Anthropology, Nature and Sustainability

Updated: Sep 13, 2021

Prof Amitabh Pande IIFM Bhopal

Twenty-first century has begun on a challenging note with the entire world grappling with the vagaries of nature and its consequences on human societies’. Forest fires and 490C temperature in Northern Canada, first, second and now fear of third and fourth wave of Covid-19 has thrown the entire world in a tizzy. Human civilization is now paying the price of its indiscriminatory actions of the past centuries, after the onslaught of the thrust of industrialization. Sustainability became a buzz word to mitigate colossal harm that human desire to conquer nature for its comfort created. Over the years rhetoric on sustainability became quintessential to disciplines both in natural and social sciences. After remaining the dominant discourse for decades, compulsive discourse of sustainability is now under scrutiny. There are intense debates on the utility, efficacy, and ethics of this model.

The unmitigated technological inputs of transport, communication, luxurious lifestyle, and paradoxically compulsions of livelihoods, impacted nature and natural resources adversely. This caused rapid depletion, consequently resulting in severe environmental problems. Unprecedented, unchecked, spiralling air, water and soil pollution, degrading rivers and ecosystems ensued climate change, attributed to anthropogenic factors.

Industrialization and subsequent urbanization brought about indiscriminate decimation of forests across the globe. India has experienced over 30 percent loss of forest cover since the beginning of the 20th century as compared to 18 percent during the 1980s. The overexploitation of water resources for irrigation with the installation of dams and hydroelectric projects to meet the needs of modernized agriculture, energy and industrialization has resulted in several perennial rivers going dry for months in summer. In 2020, there was a news report drawing attention to Narmada river drying up during summers near Maheshwar in Badwani district of Madhya Pradesh. This raised alarm bells about threats to aquatic biodiversity of the region.

Environmentalist raised these concerns and environment movements gained momentum. Interventions in the form of scientific management of forestry and agriculture for economic gains resulted in the promotion of monoculture ecology and plantation ecology. Crop capitalization involving extensive use of fertilizers and pesticides depleted quality of soil and massive fall in water table. Persistent exploitation of the limited forest resources even in the postcolonial regimes resulted in the depletion of biological biodiversity. Anthropological angst on seeing loss of natural heritage is phenomenal.

Anthropology, nature, and construct of Sustainability are intertwined.

The philosophy of natural sustainability is at the core of human cultural dynamics. It defines survival of civilizations as its pall bearers are small-scale communities living in harmony with nature and becoming natural ambassadors of local ecological habitats. The early phase of the nineteenth century saw rapid colonization after the industrial revolution. Technological advancement of European societies endowed them with a fallacious sense of power and conquest. They went on a rampage exploitation of the natural resources abundant in other continents, for wealth accumulation and power expansion.

It was during this period that nascent anthropological and ethnological repository of knowledge was exploited by the imperialist agenda. Anthropology in India partly owes its origins to the colonist agenda of the Europeans. Administrators and missionaries trained in discipline were sent to culturally and ethnologically diverse and ecologically enriched regions of India. The intent was to neutralize proud tribal people and control their habitats to have free access to forests, minerals, and other sources of natural wealth.

Eco-systems and natural habitats are diligently protected by the tribal communities relying on the philosophy of minimal use principles. Unwarranted exploitation of eco-systems resulted in anthropological critique of development models adopted by the developed and developing nation like India. Some scholars called it neo-colonial agenda (Sachs,1995; Escobar, 1984). Texts in ethnographic treatise repeatedly pointed out accelerated debilitating transformation of natural vegetation, biodiversity, oceanic ecosystems, mountain regions and culture of human societies living in simple, nature-based systems. This degeneration has spanned over three hundred years now.

Science in its arrogance believed that it could help in restoring the natural systems to their pristine state. Western World view assumed to be the most modern, scientific regards “nature as other” out there “to be controlled, conquered” and humans’ invincible part of the biosphere. Anthropologist Milton Kay (1997) calls these as non-ecosystem human societies (or modern society as referred to in literature). As a result, the counter effect of nature began showing its reaction, in the form of increased intensity of climatic disasters provoked by climate change, a fact that world scientists acknowledged widely, as they were increasingly finding themselves helpless before such repercussions. The advent of such signs-initiated deliberations among them.

The Stockholm Conference in 1972 was the beginning of this process of accepting that nature cannot be taken for granted. It became mandatory that the world work to preserve and conserve it. The conference accepted the warnings that natural resources need to be conserved and protected even though development was important. Following its international commitments, India too promulgated legislations to control air and water pollution and gave teeth to the Wildlife Act. The momentum generated at Stockholm continued to the 1992 sustainable development issues based on the Bruntland report (1986), wherein development was encrypted in the new language of sustainability. The prevailing definition of development was expanded and propagated along lines of managing development in a manner that conserved the Earth and its environment while addressing the interests and needs of future generations.

Ambiguous constructs of sustainable development and sustainability became the mantra of the linear evolutionary discourse of development across the globe. Focus now shifted from two variables of concern comprising of economic and social to three with the incorporation of ecology. Nonetheless, the economy remained the main determinant, which continued to preach of technocratic solutions towards making the Earth sustainable by reversing the destabilized ecological equilibrium. Likewise, policymakers and scientists looked at the ongoing deterioration of nature in its early manifestation of climate change as a global problem and persisted with the tenuous model of sustainability to restore balance between nature and Earth.

Paradoxically, Sustainability, is championed by the business and corporate world. They are the major perpetrators of exploitation of natural habitats-home to most tribal populations in India. They now preach and claim to practise Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) after government mandated it. In a telling statement anthropologist Szerszenski (1997) calls it “Folk piety”, the pun is well implied as it entails doing charity after destroying the livelihoods and culture of indigenous communities.

