Towards Sustainable Liberalism: Lessons from India’s last Frontier for post development Discourse

Stanford March 2014, the ushering of the spring is momentarily broken by a sudden shower of unpredictable rain. Sitting in a room full of scientist and delegates, hydrologist ,geologist and conservation biologists I intently listened to Professor Gretchen Daily Co-Founder and the Director of The Natural Capital Project introduce the objectives of this path breaking science to merge biological conservation and ecology with economics. A diva in the area of sustainability research Gretchen is the ruling proponent of the science of evaluating ecosystem services as a measurable economic deliverable service to people and communities. Widely influential, in the United Nations latest incorporation of the clause of Ecosystem services evaluation as a parameter in the environmental impact assessment Gretchen and her work mainly addressed economic invisibility of nature  has steered contemporary discourse on sustainability.

Given the prevailing discourse surrounding the urgent need for environmental impact assessment of Assam; its controversial lacunas that mobilize  peoples movements; the emerging debates on damming the Brahmaputra and rivers of eastern himalaya’s, natural capital perspective of Assam’s situation appears to be a viable course of rational thinking. Sustainability research has for the first time made interdisciplinary research not just a priority but an inevitability. This gathering promised insights, not just on conceptualizing natural capital but the strategies by which ‘investment’ in it could secure and enhance ecosystem services as ‘dividends’  delivered and experienced by human beings and communities. Post development scholarship seeks a harmonizing  balance of  human development and natural resources within the realms of  natural capitalism.

Sensitivity towards nature and looking at nature as a valuable asset has been popular for quite sometime now. However environmentalism has by far been unsuccessful in driving any concrete strategies for integrating nature into the DNA of social systems primarily because it has more often concentrated on things that are ‘not to be done’ rather than what can ‘possibily be done’. While it has been largely successful in bringing before us disasters of oil spill, deforestation, river erosion and flooding , biodiversity loss and livelihood destruction, it has not in any certain ways provided solutions in terms of positive implementable actions. It is widely understood now, as in the words of Anthony Leiserwitz, the Yale expert on Climate Change that ‘environmental  crisis  is  elongated in time, global in scale, interwoven in global trends far beyond the scope of conventional environmentalism . It is not any longer an isolated issue, separate from other interwoven issues of sustainability such as advances in Technology, communication, and conflict.’ One of the primary reasons for our inability so far, to integrate concerns for nature into processes and structures of social systems is because of the widely held misconceptions about the economic invisibility of nature. Society having evolved into a pinnacle of capitalistic consciousness finds it impossible to value something that was perceived to be valued only for its intrinsic, intangible and transcendental characteristics.

Natural Capital and ecosystem services perspective is an effort to harmonize human activities, development strategies by recognizing the invaluable services delivered by the ecosystem and biodiversity towards human beings and communities and the potentials of natural capital to drive economic investment and profitability. Daily[1] in her  book presents different cases studies where companies or governments were able to actually profit from their conservation efforts. They describe how New York “decided to meet federal requirements to improve water quality with a less expensive, though more controversial, option of protecting watershed integrity through land purchases and development limits, rather than adopt the technological solution of a multibillion dollar treatment facility.”They also offer “an assessment of plans to manage and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by developing a worldwide system of carbon trading patterned on the U.S. experience with pollution”. Daily and Ellison represented  the new movement to make conservation of natural resources financially rewarding through illustrations of  cases of profitable activities that also preserve the biosphere.”

Using findings from research done in countryside biogeography, Daily, and researchers like her, is attempting to determine what “species are most important and most merit protection” and “what is the scientific basis for deciding” the relative importance of species within a given ecosystem.[4] When asked “which species/systems most merit protection?” Daily responded that she is “actively attempting to link projected changes in biodiversity and ecosystems to changes in ‘services’ to humanity.” She went on to cite “production of goods,” “life-support processes,” “life-fulfilling conditions” and “options (genetic diversity for future use)” as the services that ecosystems/species provide for humans. Natural Capital Project, employs research by engaging with private landowners, economists, lawyers, business people, and government agencies to incorporate environmental issues into business practice and public policy.

Inspired by such exemplary rigour’s the 2005 millennium eco system assessment organized, classified and grouped the services of nature that benefitted people and our communities as primarily being provisional, regulatory, cultural and supportive. The provisional services of nature was derived from its utilitarian value of  say  water, timber, fish, etc. The regulatory services are flood control and climate regulation. The cultural services are derived from nature’s intrinsic values in aesthetics and spirituality that give us happiness and well being. Finally the supporting ecosystem services such as nutrient cycling and photosynthesis support the other three services. Few other ecosystem services that directly or indirectly benefit us are erosion control , nitrogen regulation, ground water recharge, flood mitigation, dry season base flow, biodiversity, carbon storage and sequestration, maintenance of marine water quality.

