Category: Book reviews (page 1 of 1)

Deep Impact: Environmental History and the Human Footprint

This book review appeared in Current Conservation in 2011.

Something New Under The Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth- Century World by J. R. McNeill, W. W. Norton & Company, ISBN:0-393-04917-5 (2000).

This book, which aims to present an ecological history of the 20th century, but which does more than that, is one of the first really comprehensive global environmental history books I’ve read. It is balanced, mostly neutral in tone, has a historian’s caution in interpreting past and recent events and prognoses for the future. While generally well written, it is a little less engaging in the beginning but becomes better towards the end.

The span is impressive: effects on soil, water, air, ecosystems, and biodiversity; themes of economic growth, industrialisation, farming of land and water and ocean and the so-called Green Revolution, dams and infrastructure, democratisation, coal, oil, and energy, globalisation, medical and public health changes, and, of course, environmentalism itself. Its pages encapsulate an amazing range of items and ideas: from the history of chainsaws and tractors to cars and nuclear power, from the history of chemical fertilizers and leaded gasoline to chlofluorocarbons (CFCs) and greenhouses gases.

Most fascinating of all are the accounts of the people responsible and the nations underlying these changes, and how people and nations have changed and been changed by the environment. There are some interesting sidelights to read here. How Fritz Haber, the co-inventor of the Haber-Bosch process that brought us today’s urea and nitrogen crisis, also spent World War I creating poison gas for the German military, which led his wife to commit suicide. How Thomas Midgely, the inventor of ‘freon’, the first of the ozone-depleting CFCs, and of the use of lead in engine performance, “had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in earth history”. Midgely later contracted polio and invented a peculiar contraption to get himself in and out of bed, which ultimately went awry and strangulated him to death.

The chapter on air pollution makes fascinating and compelling reading, highly relevant to today’s context. How a London fog of 1873 was so dense that people walked into the River Thames because they couldn’t see it. How air pollution killed as many people as were killed in the 20th century in both world wars combined, “similar to the global death toll from the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic, the twentieth century’s worst encounter with infectious disease”. How, for people “… breathing Calcutta’s air after 1975 was equivalent to smoking a pack of Indian cigarettes a day. Nearly two-thirds of the population in the 1980s suffered lung ailments attributed to air pollution, chiefly particulates.” How “Coal soon signed its own death warrant as London’s fuel by killing 4,000 people in the fog of December 4—10, 1952. Chilly weather and stagnant air meant a million chimneys’ smoke…”. McNeill writes about urban smog and indoor pollution from burning coal and biomass in the domestic hearth, adding chillingly how air pollution only compounded the environmental crisis brought by water pollution in the twentieth century. “Indoor air pollution, particularly in the poorer countries where biomass and coal served as domestic fuels, produced the same ailments and probably killed millions more. That said, it is well to remember that polluted water caused far more death and disease than did polluted air in the twentieth century.”

Fascinating and manifold, McNeill recounts a range of events of great environmental import: the Dutch transmigration of 1905 in Indonesia, the Soviets ploughing into the steppes, the Brazilian push into Amazonia, waste management in Curitiba and Tokyo and Mexico, Peru’s anchoveta collapse and the assault on the world’s fisheries, the dam-building boom in the 1960s when at least one dam was being built per day on average in the world, the ecological footprint of cities from Delhi and Beijing and Singapore to others, the oil spills in Nigeria and the history of dependence on coal and oil, about medicine and public health and the impact of small pox and its eventual conquest until only “samples of the virus remain in freezers in laboratories in Atlanta and the Siberian city of Koltsovo” and so on and on. McNeill also has a quirky way of looking at world events. Writing about invasive alien species, he says: “So, in the tense Cold War atmosphere of the early 1980s, American ecosystems launched a first strike with the comb jelly and the USSR’s biota retaliated with the zebra mussel. The damaging exchange probably resulted from the failures of Soviet agriculture, which prompted the grain trade from North America: more trade, more ships, more ballast water.”

Writing about the environmentalism and the global fixation on a single-point agenda of economic growth, he also draws on the Gandhi—Nehru divide, quoting Gandhi: “‘God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West…. If an entire nation of 300 million [this was in 1928] took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.’ Gandhi was exceptional: most Indian nationalists, like Jawaharlal Nehru, wanted an industrial India, locustlike if need be.” And how independence from colonial powers did little to transform the trend of human impact on the environment: “In environmental matters, as in so many respects, independence often proved no more than a change in flags.”

McNeill draws a brief history of the environmental movement and how it was fostered by effective communication of science and ideas, singling out the work of the author of Silent Spring. “Successful ideas require great communicators to bring about wide conversion. The single most effective catalyst for environmentalism was an American aquatic zoologist with a sharp pen, Rachel Carson (1907–1964).” Yet how has the movement fared in bringing change? Mc Neill writes: “When Zhou Enlai, longtime foreign minister of Mao’s China and a very worldly man, was asked about the significance of the French Revolution some 180 years after the event, he replied that it was still too early to tell. So it is, after only 35 years, with modern environmentalism.”

In the end, McNeill highlights how both ecology and history are highly integrative disciplines (as this book itself highlights) and that they need to understand and work with each other if we are to make sense of our environmental movement, past and future.

Article for download (courtesy Current Conservation, CC-BY 3.0)

Wildlife Photography: Gujarat Model

Re-posting this book review from over a decade ago, which appeared in the Deccan Herald’s Sunday Herald on 4 September 2011.

Gujarat’s Vibrant Wildlife: A Pictorial Journey by Diinesh Kumble, Commissionerate of Information, Gujarat 2011, 192 pages, Rs 1,495.

