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Conservation and Society
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Year : 2016  |  Volume : 14  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 71-72

Nature without borders

School of Human Ecology, Ambedkar University, Delhi, India

Correspondence Address:
Rohit Negi
School of Human Ecology, Ambedkar University, Delhi
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/0972-4923.182804

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Date of Web Publication20-May-2016

How to cite this article:
Negi R. Nature without borders. Conservat Soc 2016;14:71-2

How to cite this URL:
Negi R. Nature without borders. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2016 [cited 2020 Jul 8];14:71-2. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2016/14/1/71/182804

Rangarajan, M., M.D. Madhusudan, and G. Shahabuddin (eds.) Nature Without Borders. New Delhi: Orient BlackSwan. 2015. 270 pages. INR 595. Hardback. ISBN-10: 8125056149 ISBN-13: 978-8125056140.

As enlightenment-inscribed worldviews expanded across the Western world, 'nature' was increasingly analysed as a separate entity from 'society' in two seemingly contradictory but ultimately intersecting ways. First, nature was to be the arena for the application of human ingenuity—where physical laws explained the so-called mysteries of nature; technological developments subsequently reworked it for social ends. This 'positivist-instrumentalist' idea continues to underpin the dominant discourse related to economic growth and development, though, given more recent reworking, is typically articulated through the concept of 'sustainable development'. A second coterminous idea is a transcendental imagination of nature that is reflected in notions like 'Mother Nature', a quasi-religious ordering of the world that, given supposed human-induced degradation of habitats, leads believers to raise slogans such as 'Save Nature'.

Twentieth Century environmentalism read these two tendencies in a chronological manner, and argued that the former caused the latter, that is, social hubris had led to the (over) exploitation of nature, which consequently required protection. The specific mechanics of protection were to be an empirical question, and positions on it ranged from scientific management of human activities to lessen their ecological footprint, to 'Deep Ecology', which advocates a reversal of the modern way of life itself and its reorientation, away from any kind of instrumentalist relationship with nature. The former is constitutive of the mainstreamed idea of environmental management, while the latter drives more radical but relatively marginal political initiatives. Lately, the nature of transformations of the world due to capitalism and the Industrial Revolution have come into question as having fundamentally altered the planet at large, and this era is being considered a novel epoch—the 'Anthropocene'. While this seems to be a different formulation, its ethical implications are entirely consistent with the 'human-centric' conception of nature. It too operates through the nature -society binary, and articulates nature as the arena for exploitation/salvation by humans.

One of the most significant implications of this thinking has been on conservation policy in the form of the creation of protected areas (PA) like National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries across the world, including India. According to Indian environmental law, no human interface is allowed, at all, in these bounded spaces, and borders are strictly enforced—in theory—to keep people out. Almost 2,00,000 sq. km in India are set-aside for PAs, and indeed, there have been some success stories in terms of regeneration and revival of endangered species, such as, the much-publicised tiger. However, as the new volume edited by Rangarajan, Madhusudan and Shahabuddin powerfully demonstrates, parks are neither panacea, nor entirely secluded or isolated from the larger world despite the best attempts of bureaucracies (in a way, following Bruno Latour, our protected areas have never been modern). In fact, the spatial segregation of humans and ecology has, in many instances, led to displacement, curtailment of rights over resources, and therefore caused outright hostility toward wildlife amongst people with recorded historical coexistence. Instead, and rather than being considered to be the only means of biodiversity conservation, PAs are better understood within a continuum of social-natures, or contextual assemblages of human and non-human agents. It follows that nature is neither separate from society, nor is it found exclusively within bounded locales like PAs, which means that empirical and analytical attention must be paid to nature beyond borders. This is an argument that social scientists working within the rubric of political ecology have long made; it is encouraging to find that the position is shared by an increasing number of conservation scientists in India, some of the most prominent among whom are contributors to the volume at hand.

Though there are ecological reasons for preservation of sizeable ranges with minimal human interface for apex predators, diverse case studies in the volume show that this is more an exception than the rule for emergent conservation strategies. As two chapters on the supposed conflict between pastoral communities (in Upper Himalayas and Deccan), and predators (Snow Leopard and the Indian Wolf respectively) show, this is an interface that can, and has been managed with mutually beneficial outcomes, once conservation thinking moves beyond the ontological divides discussed above. Similarly, KS Gopi Sundar shows that even the most intensively farmed areas of the Gangetic Plain in Uttar Pradesh remain important habitats for the endangered Sarus Crane. In part, this is on account of the incidental alignment of crane ecology and local agricultural practices (paddy cultivation, regular dredging of wetlands), but cultural factors play a part too, in particular, the high value assigned to cranes in popular regional imaginaries. In another chapter focusing on work in Tamil Nadu, Mudappa et al show that well-designed interventions have the potential to significantly reduce human-wildlife conflict in the large plantations that dot large swathes of the country, and are therefore important conservation sites.

On the other hand, urban areas, which were once thought to be 'biological deserts' by ecologists and consequently neglected in research and conservation, are now believed to support multiple habitats and critical biodiversity. Research in urban ecology has shown that many species display remarkable resilience to urbanisation, very often, by quickly adapting to the changed circumstances. In this context, the preservation of remnant ecologies in cities is critical. Ravi Agarwal's chapter on the efforts to preserve parts of the Ridge in Delhi, in the face of enormous pressure from private capital and governmental agencies to privatise and subdivide the urban commons is a valuable case study given that thousands of hectares in the city have been conserved through activism and judicial mediation. Nagendra et al describe a similar mobilisation of residents around the restoration of a degraded lake in Bangalore in another chapter.

While most case studies presented in the volume offer cause for optimism, two chapters discuss tricky problems that point to the multiple challenges to developing conservation strategies through non-traditional means. Both these cases concern aquatic systems: the Ganges and the Indian Ocean. While the former is degraded due to 'point-source pollution', massive trawlers that are driven by profits, and are, therefore least bothered about long-term preservation of marine ecosystems overfish the latter. In ways more complex than terrestrial systems, in both situations, the problem extends far beyond social-administrative borders, which makes it extremely difficult to develop effective tools for preservation or restoration.

Nature Without Borders, in conclusion, is an original and highly lucid volume. It is clear to see that each chapter emerges from years of praxis by eminent scientists and conservationists, although the volume could have been further bolstered by more contemporary empirical insights. Perhaps that is another effort that may follow this statement of a new research agenda.

Returning to the question this review opened with, the argument made by the editors promotes a reconfigured ontology, which builds on the idea of an 'immanent', as opposed to a 'transcendental' nature. This is the view of 'nature' as continually co-produced by human and non-human agents rather than an ahistorical entity to be (anthropocentrically) protected. Concomitantly, the volume calls for creative, scientifically robust, and democratic ways of understanding ecology and intervening in conservation debates.


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