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Conservation and Society
An interdisciplinary journal exploring linkages between society, environment and development
Conservation and Society
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Year : 2004  |  Volume : 2  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 199-201

Book Review 1

306 Rockefeller Hall, Department of Science and Technology Studies, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA

Correspondence Address:
Manjari Mahajan
306 Rockefeller Hall, Department of Science and Technology Studies, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853
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Date of Web Publication18-Jul-2009

How to cite this article:
Mahajan M. Book Review 1. Conservat Soc 2004;2:199-201

How to cite this URL:
Mahajan M. Book Review 1. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2004 [cited 2020 Jul 3];2:199-201. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2004/2/1/199/55830

Michael Lewis, Inventing Global Ecology: Tracking the Biodiversity Ideal in India, 1945.1997. Delhi: Orient Longman, 2003, 370 pp., Rs 675. ISBN: 81-250- 2377-1.

This book describes how modern ecology developed in independent India. The narrative fluidly traverses history, science and journalistic anecdotes as it grapples with a central theoretical concern: how did scientific ideas of ecology and conservation biology travel from the United States to India, and what different forms did these ideas take on in India?

An assistant professor of history at Salisbury University, United States, Lewis convincingly argues that ecology, as practised in India, was not just an American cultural export. While heavily influenced by American research and funds, it was also moulded by uniquely Indian concerns. As such, the transfer of ecological ideas from the United States to India was explained neither entirely by a model of malignant American cultural imperialism nor by a process of benign globalisation or diffusion. Rather, a far more complex network of two-way exchange was at work. In this exchange, India, and not only the United States, designed research ideals and agendas.

Lewis engages in debates about whether ecology, and more broadly science, provide some universal truths or whether they are entirely socially constructed and only locally validated. These are the debates that fired the Science Wars, and that stoke controversies about .conservation imperialism. imposed by America. Lewis concludes that conservation models developed in the United States did not work when they were transplanted wholesale to India. This was because ecosystems in India were dramatically different from those in the United States. Moreover, ideas of conservation were inextricably interwoven with social priorities and cultural values that differed across borders. This dismisses conservation models from universal validity, but not all of ecology. It would be a mistake to conflate all of ecological science with conservation.

Apart from theoretical oeuvres, the book provides an interesting history of the evolution of modern ecology in India. Shortly after independence, Salim Ali and the Bombay Natural History Society initiated a shift from the taxonomy-based ecology of the British times to a more complex study of animal behaviour and interaction. Perhaps the richest description in the book is of Ali.s relationship with Dillon Ripley, the director of the Smithsonian Institute. Lewis uses letters, oral histories, biographies and interviews to describe in riveting detail how this relationship framed much of modern Indian ecology. What is also fascinating is how Ali.s seemingly innocuous bird migration studies got pulled into a welter of Cold War suspicions about biowarfare and espionage. Lewis deftly uses this controversial episode to highlight ethical issues around the funding of science and the moral responsibility that scientists incur in accepting funds from the military.

The book moves from Cold War drama to the Centre for Ecological Sciences, which was growing under the Harvard-trained Madhav Gadgil. Here, in the 1970s, observation-based ecology was supplanted by a more theoretical ecology in which taxonomy, behaviour and genetics were unified by the insights of evolutionary biology. The third Indian institute that the book dwells on is the government-run Wildlife Institute of India, which came to be dominated by the Indian Forest Service.

Alongside the drama of Indian institutions and individuals is a parallel narrative of how critical concepts came to dominate modern ecology in the United States. This informative intellectual history.of animal behaviour studies, theory of island biogeography and population viability analyses.provides a useful backdrop to Indian scientific progress.

Throughout the narrative a tension is created between those who argue for pristine, human-less protected parks, and those who advocate a conservation strategy that encompasses the needs of communities that have traditionally used forest resources. The stark dichotomy drawn between the 'rainforest mafia' and the 'pro-people' activists (the latter clearly being the good guys for Lewis) almost caricatures the different positions. Ecologists and forest officers, members of the so-called mafia, are not necessarily unaware of the problems of rural India just because they point out that the existing biodiversity faces a threat from the ever-burgeoning human population. Labelling them as mafia only obfuscates the seriousness of environmental degradation in India. While imposing a conservation model replicated wholesale from Yellowstone and Yosemite would clearly not work in India, nor would one which presumes that human inhabitation in forests is entirely unproblematic.

What would have enriched this book on the biodiversity ideal in India would have been a history of conservation ideas that currently reign in the .pro-people. movement. While their ideal is drawn partly from practices and ideas of the forestdwelling communities, it has also been heavily influenced by global social movements and a burgeoning emphasis on lay and local knowledge over scientific expertise. Unpacking some of the history and politics of this divergent ideal of conservation would have thrown light on how the opponents of cultural imperialism are also occasionally indebted to international intellectual influences and funding.

It is not easy to write a narrative that straddles wetlands, elephants and tigers, Cold War intrigues, Indian nationalism and ecological theories. Lewis successfully pulls off this coup.and manages to animate his text throughout with theoretical concerns about science policy, ethics and cultural transfers. He provides a compelling read for anyone interested in the history of ecology and conservation in India.


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