With its ‘mouth’ opening through the Gulf of Kachchh, a neck set in the hills of the Dangs, and a curved ‘jaw’ housing the most populated districts dangling over the Arabian Sea, the shape of Gujarat looks like the head of an animal, and a smiling one at that. Within the limited geographical scope offered by the administrative boundaries is, however, a surprising diversity of landscapes, ecosystems, and wildlife.

With a rich array of photographs and a notable paucity of text, Kumble’s book aims to take the reader, or rather the gazer, on a journey through this state in this book published with the support of the Government of Gujarat. It has the blessings of no less than its Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, with whose message the book opens on a page opposite a photograph of, of course, a lion.

The book is organised rather loosely as chapters on five major habitats: grassland, wetland, forest, marine, and desert. Within each, there is about a page of text, the rest is all photographs and captions. As an introduction to Gujarat’s wildlife (names of species are also accompanied by Gujarati names, although not in Gujarati script), the book has some limited success, and some extraordinary failures.

The book is redeemed in part by many colour photographs, and the printing quality is excellent. The images, mostly of mammals and birds, are mostly those taken by the author, with some by his wife Chris Romila Kumble, and a sprinkling from other photographers: Devesh Gadhvi, Umeed Mistry, and Sumer Verma.

Most photographs are crisp portraits — close-ups of the sort that one gets with vibration-reduced large lenses with wide-open apertures — with the background and foreground fuzzy. The images captivate, but lack depth, literally and figuratively, on the living landscapes and plants that sustain animal life. The chapter on forests, for instance, lacks photographs of any forest type. Adding a few such images to accompany each chapter would have helped.

Transcending the field-guide type portraits that the book is filled with are a few images that stand out in terms of composition, inspiring a touch of awe, a sense of nature wild and free. Such are Mistry’s underwater shots of turtle and whale shark, Gadhvi’s image of lesser agama, and a few photos by the author and his wife, such as the sepia-toned spread of wild ass, flamingos in flight, and a pan of a jackal running.

Where the book really stoops low in quality is in the text. Almost uniformly poorly written, it includes some blandly-stated incomprehensibles such as “Forests are veritably the laboratories of life where co-operation and zero-sum games are seen in the raw” and “When it finally appeared but for a fraction of a second before disappearing behind the rocks, it was definitely worth a thousand words”.

The captions of the images again read like field-guide material, often repeating the colours of the animal self-evident in the photograph. Captions for a few full-page images appear to have been overlooked. There is little on ecology, and even less on conservation in the book, to provide an interpretive context. The book would have benefited if the photographic skills of the author were combined with the knowledge of a field biologist who could also write well.

Were all the photos taken in Gujarat and of free-ranging animals? The portrait of a lion that the book opens with looks suspiciously like a much-photographed individual from an enclosure in Gir. Seeing images of foxes and hyenas photographed near dens, and of a leopard running in broad daylight, one also hopes that the photographer used due diligence to minimise disturbance to animals.

There is also nothing worthwhile about conservation in this book, although the introduction claims that conservation is a ‘living ideology’ in Gujarat, epitomised by its lions. The sorry state of the Asiatic lion, reduced to a spectacle for tourists inured to the sight of habituated and hustled lions lying about their vehicles in a small area of Gujarat, a fraction of its original range, is not discussed.

Still, the book, published by the State Government, can hardly mention the blinkered intransigence of Gujarat to allow the establishment of another population in an identified reintroduction site in Madhya Pradesh, can it? In today’s context, lions are no more the pride, they are the shame of Gujarat.

Similarly, there is nothing about the Dangs and forest loss and fragmentation, nothing about pollution and bleaching threatening the coral reefs, and certainly nothing about Gujarat’s race to urbanise and industrialise and its consequences on the environment within which its people live.

To be fair, conservation is not the main theme of the book, but by ignoring conservation, peoples, and land uses in Gujarat, the book is one among many that succeeds in conveying an impression of wildlife and nature as objects, as colourful curiosities that one goes out to see, and constrained to remain within protected areas ordained for them (the maps in the book only show Wildlife Sanctuaries and National Parks).

Metaphorically speaking, the book succeeds in capturing this feeling and message through its images. Stilt and stork, gharial and hedgehog, nightjars and sandgrouse, they are all clipped, snout or beak to tail-tip, as tight portraits. There is little space, no vista. The images suggest a circumscribed view of wildlife in Gujarat, like closeted jewels in a locked jewel box.

[Article for download]

A rough draft of conservation history

Newspapers, as someone famously said, publish the first rough draft of history. If this is right, then the book under review can be said to provide a first rough draft of the conservation history of India from the mid 1990s to the present. Conservation Kaleidoscope: People, Protected Areas and Wildlife in Contemporary India by Pankaj Sekhsaria contains a selection of news items from mainstream media and accompanying editorials that first appeared in the bimonthly newsletter Protected Area Update (or PA Update) edited by the author and published by the environmental organisation Kalpavriksh. PA Update, still in publication, typically focuses on news and issues concerning India’s wildlife sanctuaries, national parks, tiger reserves, conservation and community reserves, and surrounding landscapes. The newsletter began publication as the PAM UPDATE News on Action Towards Joint Protected Area Management in September 1994 and matured over the years into its present 24-page bulletin form. The book covers the period from around 1996 to the present day, bringing out conservation news, issues, and opinions, kaleidoscopic in their diversity.

Distilled yet diverse themes

The period covered by the book was marked by a huge churn in India, as conservation moved from its protectionist origins to grappling with diverse challenges and threats, some old — such as dams and human-wildlife conflicts — and many new — such as linear infrastructure intrusions and mining. The foremost among these trends is the rise of the neoliberal state and the trampling of environmental and livelihood concerns under the iron wheels of untrammelled economic and industrial growth. This juggernaut rolls on, watering down or whittling away environmental laws and regulations, and obliterating sections of protected areas (PAs) or entire PAs denotified, to make way for destructive development.