This new concept of sustainability supported by major international funding agencies calls for a uniform design of development. From the headquarters of its most prominent agency, the World Bank, it defines goals, criteria, and verifiers applicable across countries and the local region. This generates a conflict of interpretations between the economic experts comprising technocrats and the social and ecological experts comprising of the social and ecological scientists.

Contestations over poverty and protection of natural resources emanate from the perspective of economists that are often not in resonance with sociological reality. There have been several solutions put forth. Most of these solutions are in the form of a top-down approach of conservation. Uniform type cast institutional arrangements are proposed as ideal models; few of these are community-based resources management; Joint forest Management (JFM), participatory water management, biodiversity management, etc. While these institutional interventions are projected to help resources dependent communities, they have unwittingly favoured industrialized and urbanized societies. These intercessions are used to market products with a profit-making populist agenda in the name of wildlife protection-building national parks, promoting ecotourism-while shifting tribal out of the core area of these parks, and justifying ecological exploitation by use of market tool on carbon trade i,e, paying for the damage caused by corporate forces.

The other problem is that the uniform institutional design approach negated the local informal institutions and criticality of culture, identity, and autonomy (Berekes and Folke, 2000). These are in practise for centuries and developed in synergy with local social-ecological system (SES). Customary institutions see nature in its embedded form and thrive on minimalistic living, conserving scarce resources. The spatial and social diversity naturally built in the local ecosystems is culturally nurtured with the value of folklore and rituals attributed to it.

Local Institutions engaged in the conservation of nature vary spatially and ethnically. Conservation measures are embedded practises across generations. These are acquired by repetitive interactions, learning and relearning from resources having shared interfaces. Sadly, the blame for deforestation and ecological degradation has been unethically piled upon the heads of the resource-dependent communities. They are deprived of their livelihood under the fallacy of judicious sustainable resource use practices. The major beneficiary of these controlled interventions as stated earlier are industries and large corporate houses along with centralized institutions of the State and its controllers.


Anthropology has a crucial and critical role to play in this ongoing discourse of sustainability: it has the capacity to judiciously evaluate, efficacy, and elements of equity introduced in the name of this rhetoric. There are several anthropological concepts used in a very generic nature. Assumed homogeneity in programmes like community participation, conservation and culture create ambiguity in the application at the local level. This discourse opened challenges for the study of sustainability as a new paradigm of development presented in a uniform model.

Various scientific disciplines see sustainability as a project to be achieved by 2030 as planned by the United Nations along with the targets set for all nations in the form of sustainable goals. However, Anthropology sees sustainability as a process for building and supporting diversity through the exchange of cultural ideas and a deep-rooted dynamic value system. The natural sciences see sustainability as synonymous with resilience and believe that the disturbed ecosystem can be brought back to its original state. The western equilibrium worldview is contrary to that of anthropology.

Ethnographic evidence generated over decades shows sustainability to be plural in nature contrary to singular routes suggested by the UN or its subsidiaries. We need micro models and not mega projects for ubiquity. Anthropological methodology provides the instrument to structure the discourse at the micro-level. The diverse ideas, values and practices emerging from these studies will provide evidence to enrich requisite inputs for a culturally sustainable ecological model. The sustainability question is being assessed by most through global big data analysis and the national scorecard index using quantitative assessment. It does not, however, address the qualitative and equity element of sustainability.

The unpredictable behaviour of nature in the past decade like the occurrence of super cyclones hitting India at regular intervals both from the Arabian sea as well as Bay of Bengal and their impact on sustainable development are not measured by these mega models. The unexpected cloud burst and torrential rainfall in the Himalayan ecosystem are primarily due to stress on fragile ecology because of unsustainable models of hydropower generation. Planning for development requires inputs for regional and local sustainability. Most of the uniform models of sustainable development have also ignored the importance of vernacular dialect. Cultural ecology has evolved as a repository of intersectionality of vernacular dialects, biodiversity, and interactions with the eco-system.

Sustainability discourse suffers from overuse of economic concepts and market-based approaches. Payment of Ecosystem Services (PES), environmental ecosystem services or carbon trade compensation for polluting the environment are few examples of these principles. Customary ecology uses different values system like sacredness, taboo, and thrift approach dismissing commercial value for sustainable resource management. Existing mega models undermine the importance of local knowledge and diverse cultural practices. Primary focus in these international projects is market-based solutions.

Singular Economic approach has not given a sustainable model of development. Limited natural resources are not an exclusive domain of the present generation. The inter and intra-generation equity is a prerequisite to gaze disparity among different population groups and their exploitation of the ecosystem. The ethical principles of conservation of nature play a significant role. Gandhian philosophy of “small is beautiful” and “there is enough for every one’s needs but never enough for greed” is the fundamental principle for conservation and discourse on sustainability.

Anthropology and anthropologist must come forward to have a pivotal stake in this discourse. They are required to engage in serious discussion and deliberation, work as a spokesperson for those resource-dependent and indigenous communities, yet not in a position to assert their rights and entitlements. They should have open dialogues and debates with planners to challenge hegemony of economic benefits at the cost of loss of cultural values and customary practises. Any further neglect of local knowledge of primary stake holders-the local communities will only accelerate ecological degradation and loss of precious biodiversity. Need of the hour is an academic movement and momentum chaperoned by anthropologists to preserve some sanity in the sustainability discourse.


The author is thankful to Prof K. K. Mishra, Prof Shalina Mehta and Dr Rajni Lamba for their comment and suggestion made to improve the documents



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