Ashish Kothari is an environmentalist and a vocal critic of conventional narratives of conservation and development. He is the founder of the NGO Kalpavriksh and a co-ordinator of Vikalp Sangam. He was formerly member of the Steering Committees of the World Commission on Protected Areas and the IUCN Commission on Environmental, Economic, and Social Policy. He is currently a chairman on the board of Greenpeace India. He has authored and edited major works on development alternatives, including Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary and Alternative Futures: India Unshackled.
Adam: Could you please introduce our readers to the concepts of radical ecological democracy, localised economies, and Vikalp Sangam?
Ashish: It might be useful to explain a bit of the background and context before explaining what these concepts are. I began working on environmental issues back in high school about 40 years back. And for a long time, the group I helped to start Kalpivriksh and a number of networks we were part of have been arguing against, and campaigning against, and protesting against the current model of so-called development, which has been extremely destructive, ecologically unsustainable, and also destructive of communities and cultures and so on. And climate of course is the most recent reflection of that, but there’s a number of other global crises that we’re going through. So even as we were focusing on that, one of things that we were feeling dissatisfied about was that we were not focusing enough on what we think is the right direction to go in. So, we were saying no to a lot of things – but what was it that we were saying yes to? What forms of development or human activity would create wellbeing and meet human needs and aspirations without causing the kind of crises there have been? Therefore, the search for alternatives, which we’ve been doing for quite some time in different fields but in the last decade or so much more systematically. We're now looking at it – or at least attempting to look at it – in a more holistic way and not just in individual sectors like agriculture, food, and health, and education, and so on, but in a more “rounded” way. And from that to see whether there are any frameworks of alternatives, holistic alternatives, that are emerging, especially from the ground level – experiences of communities and people. So in the early 2010s (2010 or 2011 or so), I and a few others were kind of working on this trying to see notions like swaraj and also notions in similar parts of the world, some of them very old and ancient from indigenous people – like buen vivir and sumak kawsay and so on from South America and ubuntu and many other variants in Africa and elsewhere – and we were trying to see if there were some common threads to these alternative worldviews and also the ground level practices of sustainable agriculture, alternative education, and community health, etc.
And so my colleague and I wrote this book in 2012 called Churning the Earth and around that time I was thinking that one of the interesting things emerging from these ground level experiences is that people are trying to assert their own form of democracy. That is to say that they may enter in elections and engage in elections and so on, but for them democracy means taking power where they are. And that’s the original meaning of the word also – power of the people (demos, kratos). But unfortunately, most countries of the world have accepted a certain representative form of democracy where they elect a certain party in power and then they make the decisions. But these communities are kind of asserting their autonomy, like a village in central India called Mendha Lekha, which since around thirty years back has a slogan saying that "in our village, we are the government" – even as they elect another government in New Delhi. Indigenous peoples in many parts of the world have been asserting self-determination, self-control, autonomy, and so on. So, it is what would be called a sort of more radical form – a more rooted form – of democracy, more direct democracy. But then what we were also seeing was that people who were asserting their autonomy and their control were demonstrating a certain more respectful relationship with the earth and with other species, with the environment. And so in that sense also saying that their democracy doesn’t mean that we hurt somebody else, including other people and other species. And yes, they will take control where they are, they will assert their power, but they will exercise that power with responsibility towards other people and towards other species. So, in a very simple way that’s what radical ecological democracy or eco-swaraj is. And of course, it takes many forms.
Adhishree: How does this specifically benefit agriculture? I.e., from an agricultural perspective, why is this a beneficial model? And how do you think it could also help a country like India, where we are kind of transitioning from an agricultural economy?
Ashish: With agriculture, one of the things we have seen in India and virtually everywhere in the world is that in the name of agricultural development, and that includes the aim of increasing food production, we have brought in so called Green Revolutions. In India this took place in the 1960s but different parts of the world are in different phases. This has resulted in significant turmoil, external interventions, and inputs to the farming system: hybrid seeds, chemical pesticides, chemical fertilisers, large scale irrigation projects, funding, or credit from the government or from private players, and so on. And of course, it has certainly helped in increasing food production, but it has significantly distorted the agricultural system in many different ways. Ecologically it has been extremely harmful – it has killed soils, it has killed people, it has killed wildlife with all the chemicals that have been put in. Biologically it has been destructive because it has wiped off the huge diversity and variety of seeds and livestock which traditional agriculture used to have. And for the small farmer it’s economically been very devastating because they’re simply not able to keep up with the kind of prices that they have to pay for all these inputs compared to what they’re getting when they sell their produce in the market. And this is what explains, in a simple way, the 300,000-plus farmer suicides in India in the last two or three decades.
