honest evaluation by taking people into confidence instead of wasting much of it’s time and energy in sanctioning projects, clearing forests, forcibly evicting people and then backing down again when people protest. In extreme circumstances the government waits for abductions, suicides and murders to realise the consequence of its actions as demonstrated in the recent protests over the dam on the Chata river in Jharkhand. And by then it is too late and much too little- the damage is already done.

As a student harbouring any notions of activism was seen as being unscientific. We are trained to think objectively and always be neutral in our emotions. Being objective worked fine with me. But it was the neutral stand that heckled me. How does one take a neutral stand towards the functioning of the society? Is it possible to remain a silent observer and not raise a voice at injustice. That is when I made my choice of wanting to inform as well as speak up when there is a need. And yes, I will also take sides if the need arises as I believe that greater harm comes out of being just a mute spectator. For me, this is what it means to be an environmentalist.


Guha, R. (2006). How much should a person consume? Thinking through the environment.
Gadgil, M. (2001). Ecological Journeys. Science and Politics of Conservation in India.
Narain, S. (2011). How to approach environmentalism. Down to Earth.
Moyna (2011). Secret Dam. Down to Earth.
The Hindu, 28th November, 2010. “Its paradoxical that environmentalists are against nuclear energy-Jairam Ramesh’-Vinaya Deshpande
India Today, 9th January, 2011. “Maharashtra CM to host ‘Open House’ on Jaitapur N-project on Jan 18”
India Today, 1st March, 2011. “N-power plant: Maharashtra govt arrest Jaitapur activist”
Guidelines for Declaration of Eco-Sensitive Zones around National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries. F.No. 1-9/2007WL-1 (pt) Dated 9th February, 2011.
Withdrawal of Revised Guidelines for determination of Critical Wildlife Habitat. F. No. 1-39/2007 WL-1 (pt) Dated 4th March, 2011

List of Abbreviations
IPCC: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
BRT: Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple