If an Environment Crisis Is to Be Averted, Ordinary People Must Be Allowed to Question Growth Models

Our elitist approach makes it impossible to decouple economic growth from the extraction of natural resources, and our paths to net zero are paved with accelerating extraction.

Listen to this article:

Why did India’s economy not grow faster during the initial post-Independence decades? In my research into this question, I concluded that elitism had much to do with the very limited success, or some would say failure, of development after 1947.

In my book Visions of Development, I argued that Nehru’s governments sought to impose a Western-style industrial future on India, a project that was disconnected from the daily realities of many poor people living in rural areas and in urban slums. It was also a project that departed from the goals of some of the freedom fighters, most notably Gandhi, who advocated for development centred on village life, agriculture and cottage industries – a model that is now just a footnote in history textbooks.

But much as the political elites tried to excite the “masses” for their vision of an industrial future, they failed, and little progress was made in economic development until the 1990s.

Today’s approach of the world’s leaders to addressing the environmental crisis resembles the Nehruvian attitude towards development. Many politicians, commentators and scientists are trying to sell the world’s “masses” a vision of a future that revolves around green growth and technological solutions to environmental decay.

In this vision, our economies can keep growing infinitely thanks to “clean” technology. Poverty reduction happens by further growing the size of the world’s economy rather than by more equitably distributing existing resources – a position entrenched in the UN Sustainable Development Goals. At events such as the recent COP26 summit in Glasgow, leaders paint the picture of a united front, a broad consensus on this direction of travel. How fast we can reach the destination is the only question left open for debate.

What’s wrong with this vision? For starters, it focuses disproportionately on climate change, only one of several environmental crises the world is facing and one that is, on the surface at least, somewhat conducive to narratives of technological solutions. Other crises, such as biodiversity loss (which is partly, but by no means exclusively, caused by climate change) or soil degradation don’t have any obvious technological solutions. Indeed, some of the technologies we use to fight climate change exacerbate the biodiversity crisis.

Not to mention that when we consider the total environmental impact of various tech solutions – for example the production of concrete and steel that goes into making wind turbines or the mining of rare earth metals needed for electric car batteries – many “clean” technologies no longer appear so clean.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

These points help us see more clearly the common-sense conclusion that infinite growth on a finite planet is nonsense. Our civilisation has not decoupled its economic growth from the extraction of natural resources, and our current path to net zero is paved with further accelerating extraction. When viewed against this backdrop, green growth does not seem like the answer to the environmental crisis.

Yet, “ordinary” people are not expected to engage in questioning the wisdom of green growth, the same way the Indian “masses” were not supposed to second-guess the Nehruvian vision of Western-style industrial development. Nehruvian socialism and today’s global politics of climate change both rely on an essentially anti-democratic model of governance: the elites design blueprints, and the rest of the society implements them. The conversation about what shape the future should take happens behind closed doors among a select few; everyone else can debate how to reach this desired future but not what it looks like.

An elitist aesthetics

Nehru’s governments invested heavily in the visual marketing of their vision of the future. They created the Films Division of India, a filmmaking unit that would produce thousands of short films dubbed into more than fifteen languages, many of which dealt with development themes. For decades, law required cinemas all over India to screen the films prior to main features.

With India’s literacy rate at the time of Independence being only 12%, these films were one of the main channels for the government to communicate with the country’s citizens. It was the study of these films that led me to conclude in my research that the polarisation between ‘experts’ and ‘masses’ was in part to blame for the lack of development in Nehru’s India.

The films tried hard to find beauty in development. Documentaries like Our Industrial Age showed cinemagoers images of glistening heavy machinery, zooming into precisely engineered cogs and their mesmerising motion. Giant dam walls were shot from low angles against the sky and cut with images of temples, depicting the “taming” of nature as an almost spiritual endeavour – such as in the documentary Bhakra Nangal.

The Films Division even brought in a Walt Disney animator to spearhead an animation unit capable of picturing future worlds that did not yet exist. In the animated film Shadow and Substance, the viewers got to watch from an alien spaceship as India developed into an economic powerhouse over several decades.

Also read: How Nehru’s Politics Hobbled Modern India’s Use of Technology for Development

The mainstream solutions to the environmental crisis we are presented with today similarly rely on images that capture our imagination. When I started writing about the environment for newspapers and magazines, I noticed that editors would include stock images with my texts. Often, the images they chose showed solar panels or wind turbines – the quintessential symbols of our civilisation’s progress towards the goal of ‘net zero’ emissions. Elsewhere, slick-looking electric cars and various “green” products have come to dominate our advertising landscape. Green sells.