Now, as counter to this, what sustainable agriculture or agro-ecology or natural/organic farming (there are many different terms that people use) is asserting is that we will respect the earth – the soil first of all, and seeds. We will bring back our traditional varieties and diversity of seeds or livestock or fisheries, or whatever our production system is, and we will share knowledge with each other. We will share seeds with each other, things will be in the commons – they will not be privatised by corporations, nor will they be in the hands of centralised governments. And through all of that we will assert food sovereignty. This is very important because we are not simply saying food security, which is what the government accepts (we have a law on food security in India). When they say food security it could sometimes be about my dependence on the government to provide me food. That’s what the Food Security Act actually makes the government accountable for. But food sovereignty is where I have full control over everything to do with food – the land, the seeds, the knowledge, the water, etc. And it is only through this that farmers are truly independent, which also then means the localisation of agricultural systems and exchange. Let me give you an example: 5000 Dalit woman farmers in Telangana (forming the Deccan Development Society) have created a revolution of kinds by going into these kinds of agro-ecological processes, bringing back some 70-80 varieties of their own millets and rice and so on. And through that have become completely self-reliant and self-sufficient with food. So, they have all the food they need for their families but also they have control over this – so there is no way any corporation or the government can dominate them. And maybe using Hindi terminology one can call it anna swaraj. And for these women their first rule is that the primary/highest priority for this food production is their own home. So first they feed their own family. Then, if there’s surplus, they give it to the market – and as far as possible a localised market. For instance, they have a shop in Zahirabad town, they have an organic food restaurant there as well, and at the most they will send to Hyderabad or some other nearby cities because they don’t want to be dependent on far away markets (sending to New Delhi or Europe, etc.). So, in that sense they’re also arguing for localisation of the economy – in this case food and agriculture but you can think of it for almost any other sector.
So that’s with agriculture. Then we also know, of course, that agriculture is not going to be, by itself, enough to cater to the livelihood needs of 600-700 million people in villages, then the hundreds of millions of people who are in cities. But we have to look at what are the other livelihood options which are also in some sense able to provide dignified livelihoods to people. And dignified livelihood is of course about having self-control (i.e., not being under some arbitrary boss who fires and hires you) – it is about having safe working conditions, safe for your health, the environment, etc. And where you can stand up with what in Hindi we call sanman or garima and say “Yes, I am living a life that I want to live” and it’s a life that is not pitied upon, and is creative – I can express my productivity, etc.
So, for that you can think of small-scale manufacturing, you can think of crafts. Now crafts in India possibly were employing something like 200 million people in the past. The second biggest employer after agriculture. But because of government policies there has been a sharp decline in craft-based livelihoods because all the production has gone into mass-production in factories and so on. Things like clothes for example – most of us are wearing clothes which are made in factories which provide very little employment and even if they do they don’t provide dignified livelihoods. So you can think of crafts and you can think of other kinds of small scale manufacturing – almost all of the products we use in our households can be done in that way, in a decentralised way in every village or small town. And you can think of various naturebased occupations, forestry, fisheries, and also occupations and livelihoods in the modern sector like software. There’s two ways to do it. One way is you get into the proprietary, capitalist software or hardware production. Or you get into open source – Copyleft, commons-based digital systems which, in that sense, are much more accessible to the public and probably much cheaper than what we get with Microsoft or Apple. There’s a whole range of these options that are available which would provide incredible livelihood and employment opportunities for the hundreds of millions of Indians who need it. But also, to do it in ways that are decentralised and democratic and also that are ecologically much more sensitive.
Adam: You’ve touched on a lot in regard to localised economies and their benefits. So, what would be the global significance of a country like India – which is an agricultural powerhouse and is a huge country with a large population – transitioning to these kinds of economies? And further, in this radical conception of a future, would the idea of India as a still-unified, bordered nation-state still be relevant? How do you imagine the future in this regard?
Ashish: I think both of these questions relate to the global significance. So, I think with regard to India, if India were to go in these directions – eco-swaraj etc. – there’s huge benefits to the global system. Firstly, there are ecological and physical benefits. India is now the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after the US and China. It now has an increasing global ecological footprint which it doesn’t recognise for itself, but it does – we, as in our corporations and government, have taken over lands in Africa, increasingly getting into South America, importing palm oil, etc. from South-East Asia, all of which have serious ecological consequences for the local population and ecosystems. If India were to say no we can, actually, as a country be self-sufficient within our own systems – every cluster of villages and then larger landscapes (and I’ll get to what these landscapes could look like in a minute) and then the country (insofar as there would still be a country as a whole). Through this, we would be significantly reducing this ecological footprint on the rest of the world. And that’s in some sense the ecological or physical kind of benefit. But even more important: we would be setting a model. A political, cultural, and economic model which the rest of the world could also look at and say, “Oh wow, if these people can do it so can we”. If a country as supposedly poor and as highly populated as India can do it, then why can’t we? And so, in a sense, instead of the US and Europe, etc., being role models, India could actually be a role model for what a sustainable, happy, prosperous future for the world could look like – not the dystopia that we are already in, which has been created by the US, Europe, etc. So, to me, there are huge physical, ecological, political, cultural, and economic benefits to the globe if we go in that direction.