The period also stands witness to the tension of shifting from exclusivist ideas of pristine and inviolate protected areas to more inclusive views of people as partners in conservation. Another landmark in this period was the Forest Rights Act of 2006 that created new opportunities to redress historical injustice, park-people conflicts, and empower forest dwellers to challenge destructive development in their lands. The increase in protected area coverage in some parts of India and the establishment and growth of vibrant civil society organisations focused on research, on-ground efforts, and community-based conservation, must be counted on the positive side.

The cover of the book Conservation Kaleidoscope. The book is organised in 14 chapters that distill the news and what sets the tone of the book are the accompanying editorials that present these in the immediate context, while linking them to wider currents and cross-cutting issues in conservation.
The cover of the book Conservation Kaleidoscope. The book is organised in 14 chapters that distill the news and what sets the tone of the book are the accompanying editorials that present these in the immediate context, while linking them to wider currents and cross-cutting issues in conservation.

None of these larger issues are dealt with in great depth in this book, yet all find some place in it among a tapestry of landscapes, waterscapes, and lifescapes. The book is organised in 14 chapters that distil the news and editorials into thematic (Law, Policy, and Governance; The Developmental Threat; Tourism), species-oriented (Fate of the Elephant; Tigers and Tiger Reserves), and ensemble chapters (A Colourful Mosaic; Specific Geographies). The coverage is inevitably selective. What sets the tone of the book are the accompanying editorials that present these in the immediate context, while linking them to wider currents and cross-cutting issues in conservation.

Protected areas and beyond

In these editorials, Sekhsaria speaks up for wildlife not just inside PAs, but for the wildlife outside PAs. He talks about involving people living inside PAs in their management, and on sensitising people outside PAs, including city dwellers and urban conservationists, into the realities and needs of conservation. He decries the focus on a few charismatic species or reserves, and champions the cause of diversity in species, landscapes, and conservation strategies. Often, the editorials accompanying each chapter devolve into a series of probing questions triggered by the news: questions that must be asked by and of policymakers, conservationists, and other citizens.

Wild elephants crossover at Kaziranga National Park. Photo by Mashanka/ Wikimedia Commons.
Wild elephants crossover at Kaziranga National Park. Photo by Mashanka/Wikimedia Commons.

Case studies in a staccato rhythm

Built as it is largely on news on conservation that manage to appear in mainstream media, the picture that emerges from the book of India’s conservation history is more like a series of rapidly-projected slide photographs rather than a moving film with a clear beginning, a narrative flow, climax, and denouement. This staccato presentation of news and opinion can be unsettling and difficult to read or grasp as a coherent narrative. And yet, while it presents no grand panorama, the book is nevertheless revealing in its particulars, in the details that emerge from a focus on myriad individual cases: a reserve forest denotified in Andhra for industrial use; a road cleared through a PA in Uttarakhand; mass bird deaths in a Rajasthan lake; police firing in Wayanad, Kerala; a conference on bees in Tamil Nadu; human-elephant conflict in Jharkhand; and so on.

A reference for wildlife history in India

Where the book inevitably falters is in providing depth and completeness. A news event on a threat in a new area is flagged, but the reader is often left with little idea of what came later. The section on the Forest Rights Act is insubstantial: with little news or analysis of cases where the FRA has been implemented or deliberately disregarded. Another major gap in the book is the paucity of reports or editorials about wildlife research in and around PAs. In India, there has been a remarkable growth of institutions and scholars engaged in wildlife research since the 1990s, with better understanding on wildlife conservation issues, numerous new discoveries and findings coming to light, and increasingly brought to the public by excellent science communicators and journalists. Recent issues of PA Update do carry a section about research, but this very significant aspect remains a dark patch in the otherwise colourful conservation kaleidoscope. Despite these limitations, this book is a worthwhile read and reference for a wide spectrum of people concerned with politics, development, wildlife and environment in India.

Banner image: Jim Corbett National Park. The author Sekhsaria speaks up for wildlife not just inside PAs, but for the wildlife outside PAs in his book. Photo by Shashwat Jha/Wikimedia Commons.

This book review was first published on Mongabay India on 19 April 2022 under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivatives 4.0 International License.

The Life of a Small Bone Hunter

My brief review of The Night Country (1971) by Loren Eiseley, a writer I greatly enjoy reading.

Loren Eiseley has this to say about nature writers such as Gilbert White, Richard Jefferies, and W. H. Hudson, but the words apply equally to himself:

Even though they were not discoverers in the objective sense, one feels at times that the great nature essayists had more individual perception than their scientific contemporaries. Theirs was a different contribution. They opened the minds of men by the sheer power of their thought. The world of nature, once seen through the eye of genius, is never seen in quite the same manner afterward. A dimension has been added, something that lies beyond the careful analyses of professional biology.”

Loren Eiseley (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

Eiseley’s writing is lyrical, deeply reflective, even melancholic. The essays in this book defy a simple description. Are they examples of nature writing? Memoir? Reflections on archaeology and anthropology? Ruminations on the external and internal worlds of the human? Essays on education and what it means to be a teacher? The essays are drawn from all this, gain synergy, become something larger and memorable. It is rare, I feel, to find emerging from the pen of a scientist, educator, and thinker, prose of such grace and humility.

Still, there are those who would complain of such writing, flay his ornamentation of ideas, rubbish his reflection as mysticism. It is difficult to imagine Eiseley himself being able to publish some of these essays in the literary and nature magazines of the present day. Where are the details? the editors may ask. The specifics, the hook, the motif, thread, conflict, and denouement? Or they might return his manuscript, advising him as one of his colleagues did, in all seriousness, to ‘explain himself’, perhaps ‘confess’ the state of his mind and internal world in the pages of a scientific journal. In Eiseley’s words again:

No one need object to the elucidation of scientific principles in clear, unornamental prose. What concerns us is the fact that there exists a new class of highly skilled barbarians—not representing the very great in science—who would confine men entirely to this diet.

