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Book Review


Guha, Ramachandra. Environmentalism: A global history (New York: Longman, 2000). 161 pp., $26.20.

Guha, Ramachandra. How Much Should a Person Consume?: Environmentalism in India and the United States (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006). 262 pp., $21.95.


Ramachandra Guha's Global Histories of Environmentalism

      Ramachandra Guha is a social and environmental historian, a cricket author, a biographer, and a columnist in India. In addition to the two books reviewed here, Guha has written numerous other books and essays on environmental history over the last twenty years, including: The Unquiet Woods1, This Fissured Land (with Madhav Gadgil)2, Nature, Culture and Imperialism (with David Arnold)3, and Savaging the Civilized4. He has held academic positions at Yale University, the University of California at Berkeley, Stanford University, the Oslo University and the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. He is now a full time writer.

      Environmentalism and How Much Should a Person Consume? reflect Guha's commitments to 1) nuanced historical analysis of the complex relationships between environments and societies, 2) humane environmental activism and public policy, 3) the diverse international expressions of environmental movements, and 4) his deep, personal relationships with the ideas and biographies of the scholars, government officers, and activists who have shaped his understanding of environmentalism around the world. These two books are intellectual histories of environmentalism and environmental movements in America, Europe, India and the world. These books do not contain historical narratives or scientific analyses of the changing global climate or physical environment. Instead, these books organize and dissect our evolving ideas about nature and human relationships in nature often within the context of biographical vignettes of the naturalists, foresters, scientists, politicians, philosophers, and activists who have best expounded and shaped those ideas.

      The themes, content and form of these two books have a much in common. But they are intended for very different audiences. This review briefly outlines the structures of each book individually; it notes the books' pedagogical utility within the context of world history; and then it examines the major ideas Guha explores across both texts.

      Environmentalism: A global history is a brief survey of the ideas and movements that have shaped environmentalism around the world. It is divided into two parts. During environmentalism's first wave in the 19th and early 20th centuries, naturalists, officers, and philosophers responded to industrialization and modern state power with three different ideals about the proper relationships between humanity and nature. Guha calls these ideals: "back to the land," "scientific conservation," and the "wilderness idea," and explores their divergent visions and experimental policies. Within the second wave, environmentalism evolved from an intellectual response into a series of mass movements in America, Europe, and the world. Environmental activists in the United States, Germany and elsewhere brought environmentalism mass appeal and divergent goals in the form of deep ecology and environmental justice movements. Environmental movements from the global south challenged the ideals and policies of affluent, post-industrialized northern environmentalists. Socialism and Communism confronted the environment in unique ways as well. Finally, in recent decades environmentalists from around the world have gathered in Rio, Kyoto and elsewhere to debate and to develop an increasingly unified global environmental movement, with mixed results. Guha treats both waves of environmentalism within a global scope, in diverse ecological and national contexts.

     How Much Should a Person Consume? is at once more detailed and intellectual, more historiographic and analytical, more personal and biographic, and more eclectic and more assertively argumentative than the previous book. Yet it covers very similar ideas, characters, movements and geography. The book has three distinct introductions. The first chapter "History sans Chauvinism" is a personal (self indulgent?) account of Guha's own intellectual journey from a Marxist student toward a historian of the environment. He develops a complex and nuanced awareness of the diverse constituencies that strive to utilize, regulate, protect and coexist in and with nature, noting many of the minds that directed his path. The second introductory chapter analyzes the origins and development of the Indian environmental movement. It begins by discussing innovators like Patrick Geddes, Radhakamal Mukherjee and J.C. Kumarappa, and then focuses on the indigenous activism of the Chipko movement. The third introduction outlines the three environmental ideals noted above in the first wave of environmentalism, herein termed: "agrarianism", "scientific industrialism", and "wilderness thinking or primitivism". In this volume Guha strives to harmonize or resolve the conflicts between these competing utopian ideals with his own approach "social ecology": which works to harmonize the needs of diverse human groups and develop sustainable resource use and management through more equitable, local and democratic governance.

      The remainder of the book explores how social ecology may be applied to the forest and the wild (in chapters four and five), and in the work of three pioneering social ecologists: Lewis Mumford, Chandi Prasad Bhatt, and Madhav Gadgil (in chapters six, seven and eight). Chapters four and five explore the competing claims for wilderness resources and conflicting visions for preservation and sustainability among forest dwellers, villagers, urban middle classes and international elites. These conflicts often pit poor, rural users of resources against vast urban appetites, elite environmental ideals, and state authoritarian tendencies. The Mumford, Bhatt and Gadgil chapters examine social ecology through the evolving careers of three important and underappreciated scholars and activists. The Gadgil chapter borders on the hagiographic. The final chapter wrestles with the vexing question from the title: how much should a person consume? The chapter strives to chart a course between insatiable consumerism, which he calls the fallacy of the romantic economist, and neo-Malthusian pessimism or radical deep ecology, which he calls the fallacy of romantic environmentalism. Guha focuses on participatory democracy, accountable resource use, political decentralization, removal of economic subsidies that favor urban consumption of natural resources, sustainable and feasible government policies that balance competing needs and desires for resources, and social equity for the weakest members of society: rural and wilderness communities.