In terms of redefining borders, if we push the limits of radical ecological democracy, we can perhaps imagine a scenario along these lines: suppose there’s ten villages in an area which have said “we will assert our local selfdetermination and autonomy” and they are upstream in a river ecosystem. And then there’s another ten downstream, and another ten downstream, and maybe a town downstream, etc., all of whom are dependent on the waterflows in that river or in that catchment. If these villages were to say, “we will stop all the water here, because that’s our autonomous decision,” then obviously everybody downstream is going to suffer, so we need to look at governance for the whole river basin.
Now unfortunately the problem is not that these ten villages will do that, the problem is that these ten villages might be in a district where there is a border between that district and the next one, then there might be a state boundary between that one and the next ten villages or the next town, and then there might be an international boundary (e.g., India and Bangladesh in the Ganga Basin) and so if every district, state, and country decides its own priorities, you’re going to have – and we already do have – enormous problems. Conflicts between states within India, conflicts between India and Bangladesh, between India and Pakistan, India and China, etc. And this has been caused by these in many ways completely illogical political boundaries that have been put into place historically. It could be because of colonialism; it could be for other reasons. Some do follow natural boundaries, but many of them actually cut across these natural ecosystems and also cut across cultural and economic linkages. To give you another example, the Ladakh-Tibet area is actually one contiguous ecosystem. And it used to be an ecosystem in which both wildlife and nomadic human populations could be going back and forth. Then you get a fence coming in due to the India-China border and now armies on both sides are in constant conflict or tension. And so you actually cut off any possibility of migration for both people and wildlife. So, what we are saying is that these boundaries eventually need to be dissolved. That does not mean that identities get dissolved. You might still have a Ladakhi identity or a Tibetan identity, etc. But people are allowed to go back and forth, wildlife can go back and forth, and you actually then govern the area as let’s say a Ladakh-Tibet cold desert ecosystem. So, the populations there are actually governing that with sustainability and local livelihoods in mind. In the same way, fishing communities could govern the entire Sundarbans as one political unit and dissolve the India-Bangladesh border. That way, the tigers can go across and fishing communities can too.
So that’s the idea. It sounds extremely outlandish and idealistic but actually, if you look at it, most nation-state boundaries are only a couple hundred years old in most parts of the world. It’s not that they are godgiven (if you believe in a god) or that they have some sort of other feature you can never question. In addition, nation-state boundaries have constantly changed. I mean look at the USSR and what happened to it. Things break down, converge – all sorts of things are happening in many parts of the world. Countries have retained their boundaries but are doing trans-boundary co-operation for things like conservation. So, that’s basically the idea. That maybe South Asia could become a subcontinent in which the nation state boundaries dissolve. In which case, yes – India will not remain the nation-state that it is right now, but then South Asia could become a region of peace and ecological harmony, livelihoods and so on. And in which you have this local to the subcontinental kind of governance system, which again, like I said, would not create the kind of ecological and livelihoods problems of the current boundaries.
Adhishree: How do you think we can actually go about doing that? This seems like an Herculean task that requires dismantling notions of class, caste, culture, gender, etc. Even in a small state in India, village to village there are so many avenues for discrimination against others – so dismantling boundaries, how do you think we can go about that practically?