Fortunately, Eiseley does not join the ranks of the barbarians, even as he admits in “Obituary of a bone hunter”, with due humility, that his own scientific career is marked by “no great discoveries”, that his is but a life “dedicated to the folly of doubt, the life of a small bone hunter.”

(Review originally written on 3 October 2013. You can read the book here.)

The Animacy of Language

My book review in Biblio (Apr – Jun 2021) of Wild and Wilful: Tales of 15 Iconic Indian Species by Neha Sinha (Harper Collins Publishers India, 2021, 232 pp., Rs 599, ISBN 978-93-5357-829-9).

Engaged, urgent and political writing rarely achieves the cadence, structure and pace one expects from literary works of poetry, fiction, or creative nonfiction. The immediate tends to trump the timeless, the critique of outside power overcomes any reflection of inner self, and the plot is forced along by an agenda rather than the wilfulness of its characters. It is a challenge for a writer to resist the opposing pulls and find equipoise apt for the work. Neha Sinha’s Wild and Wilful, a welcome addition to literature on the natural world, walks that tightrope with grace. Her writing balances the urgency of conservation in a battered world against life in the slow lane. It tempers criticism of the powers-that-be and how humans affect nature with reflections on her own vulnerability and how nature affects each one of us. It calls for a renewal of a more humane and sensitive relationship with nature while foregrounding the characters – 15 species from elephants and starlings to butterflies and crocodiles – each portrayed in all their wildness and wilfulness.

The Introductory chapter outlines how the book is organised in four parts – Earth, Sky, Water and Heart – each holding its own cast of characters of “the wild that walks alongside us and through the pages of our neat, daily lives”. As the author explains,

Under Land, we have political capitals, the deserts, woodlands and forest. Under Sky, we have birds and butterflies that spend days migrating between countries or states. Under Water, we have ponds and rivers. Under Heart, we have urban jungles, the places many of us live in, and the places where we lose and find ourselves in repeatedly.

The first two chapters focus on Leopards and Rhesus Macaques, two familiar species found even in urban areas, highlighting the challenges of coexistence with people. From there, the author segues into the Thar desert, the last stronghold of the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard, threatened now by solar farms and powerlines, and then across the country into Arunachal Pradesh where the White-bellied Heron and Black-necked Crane face equally serious threats from hydroelectric projects. More well known are the species she profiles in the next three chapters: the King Cobra and Cobra, the Asian Elephant, and the Tiger. The ‘Sky’ chapters focus on migratory Tiger Butterflies and Amur Falcons, while the ‘Water’ chapters dive into the lives of the Gangetic Dolphins and Mugger Crocodiles. The final ‘Heart’ chapter, set amidst the gloom of the COVID-19 pandemic, flutters alive with Rosy Starlings on silk cotton trees abloom.

Each chapter braids evocative descriptions of species and landscapes with accounts of the many thoughtless or deliberately destructive human actions warping the relationships between humans and wild species. The caged leopard has “a liquid effortlessness that could only come from true strength…poised even in its panic” writes Sinha in an opening passage that appears to take you into the mind of the terrified leopard and the anguish of the author bearing witness. Describing the leopards that appeared in Delhi and the ones that live in Mumbai, those that saunter through the campus of the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun, and those roaming across wildlife reserves, farms and towns, Sinha paints a grim portrait. The leopard is beautiful yet inconvenient, a pest “like a cockroach” to be eliminated rather than appreciated and accommodated.

The author’s descriptions of the species she writes about bring them alive as beings with character and agency. The butterfly seems “made of sunrays carrying dust, coming into existence simply because we wished for colour to float around our faces”. The elephant “…is large, it is nearly soundless. Its huge feet are whispers in the wind, like songs people don’t sing as they work hard raising paddy”. The statuesque White-bellied Heron “is the very image of montane wilderness — a secretive bird with all the coiled energy of something that is living but appears like it is made of stone, almost like the mountain itself ”. The eye of the crocodile “is an ancient eye, a jewel eye, a dinosaur eye”. As Sinha informs us, “There is a whole bouquet of characters in the forest; you just have to learn to know them.”

The personhood of animals evident from their intimate portrayals is not difficult to appreciate. In the chapter on elephants, the author notes how people of the Toda community perceive animals “like people…they are a who, not a what”. For the villagers living alongside mugger crocodiles in village ponds of Kotmi Sonar in Chhattisgarh, the reptiles are their crocodiles that they lived alongside with an “easy, deeply felt understanding”. The touching story of the 75-year-old Bababji, who lost his hand to a crocodile, yet treats them as his wards and protects them is testimony to this felt affinity and appreciation for other living beings. Writing of Gond tribals in the central Indian forests and their remarkable knowledge of the native trees, Sinha notes, “Where we see trees, the Gonds see characters and old friends.…trees like people…” Later, in writing about dolphins and the proposal for their capture for use in entertainment in dolphinariums, Sinha notes how even the authorities are beginning to find this morally unacceptable and consider dolphins as sentient, non-human persons. And yet, if there was one thing that was disappointing in getting to know the book’s wild and wilful beings, it was that the author, with few exceptions, uses the impersonal pronoun it to refer to them, in language suggestive of a what, not a who.

