Hot spots and danger zones in the age of climate change
An Environmental History of India – From earliest times to the Twenty-First Century by Michael H. Fisher (Cambridge University Press, 2018 /301 pp./£21.99)
Trevor Grundy on an unsettling book that examines the subcontinent’s environmental history in order to gain insights into the climate stresses it faces today
In the 14th century, the Kashmiri Prophetess Lalishri warned of dark days to come, a time when nature would bow ‘to them that walk in wrongful ways’.
‘What shall ye do then that seek the light?’ she asked.
Then came her chilling prediction that human neglect would end with Nature itself confused when ‘the apple of the autumn time/Ripens with the summer apricot’.
At last year’s climate change conference in Katowice, which lies deep in the heart of Poland’s coal-mining region, broadcaster Sir David Attenborough, 92, told 30,000 delegates from 196 countries that not only is Nature confused but human civilisation could collapse and many species be driven to extinction unless there is immediate action.
‘If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisation and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon,’ he said.
And while so much of the world burns, or drowns, those who should know better in the West point their fingers eastwards, to China and India.
A few months before the summit in Poland, reports published in The Times of London told how Arctic reindeer sought shade in road tunnels, Sweden’s biggest glacier is melting and France faced a snail shortage as Europe prepared for the hottest days since records began.
In Britain, the National Trust’s wildlife expert Matthew Oates has warned that, as seasons become less distinct, certain plant and animal species are struggling to survive. Wild daffodils were recorded in the Teign Valley weeks ahead of schedule, while roses that normally bloom in June or July were flowering in April. Bewildered birds built their nests at the wrong time of year and the Purple Emperor, the UK’s second largest butterfly, was spotted in Surrey in June, its earliest sighting in at least 120 years.
Sadly, Vivaldi is not with us to re-write his Four Seasons.
Scientists are also keeping a close watch on two little known glaciers in Pine Island Bay, Antarctica, which are so huge that they act as a plug holding back enough ice to pour 11 feet of sea-level rise into the world’s oceans – an amount that would submerge every coastal city on the planet. In Sweden, meanwhile, researchers said that the 40m (131ft) thick glacier in the Kebnekaise Mountains in the far north was melting at an unprecedented rate.
But it’s not all gloom and doom. In the Dolomites, Italian children are bathing in Lake Landro near Cortina d’Ampezzo, which is popular with skiers and ice skaters in winter when temperatures can drop to minus 30C. Last year, wine-makers on the banks of the Rhine started the harvest three weeks earlier than normal and après ski millionaires lifted glasses full of excellent German wine to toast the good life which would continue forever if only greedy countries like China and India would play their part and control carbon emissions.
After all, of all the most polluting nations – the US, China, Russia, Japan and the European Union bloc – only India’s carbon emissions are rising, 5 per cent in 2016. Samir Saran at the Observer Research Foundation in Delhi commented: ‘India, with its 1.5 billion population, is the front-line state. Two thirds of India is yet to be built. So please understand, 16 per cent of mankind is going to seek the American dream. If we can give it to them on a frugal climate, we will save the planet. If we don’t, we will either destroy India or destroy the planet.’
But how did this happen? Who caused it, what economic system encouraged it, where were the warning voices? Why the deafening silence from religious leaders until now, when it is too late? Our need to know will not save the planet but will enable those who still care to see more clearly.
So, three cheers for a new book by one of the world’s most distinguished environmental historians, Michael H. Fisher, the Robert S. Danforth Professor of History at Oberline College in the US. An Environmental History of India is his twelfth book and fellow academics say it is his most timely and important.
Even for a layman such as myself, it’s a fairly accessible book that deserves a place on the shelves of secondary schools, colleges and universities throughout the English-speaking Commonwealth, of which India is such an important member.
The book is divided into 12 sections, shepherding the reader from the Indus and Vedic relationships with the Indian environments (3500 BCE–c.600 BCE) through to the state of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh at Independence and to the present, by way of the Mughal Empire (1526–1707) and the British Raj, Mahatma Gandhi and the anti-colonial movements (1857-1947).
The last three chapters are devoted to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (1971–1992), and the author speaks about likely future prospects for the region and the main national, sub-continental and global issues challenging the whole of South Asia in the 21st century.
Fisher writes: ‘The sub-continent of India has historically played a vital part in the world and will increasingly do so in the future. Its population of 1.5 billion people, one fifth of humanity, totals more than Africa or Europe and North America combined. It contains major fauna and flora bio-diversity “hot spots” but also regions among the world that are most polluted and vulnerable to climate change.’
One chapter deals with the way forest dwellers structured, improved but also damaged the environment; another is devoted to how religious beliefs have affected the manner in which the environment was structured.
Fisher’s contribution on this subject is worth a small book on its own. Chapter five, for example (headed ‘Insiders, Jewish, Christians and Muslim Immigrants and the environment’) tells a fascinating story about the way religious leaders built and severely altered the natural environment between c.700 and c.1600; of how enlightened a lot of the Hindus were when it came to the treatment of animals; and how appalling the Jews and Christians with their endless animal sacrifices.
Chapter eight is of particular interest as we prepare to mark the centenary of the Amritsar Massacre in March 1919 and also because it speaks of the role of Gandhi and his struggles against British capitalist-driven imperialism in South Africa and India.
Many of today’s environmentalists find models and inspiration in Gandhi’s life, economic ideals and his attitude towards Nature and the Indian environment.
Writes Fisher: ‘Over these many centuries, the diverse human communities of India (and later also Pakistan and Bangladesh) developed distinctive cultural and material relationships to the changing world around them. I found some of the most revealing evidence for cultural attitudes in religious, literary, and state/governmental expressions about, and valuations of, the land, water, minerals, flora and fauna around them.’
He goes on to say: ‘Many of the people of South Asia are among those most vulnerable to the dire effects of climate change which has resulted far less from their actions than from those of the long-developed and long-polluting West. Nonetheless, South Asia’s relatively new nations, but ancient societies, are causing – and having to suffer the consequences of – severe degradation of their material, faunal and floral environments. As developing economies, they feel that they need vast and increasing resources and also scope to increase their carbon emissions.’
Then this dire warning: ‘Yet, sea-level rise, increasing temperatures and extreme weather events all will especially affect their 1.5 billion citizens. Only by engaging all parts of their diverse societies and incorporating their several cultural traditions can these nations adapt and become more resilient in today’s environmental changes and challenges.’
Cambridge University Press should be congratulated for including so many excellent maps, diagrams and illustrations which make even more compelling the text of this well-written, beautifully presented but at times most chilling of books,
Book Review / first published in asisanaffairs magazine (London) February 2019