Monday, 5 March 2012

Public reasoning and environmental governance: an example from New Delhi

I had a conversation last Friday evening with a man whose village is under threat of submergence beneath the reservoir which will rise behind a new dam that is being proposed for his home valley in North-east India. He has been instrumental in organising his community's response to the proposals, although the protests have thus far fallen on deaf ears. He feels that the entire culture of this remote Himalayan community will be devastated by the plans to harness hydro-electric power. He fears the disappearance of a language, an identity, a way of life. He told me that he is prepared to die to protect the land which he inherited from generations of ancestors, and that what is currently a very peaceful State could turn into a hotbed of political violence if the Government of India's plans to build dozens of new dams come to pass.

Meeting someone who has stoically come to terms with such an existential threat was an incredibly humbling experience. Our discussion happened on a bus journey after the first day of the Centre for Science & Environment's Anil Agarwal Dialogue on Green Clearances in New Delhi. The event sought to bring together civil society actors from across India to share experiences of the process by which large-scale industrial construction projects are given 'environmental clearance', i.e. deemed to be of insignificant threat to local ecological and social systems. It quickly became clear that the system of granting environmental clearances is in serious need of reform, and that the momentum and agenda for change must come from civil society.
A campaigner from Bihar makes his views known. Source: CSE

Granting environmental clearance to a project clearly involves large measures of judgement and ethical deliberation. What is to count as 'tolerable' environmental damage has to be decided by some combination of utilitarian and deontological reasoning. At the core of the objections to current government practice is a revulsion at a utilitarian, developmentalist discourse which places the need for economic growth far above concerns for environmental justice in the list of national priorities. Objectors often draw on deontological arguments which seek to stake-out the boundaries of environmental and social damage which should not be crossed, regardless of perceived national benefit.

Yet in addition to these ethical fault-lines a number of epistemic problems took centre-stage in the discussions. There is widespread mistrust of the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process. Numerous examples were given of reports being literally copied-and-pasted by environmental consultants of questionable accreditation, or of fundamental errors being made which undermined the legitimacy and trustworthiness of the entire process. Information and data also seems to be a scarce commodity in many situations, and government figures have been subject to frequent challenge and rebuttal by environmental campaigners.

When a project such as a dam is proposed, a public hearing is often held to gauge the views of the 'affected persons'. But this procedure was frequently described as a 'farce', as hearings were often held after decisions had been made or their outcomes had no impact on the decision making process. Stories emerged of seemingly deliberate efforts to exclude certain groups of people from these events, for example by holding hearings at great distances from the affected areas, effectively marginalizing those who could not travel so far to come and make their voices heard.

A public hearing concerning a proposed Uranium mine in  Jharkand. Source: CSE
My interest in all this stems in part from my concern with what Sheila Jasanoff calls 'civic epistemology'. By this she means the ways in which knowledge enters and circulates around public debates on environmental and scientific issues. Jasanoff argues that distinct styles of 'public reasoning' exist in different countries - that the way knowledge is authorized, perceived as trustworthy and debated in public varies between national contexts. She has written powerfully on the Bhopal tragedy of 1984, arguing that the debate about causation and responsibility which followed the disaster reflected a particular civic epistemology, defined by contestation, distrust of official claims, and a dependence of epistemic (or causal) closure on the attainment of ethical closure.

Elements of Jasanoff's reading of Indian civic epistemology struck me as being present in the Delhi conference hall. In particular, the scarcity of reliable information and the fraught economy of trust were defining elements of the environmental clearances debate, as were the entangling of the epistemic and the ethical and the prevalence of epistemic contestation. But what was perhaps most striking was the sense that these elements of public reasoning do not just reflect a national 'style' or 'culture', but actually go some way towards constructing  - performing even - the very nation which is the subject of the discussions.

Discussions continued long into the evening in the CSE office, once the conference hall had been cleared to make way for a wedding. Source: CSE

CSE has long been a body which has brought people together from across the nation to share knowledge and experiences, and to build a nationwide movement for social and environmental justice. For my friend from the North-east this was his first contact with other Indian environmental NGOs, even though he's had many visits from American and European charities. What CSE is doing is contributing to the construction of a national consciousness of these issues, and this is an activity which arguably dates back to the publication of CSE's first 'State of India's Environment' report in 1982 which brought together regional expertise to present, for the first time, a picture of environmental injustice at a national scale.