This is not a trivial concern in writing about the natural world. As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in her fine essay “Speaking of Nature” in Orion magazine (March/April 2017)1:

…I think the most profound act of linguistic imperialism was the replacement of a language of animacy with one of objectification of nature, which renders the beloved land as lifeless object, the forest as board feet of timber. Because we speak and live with this language every day, our minds have also been colonized by this notion that the nonhuman living world and the world of inanimate objects have equal status. Bulldozers, buttons, berries, and butterflies are all referred to as it, as things, whether they are inanimate industrial products or living beings.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Orion, “Speaking of Nature”

Kimmerer goes on to call for restoring the grammar of animacy that is often part of indigenous traditions to the English we use in writing and speaking about the natural world, even suggesting inventing new pronouns for the purpose. Wild and Wilful certainly does not render land as lifeless object or forests as purely utilitarian. Yet, if there ever was a book of nature writing in India that could have adopted a grammar of animacy and been even better for it, it is Wild and Wilful.

Besides giving voice to the plight of animals, the book also features other voices. Like the voices of conservationists trying to save the Great Indian Bustard from extinction or opposing the ill-planned removal of leopards and macaques to foster informed coexistence instead. There are voices of tribals and villagers who retain deeper connections with land and other living creatures. And, perhaps uniquely among popular books on Indian wildlife, the voices of women living in forests alongside tigers. Readers of the book are drawn into the world and worldviews encapsulated by these voices. Often, the author also directly addresses the reader, ‘you’, stepping in with an inclusive ‘we’ or ‘us’ as if for a collective arm-around-the-shoulders conversation:

If you encounter a wild animal, you are not in its company. Rather, you survive by the grace of the animal. Most wildlife is swifter, toothier and stronger than us. …We survive because the animal decides to let us be.

The prose is fluid and well-paced, engaging, even revelatory at times, making you want to stay to be part of this conversation. Sinha’s writing is unlike that of the “lone, enraptured male” of the genre2, and is more akin to the thoughtful and evocative work of writers like Terry Tempest Williams or Rebecca Solnit. As a regular columnist and a conservationist herself, Neha Sinha has directly engaged in most of the conservation issues she writes about, making for a more authentic and compelling narrative.

Beautiful profile photographs of the main animal protagonists accompany each chapter, not to mention the wonderful cover photograph of elephants. The book has few errors or typos and only the rare misstep in prose. The host plant of the tiger butterfly is Calotropis not ‘Caloptris’ (p 154, 156); Chhattisgarh hardly connects the Eastern and Western Ghats, or the Chota Nagpur Plateau to the Himalaya (p 149), and the White-bellied Heron does not sit on boulders (p 58) as much as stand on them. These hardly take away from the pleasure of reading: some chapters alone make the book worth buying. This fine book deserves to be read by everyone interested in nature or conservation or good writing on the natural world.

In the end, Wild and Wilful evokes a better understanding of the vulnerability of these animals to the many forces impinging on their lives and survival: trees and tigers and elephants at the mercy of roads and speeding vehicles and railway lines; bustards and flamingos killed by powerlines mushrooming across Western India from so-called green energy projects; attitudes that treat wildlife as the other, the nuisance; the deadening of rivers behind dams and dredged waterways and the deafening of dolphins by underwater noise from boat traffic, and more. But that is not all. Wild and Wilful brings home a more salient message: that the loss of the wild will be a great loss to our own lives and spirits too.


  1. Robin Wall Kimmerer: “Speaking of Nature: Finding language that affirms our kinship with the natural world”, Orion, March/April 2017, pp 14-27.
  2. Kathleen Jamie: “A Lone Enraptured Male”, London Review of Books, Vol. 30, No. 5, 6 March 2008.

Bird Business—Foreword

My foreword to the book by cartoonist and illustrator, Rohan Chakravarthy: Bird Business: Illustrated Peeks into the Daily Lives of Indian Birds (Bombay Natural History Society, Mumbai, 2019, 106 pp., Rs 550, ISBN 978-93-84678-09-8).

Art and science come together rarely, and they come together with humour even more rarely. In this book, as in much of Rohan Chakravarty’s work, they all meld beautifully, with touches of allure, sensitivity, and grace. Here, he brings to life in his unique style the lifestyle quirks and natural history of a hundred species of Indian birds. Each artful page on a particular species grabs you with its visual and aesthetic appeal. It also distils information on the bird’s habits and natural history, and bustles with the vitality, peculiarity, and idiosyncracies of that bird’s behaviour. And all of this is done in a manner that no field guide, bird book, encyclopedia, or video documentary on Indian birds has ever achieved.

This is a chirpy and sprightly book, brimming with life, with scarcely a dull moment in its pages. The birds leap and glide and whistle and wag and swoop and spear and court and cavort. They dive into oceans and wing over mountains, they chisel into trees and probe into mud, they sing their hearts out and serenade their mates, they nest in trees and houses and earth-tunnels and mounds, they gobble garbage and slurp nectar, they drink and dance and do the doo-doo.

There’s so much liveliness in each page and the behaviour of each species is illustrated so well that you may be tempted to flip quickly to the next page, skipping past the words to the next eye-catching illustration. But that would be a mistake. The writing, too, is not to be missed. Rohan’s brief word-portraits of the birds and accurate and charming descriptions of their curious adaptations and behaviours will bring you many a chuckle, much jaw-dropping astonishment, and ultimately a new or renewed intimacy with these wonderful birds.

For children and adults, there is much to learn within these pages. I say this not just as an admirer of Rohan’s work, but as a hobby birdwatcher for over 35 years and a bird researcher for at least half that period. I learnt much that I never knew and felt delighted afresh in the little that I did, seeing it portrayed in this unique way. The species illustrated here also offer a glimpse of India’s remarkable diversity of 1300 bird species: from the house sparrow and barn swallow familiar to almost everyone, the black kites of our cities and the cattle egrets of our countryside, from daytime larks and eagles to nightjars and owls, and rarities like the satyr tragopan and the endangered great Indian bustards.

The book both reveals and evokes a love for birds and a concern over their plights and lives. In our rapidly changing planet, the plight of birds only reflects our own plight and, in that sense, bird business is our business, too. This, you can discover for yourself, when you turn to the delightful pages that follow.

