Battles over nature, won and lost

A major project threatens a site vital for natural heritage. Development needs dictate that nothing come in the way of progress. Caution about the web of life imposes on sensibilities another, contrarian reason. Tempers rise. The divide deepens. Each side accuses the other of being short-sighted. Irresistible force meets immovable obstacles.

A mineral or fossil fuel mine in a mountain range clothed with forest. A dam over a valley that is home to imperilled species. One person’s meat is another’s poison. The imperative of wealth creation with its promise of a better future points one way. Or the precautionary principle that enjoins thought prior to irreversible action indicates another, different route. If the force is irresistible, the barriers will give way. If the latter holds, it means, at the very least, a breathing space, a small battle won even as the wars continue.
Now, it is easy to predict outcomes where the political leadership sees ecology as expendable. California. One of the United States’ now most eco-friendly states had a famous governor who was unfazed by the Save the Redwoods League. The ancient trees, already stripling adults when the New Testament was being composed, aroused strong sympathies. Being on private land, they were more vulnerable to the lure of rising prices for land owners eager to have a hefty cheque in the bank.
The governor, who had starred in a movie with a chimpanzee as soul mate (Bedtime for Bonzo), had no time for green sentiments. The former actor and labour union member said famously of the giant trees, “If you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all”. Ronald Reagan was to be game changer at the global level but had no qualms about putting growth first. In a different corner of the globe at roughly the same time, in the 1960s while the Gipper was in the governor’s mansion in Sacramento, Chairman Mao was energising the Red Guards in Beijing. The heavens trembled as he unleashed the Cultural Revolution.
In the remote mountain reaches of the deep southwest, the fight against “bourgeois emblems” and capitalist roaders spilled over from the human world to the animal one. Tigers were labelled as “counter-revolutionary striped bandits of the Guomindang variety”. Mao brigades not only shot them but posed for photos earning plaudits for removing obstacles to the human domination over nature.
Yet, in today’s world, save for closed societies and one-party politics, and sometimes even over there, there is little doubt things are a lot more complicated. The actor completing a second term as governor in California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is a middle of the road Republican who has pushed hard for green house gas emission cuts. China itself has moved on from Mao’s time, protecting tigers and pandas, trying to balance growth and green concerns.
But there are times when the divide is too sharp and the polarisation all too stark. What now? Or rather, what then? For the issue is not only mint fresh new from the day’s pages. But it is eerily reminiscent of what Holmes advised that doddering Inspector Lestrade. Lock yourself up, the ace detective, advised, and read up the history. As the wheel turns, the same pattern reappears.
In the American case, the first major set piece battle over a project was in a valley called Hetch Hetchy. A dam would destroy part of a valuable forest site, but at stake was water for the city of Los Angeles. John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club and author of the famous My First Summer in the Sierra, saw this as the mother of all environmental battles. His rivals argued the dam was the wisest way to use water flowing away and going waste.
The city won; the park lost out. The defeat in 1916 sowed the seeds of greater, later victories. As the middle classes grew, the urge to see and savour nature won more not less adherents. Yellowstone and Yosemite, once distant places, first became open due to the railroad and then the motor car. By bringing these sites more in range of a greater number, the pressures increased but so did the constituency for conservation. Developers would find such a project a harder sell today.
A very different set piece battle happened less than a decade later. The Tatas embarked on a dam to bring water to Mumbai. It would also generate much-needed power but there was an issue, not of nature but of residents who would have to make way.
Led by a Gandhian ex-soldier, Senapati Bapat, the villagers launched the world’s first peaceful anti-dam movement modelled on the techniques of Satyagraha. In his account, The World’s First Anti-Dam Movement, the veteran poltical scientist, the late Rajinder Vora of Pune University, recounts the ups and downs of the struggle. As with Hetch Hetchy, much was at stake and the immediate outcome was in favour of the dam. But then, as Holmes reminds us, the same patterns recur. It’s perhaps to the good, for a crowded planet. Though much is taken, much abides.

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