Ashish: It’s good that you mention class, caste, gender, etc., because one of things environmentalists like myself have sometimes been a bit blind to is inequalities. Because when we argue for local democracy, economic self-control, and self-reliance, and so on it can lead to greater exploitation or marginalisation of Dalits or of women, or whatever. That’s not what we are saying, what we are saying is that we need this kind of localisation politically and economically, but we also equally need the struggles for social justice. So the struggles against casteism, the struggles against gender discrimination, and if you actually look at the kind of examples that we are documenting or that we have been part of – let’s go back to the example of the 5000 Dalit women farmers. Not only have they created a revolution in agriculture, but because they have done that, and the way they have done that, they have actually created for themselves much more dignity and respect in the village. Casteism hasn’t disappeared, but the worst forms of it – where they were often treated as untouchables, through patriarchy they were looked down upon, etc. – that has changed dramatically in these villages. They can hold their heads up high and talk as equals to anybody else in the village, and upper caste men sometimes come and ask them, “How did you make your agriculture so prosperous; can you maybe tell us something?” This is something unthinkable even thirty years back. So one needs to deal with these inequalities, there’s no doubt about that. What I would argue is that the notion that modernisation will help deal with those inequalities also needs to be questioned. People will say, "Ok if you go to cities you will become anonymous, your caste identity will be hidden," etc. But if you actually look at Indian cities, that’s not what happens – casteism is strong and sometimes gets compounded by class inequalities and other kinds of inequality. Some people might be able to escape it, but it’s still a very strong form of discrimination. All the menial jobs, the drudgery in cities (being servants in houses, waste-pickers, etc.), are mostly Dalits and women and men from already underprivileged sections of society. I can’t think of a Brahmin going and cleaning a gutter, right? So, you can’t escape it through modernisation – it has to be escaped through these sorts of struggles which are linked also to economic empowerment and ecological sustainability, etc.
Now, the second part of this I think is the difficulty of making all of this happen. The difficulties of, for instance, dissolving boundaries in South Asia. I think the only way to do it is people-to-people dialogue and creating the spaces for people to first of all imagine that we can live in a different world. For Dalits to be able to imagine that we can actually erase casteism and become equal to everybody else. And then from that imagination, look at what the pathways are for getting there. Is it people’s mobilisation, is it economic empowerment, is it secure land rights so one can be independent? – whatever the possible pathways might be. And then people-to-people dialogue across these boundaries. There have been, for instance, Indo-Pakistani people-to-people dialogues which have been extremely useful in at least being able to understand each other, firstly. That is also very important because often you build stereotypes – “all Pakistanis are murderers,” for example. On that side, I have been to Pakistan once and I had an incredible experience. Every day I had to go to the police station to register myself if I went to a new area, the same as Pakistanis if they come to India. And when we were going to the police station we were a little worried like “Oh how will they treat us and so on,” but they were so nice they were saying, “Look, we have no quarrels with you people we know that the quarrels are between some politicians on our side and some politicians on your side, and some religious fanatics on both sides." So the more we create this kind of dialogue, the more we break down stereotypes, the more we are able to collectively voice what we think needs to happen. The eventual goal might be the dissolving of the boundary, but before that also all kinds of other things – much easier ways of getting to each other’s countries, much more connections (not just cricket but all sorts of other connections) is something we have to do. It’s a long haul – it’s not going to happen overnight – but that has to happen. And then much greater spread of information, much more documentation of things that are happening all over the world – the struggle for peace, whether it’s in Pakistan, or India, or Bangladesh, or wherever; the struggles of indigenous peoples in China which often don’t come out. So, the more we can bring those out into the public arena, the more understanding that creates among people, the greater the possibility of this kind of transformation. And young people, that’s also beginning to happen – youth groups across India, Bangladesh, China, Pakistan talking to each other and understanding that maybe some of what their elders were telling them is not true, and that there are equally kind people on the other side of the border.
Adam: I’d just like to go back to what you were saying with regard to the urban context, i.e., what’s going on in cities. I find that one of the key strengths of capitalism is that it manages to persuade a large number of people that the urban-modern life is kind of the pinnacle of achievement, of what we should be striving for. And this fastpaced, consumerist way of being somehow becomes what we identify with success and satisfaction. So, what are the obstacles to structuring society in a way where localised, non-urban, ecological economies are appealing to everyone, or at least most people? And how can we galvanise people into supporting these radical movements – people from urban locales who may not feel directly affected by environmental or sustainability issues going on in rural areas?
Ashish: I think if you look at the challenges in, for example, confronting consumerism (and by consumerism I don’t simply mean individual choices but also the production and consumption choices that society makes)… and just as an aside, why I am saying this is because sometimes what tends to happen is we are told just, you know, make some different choices in your individual lifestyle and things will dramatically change: switch off the lights when you leave the room, recycle your waste, etc. – all of which is important, but it doesn’t change the system. So, one needs to look at the collective also – the production system, the consumption system as a whole, but also individual lifestyles. I think there are three or four very difficult challenges here. One is that the capitalist economy, and in particular the advertising industry that serves the capitalist economy, understands our psychology much better than I think environmentalists do. Not just in the sense of psychology, but also in the sense of how to get to people’s hearts and minds in ways that, as you said, are convincing. So, one has to challenge that firstly by actually showing how much they’re lying. I mean most of it is untruth, right? You’ll eat or drink Complan and suddenly you’ll grow six inches taller, and all kinds of stupid stuff like that. And it’s very seductive because of the imagery they use, they target children, etc. Or they use racist imagery, such as with skin whitening cream. So, to be able to do what in the US I think is called “ad-busting”, you actually target and put out in the public domain how these folks are lying. Make it well known.