When Nature and Culture Disconnect

My book review in Biblio (Jan -Mar 2020) of Flood and Fury: Ecological Devastation in the Western Ghats by Viju B (Ebury Press/Penguin Random House India, 2019, 285 pp., Rs 399, ISBN 978-0-143-44761-0)

There are many moments in Viju’s book Flood and Fury that belie the title that this is just a book about the recent floods and ecological disasters in India’s Western Ghats mountains. One telling moment is recounted in the voice of Sandeep Sawant, a resident of Sawantvadi, in Maharashtra’s Sindhudurg — the state’s greenest district in the Sahyadri belt of the Western Ghats. As people from Asniye – a Sindhudurg village where tigers are worshipped as the Vagh Devata – perform pujas at Shiroda beach on the auspicious occasion of Somvatri Amavasya, Sawant says, “The heritage villages of Sindhudurg … are being destroyed by miners supported by our elected representatives. For us, culture without nature is as good as being dead.” Sawant’s words as recounted by Viju underscore the main point of Flood and Fury that unscrupulous and poorly- regulated exploitation of the Western Ghats both caused and exacerbated much of the death and destruction. But it also echoes the subtext of the book: all along the Western Ghats nature and culture are enmeshed, and when those connections fray and snap, disaster ensues to lands and lives.

The book unfolds with a brief introduction to the Western Ghats mountain range, its landscapes and many rivers, its diversity of plants and animals, and the peoples and problems of the region, which served as a backdrop for the extreme rainfall and floods of August 2018. Viju outlines a trajectory of decline, beginning with colonial timber extraction from forests and their conversion to large plantations, magnified in recent years by rampant and destructive development, which has transformed the relationship between people and land from one of respect and veneration to one of consumption and exploitation. In the remaining chapters, Viju attempts a view from the ground, capturing voices of local people, to understand the causes and the impacts of the floods, taking the reader to many locations along the Western Ghats from Kerala to the Sahyadri of Maharashtra. A more detailed introduction to the region and its ecological history and human diversity would have been helpful, but the reader gets a sense of an author impatient to get started on the journey.

The first six chapters focus on parts of Kerala, the author’s home state. From the mountains of Idukki to Pathanamthitta and to the Kuttanad coast, the first three chapters cover the mountains, midlands, and coastal tracts emphasising how the latter, too, are “an integrated extension of the Western Ghats” (p 86), a point that governments often seem ignorant about. The Idukki chapter outlines the five phases of deforestation that the region has witnessed due to the opening up of plantations in the colonial period, the expansion of agriculture from the 1940s, the resettlement of people in forests, the proliferation of hydroelectric projects and dams, and finally, from the 1990s onward, a phase of exploitation by illegal quarries and unregulated tourism that still threatens and sullies the mountains. From the Munnar tea plantations to the Periyar Tiger Reserve, from tribal villages in forests to expanding towns, Viju traces a litany of challenges facing the region, speaking to local people and experts to understand and document the impact of the rains and floods.

In Pathanamthitta, Viju discusses an issue that has got little attention so far: the effects of pilgrimage tourism and places of worship on the ecology and conservation of the Western Ghats. Viju’s account of the Sabarimala temple –its forest setting, myths and rituals, and the recent Supreme Court order to allow women of menstruating age entry into the temple – while a little long and digressive, brings to the forefront the disturbance, pollution, and forest degradation caused by 5 million people visiting the temple every year and the indifference of the authorities. Viju follows the Pamba River down through the midlands blasted and gouged by quarries to Aranmula at the foothills, devastated in the floods that destroyed land, property and the livelihoods of the traditional metal mirror makers. The floods did further damage downstream in the Kuttanad region, around Vembanad Lake, where agricultural expansion over the last two centuries has brought with it both prosperity and problems of pollution due to excessive use of agrochemicals.

Moving north to Chalakudi and Palakkad in the next two chapters, Viju chronicles the threats from dams proposed at Athirapilly and Silent Valley and also the resulting resistance movement that brought together tribal communities, non-governmental organisations, scientists and the lay public, which successfully opposed these patently destructive projects. Viju also swings through Attapady, the Nelliampathy Hills, and along the Bharatapuzha River giving the reader a flavour of the people and landscapes, as well as aspects unique to each place: tribal distress and forest regeneration in Attapady, destructive road expansion in Nelliampathy that has led to landslips and forest degradation, the sand mining and riparian forest loss that has affected the water availability in the Bharatpuzha and its environs.

One of the longest chapters in the book, on Wayanad, documents the multitude of issues impinging on the area: deforestation, plantations, dams, urban expansion, tourism, exploitation of timber and bamboo, land distribution and alienation of local people. Read as a series of vignettes, this brings an appreciation of how a holistic understanding of a place and its ecological and historical context is essential if the plight of Western Ghats needs to take a turn for the better: piecemeal understanding or implementation of ‘solutions’ can only lead to conflict and disaffection.

The book thins out as Viju journeys further north into Coorg (Kodagu) in Karnataka, Bicholim in Goa and Sindhudurg in Maharastra. While the chapters are short and sketchy, they articulate serious contemporary threats to the Western Ghats, which are increasing the risk and reducing the safety and resilience of ecosystems and people in the region. Coorg has suffered road expansion and unregulated construction on steep slopes, partly spurred by unregulated tourism, which along with the extensive replacement of forests by plantations keeps the region susceptible to devastating landslides. In Goa and Sindhudurg, mining has wrought widespread destruction, accom- panied by loss of forests (including private forests), fertile agricultural lands, and traditional livelihoods. Reading these chapters, one wishes the author had expanded his scope a bit more: on the fight led by the Goa Foundation and other groups against mining, on other cases such as the Supreme Court- mandated closure of the Kudremukh iron ore mine in Karnataka, on the distinctive geology and terrain and communities of the northern Western Ghats and their cultural connect with nature. A little bit of the wider context and a prognosis does appear, though, in the two short closing chapters.

