Musings on Climate Justice: A Subaltern Perspective

[1] Search for ethical discernment and praxis in the context of complex and ambiguous issues always face the danger of treading the regular route of finding solutions within the logic of the prevailing dominant knowledge. Alternatives, we are told, are not only impossible but also illegitimate. The dominant discourse in the context of climate change in our times is not an exception to this. By detaching climate change from its social embeddedness, we perceive climate change as the consequence of our anthropogenic carbon emissions. So the global community is in search for developing viable strategies of mitigation and adaptation to face the reality. Solutions are being developed and prescribed by the polluters themselves by providing us the license to continue our business as usual. Climate change thus becomes a discursive strategy to escape from interpreting the present time. This article is an attempt to initiate a counter engagement drawing from the experiences and spiritual resources of the subaltern communities and movements in India.

[2] In the speech of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh releasing the National Action Plan on Climate Change on June 30, 2008, he unraveled his market-driven and growth-oriented neo-liberal action plan on climate change. Mr. Singh legitimized it by drawing some elements from the panentheistic tradition of the Indian civilization:

India has a civilizational legacy which treats Nature as a source of nurture and not as a dark force to be conquered and harnessed to advance human endeavor. There is a high value placed in our culture on the concept of living in harmony with Nature, recognizing the delicate threads of common destiny that hold our universe together. The time has come for us to draw deep from this tradition and launch India and its billion people on a path of ecologically sustainable development. Our people have a right to economic and social development and to discard the ignominy of widespread poverty. For this we need rapid economic growth. But I also believe that ecologically sustainable development need not be in contradiction to achieving our growth objectives.[1]

[3] The National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) is hence an affirmation of the faith in the redemptive potential of neo-liberal capitalism. Sustaining the rapid economic growth is understood as sustainable development in this policy document. The rationale behind this belief is the argument that unregulated rapid economic growth can help in raising the standard of living of the majority of the Indian population who are vulnerable to climate change. The prevailing discourses on climate change not only refuse to recognize the integral relationship between capitalism and climate change, but also propose the neo-liberal economic model as a panacea for climate change through ecologically sustainable rapid economic growth. Let us look at some concrete examples of the growth-oriented development projects in India and their impact on climate change to see whether climate change can be arrested within the prevailing trajectory of capitalist economic development.

[4] Automobiles contribute a major part of the greenhouse gas emissions in India. Chennai is considered as India’s Detroit. A 45-kilometer corridor in the outskirts of the city has become one of the largest automobile centers in the world. Hyundai, Nissan, Renault SA, and Ford have already started their manufacturing units in Chennai. It is estimated that by 2012 Chennai alone would produce 1.28 million cars, 350,000 commercial vehicles and large number of tractors and earth moving equipments every year.[2] The state of West Bengal was the site of a historic struggle by communities forcefully evicted from their agricultural land by the government to construct a plant to produce TATA Nano, the world’s cheapest car priced at $2500. In order to invite capital investment to the state, the government has offered an estimated subsidy of Rs8500 million for an investment of Rs10,000 million. The communities succeeded in closing down the plant. However, the government of Gujarat offered the company a better deal, and the company is going ahead with the project in Gujarat. This project is being envisioned as an example of India’s growth and progress because it would revolutionize the automobile sector and the life style of millions of middle-class Indians. But in the rhetoric of growth and progress we ignore the truth that it not only significantly increases the greenhouse gas emissions, but also uproots communities from their land and livelihood.

[5] It is in this context that we need to bring the cycle rickshaw pullers into the discourse on climate change. There are millions of cycle rickshaw pullers all over India. A majority of them belong to the new ethnicity called environmental and development-induced refugees. In our discourses on climate change we still spend our energy on trying to retain the resource-intensive automobiles than affirming the non-polluting, sustainable, and subsistence modes of transport such as cycle rickshaws. The Delhi High Court in a recent verdict on February 4, 2009 asked the Delhi local government agency, “Why are you so enthusiastic in banning the cycle rickshaws? Why do you not issue guidelines limiting the number of cars a person can have in the city?”[3] The allegiance of our discursive practices to the market forces blind us from seeing the alternatives that the cycle rickshaw pullers can offer to our struggles to mitigate and adapt with climate change.