The take-away from this congress of scientific delegates began with the humble cognizance of the global involvement and the increasing intervention made globally towards the need to drive a change in the way we make decisions about human activities on earth. Recognition of ones status as a stake holder, from every  level of participation; as a  human being , as a community, as a society, as an institution or  nation, not only fills one with an overwhelming concern for posterity, and realization of the importance of living life through ecological incentives, but also the urgent need for every inhabitant of this world to contribute to this purpose through choices that are intrinsically  balanced, symbiotic and cooperative. On the manifest level Natural capital Project or Natcap[2] as it is popularly known as designed and implemented models and software tools to evaluate ecosystem services. But, what it truly should be credited for is its engagement  for sensitization, awareness and participation that informed stakeholders ,communities, governments and individuals about how much natures services are taken for granted and perceive  just how much  it could cost humanity to deal with the tradeoffs of these services. The exercise of summation of the economic cost is bound to reveal the non economic component of the cost that is irreplaceable.

In introducing his then-novel economic theories, John Maynard Keynes wrote

“The difficulties lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.”

Albert Einstein also probably in similar lines said

‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them’.

Neo liberalism and its far reaching ideologues are so deeply embedded in our society that to think anywhere beyond its frontiers is hardly an option.  Even where challenges are confronted, solutions are sought  as always from within the paradigm of  free market economy. Experiences like carbon trading, that grants nations the right to pollution through legislation for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and private companies permission to sell their right to pollute to other companies have shown the futility of looking for reduction of carbon emissions by creating carbon market.  In fact from the developing nations point of view cap and trade regulation which was initiated to combat climate change and pollution is more a problem inducer rather than mitigator. As Einstein says staying within the original problem inducing framework in this case the commoditization of pollution, companies get to choose between reducing their own emissions OR buying offset permits. Offset permits enable companies to exceed their emissions cap by paying for supposed pollu­tion reductions to take place elsewhere, outside of the capped market, typically in the so-called third world. Anne Leonard[3] the dynamic social activist shows how the most current and proposed Cap  and Trade schemes allow offset credits to be traded in lieu of actual emissions trades – including the system proposed in the 2009 American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES) in the U.S. Congress. Offset permits, which are typically cheaper and less regulated than actual emissions trades, allow polluters to continue ‘business as usual,’ delaying the significant infrastructure changes required to shift to a low-carbon economy. Consequences of financial incentives through CDM or the clean development mechanisms implemented by the developing world can be seen in North East India where there has been an increasing trend of dam development patronized by the Government to seek carbon credits from the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Lured by incentives a large  number of hydropower projects  are being pursued by both public and private corporate bodies such as the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC), Athena Power Private Limited, Lanco Energy Private Limited, to name a few. Public concerns in this area has been growing which not only , critiques the social and environmental impacts of mega dams in the region, which are promoted as environmentally and socially friendly but also alleges the false claims of dam building companies that dams can contribute to the mitigation of climate change, particularly focusing on dams which are seeking carbon credits. Not only hydro power, large scale projects, but also projects such as oil and gas exploration projects and intensely environmentally extractive cement producing units seek carbon credits here.[4]

 This heightened  domination  expressed  through  the market’s tendency to regard everything as a commodity for sale raises an alarming vision. Genetic information is now routinely  patented, freshwater supplies are being bought by multinational companies, and  entire towns have been offered for sale on eBay. When Market theory postulates that “wealth” is created when private property rights and prices are assigned to resources, it often has trouble respecting the actual value of inalienable resources that are so important for human wellbeing and planetary sustenance.