Second, make it much more publicly known what the real impacts of a certain consumption pattern are. Let’s take the smoking industry. Fifty years back, who would have thought that smoking – at least in some parts of the world – would be in serious decline? The power of the tobacco industry was absolutely enormous. But people’s campaigns, much before governments acted, became bigger and bigger and more powerful and showed the impact of smoking on not just smokers but also passive smokers, which led to all sorts of legal action. Not to say that it’s gone, but it’s very different now than it was fifty years back. One can do that across production systems as well. I’ve been arguing that with every product it should be mandatory to include on the label where it came from and what the ecological and social consequences of it were. Let’s say you buy an iPhone or Samsung or whatever.
It should come with that information written in big font, saying this has come from mining in Congo, which has displaced X number of communities or killed this much wildlife, etc. Demand and make it legally mandatory to honestly say what actually goes into the making of that product. And I can tell you that maybe two out of three people who buy it would think twice before buying it if they knew that. If we have what’s called ecological intelligence to know what the impacts of our actions are, it’s more likely that we might take some action than if we don’t know at all. So that’s very important in challenging the ways in which we are convinced about things.
The second thing – probably even more important – is to change the education system. Because in our schools and in our colleges what we are taught is to basically, in some way or another, fit into the current system – by becoming that much more consumerist, by becoming more famous, by wanting to become more powerful, by wanting to become richer and richer and richer. Those are the role models that are being given to us. When I was in school, the role models were freedom fighters and people like that. These days the role models are… OK, I’m not going to name anybody – but people who benefitted maximally from the current system and are becoming bigger and bigger and have made 27 storey houses for themselves... So, the education system, now how does one do that? Look at a lot of the alternative education spaces or even what’s beginning to come into a lot of the government schools now: a much more honest understanding for the child of what society is. Who drives it, what are the impacts of something that I do, how do I become someone who is not just looking at myself but at the rest of society, how do I not just want to be first in class but also want to help others who might be struggling so that everybody is moving up?
The third thing is this idea of convenience. I once wrote an article called “The Fatal Addiction of Convenience” – if you go to a shopping mall or a railway station or an airport you have a flight of stairs and you have an escalator. It’s amazing! I just stand at the bottom and watch, and I see 90% of people – including young, healthy people not carrying luggage – take the escalator. It’s a certain notion that has come into our lifestyle that says, “OK I’m always going to go for what I think of as "convenient." When you could easily hand mix something, you will use an electric mixer, etc. – you could think of hundreds of examples in our daily lives. Again, trying to actually show the implications of these choices for somebody else – i.e., how my convenience inconveniences somebody else, for example, where resources are being taken for my electricity or whatever – most people don’t even realise this.
So, can we also create more awareness and education about inconvenience and convenience. And also, this thing that, the more we get into convenience, the more we will impact our own health… and so we go to the gym and do a workout instead of walking a kilometre to the shop. We will take the car to and from the shop and then drive to the gym and use a treadmill. I’m giving lots of these everyday examples because I think that’s how this relates to us. So, this notion of convenience I think also needs to be looked at. Now all of these are difficult but they’re not impossible. Just to give an example I always give to young people in India, young urban people especially – cycling in Europe. If you look at many European cities, cycling is a huge thing. You can find businesspeople in 3-piece suits cycling to work, politicians cycling to work – people who can easily afford to take a car. Now this has happened again through public campaigns of various kinds. The notion that cycling is as high status as taking a car, maybe even higher because you’re making a point, but also because it’s not just an individual choice – you’ve fought to have safe cycle lanes, you’ve fought to have unpolluted streets, you have gained the ability to take your bike onto trains, buses, etc. Now, if that can happen in the most capitalist societies in the world – to people who can actually afford not to be cycling, who can afford a car – there’s no reason it cannot happen here. If we want to copy the West, these are the things we need to copy. Not all the wrong things, which unfortunately we’ve been doing.
Ultimately, I think one can change consumption patterns in these ways through greater intelligence, through the education system, through greater awareness. Through making it - not fashion - but making it not “uncool” to cycle or mix your own chutneys by hand (which is today considered to be uncool). I’m not saying that therefore we need to get an Amitabh Bachchan or somebody to become a role model for this. But just to show that there’s no shame in growing one’s own food, there’s no shame in cleaning one’s own house or the street outside one’s house. It’s not stuff that only a low paid, low status worker can do – all of us can do it. Gandhi himself set a big example for that. So these are some of the ways I think we can make that transition.