Being privy to these discussions was a great honour, and I was deeply inspired by the commitment, the passion and the bravery of the many people I met at the Dialogue. Here's hoping that by sharing these experiences and by campaigning for regulatory change some justice may come the way of my friend in the North-east, and to all the others who are facing-up to such incomprehensible threats.


  1. "What is to count as 'tolerable' environmental damage has to be decided by some combination of utilitarian and deontological reasoning."

    What does this mean?
    i) There are competing parties who appeal to two different kinds of ethical theory and so both kinds will, in fact, be involved in decision-making?
    ii) It is morally fitting to employ a combination of utilitarian and deontological reasoning in decision-making.
    iii) Something else.

    I am always a bit surprised to hear utilitarianism criticised from the left by people linking it to free marketism. There is one (distinct) sense in which economic reasoning could be called utilitarian, but most such arguments are transparently non-utilitarian- not even trying to take account of the suffering of most people. In most cases I think loose allusions to some 'greater good' are used only as a smokescreen, rather than as genuine ethical argument.

    Of course, in some instances I do think that utilitarianism mandates economic development in the face of the purported 'rights' of some individuals, but there is it hardly obvious that the deontologist's call for more suffering and less individual wellbeing is the right one. Nor should the ethical divide be seen as between economic growth and environmental justice- utilitarianism is itself a competing theory of justice.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Regarding the quote you highlighted, I was getting at point 'i' - different ethical stances are exhibited by different groups, and it is politically right that all such groups are given some form of representation. However, I do also wonder whether it is indeed possible for an idea of 'tolerable' environmental damage to be satisfactorily arrived at in an open democratic society based solely on either utilitarian or deontological reasoning - perhaps you can help me out on that one.

      In this particular case, utilitarianism is not being equated with free marketism per se, but with a much broader ideology of development which goes beyond economics and into ideas about social progress and rational technocratic management. This ideology, and the forms of governmentality it inculcates, can arguably be traced back to Backimchandra Chattopadhyay's 19th c. articulations of nationalist thought. I agree with your point that often the 'greater good' is a smokescreen, particularly when it comes to neoliberalism. But in this case I think the 'greater good' has considerably more traction in ethical reasoning, despite its frequent appropriation by non-utilitarian political economy.

      Perhaps I shouldn't have set-up a dualism - I resent them as much as anyone. I'm not equating environmental justice with deontologism, nor utilitarianism with free market economics. It's much messier than that, theoretically and empirically.

    2. Yes, I wasn't saying that you were simply equating utilitarianism with free marketism, but your linking it with developmentalist prioritisation of economic growth seems very similar to me to the standard criticism of utilitarianism from the left, a criticism which strikes me as odd. Linking utilitarianism with a certain attitude towards technocratic rational planning may be a lot closer to the mark, although I wouldn't say that it is by any means innate to utilitarianism (utilitarians often have to explain that their criterion of rightness is not the same as their recommended decision procedure).

      I think I agree with i. I mean, I'm all for railroading over opposing ethical views when people have got the *wrong* ethical views, but I imagine that this is not politically practical. Plus, it may very well be in this case, that the people with the wrong ethical beliefs have the right practical-political conclusions.

      As to whether it is "possible for an idea of 'tolerable' environmental damage to be satisfactorily arrived at... based solely on either utilitarian or deontological reasoning," yes, I think you can (so long as it's utilitarian!). Even if you really want to respect spooky things like the intrinsic value to nature, separate from any impact on persons, you can get that within consequentialism, if not classical utilitarianism. Naturally I think that you can get everything you might reasonably want in a calculation of tolerable environmental loss through plain and simple utilitarianism, which is concerned impartially and exclusively with the flourishing of persons, but that's a normative moral judgement in itself, obviously. We can't pretend that there's some way of working out (how we decide) what we ought to do independent of that sort of judgement (this applies even if "in an open democratic society" is added back into the sentence).

      Great post anyway- I'm looking forward to more.

    3. Thanks David. I think what's crucial is that economic growth is the object of technocratic planning, and in this kind of postcolonial context very particular conditions exist with regard to the legitimation of such political power. It is perhaps in the legitimation of accumulation that I sense utilitarian logic. What's interesting with 'planning' is that it is often a form of political power which is constituted outside of immediate political processes, but which nonetheless is also a mode of thought supposedly premised on the embodiment of a collective, singular will.

      This is all very interesting, and Helen & I plan to do a joint post at some point in the future on how we see different ethical frameworks impacting upon environmental decision making. We'd be delighted to offer you and Richenda space to respond (perhaps a 'guest post'), as herein seem to lie the fault lines of most our debates! We'll keep you posted...