But like the Films Division’s documentaries half a century ago, these images of a “green” future are misleading. By turning “clean” energy sources into objects of beauty, they discourage debate about what the future should look like, instead offering us ready-made solutions to rally around. This is especially problematic when such images are used in the context of overconfident messaging.

In the Films Division’s documentaries, images of beautiful, industrial tomorrows were almost always accompanied by a commentator’s voice that told the viewers exactly what to think. “Under our five-year plan, we are changing the face of our ancient land, changing it into a progressive land, a richer land, promising a brighter future for all of us,” the commentator’s voice told viewers in a documentary about economic planning. The voice was utterly confident, leaving no space for doubt. It was the voice of a state that did not expect its citizens to participate in shaping the country’s future.

Such confidence is also the hallmark of much of what we hear from today’s elites about the environmental crisis. An unshakeable belief in the “green growth” narrative and the central role of technology in transitioning to “clean energy” permeate much of the mainstream debate and media coverage of the environmental crisis. This leaves little space to question the dominant model.

Aerial view of the town of Narsaq in southern Greenland, located 5 km from the site of a rare Earths mine planned by Greenland Minerals, which some residents have opposed over environmental concerns, 2020. Photo: Greenland Minerals Ltd/Handout via Reuters

Who are the elites?

The elites – politicians and civil servants – who spoke through the Films Division’s documentaries belonged to a narrow demographic group. They were predominantly male, upper-caste, upper/middle-class urban dwellers who had often been educated in England or in elite Indian schools.

On the surface, the contemporary elites making decisions about how the world tackles the environmental crisis are much more diverse. They span politicians from left to right, business leaders, scientists, commentators and journalists on every continent. Yet, these elites too have important commonalities. Often, they attended ‘elite’ universities that focus on generating leaders. One usually doesn’t become a leader by rocking the boat too much, and such universities rarely encourage their students to step outside the mainstream.

But elites are not always homogenous. The Films Division attracted many creative people, some of whom went on to have highly successful careers in Bollywood. It is therefore not surprising that some of its filmmakers were tempted to push the boundaries. This was most evident in the 1960s when artists like S. Sukhdev and S.N.S. Sastry turned government-sponsored documentaries into a mirror for the government, pointing to the shortcomings of Nehruvian socialism.

One of the films from this period, Explorer, by the experimental filmmaker Pramod Pati, even contained a full-screen sign that read “f*ck censorship.”

Today, too, some of the world’s influential elites are questioning the logic of green growth. A number of scholars and commentators have pointed to the unsustainability of our current economic system, and proposed the idea of degrowth as an alternative.

Gandhi, degrowth and the war on climate change

This notion recognises that infinite growth is impossible and calls for a gradual lowering of the extraction of natural resources fuelling our economies. This would result in some sectors of the economy shrinking. Degrowth means abandoning our obsession with GDP and finding new ways to measure the health and success of our economies.

This does not mean, however, that poor people should become poorer. On the contrary, degrowth calls for solving poverty by more equitably distributing the resources we already have rather than growing the global economy (and with it, resource extraction and environmental decay) further.

Just as Gandhi’s vision of a rural-oriented, agriculture-led development was an alternative to Nehru’s pursuit of Western-style industrialisation, degrowth is an alternative to green growth. And just as Gandhi’s idea was quickly dismissed, so is degrowth being dismissed as unrealistic and too ambitious today.

When I interviewed some of the filmmakers who worked on Films Division documentaries during the 1950s and 1960s, they spoke to me about a sense of tremendous urgency driving their efforts. The country was at war against poverty and underdevelopment, and there was little time to debate what kind of a future India should strive for.

Today’s elites, too, speak of climate change as a war. And they, too, don’t want citizens to think too hard about alternatives to the narrative of green growth and clean tech. But if we can learn one lesson from India’s recent history for how the world should deal with the environmental crisis, it is that we should not be too quick to dismiss alternatives. Or else we might end up wasting valuable time moving in a direction that doesn’t take us much closer to our goal.

Peter Sutoris, PhD is an environmental anthropologist based at University College London, and the author of Visions of Development (Oxford University Press) and the forthcoming Educating for the Anthropocene (The MIT Press). He tweets @PSutoris and more about his research can be found at www.petersutoris.com.