[6] Our prevailing policies and strategies to address the crisis posed by climate change seem to stem from faith in neo-liberal capitalism. Search for substituting fossil fuel with bio-fuel and other energy sources, carbon trading, carbon taxation, Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and the like are embedded in the logic of the prevailing trajectory of economic growth as development. Climate change discourses appear to be geared towards finding solutions within capitalism. We need to have the discernment of Audre Lorde to boldly proclaim that the “Master’s tools will never destroy the Master’s house.” When the corporate interests dominate the climate change discourses the alternatives could be nothing but continued profit-oriented interventions with “nature” packaged in new attires with the prefix “bio” or “green” added into it. Unfortunately we are yet to discern them as what Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism.”

[7] On September 12, 2008, the Government of India introduced a new national bio-fuel policy which aims to meet 20% of India’s diesel demand with fuel derived from plants rather than fossils by 2017 by setting aside 14 million hectares of land for producing bio-fuel. Jatropha is the main shrub that is planted in India in collaboration with D1 Oils and BP. Jatropha contains a toxic protein, and it is considered as a poisonous plant. However India accounts for about two-thirds of the world’s Jatropha plantations and we continue to convert our agricultural land into bio-fuel plantation in the name of “ecologically sustainable rapid economic growth.” According to a Guardian report, “Up to 10.7 million people in India alone would be pushed over the poverty line as a result of the projected price increases” for bio-fuels.[4] So the neo-liberal solution of bio-fuel is yet another apparatus to systematically deny food sovereignty of the communities. More over, as the subaltern movements rightly identify, the shift from rice cultivation to Jatropha is yet another attempt to humiliate the dalits and adivasis by destroying their cultural identity, cognitive ability, and communal practices.

[8] The Planning Commission of India proposes large scale Jatropha cultivation starting with 400,000 hectares of land in the first phase, which will eventually be extended to 13.4 million hectares. The lands identified for this ambitious mission is the wastelands along with cultivable fallow lands and barren lands. The planners failed to recognize that the so called wastelands or fallow lands are in fact village commons or common property resources which are intrinsically connected with the livelihoods, cultural identity, indigenous religious beliefs and practices, and food sovereignty of the subaltern communities. By incorporating village commons into the logic and rules of neo-liberal capitalism, the bio-fuel industry disrupts the moral agency of the subaltern communities through pauperization and ethnocide. The solution to climate change born out of the logic of capitalism can never save the earth or its children from its current course to catastrophe.

[9] Clean Development Mechanism (CDM,) a project to assist the global South to achieve sustainable development is yet another attempt to find solutions for climate change within the neo-liberal paradigm. It provides opportunity to the Northern corporations to buy carbon credits and continue to pollute. They are the contemporary manifestations of indulgences that can absolve the carbon sins of the corporations! Under the Carbon Sink projects, the corporations can invest in tree plantations in the Southern forests. But they will plant millions of trees of the same species—industrial agricultural crops—breed them for rapid growth and high yield of raw materials. The communities in Brazil are resisting such monoculture tree plantations with the slogan, Diga Nao Deserto Verde (Say no to Green deserts). In the context of food crisis, the conversion of agricultural land into bio-fuel plantations shows a shift in the government policy from feeding the communities to feeding the cars. Carbon Sink projects do not respect the customary rights of the indigenous communities on their land and livelihood. All these contribute to new exoduses of climate refugees, and it also takes away the food sovereignty of the communities.

[10] As James Lovelock rightly opines, “most of the green stuff [read CDM] is verging on a gigantic scam. Carbon trading, with its huge government subsidies, is just what finance and industry wanted. Its not going to do a damn thing about climate change, but it’ll make a lot of money for a lot of people and postpone the moment of reckoning.”[5] The solutions emerging from the logic of neo-liberal capitalism cannot propose reduction in our accumulation and consumption. Rather they “contextualize” the gospel of unlimited growth by proposing a shift towards renewable sources of energy and some new “green” technologies so that our prevailing economic model and social relationship will continue uninterrupted. A counter engagement with climate change therefore invites us to a new journey which involves a fundamental departure from the prevailing global order, and a radical transformation of our social, economic, political and ecological relations at the local, national, and global level.

