Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Radical Ecological Democracy"
Ashish Kothari talks from a vantage point: South Asia. Working in and writing about such a vast, populated, and diverse region is a big challenge, but Kothari, thanks to his long grassroots work, succeeds at taking in all of this information and offering a critical perspective. For instance, challenging development (meant as "economic growth") is not an easy task in India. Recently, the new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, asked the Intelligence Bureau to investigate “anti-development” NGOs such as those campaigning against nuclear power or GMOs. In fact, progressive mainstream debates in India concern how growth could become green and inclusive (implicitly admitting that nowadays it is not) but never get to the point of questioning "development" in itself, let alone proposing alternative social ideals or imaginaries. The section on “The Crisis of Mis-Development” does well in pointing out the failure of the current dominant model, setting the stage for a constructive debate.
As argued in the post-development literature, once we remove the clouds of "development," a shining blue sky opens up for a set of alternative imaginaries, of which radical ecological democracy (RED) is an excellent example. Decolonizing our imaginaries is the first step for the much needed cultural revolution. Numerous frameworks around the world resonate with RED, such as nowtopia, new economy, new economic culture, commons, buen vivir, ubuntu, and degrowth. Each of them aims to make one or more central features of the hegemonic social ideal visible and envision ways to transform them. So, first, how do we place RED within the larger context of discourses and proposals for transitions? Second, how do we build bridges between RED and related movements around the world?
Kothari is obviously (and rightly) concerned by the need for a “common framework of values and principles and a shared vision of the world we want.” There is undoubtedly a need for a convergence of critical perspectives. My feeling is that RED, rather than a proposal from (and for) South Asia, might appear as an attempt at such a broader framework. This is an ambitious task that should be welcomed, but, at the same time, Kothari might miss the specificity of his proposal in relation to his own historical, social, and political context. There is no reference to "Indian" world visions, whether indigenous or modern, such as the “economy of permanence” proposed by the Gandhian economist J. C. Kumarappa (1892-1960). For instance, should we talk of RED (or buen vivir or ubuntu) for Europe? One could say no, that buen vivir is for Latin America, degrowth for Europe (or the industrialized Western countries), RED for South Asia, and ubuntu for South Africa. The problem is that none of these continents and regions are homogeneous entities. India is the quintessential example in this sense (Orissa is not Maharashtra).
So, the question I would raise is this: how should we relate the multiplicity of emerging alternative frameworks? Alternatively, how do we retain the specificity of these imaginaries related to each historical, social, cultural, and economic context while contributing to their convergence? I ask this because of the importance of not substituting (sustainable) development with another buzzword, which would risk uniformizing the debate once again. Yet, it is clear that certain characteristics—like thermodynamics—are universal.