Adhishree: Interesting what you say about handmade foods! I was talking to my grandmother, and I got this jar of peanut butter, and it was no sugar, organic, high protein etc. – all nice things. And she made fun of me! Because she said you could just take a handful of peanuts from the kitchen and eat them instead. Something so simple like I don’t need a jar of fancy peanut butter I can just eat peanuts. You’re right, it’s the power of advertising – I was convinced that the peanuts in my own kitchen were not as good as this jar of peanut butter.
Ashish: No absolutely! I mean one of the things I've been doing, especially since COVID, because with COVID what happened was a lot more plastic started being used, so I took a decision that, as far as possible, I’m not going to buy anything which is plastic wrapped, foil wrapped, etc. So, this meant that some of my favourite snacks I couldn’t buy anymore. And I’m still kind of deprived of some of them but others I started trying to make at home. You mentioned peanuts – so chivda, it’s very easy to make. You buy rice flakes, you buy peanuts, whatever you need in it… and you just make it at home! And it actually is a form of meditation in a way, and it tastes good. And at the end of it you feel good knowing that you avoided buying plastic. So, a lot of this stuff is absolutely possible.
Adhishree: Not to box all the things you’ve been saying into an ideology. But would you say your thought could be categorised as influenced by Marxist or Socialist thought, or do you think it requires new terminology, a new way of addressing it. Especially because of preconceived connotations with Marxism. How do you think we can actually put it out there for people? Ashish: What I think is that Marxism, Gandhian, Ambedkarite – any ideology we can think of – are things that academics use much more than social movements do. I mean some movements will of course call themselves Marxist or Gandhian or whatever, but most of the alternative movements and initiatives that I’ve seen (like the Dalit women farmers, or the central India Adivasis who arguing for self-rule and self-determination) – they don’t call themselves any of this. They say, “Look, for us – and our struggles for justice – this is what works,” (which is taking over control, etc.). And if you ask them, “OK, are you following Marx, are you following Gandhi, are you following one of the Adivasi leaders from history, or something else?” – chances are they will say that they might be following all of them or none (“we’re just following our own path”). And if you again dig deeper, and you want to do an academic analysis, you will find that there is class struggle involved, which you can say is kind of Marxist. You will find that there is a struggle for reviving peace with other species and with the earth, and you can call that some sort of spiritual kind of thing – an indigenous way of life maybe or Gandhian perspectives on ecology or whatever.
If you look at the fact that most of these movements are non-violent you can think of Gandhi, if you look at the fact that these 5000 Dalit women argued against the identity of being called Dalit you can think of Ambedkar. So, I would say that we therefore need to look at social justice and ecological justice as not being boxed into these ideologies but rather across them and maybe taking the best of these ideologies, worldviews (some very ancient, some new) and saying, "OK, how do we create a new socially just, ecologically just world for ourselves?" And again, I think that needs to go into the education system. You know people who study sociology or political science or history or anything like that – even biology and chemistry, etc. – ask me how these multiple, different worldviews and ideological strands can come together in a holistic kind of way in many of these social movements, environmental movements, or movements for alternatives. But I wouldn’t even call it one term. I mean for instance we use eco-swaraj, we use radical ecological democracy but we’re also very careful to say don’t get fixed with this term. It’s not a new ideology, it’s just a way of trying to understand some of these movements.
Adhishree: But do you think it becomes more difficult to kind of convey what you’re trying to say if you’re not using… I don’t want to say “an all-encompassing term”, but at least one which makes it easier to communicate it?
Ashish: Yeah, you could. I mean because human beings tend to have a need to label things, so that is true. I mean, for instance we use eco-swaraj (some of us use it, other people use other things). What I mean by this is that I would use this term in all my presentations, but I’m always careful to say look, there's another twenty such worldviews, or ways of looking at it, and I’m not saying that mine should be the overarching umbrella term. But I want to do is say this is what works for me, and I want to explain what that label or term is, and then I say that I know that group of people in that country, or indigenous people in that area use, for example, buen vivir in South America or something else elsewhere. And what I want to do is build bridges to see what’s common between us. You have your term, I have my term – what are the values, ethics, and principles that are common between them? You have your very different ways of doing things, we have our very different ways of doing things – diversity is part of this “pluriverse” we talk about. But there are common elements like I said at the very beginning, and maybe that is – for instance – doing things with solidarity and generosity, being in the commons rather than in the private space only, respecting diversity and not trying to push one particular way of doing things, etc. And that is what is common, but we will retain our unique identities also, while still building those bridges. But depending on who you are addressing, you could use labels – no doubt that that helps. But without pushing it down people’s throats and saying this is the only label that’s going to work.