[11] The subaltern communities in India are yet to speak the language of climate change discourses. But they are vocal in narrating how they experience the brunt of climate change in very special ways in their lives. Drastic changes have happened in the recent past in the climate patterns. As subsistence communities depended on jal, jungle, and jamin (water, forest, and land) for their daily sustenance, there is absolutely no certainty for tomorrow. The unpredictability of the monsoon and the unusual distribution of rainfall upset their agriculture and farming practices. The change in monsoon and the depletion and poisoning of underground water resources not only affect the availability of drinking water, but also the life cycle of plant life and ecosystem. This has also resulted in them loosing food sovereignty. The frequent outbreak of vector-bound diseases such as chikun gunya and dengue fever further torment their lives. As a result, the subaltern communities have been uprooted from their organic habitats: the forests, the land, and the coastal regions, and have become refugees in their own homeland. As one old fisherman observed, climate change has even disrupted their sense of time. Alienated from time and space, they are the Climate Refugees of our times living in the slums of big cities like Mumbai, Kolkatta, and Chennai, the very cities that face deluge due to climate change.

[12] As the online journal Mausam categorically affirms, “It is time to say loudly that the crisis is not really about climate. It is not about rising sea levels and the melting arctic, dead seals and polar bears facing extinction. It is about us, our lives, and the planet—and the way the powerful and rich of the Earth have dominated and kept destroying them for centuries, to accumulate private wealth.”[6] To put it differently, climate change is the consequence of the colonization of the lifeworld by imperial, capitalistic, and neo-liberal projects and their continuing systematic interventions. The impact of the “judgment of earth” is disproportionately suffered by the communities at the margins due to the sinful social relations of casteism, patriarchy, and economic injustice that are perpetuated with religious blessing and legitimization. This discernment provides us with the impetus to initiate new cognitive, theological and political praxis to resist, and to create alternatives.

[13] The subaltern problematization of climate change in India is significant in the context of the global climate change discourse where the “developing” countries like India try to absolve their sins of emission using the rhetoric of social justice and our “right to develop.” When we measure development in terms of GDP (Gross Domestic Product), we require more mega dams that denude rain forests and displace the dalits from their livelihood, new coal mines that stretch over the landscape of the adivasis, four lane expressways and new airports that converts the paddy fields into runways and roads that bring in foreign investments. We as a nation courageously affirm that nobody can deny our right to develop, and hence our carbon emissions are morally justifiable. This spirit is the rationale behind Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s statement that “India’s per capita emission level will never be higher than the western countries.” A recent study by Greenpeace India informs us that “the Indian rich constituting just 1% of the Indian population were contributing as much as 5 tons of CO2 per capita per year as opposed to the 800 million poor who contributed roughly 0.5 tons.” As Arundhati Roy opines, “India’s poorest people are subsidizing the lifestyles of her richest.”[7]

[14] The subaltern problematization compels us to raise several foundational questions here: Who are the “we” in this narrative? Who owns this India that our leaders represent? Whose “development” is it anyway? When we absolve our carbon sins using the UN doctrine of “common but differentiated responsibility” we are reluctant to apply the same doctrine while considering the differentiated emission of greenhouse gases by different sections of the people within India. The prevailing practice of constructing the climate refugees as victims needs to be analyzed with greater suspicion because it legitimizes the exclusion of the subaltern communities from the cognitive and political processes to address and solve the crisis.

[15] As we have already seen, the diagnosis from the prevailing climate change discourses is nothing but a conscious attempt to shield and gloss over the sins of neo-liberal capitalist plunder. By initiating programs and projects to mitigate the effects of climate change that ignores the very fact that these “alternatives” are embedded in the colonizing paradigm and logic of economic growth, we perpetuate the culture of death and destruction. Such “alternatives” promise the affluent societies the opportunity to continue to enjoy their “high” standards of living and consumption patterns if they could shift to non-fossil fuel energy sources. That means technical solutions to climate change within the logic of capitalism will not only make mitigation and adaptation painless but also profitable. Pay and pollute models of indulgences, and search for alternative sources of energy do lack the boldness to say no to the affluent consumption patterns and life styles. This calls for a radical shift from the prevailing dominant analysis to problematize climate change as a problem of climate injustice.

[16] A problematization of climate change from the standpoints of the subaltern communities exposes climate change as a crisis of meaning, purpose, and vocation of life. It is a deeper spiritual problem integrally connected with our relationship with the Divine, the human community, and the wider community of creation. Stated differently, climate change is the consequence of a faith which absolutize the neo-liberal market mechanisms as realized eschatology, propagates an anthropology that understands fulfillment of self-interest as human flourishing, approaches nature as a bounty given to the human kind to grab and to control, and believes in a God who sanctions the sacrifice of human and other lives for the prosperity and well being of a few chosen ones. This is the spiritual crisis that we face in our context, and we turn to the subaltern communities for new resources that can enable us in our search for spiritualities that inspire and empower us to decolonize our minds, our faiths, our communities, and our planet.

