Should we prevent poor people from destroying the planet to live in peace?

Keywords: Environment, violence, climate change in India, neo-malthusianism, think-thank, climate refugees.

Image 1: Projected average "wet-bulb" temperatures in South Asia, (with saturated humidity), in (B) between 1976 and 2005, in (C) between 2071 and 2100 with an average temperature above 2.25 Celsius, in ( D), between 2071 and 2100 with an average temperature rise of 4.5 Celsius.

A "wet-bulb" temperature of 31 degrees is considered dangerous, a "wet-bulb" temperature of 35 degrees is fatal in a few hours.

News on the state of the environment in India is getting more worrisome by the week. The last weeks of confinement has made the air of major Indian cities breathable again. This made their usual degree of pollution, largely caused by vehicular traffic, even more glaring. A hurricane hit the east cost, and another the west, a rare event for the season. Swarms of locusts have devastated crops in the centre of the country. Heatwave are intensifying every year. They threaten to render swathes of the country, like Rajasthan and Delhi, uninhabitable. There the “wet bulb” temperature, that is to say a measurement that includes cooling by evaporation and thereby permits to assess the capacity of mammals to lose temperature by transpiration, threatens to pass critical levels. Despite the increasing climatic instability, environmental degradation does not stop. Concerns are growing about the sustainability of the current economic models of production and exchange. The worsening inequalities, submersion of part of arable land as well as coastal urban zones, and the decreasing harvests, are perceived as signs of a future destabilisation of states that would lead to cycles of violence in India and elsewhere. I propose on the contrary that violence and environmental degradations feed into each other. In India, the violence that has always accompanied economic development, weights in particular on the poorest populations, in particular tribal populations like the Adivasis, who form approximately 8% of the population of the country, and Dalits (known as “untouchables”) who make by and large 16% of this general population.

Image 2 : Adivasi village located in the state of Odhissa, in a forest that will be submerged by a dam.
Source: Author, 2017.

Image 3: Ladakh sheperds are part of India's tribal people.
Photo: Clara Chevalier, 2016.

I take an example from the «grey literature», in this case, a report emanating from a think tank aiming at influencing decision makers. I show how it constructs a discourse that postulates a link between environmental degradation and violence, while pointing fingers at the poorest populations, instead of at our system of exchange and production of goods. The poor will be the first victims of environmental degradations like, global warming. Their capabilities are the first to be reduced, they are the one who might be forcefully displaced, who might have no other choice but migrating, who will be starved by the climbing price of crops linked with speculations on decreasing harvests. The purposefully provocative title of this paper underlines the inanity of the theories that make of the poor the culprits of environmental degradations.

The report of the Global Military Advisory Council on Climate Change, «Climate Change & Security in South Asia» (2016) is written by three retired high ranking officers of the Indian, Pakistani, and Bengladeshi armies. It grasps with the problem of environmental degradation and militarises it. This means that it answers global warming, and destruction of natural resources, with the preparedness of military forces. This is not an issue when armies are tasked with rescuing populations, like during hurricane Fani in Orissa in 2018. It becomes a problem if militarisation is taken in lieu of environmental policy, and if that preparation thinks of adaptation only in terms of combating violence. And in this case, the reports holds that environmental degradations will generate violence that can go up to wars, and against which armies should be prepared, as well as humanitarian operations that should be anticipated. India being a federal country, the armies and the central armed police forces that are deployed in the latter cases to assist local authorities, like they are deployed to protect mines or to suppress the revolts that regularly flare in India’s forest, in particular in the state of Chhattisgarh (Carrière 2020).

Map 1: India political map. Source: Rajeshodayanchal at Malayalam Wikipedia

I quote this report:

«It has been said that “poverty is the biggest polluter” as the poor have nothing but their immediate environment to exploit for their livelihoods. As the impacts of climate change will directly affect that environment by droughts, erosion, water shortages, there is increasing risk of overexploitation, induced migration and growing stress on law and order, resulting in conflicts. The snake would bite its own tail, if poverty abatement would go at the cost of e.g. forest cover, an essential element in adaptation against climate change» (Ghazi, Muniruzzaman, and Singh 2016, 17).

This paragraph puts in few words the chain of ideas that are to be found in large sets of this grey literature.

Firstly, if “poverty is the biggest polluter as the poor have nothing but their immediate environment to exploit” then it follows that the rich preserve their environment by exploiting that of others.. It is the essence of what is called environmental colonialism. On the one hand, the poor cannot outsource the management of the by-products of their lifestyles, like rubbish collection and management. On the other hand, it appears that the three authors do not consider the exploitation of distant environments to be a cause of environmental degradation. Finally, they do not interrogate the macro-economic or historic roots of poverty, which lay in the exploitation of the poorest at the profit of the richest. Accusing the poorest of degrading the environment refer to neo-malthusian theories, which make the population growth a risk for the planet, without interrogating the difference of impacts between the lifestyle of the few and that of the many.

Secondly, the authors Ghazi, Muniruzzaman, and Singh enumerate already visible impacts of global warming, soil erosion and water scarcity. They move from those observations to the “growing risk of over-exploitation”, without distinguishing which is the cause of the other. Yet is not it rather over-exploitation of soils that generate erosion? Of course here the statements are extremely general, yet significant examples tend to support the reverse causal relation: It is unchecked mechanized irrigation salinates the fields of Gujarat, and not the reverse. It is the destruction of forests and illegal lodging that favours the erosion, and lower rainfall, in Rajasthan. Indeed, overexploitation and environmental degradations are going together, like the massive recourse to pesticides and stubble burning in the fields of Haryana. However, it is not absurd to think with the authors that the degradation of soils and landscape can be the cause of internal migration, that is observable. In India the migrations between countryside and cities are commonplace. Yet is often less a definitive departure than a way to preserve a lifestyle or a familial exploitation by finding in the city the funds and seasonal work that cannot be met in the village.

