Sustained verbiage

WRITING about "sustainability" is like, well, debating ad infinitum about writing. You can condemn writing, but even that will, generally, be in writing.

Which is why it is difficult to get your teeth into the quasi-religious, flagrantly universalist register of the essays in part-I of this 3-part book. These seek to provide a value-framework appropriate to a society planning to go sustainable. The late Krishna Chaitanya, leaning heavily on the Gita, lopsidedly suggests that sustainable development "can be established if there is a partnership between man and God in the creation of History". Henryk Skowlimowski offers the eco-philosophy of "reverential development", which will bring about "a truce between humankind and nature".

This is interesting, like Vandana Shiva's valorisation of diversity: a culturally and biologically varied world has been produced in the "monocultural" image of a single class, race and gender (capitalist, white, male); but a context of difference involves undoing these "colonisations". And just as you begin to anticipate sweet reality, comes the rider: "Monocultures first inhabit the mind and are then transferred to the ground." After this, even her trenchant analysis of GATT-trips falls under a shadow.

And so we are back to writing. That is to say, sustainability. Part-II enunciates areas of "physico-technical changes that have to be learnt by a society before it achieves sustainability". In an overpopulated world, paradigms of agriculture and agricultural research require rethinking, urges M S Swaminathan. Improve ploughs and turn vegetarian, chips in N S Rama, a livestock expert. Reorder the approach to family planning, or, sensibly, "feminise" the development process by empowering women, who can play an important role as resource-managers or harbingers of attitudinal changes.

Funny and sad, because (like writing) "sustainability" yo-yos blurringly between promise and hesitation, radical dissent and numbing compromise. Part-III stresses "evolutionary transformation through adaptation". An alternative development model emerges only when limits to growth and resources are recognised, says N D Jayal. Such a model needs to make "self-sufficient micro-cultures" safe from the vortex of exploitation and encourage grassroots knowledge and skills. Emphasis falls on diversity of goals and aspirations. Bhishan Singh is all for community resource development, and S L Bahuguna recommends, after Buddha and Gandhi, the practice of austerity.

On the one hand, Towards a... eloquently recognises the need to cut away, or maintain an alert, critical distance, from late-capitalist development as the dominant model for economy and society. On the other, cliches, prescriptions and imperative sentences make for frustrating reading. In all this verbiage, an important precondition for a sustainable society, stated very early in the book, is all but lost. As Anil Agarwal puts it in the essay which kicks off the debate, sustainable development is, ultimately, "a political agenda of transformation", the outcome of a political order characterised by decentralisation and resource-sharing and a social order with "local communities" as the bedrock.

---Pratap Pandey is a lecturer at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.