Natural capital project in spite of its invaluable repertoire of building an ecosystem data base which undoubtedly is the primary foundation for any serious environmental governance policy globally  is also unfortunately an effort to stay within the paradigm of existing capitalistic values of commoditization of nature. As an effective intervention to develop tools for natural resource management  from within a paradigm of early economic theories of a dominant market scenario natural capital  can claim high rates in the  authenticity of scientific representation and ecological  mapping. However it cannot claim accuracy of evaluation of the ecosystem services whose complexity of purpose, interconnections and valuation transcend, both, the objective rationality of  scientific models as well as the subjective limitations of applications of science. As far as using mapping tools and soft-wares to visually sensitize decision makers for policy making sensitive to  natural capital and ecosystem services are concerned the intervention is invaluable and so is the endeavour to democratise decision making on human development  with ecological imperatives by bringing stakeholders on a single platform to share experiences and building scenarios  of consequences of ecosystem services tradeoff’s , However the major concern arises in its capacity to scale and replicate success stories in different parts of the world  without which it cannot claim scientific validity. Moreover the validity of its models and its post processing representations are hugely dependent on authentic data source, which a number of regions or areas in the developing world still lack. One may also argue that by putting a price tag on natures services we are denying its intrinsic value for humanity, or that an incorrect valuation and creation of technological substitute for the services through efficient human ingenuity may end up in the annihilation of original qualities thereby creating risks in processes, functions and interconnections  in  nature that we are still yet to fathom .

The real drive to create change can happen only when we transcend into a consciousness of the ‘common’. Natural resource management through ecosystem services evaluation will not be free of subjectivity as long as we value natural capitals only for the services delivered in their territorial contexts alone. The true value lies in the embedded language of interconnections which can be effectively expressed in the paradigm of ‘commons’. It provides a coherent alternative model for bringing economic, social and ethical  concerns into greater alignment. It is able to talk about the inalienability of certain   resources and the value of protecting community interests.[5]

In his first book, The Division of Labor in Society Durkheim [6]argued that social solidarity takes different forms in different historical periods and varies in strength among groups in the same society. Reflecting  on the popularity of social evolutionary thought in the late nineteenth century, Durkheim summarized all historical forms of solidarity into a traditional-modern dichotomy. Mechanical solidarity as a simple, pre-industrial form of social cohesion where interdependence and solidarity is based on ‘agreement of similarities’ and organic solidarity as a more complex form that evolves in modern societies where interdependence and solidarity is based on the ‘agreement of differences’. If modern society encompasses capitalist and scientific rationality and consciousness to its ultimate fruition the need of the hour is to  go beyond the dichotomy on to a situation where both ‘agreements’ take primacy.

Since the modern capitalist society with its characteristic contradictions of the free market value system leads to emergence of contractual ‘agreements based on differences’ that breed impersonality, individualism and economic growth with a deficit in natural and social capital. The means adopted by the capitalist order for its logic of growth seldom justify the end it meets. As the effects of economic policies that ignore needs of people and the planet become glaringly apparent, rebuilding communities with interpersonal bonds and local exchange becomes more and more urgent. There is thus a growing  urgency  to complement organic solidarity valuing individualism and democratic values of cooperation for self-perpetuation, with mechanical solidarity valuing interpersonal bonds transcending consanguinity and ethnicity to relationships more humane, ethical and universal as a result of co-habitation in the same planet through rhetorics of ‘common future’ and ‘shared destiny’ .The ‘similarities’ underlying ‘ interdependence’ in community life are embedded in the reciprocal relationship of rights and duties under the worldview of commons. firstly towards the planet and its natural elements that provide for sustenance, and secondly towards other fellow beings with whom these resources of sustenance have to be shared.

The paradigm of ‘commons’ fills a theoretical void by explaining how significant value can be created and sustained outside of the market system. The commons paradigm does not look to a system of property, contracts and markets, but to social norms and rules, and to legal mechanisms that enable people to share ownership and control of resources. The matrix for evaluating the public good is not a narrow economic index like Gross domestic Product or a company’s bottom line, but instead a richer, more qualitative and humanistic set of criteria that are not easily measured, such as moral legitimacy, social consensus and equity, transparency in decision making, and ecological sustainability, among other concerns. David Bolliers[7] recent book ‘The wealth of the commons’ ideas on the growth of  the commons paradigm  may seem to be an epistemological  anachronism from western capitalist point of view,   particularly the developed nations with a politico-cultural legacy to regard collective management of any kind to be highly problematic and compromise with individual freedom. The book engages with effective ways of utilizing the common’s paradigm as a effective way to create economic and social wealth giving examples  such as EconPort, which manages a large economics literature for its user community, and Conservation Commons, which build a “global public domain” for literature about the environment and conservation. However since traditionally the word commons has been known to be associated with land , Bollier[8] also mentions that it is necessary to differentiate  between natural resource commons like land, which are “deplete able” and “rivalrous” (many people wish to use a resource to the exclusion of others), and commons that manage non-depletable, non-rivalrous resources such as information and creative works.

According to him

“What makes the term commons useful, nonetheless, is its ability to help us identify problems that affect both types of commons (e.g., congestion, overharvesting, pollution, inequities, other degradation) and to propose effective alternatives (e.g., social rules, appropriate property rights and management structures). To talk about the commons is to assume a more holistic vantage point for assessing how a resource may be best managed.”

