ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Environmentalist of the Poor

For more than two decades Anil Agarwal was India's most articulate and influential writer on the environment. His work was marked by his striking ability to synthesise the results of specialised scientific studies; his knack of communicating this synthesis in accessible prose; and the insistence that it was not enough for the environmentalist to hector and chastise, but offer solutions as well even if the state was unwilling to accept them as yet.

The Berkeley Nobel Laureate George Akerlof once remarked of his fellow economists that if you showed them something that worked in practice, they would not be satisfied unless it was also shown to work in theory. This insight explains much about the dismal science, including why, as late as 1980, the M I T economist Lester Thurow could magisterially write: “If you look at the countries that are interested in environmentalism, or at the individuals who support environmentalism within each country, one is struck by the extent to which environmentalism is an interest of the upper middle class. Poor countries and poor individuals simply aren’t interested.”

It does not appear that Thurow looked very closely around the globe. For, seven years before he wrote his lines, the Chipko Andolan had decisively announced the poor’s entry into the domain of environmentalism. Nor was Chipko unique: the decade of the 1970s saw a whole slew of movements in defence of local rights to forest, fish and water resources, as well as protests against large dams. These movements took place in India, Brazil, Malaysia, Ecuador and Kenya, and among peasants, pastoralists, and fisherfolk: that is, among communities even economists could identify as being poor.

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