There are a few other places where the book falters. For a book that talks of “ecological devastation” there is little accurate description of ecology or the findings of ecological research. Viju’s repeated use of “virgin” forests and streams does not cohere with current scientific understanding of forests in the Western Ghats and other tropical regions that have had a long history of human presence and association. Some of the details are inaccurate: for example, the Malabar Giant Squirrel and Nilgiri Langur are not among the “most endangered species on earth”; the population of Lion-tailed Macaques in Silent Valley region does not comprise half the entire wild population of the species, and so on. To make specific points, Viju often relies on conversations with a few experts and references to a few technical reports. Tables and Figures are inserted into the text (without being referred to or adequately explained) carrying columns of numbers (including statistics like standard deviations) providing detail that seems unintelligible. The book can stand on its own without these inserts. Many citations listed at the end of the book are to media articles rather than primary research. When he cites a scientific journal article while describing a study that established new bird genera (mistakenly referred to as ‘genre’ by the author) of Laughing Thrushes (mistakenly called laughing birds), it seems almost like an aberration to the general pattern of the book. This is a pity, since the Western Ghats is one of the best-studied regions among the mountainous regions in India, with valuable research on ecology, hydrology, climate and climate change, geology and land stability, which could have informed, enriched and supported the narrative.

In writing about the destructive development and exploitation of the Western Ghats and the resulting opposition—as at Athirapilly, Silent Valley, or mining in the Sahyadri—one wishes that Viju had explored further how different players such as tribal communities and NGOs and scientists came together to offer resistance. These were not merely protests against something, they were also vibrant movements that spoke for forests and mountains and particular ways of life in which culture and nature remain inseparable. These movements at least partly contradict a premise Viju makes in the Introduction that “Academicians too, though they conduct brilliant research and publish reports, have failed to address the livelihood concerns of the communities living in the Western Ghats.” True, there are academicians and reports viewed with mistrust, but Viju appears to paint with too broad a brush. The Gadgil Committee Report that the author lauds at several points along the book is the work of academicians, too. While scientists working in the Western Ghats could certainly do much more to communicate the pertinence of their findings for both ecology and livelihoods, a similar expectation could be placed on journalists reporting from the region and books like Flood and Fury, too.

These are minor quibbles on what is otherwise a good book and a welcome addition to the literature on the Western Ghats and on environment and development in India in the context of climate change. The reportage is easy to read and the book gives voice to myriad people from the region. It is an important book that must be read to understand the variety and immediacy of threats to the Western Ghats and the challenges faced by people living on the mountains and all the way downstream to the plains. It acquires further urgency and relevance in the light of the ongoing climate crisis. One hopes it lands in the hands of all people, including policymakers and administrators, connected with the region or concerned about the challenges and imperatives of conservation.

The Idea of Justice: A review

This post just pulls in my review of Amartya Sen’s 2010 book The Idea of Justice, which I had originally posted on Goodreads in 2011 soon after I finished reading the book. It had picked up a few ‘likes’ but little discussion, so I thought I’d post it here again. I’ve added a few links for context.

The Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When an author as distinguished as Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate in economics and acclaimed polymath and thinker, writes on the issue of justice, one expects great insight into an aspect central to human life and democracy. With more than 400 dense pages of text and footnotes, over 30 pages of notes, and a long preface, Sen’s book tries to take the reader through a labyrinth of ideas and literature from ancient times to modern days. Indeed, in proposing an approach that is philosophically and morally relevant to human freedom and capability, and that integrates well with modern views on democracy and openness, Sen makes a stalwart contribution to the literature of our times.

Sen’s essential thesis is simple. He sets up a contrast between two views of justice. The more paradigmatic traditional view, which Sen calls transcendental institutionalism, based on John Rawls‘s A Theory of Justice is set against a more realization-focused comparative approach developed by many thinkers and espoused by Sen himself. The former depends on a social contract among individuals that will ostensibly evolve in a hypothetical ‘original condition’ of impartiality where everyone is free of their vested interests due to a ‘veil of ignorance‘ that separates them from what they will be in the real world. This is then supposed to lead to two fundamental principles of justice (liberty, equality and equity) and determine the right institutions and rules governing justice, after which we are home and free on the road to perfect justice. In the latter view, Sen questions whether perfect justice is either attainable or required, and if creating institutions and rules are sufficient to see that justice is actually achieved in the real world. The answer, rather obviously, is no. We are mostly not interested in what perfect or ideal justice is in a given situation; mostly, what we have are two or more options that we need to assess to see which would be more just. Such assessment, should be based on reasoning, preferably public reasoning that is open, impartial, and democratic and leads to the best social choices and actual realization of justice among people in the real world. The contrast between the two concepts is also presented by Sen as the distinction between the concepts of niti and nyaya in Indian thought.

This overarching message of the book and the additional weight provided by someone like Sen in pushing it, is a valuable one. It suggests that in a world rife with problems and conflicts, citizens and the media have a more central role in engaging with issues, learning about them, reasoning publicly over diverse choices, and arriving at rational and better courses of action.

In the end, however, the book disappoints more than it edifies, it frustrates more than it clarifies. To be fair, this is not because Sen’s reasoning is defective or that the approach to justice he espouses in the book is vague or poorly reasoned. It fails partly because Sen is not really saying anything new in this book that he and others have not already said earlier. More important, Sen buries his simple and highly relevant thinking and his effort to pull ideas together under a cloud of pedantry and repetition. Only a diehard reader willing to suffer some poor, laboured writing in order to grasp some really rich ideas can plough through this book.

Does a man who knows so much about the economy of the world, know so little about the economy of words?