An actual concretization of this working principle of the commons paradigm has been present in North East India, the last frontier to India’s developmental politics as a  traditionally dominant local worldview of communities of tribal descent,. As  the newest landscape for India’s post independence policy intervention, its natural resource management and utilization through an Integrated approach is an urgent calling for not only the  regions stability but also for the global discourse of sustainability. Rich natural habitats and resources, unexplored bio diversity and  livelihood patterns, multi ethnic community and cultural resources, all together form a conglomerate of natural and cultural capital that are invaluable from the  point of view of  planetary sustenance. Management of resources can either take place within the capitalist worldview of ‘enlightened empowerment’; a perspective that appeals to the logic of modernity[9] as discussed by Durkheim for example adjustment of interest for the benefit of all followed by an all pervasive inclusion of market forces in domains of value system to perpetuate the self; or it can take place by a complete overhauling of the individual interest to that of the commons paradigm that has been traditionally dominant in the local worldview of communities of tribal descent. The most effective means however will have to be found in the amalgamation of both, exploring possibilities of achieving prosperity, human development, security, stability and well being by creating economic and social wealth. The demographic composition of NorthEast India, and the legacy of the tribal worldview of sustainable natural resource management through its customary laws, common property resources and local councils for traditional governance are  powerful institutional  structure to drive decision making and implementation. Once augmented by modern institutional forms such rationalization, technology, human rights and  freedom of expression  these societies can be the epitome of  human civilisation at its most elevated stage.

Durkheim while analyzing modernization and  the drastic transition of society from traditional to modern forms identified the legal system as the fundamental  body of codified  formal norms and values that reflected the stage of the collective consciousness that binds the members of societies to each other. The more advanced societies have a weakened collective conscience due to the emergent and stronger individual consciousness. As a result, the legal forms of actions and interdictions against social norms are treated much more liberally than in more traditional societies where crimes and aberrations are treated more against the whole community and thus more severely. Customary Laws among the communities in North East India are remnants of similar institutions of pre modern forms. These codified community norms permeate every aspect of individual and community activities and their inter-relationships. While its dominance marginalizes the individual consciousness in every event however, with reference to natural resource management it provides solutions to three significant challenges that plague modern capitalist institutions first; resource sharing and redistribution; Common property resources addresses the issue of equity both inter-generational, intra-generational, and gender, and second, environmental degradation and conservation; customary laws and local councils monitor shared responsibility and adjudication against misconduct or violation of crimes.. Sacred groves like in Meghalaya or community forests common among indigenous communities in North East India, for example, fulfill many critical ecosystem functions such as providing seed banks for local species, providing habitat and recruitment areas for seed dispersing animals and providing habitat for predators on local agricultural pests. Social taboos such as specific food taboos, harvesting method taboos, taboos against harvesting in certain seasons or under certain conditions and the like may also have the effect of contributing to resource sustainability, although they may not have specific conservation origins.

This paradigm of the commons traditionally dominant in the world view of the indigenous communities is today threatened and in transition in the process of adaptation with neo-liberalism. A comprehensive documentation and creation of a data base of its, natural resource management practices, community participation, ecological wisdom, land-use-patterns,  morphological and hydrological details of its water sheds and river basins and water use patterns. modes of  community disaster management, Forest cover and its use etc could contribute immensely to a framework for sustainable liberalism  that is a amalgamation of, systematic application of  scientific rationality; environmental impact assessment and study of cumulative impact of development interventions based on sensitization of natural capital and ecosystem services and its impending risks both financial and environmental for any unplanned tradeoff’s and externalizing costs; social inclusion and community participation; individual freedom and human rights.

Sujata Dutta Hazarika (Re-published)

[1]  Gretchen, D and K Ellison, ( 2003) :  The New Economy of Nature: The Quest to Make Conservation Profitable  (Island  Press)

[2] accessed  13.02.2013

[3]  “The Story of Stuff”, accessed 29.12.2013.


[5] James, Ridgeway (2004) : It’s All for Sale: The Control of Global Resources (Durham, NC: Duke University  Press)

[6] Emile Durkheim and Lewis A. Coser,  (1997) The Division of Labor in Society, paperback

[7] Bollier D. and  S. Helfrich ed  (2012) : The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market and State”  Levellers Press

[8] David,  Bollier ( 2007)  Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons (New Society Publishers)

[9] See Durkheims  discussion on organic  solidarity