[17] Decolonization of our faiths and our times require spiritualities that provide us the creative energy to re-imagine our sense of purpose as “created co-creators” to be open with response-ability to the subordinated others—the subalterns. This includes the spiritual discernment to perceive our earth as subaltern earth. The subaltern communities in India provide us with diverse spiritual resources that can challenge and inspire us in our search for meaning and purpose.

[18] The Ashur myth from the Munda tribe in Central India is of great significance even as we reflect upon spirituality in the context of climate change. Ashurs were the industrialists of the early days. They used furnaces for smelting iron, and they continued to do it without any break. That led to the warming up of earth, the home of all creatures. When the animals, the insects, the trees and all other creatures felt the warming of the earth as unbearable, they approached Singboga, the Sun God for his intervention to persuade the Ashurs to stop iron smelting. God heard their cry and sent birds as messengers to the Ashurs. So the birds went and told them that God wants the Ashurs to do iron smelting either in the day or in the night only. That was God’s compromise to keep the industry going without affecting the creatures. But the Ashurs, who just like our techno-capitalists, were confident in their ability to discern what was good for all and arrogant enough to believe that God would not think any different from them, did not listen to God’s messengers. Finally the God himself came down to earth as a boy. One day he came to the Ashurs and requested them to stop iron smelting either in the day or night. They got angry, caught him, and put him into the furnace. But to their surprise, the boy came out of the furnace with gold and diamonds on his body and in his hands. The Ashurs wanted to grab all the precious metal from the furnace. So they all jumped into the furnace, and asked their wives to bellow faster. Shortly the wives realized that their husbands were all burnt to ashes. So they wanted to take revenge on the boy, but by that time the boy was lifted up into the sky. The wives tried to get hold of the hands and feet of the boy. But they all fell back down to the burning earth.[8]

[19] The Ashur myth envisions the earth as the household of all creatures. Human beings are not given any special privileges in this assembly of creation. Rather they all strive together for the welfare of all. The vision of God in the Ashur myth reveals a God who hears the cry of even the non-human beings. The messengers of the God—the prophets—are the birds. In response to the cry of the creation God incarnates in their midst as a young child—the subaltern one—to redeem the earth and its children from global warming. In that redemptive incarnation and praxis, God shares the pain and agony of his beloved creation and is burnt alive by the forces of death and destruction. But God transcends the shackles of death and emerges as the reigning symbol of eternal hope and life by facilitating the self-destruction of the agents of death. The forces of greed and accumulation take away the creativity of science and technology and make it subservient to the interests of mammon. But the divine eco-sophy has the creative potential to transform the very furnace of global warming into a site for a new politics and spirituality of resistance and victory over death and destruction. This resistance against the powerful is led by a young child with the support and solidarity of the assembly of creatures. Such an absurd vision of transforming the furnace of death into a resource pool for the prosperity and well being of the whole inhabited earth is a powerful vision for us to believe in the possibility of a world redeemed of climate change.

[20] We see the same vision echoed in the declaration of the Climate Justice Assembly held in Belem, Brazil on February 1, 2009:

Real solutions to the climate crisis are being built by those who have always protected the Earth and by those who fight every day to defend their environment and living conditions. We need to globalize these solutions. For us, the struggles for climate justice and social justice are one and the same. It is the struggle for territories, land, forests and water, for agrarian and urban reform, food and energy sovereignty, for women’s and worker’s rights. It is the fight for equality and justice for indigenous peoples, for peoples of the global South, for the redistribution of wealth and for the recognition of the historical ecological debt owed by the North. Against the disembodied, market-driven interests of the global elite and the dominant development model based on never-ending growth and consumption, the climate justice movement will reclaim the commons, and put social and economic realities at the heart of our struggle against climate change.[9]

Ethical discernment and praxis in the context of climate change challenges us to integrate ourselves with the subaltern movements of our times.



[3] Himanshu Thakkar, There is Little Hope Here: India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change, A Civil Society View (Delhi: South Asian Network on Dams, Rivers, and People, 2009) 12.

[4] Ibid, 33.

[5] Ibid, 42.

[6] “Talking Climate in Public Space,” Mausam, Vol. 1, Issue 1, July-September 2008, 1.

[7] Arundhati Roy, The Greater Common Good (Bombay: India Book Distributors, 1999), 11.

[8] Wati Longchar, An Emerging Asian Theology: Tribal Theology: Issues, Method and Perspective (Jorhat: Eastern Theological College, 2000), 70-71.