Adam: Just to add on to what Adhishree was saying, because I think regarding many of these labels there’s a lot of confusion – there’s that old joke that if you have ten Socialists in a room you’ll get twenty different opinions. Because I think within Left movements there is still so much discord and lack of clarity, so I just want to touch a little bit more on that. In my experience, radicals – at least in the Global North – do still insist on these labels within Marxism, Socialism, Communism, etc., (though you could also point to the Maoist movement in Eastern India). So, ultimately, do you think these traditional forms of Left politics still have potential, or do think we should let go of them? In other words, do you think there is still value in traditional Marxist or Communist, etc. forms of radicalism or should we synthesise new forms?
Ashish: Like you said at the beginning of this question, that there’s so much discord and that ten Socialists will have twenty different opinions – that’s how I’ll respond to this. Because if you look at the Socialist or Marxist traditions in general (not that I’m in any way a Marxist scholar, I understand very little and what I do is mainly through movements) they range from anarchism (which is complete statelessness – it doesn’t mean chaos but it’s people organising themselves without a state) to the Soviet communist state, the extreme forms of concentration of power in the nation state. And the whole range has been referred to as Socialist or Marxist-inspired movements. What I think is that at least some of those traditional forms, like anarchism or even if you look at – and again, my understanding is limited – if you look at communism from Marx’s point of view, the ultimate state of communism is without a state (“the state withers away”), and he just called it modern and he said that indigenous peoples have primitive communism. So, there’s a whole spectrum of Marxist or Leftist traditions which are still extremely valuable. Even just the understanding of class analysis and class struggle is extremely valuable, and this is weak in some other ideologies (like, for instance, Gandhian ideology). So, I would say that those need to be sustained, rescued, learned from, and built back into movements or, where the movements are already there, to align with them. But what we need is a much greater dialogue within the Left. If you take for example what’s been happening in Ecuador over the last few months in the elections, there was this struggle between those leftists who felt that a socialist candidate was much better against the right-wing candidate, but then there was also an indigenous candidate. And people, including some from the Left, were saying that the indigenous candidate was much better. And there was a big struggle and a fight because the ones with the socialist candidate were saying look we might agree but he doesn’t stand a chance against this right-wing guy. So, we might end up with the right-wing guy and we might not get the socialist guy. But others were saying that this socialist candidate is as bad with regard to indigenous people and ecology as anybody else. So you got this sometimes very bitter struggle in the run-up to the elections, and that doesn’t help anybody – if anything it just helps the right-wing. So, we have to find ways in which there can be dialogue within and across the Left. A good way of looking at this is what the Green movement in Germany once did long back (I think it was Germany…) – they said “we are neither left, nor right, we are forward”. Now, that hasn’t necessarily got them that far, but it’s an interesting way of looking at it. Or others will say, “we need both left and right, how can we do without two hands?” — now, that doesn’t mean we need the right-wing, but that we need a mix of ideologies. We need the kinds of dialogues that can help reduce the tensions within the movements themselves.
Adam: Yes, that’s kind of what I meant when I talked about looking beyond, and that’s basically what I was thinking – not to totally let go of traditional concepts. I just think that sometimes people are reluctant to look beyond the realms of modernity and Western conceptions and often ignore what’s going on in Latin America or in India or in Africa or elsewhere. And I think it can be quite transformative to synthesise these different worldviews.
Ashish: I think one of the biggest tensions is with regard to our relationship with or our notion of the state. So, these conventional Left movements have tried to capture the state. You have a Left party, a revolutionary party that captures the state and then is supposed to transform the country. We know that often they are much better in terms of welfare than the right wing would be, but we know that that doesn’t really alter the economy, it doesn’t really give power to local communities. Radical ecology and democracy are not as much a part of the agendas as we would like. And so therefore we do need to be able to push these alternative ways which kind of question the nation state and also question modernity. Because that’s the other weakness of the conventional Left, which is that they feel that modern science and technology is also the saviour. Now I’m not saying that modern science and technology is all bad – there’s a lot of great stuff in it. But to think of it only as a saviour and to think also that traditional knowledge is all primitive or casteist and so on and then to throw it out, I think that’s a huge mistake that the conventional Left has made. But there’s a lot of people on the Left who realise that – the neo-Left, or the ecological Left or the ecosocialist kind of traditions are much more sensitive to this.
By the way, on our website there are some really interesting articles on ecosocialism and also on eco-anarchism which are worth looking at.
Adhishree: In your book Churning the Earth, which you wrote in 2012, the note on which you concluded was more optimistic, albeit one requiring drastic measures. From then to now, especially against the backdrop of COVID – what does the future hold? Obviously the need for drastic measures has increased if anything, but have we reached a point of no-return yet? Is it still salvageable? Are you still as optimistic now as you were then?