      As a pedagogical tool, Guha's Environmentalism is a brief, broad and general introduction to a wide array of competing environmental ideals and movements from around the world. It has a readily comprehensible historical narrative of the evolution of environmentalism from a series of intellectual responses to industrialization toward a boisterous and diverse array of mass movements. It succeeds in its effort to be a global history. World history and world civilizations instructors will find it instructive. A broader range of students can understand it as well. It contains numerous excerpted primary sources to help students and readers appreciate the language and ideas of evolving environmentalists. How Much Should a Person Consume? is a more complex, academic analysis that faculty and graduate students in fields of history, sociology, ecology and environmental science will appreciate and benefit from. Guha's central philosophy of social ecology also contains a clear and complex set of arguments for how environmental scholarship and activism may be better guided in order to produce more equitable, global solutions to environmental challenges. Younger students would need significant guidance in analyzing and internalizing the arguments of this text.

      The most interesting contributions of these books to world historical scholarship are Guha's consciously global and comparative analyses of the competing ideas that shape environmentalism. As an Indian who has lived, worked and studied in the United States and Europe, he offers us his own unique set of prisms for understanding environmentalism. Some of the most provocative ideas both of these books include: agrarianism or back to the land, scientific conservation, wilderness thinking or primitivism, the environmental conflicts between north and south, and social ecology.

      "Back to the land" was the early response of poets, naturalists and philosophers like Wordsworth, Ruskin, Morris and Carpenter to 19th century industrialization and urban pollution.5 Their veneration of the land and the pastoral village was romantic. They had strong influence on Indians like Gandhi, Kumarappa and Tagore.6 Guha ties this ideal to "agrarianism," which idealizes the agricultural village civilizations of premodern Europe and Asia, as opposed to both urban societies and tribal forest societies.7

      "Scientific Conservation" was reflected in the efforts of naturalists, foresters, colonial officers, and scientists like George Marsh, Dietrich Brandis, and Alexander von Humboldt. These 19th century scientists strove to responsibly and efficiently utilize the resources of nature and the wilderness, especially the forest.8 This ideal views science and enlightened state regulation of human use of the environment and natural resources as crucial to sustainable yields, progress, and prosperous societies.9

      John Muir and Aldo Leopold reflect the thinking of the "wilderness idea" or "primitivism", which views human agrarian civilization and urban industrialization in pessimistic terms. Nature was whole before human civilization began changing and destroying it. This movement gave rise to the growth of the Sierra Club and national parks, which restrict human access to the wilderness.10

      Diverse environmental movements and conflicts from around the world trace complex connections back to these divergent and competing ideals. Colonial and national forestry departments strove to protect and regulate use of national resources consistent with scientific conservation, but they excluded the traditional rights of local forest communities. The building of nature preserves to protect elephants, tigers and lions support the wilderness ideal as well as national symbols of some Asian and African nations. These bring international tourist money to a region; but they also severely restrict the access of local farmers, villagers and tribal forest dwellers to their local resources. National regimes build huge dams and energy projects for the sake of their growing urban economies, and in response rural and often tribal forest minorities mobilize to protect and preserve their lands and resource rights. Deep ecology movements espouse the equality of all planetary biota, argue for more radical limits on human economies, and are focused on the wilderness; by contrast, social and environmental justice movements focus on human societies, equity within nations and increased equity across international or global communities. Guha dissects these competing ideals and their competing constituencies in both books. Guha's effort to describe and analyze social ecology (noted above) marks a bold and pragmatic attempt to navigate between these divergent and competing environmental ideals, to bridge the gaps that separate global north and south, and to suggest achievable goals for maintaining a sustainable relationship between humanity and our natural world.

1 Ramachandra Guha, The Unquiet Woods: Ecological Change and Peasant Resistance in the Himalaya (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).

2 Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha, This Fissured Land: An Ecological History of India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1992).

3 David Arnold and Ramachandra Guha, Nature, Culture, Imperialism: Essays on the Environmental History of South Asia (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995).

4 Ramachandra Guha, Savaging the Civilized - Verrier Elwin, his tribals and India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

5 Guha, Environmentalism, 10-16.

6 Guha, Environmentalism, 19-24; Guha, How Much, 76.

7 Guha, How Much, 74-75.

8 Guha, Environmentalism, 25-29.

9 Guha, How Much, 79.

10 Guha, How Much, 77-78; Guha, Environmentalism, 49-55.


Ian C. Wendt
Washington State University


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