Nine tenth of the security guards I interviewed in Delhi during my dissertation fieldwork were coming from another state. Nearly half were from the impoverished rural state of Bihar, and most were aspiring to go back to their familial land at some point in the future. Temporary migration is a form of adaptation, certainly not a danger: In Delhi it provides to the rich the manpower necessary for the realisation of their desires, including that of security and exclusivity (Carrière 2018). Permanent migration from the countryside obviously also exists, yet again, it is nourished by poverty and the construction of large industrial projects, like in the valley of the Narmada, where a set of giant dams have caused the displacement of dozen of thousands of people. Migrations, at least in South Asia, have not degenerated into conflicts and wars: A migration is not an invasion. India has closed and militarized its border with Bangladesh. Migrants find death on this wall regularly. The diplomatic protests of Bangladesh are unlikely to lead to an ultimatum. Indeed, the question of climate changed induced migration remains open. In India, it remains difficult to attribute migrations to climate change rather than to economic conditions, at least for now — sea level rise is accelerating, yet the case of the disappearing Solomon Islands remains the exception. Mostly, the decision to migrate depends on the human, social and economic capital of individuals. It is therefore not accurate to assert the existence of a causal link between migration and wars. This unless one reproduces the racist and identity imaginary of The Camps of the Saints (Raspail [1971] 2016), and abandon a scientific approach, and all rational policies. In his book, now a classic of the extreme right, Jean Raspail imagines the arrival on European shores of millions of migrants from South Asia, who destroy Europe and demand to share its riches. The image of migrants in long columns of hapless people mark the imagination. Yet in India, it does not refer to the realities of climate migrations, but to the images of the Partition between India and Pakistan in 1947: in that case like in many others, it is violences that have thrown these millions of people on the road, not the refugees that have caused the violence, even less the war.

Image 4: The deluge in waiting.
Source: Down To Earth, «As Sardar Sarovar dam's gates get shut, 192 villages fear submergence» Jitendra, (2018)

Lastly, the three officers rightly note that the reduction of poverty should not be made at the expense, “of forest cover”. The reduction of poverty remains undeniable a goal. Yet so far in India, it is the destruction of forests that has gone hand in hand with the impoverishing of the populations, often tribal, that inhabit them. To simplify outrageously a rich and complex demography and geography, it can be said that Indian forests host populations of Adivasis, who claim to be the first inhabitants of the subcontinent. They have been largely discriminated against since the British colonisation. Lodging since colonial time, and the coal and paper industries nowadays (Benbalaali 2018), have used force and violence against them and against any oppositions. Forest should not be understood as an empty resource, or as a nuisance for the exploitation of another, but as an inhabited space that is managed and produced by the people inhabiting it. If the destruction of environment and poverty go hand in hand, we could propose, by contrast, that the integration of those populations in Indian society, with the respect for their lifestyle and management of their environment, would protect forest better than the current policies of poverty reduction.

Image 5: Adivasi hunter in Odisha. Photo: Jagdish Singh, 2017

The argument leveraged by India, until recently during climate negotiations, was to refuse restrictions in the use of coal because its economic growth and the quality of life of most of its population needed this cheap energy. It is also true that India is responsible, since the industrial revolution (c 1850), of only 3% of greenhouse gases emissions by contrast with the 27% emitted by the United States in the same period (Agarwal and Narain 2003).

The response to the environmental and climatic emergency — every day more urgent — depends on political choices at all scales, and the reduction of greenhouse gases as well as the adaptation to the change can be furthermore difficult and violent if is misguided on what is at stake, or by a militarization of the environmental question. Poverty is not the cause of environmental degradations, and the latter does not trigger violence. The exploitative system of production under which we live is at the source of both. It is crucial to question the source of poverty as well as that of environmental degradation without blaming their victims for a system from which they so marginally benefit.

Damien Carriere

IRSEM and CESSMA (Paris 7) Post-doctoral fellow


Agarwal, Anil, and Sunita Narain. 2003. Global Warming in an Unequal World: A Case of Environmental Colonialism.

Benbalaali, Dalel. 2018. “Bhadrachalam Sheduled Area, Telangana.” In Ground down by Growth: Tribe, Caste, Class and Inequality in Twenty-First-Century India, edited by Alpa Shah, 115–42. London: Pluto Press.

Carrière, Damien. 2018. “Filtering Class through Space : Security Guards and Urban Territories in Delhi, India.” Minneapolis, MN, Paris, France: University of Minnesota, University Paris Sorbonne Cité.

———. 2020. “Les Forces de Police Armées en Inde, entre croissance et polyvalence.” Note de recherche de l’IRSEM, no. 94 (Avril): 16.

Ghazi, Tariq Wasem, A.N.M. Muniruzzaman, and A.K. Singh. 2016. “Climate Change & Security in South Asia.” Cooperating for Peace. Brussels: Global Military Advisory Councinl on Climate Change.

Im, Eun-Soon, Jeremy S. Pal, and Elfatih A. B. Eltahir. 2017. “Deadly Heat Waves Projected in the Densely Populated Agricultural Regions of South Asia.” Science Advances 3 (8): e1603322.

Jitendra. 2018. “As Sardar Sarovar Dam’s Gates Get Shut, 192 Villages Fear Submergence,” August.

Raspail, Jean. 2016. Le camp des saints, précédé de Big Other: roman.

Village Adivasi dans l’État de l’Odhissa, dans une forêt qui sera submergée par un barrage.
September 2020
Damien Carriere
post-doctorant “résident” à l’IRSEM, CESSMA, Paris 7