Ashish: I think I’m as optimistic. But maybe some of the strategies and pathways and so on I might think of a little differently than from when that book was written. And this was why – I think it was in 2017 or 2018 – we came up with the other book, Alternative Futures: India Unshackled. This was an attempt by 40 people to look at the future of India in 2100 for education, for health, for conservation, for Dalits, women, etc. So an ideal vision of India in 2100, and then the idea was to work backwards to look at what pathways could be taken to get there. Now, if that same book had been written now perhaps many of the chapters would have been a little bit different, taking Covid etc., also into account. The same thing with Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary, which was 2019. So, I would probably look at things a bit differently, but the fundamentals would remain the same. But some strategies, some pathways, could be different.
In terms of optimism, in Churning the Earth we had those three scenarios of what might happen in the future. And one of them was the scenario that things are probably going to get much worse before they get better – society will continue to suffer more collapses before it gets better. I think that’s what we’re in. We’re actually seeing more collapse, we will see more collapse. COP26 at Glasgow was an expected failure. But even if in the next year or two some miraculous decisions get made, which is very unlikely, to stop all fossil fuel emissions by tomorrow, we are still going to be in the middle of a climate collapse. Therefore, some of these things will come, I don’t think they’re going to improve significantly in the next few years. But the signs – or, I should say, the seedlings and saplings of recovery are already sown, and being sown, all the time. And the youth movements in India over the last few years, for instance, show a great deal of promise and hope because they have a much deeper understanding of things – it’s not superficial. And they’re trying to do things and think things very differently, learning of course from the past and from elders. So, to me, the emergence of these sorts of movements, the emergence of a much more global conscience – especially with climate, where we know that it’s all interconnected, that if somebody does something 3000 kilometres away it will affect us – that global conscience, along with the sprouting of many more movements – especially women’s movements, youth movements, etc., – to me creates the possibility that, not now, not in the next ten years, but over the next generation and the next one, there will be much greater transformations taking place. Even with climate, COP26 failed to take the urgent and drastic decisions needed now, and came up with greenwashes like the Glasgow declaration on forests (on which I wrote an article) and net-zero pledges.
But the fact that they had to issue a declaration of that kind – 124 countries doing it – was because of the intense public pressure they are feeling, otherwise why would they? And so I think, in a sense, you can also see these silver linings in the otherwise very dark clouds that are gathering. And those we need to focus on, we need to nurture them. It’s like asking, when the collapse happens, will those seedlings and saplings still be around? If they’re not around, we have no hope. But if we’ve been able to nurture them, save them, celebrate them, then we have some hope of being able to emerge from that collapse.
Adam: In reference to COP. In the general public consciousness, perhaps, people do – or did – place a lot of stock in things like the Paris Agreement, etc. Do you see any potential in these kinds of large-scale, globalised, statist, corporatised initiatives for achieving change or do you think it needs to be grassroots and local?
Ashish: If I was to put my eggs in one basket it would be in the grassroots, people’s movements. But I don’t discount the possible role that these international summits and so on can play. If nothing else, to maybe set some kind of international agreements in place that people’s movements can use as a tool. You know, the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Declaration on Indigenous Peoples, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the UN Framework on Climate Change, etc., they all have problems and flaws – and they’re all dependent on the nation state, which is a fundamental flaw. And yet, they have been very important for people’s struggles, because they can tell their government “Look, you signed on to this declaration and now you’re violating it”. And a lot of courts of law are actually picking this kind of thing up, they’re picking up on the fact that there is a UN Declaration on the Rights of Nature, for example, which is being argued in many courts of law, including in India, that rivers should have rights, species should have rights. So, insofar as these things can yield a set of tools that people’s movements can use, they’re useful. But we should never, I think, fall into the trap of thinking that by themselves these events are going to be transformative – they’re not. So, we should definitely not be putting all our eggs into that basket. And for me, having worked with the government system for 25 years – I was on various committees, I coordinated India’s National Biodiversity Action Plan, etc., and seeing how these were ignored or rejected in the government system? I don’t have faith in the government system. And yet, I will continue to say that we still need the dialogue, we still need to push the governments to be more accountable, but I will still focus much more on people’s movements. The idea is: how do you network with different kinds of groups who have different skills, and focus areas, and target areas? And make sure that, if I’m working with the grassroots or with writing or whatever I’m doing, there’s another group that also does advocacy with the government – and we work with each other, so then I can feed questions to that group, and they can ask members of parliament and they can report back on what’s happening, which we can then report to the communities. New laws, new policies, things like that. So, I think that networking – within India but also globally – is very, very important.
This interview was featured in Catharsis Issue 29, April 2022. .