Early on, Sen describes the essential features of Rawls’s theory briefly, with the apology that

…every summary is ultimately an act of barbarism…

and his counter-view and reasoning. This, along with other related ideas on the importance of reason and impartiality, is then repeated many times (easily over a dozen times, but one loses count) throughout the book. Not only does Sen repeat the basic idea of justice (often in more or less the same words) in the text, he repeats himself in the extensive footnotes, and just in case you haven’t caught on, he obligingly marks in numerous additional footnotes that this same point was already made by him in an earlier chapter. It becomes rather more than a passing annoyance when he repeats his expression of what Rawls’s ‘veil of ignorance’ means thrice in two paragraphs (pg. 197-8). If summaries are an act of barbarism, then how does one describe such verbiage: vandalism? To quote Sen himself (pg. 73):

Words have their significance but we must not become too imprisoned by them.

Or even better, if only Sen had heeded the words of Ludwig Wittgenstein quoted in the first sentence of the first chapter of his book:

What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.

Reading Sen’s repetitive work, one feels for his editor, Stuart Profitt, who Sen says in the Acknowledgements made “invaluable comments and suggestions… almost on every page of every chapter”, mentioning his “relief” at the end of this book, which we come to understand well. Still, one wishes Sen could have ‘Profitted’ more from the editing. Sorely tempted, at the end of the 400+ page book to commit a barbaric act myself, I summarised his tome into a single sentence:

John Rawls’s theory that perfect justice can be derived by creating the right institutions and rules based on principled social contracts among people in a hypothetical original condition where everyone is ignorant of what they will be in the real world, is untenable; instead, the idea of justice requires open, impartial, and public reasoning to arrive at more just and democratic solutions through social choices made by comparing actual available alternatives, while being mindful of process and outcome on people in the real world.

Three other aspects I found wanting in this book are (a) the lack of discussion of real cases and choices on burning issues of justice, (b) the paucity of discussion on how his idea of justice naturally translates into important consequences for debates on global environment (e.g., climate change, wildlife conservation issues), and (c) his rather limited use of Asian philosophy, literature, and ideas. A few lines about each of these below.

Sen makes passing mention of some real cases: a line about the Iraq war and the role of the US (which he calls “this country”, on pg. 71, giving away the readership he seems to be writing for), mentions of famines, the French Revolution, and rights of women and slavery. There is some empirical data and discussion on famine in Chapter 16, but again based on old material he has covered in his 1981 book Poverty and famines. When Sen does discuss a case in greater depth, it is rather frivolous invented examples, about personal freedom and choices when sitting on seats in airplanes, or three children and a flute. These are alright to introduce the nuances of choice in justice, but in all this mad, chaotic world could Sen really find no real cases where the same dilemma for justice is present? He talks so much about realization and consequence in the real world, but the real world of cases is strangely absent in his own book. Real injustice and the failure of institutions could be well illustrated and discussed in many cases: for example, the Bhopal tragedy, the Holocaust, or the case of global climate change.

My greatest disappointment with the book was, however, more personal. As someone interested in the environment conservation movement—including issues of global justice, social choices and sustainability, and the expansion of human ethical horizons to include nature and the interests of animals—I expected more from this book than I perhaps should have, given that it is, ultimately, written by a Harvard economist. Sen deals with sustainable development and the environment in a little over 4 pages (pg. 248-252), bringing mainly two points to the fore. One, that development should not be seen as antagonistic to environment as it could lead to benefits, for instance through empowerment, female education and reduction in fertility rates. Second, that conservation can be based on our sense of values and our freedom and capability to hold and pursue those values is sufficient substantive reason to pursue conservation goals: a sort of freedom to conserve, indeed.

When Sen speaks of social choices, rationality, and other aspects of people such as sympathy and sharing, he seems oblivious, at least in this book, about the rich literature in anthropology and biology (including evolution and animal behaviour and psychology), and ethics (including environmental ethics and animal rights). Arguably, these have more contemporary relevance to the issue than Adam Smith‘s early and other economists’s recent speculations, uninformed by biology and anthropology, on these matters. The ideas of various thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Nagel, Adam Smith, and Mary Wollstonecraft, have been discussed extensively in the light of recent scientific research on human and primate behaviour, and moral philosophers have extended the ethical principles underlying human rights to issues of animal welfare and rights and environmental conservation. These are relevant, but missing, in the otherwise valuable chapters ‘Rationality and Other People’, ‘Human Rights and Global Imperatives’, and ‘Justice and the World’. This may seem harsh, but until Sen can integrate these views of economics and justice with the stellar advances in fields of biology, anthropology, animal behaviour, and moral philosophy, he remains, not a polymath as some have called him, but like most other economists, mostly a ‘math’.

Finally, Sen brings Asian philosophy to bear rather sparingly in the book. This includes, besides the niti-nyaya gradient, description of some essential ideas from Kautilya’s Arthashastra, the famous debate between Krishna and Arjuna on duty and consequence in the Bhagavad Gita episode of the Mahabharata, about Akbar and Ashoka, and sound bytes from the Buddhist sutta nipata. That’s it? That’s all that thousands of years and billions of people have to contribute to the idea of justice? Or is this a deliberate choice by the author to keep the focus on the John Rawls and Kenneth Arrows of this world? I can’t really tell.

In sum, this is an important book for the core idea it contains. For those who don’t wish to wade through the whole book, four chapters are still worth reading that present the essentials: the Introduction, Chapter 4 on ‘Voice and Social Choice’, Chapter 11 on ‘Lives, Freedoms, and Capabilities’, and Chapter 15 on ‘Democracy as Public Reason’. There are some interesting books and literature cited in the bibliography that can lead one to a wider reading (e.g., Jonathan Glover, Barry Holden, Jon Elster). One wishes, however, that Sen will enlarge his view and shrink his text in his next offering.

So it goes.