As the title of this book suggests – the contents do offer, not just a creative use of language but an alternative discourse to how we have thus far understood eco-theology and environmental ethics. The author, the Indian ethicist George Zachariah, suggests in his introduction that the book will “construct an earth ethics from the grassroots” which will be informed by “the crucible of subaltern political praxis”. In the rest of the book he unravels his conviction that social movements are a theological text in themselves “as discursive sites” for a “life affirming, communitarian and liberating” subaltern earth ethics. He uses the term “subaltern” to identify the victims of the deep-rooted ecological sinfulness of our societies – particularly Indigenous Peoples and Dalits, in India – victims of the so called development projects of neo-liberal capitalism. The book amply demonstrates, that to the author the term “subaltern” also stands for “the engaged collectivity of the subalterns – their social movements – that strive for a redeemed earth where life flourishes abundantly.” He bases his thesis on an understanding and appreciation of the resistance and engagement of subalterns in particularly the Narmada Bachao Andolan – a social movement of Indigenous Peoples and Dalits to save the River Narmada (that flows through three states of North India to Central India) and the environment around it, protesting a project of big dams on the river to generate electricity and to provide water for industrial expansion and for agri-business.
To create another world without the contaminating power of colonizing forces is at the heart of social movements, and these movements and their visions of liberation ought to become the text for theology this teacher of ethics proposes. He believes that the reclamation of moral agency by the subalterns is an ethical imperative because “theology happens in a community’s quest for selfhood”. Theology is not “metaphysical speculation on metacosmic doctrines”, but is “a thoroughly this-worldly affair.” He underscores that social movements are antithetical to totalizing theological and ethical claims because God is actively present in the people’s efforts to develop an oppositional consciousness and a collective political alternative. “It is the incremental, fragmentary, and provisional victories of the people – the fragmentary victories to survive and self-represent – that makes the eschatological utterly this worldly,” he writes.
Unlike so much of theological ethical reflections which take off from a review of already available literature on environmental ethics, Zachariah moors his understanding of a grassroots earth ethics on the subaltern lifeworld – their politics, ethics and knowledge mediated through social movements. He faces squarely the dilemma theologians face in representing the subaltern and in valorizing the struggles for life of Indigenous Peoples and Dalits in social movements, for theologizing work. He believes that this danger can be avoided if, we acknowledge, “our own embeddedness in locations of privilege, supremacy and dominance which tint our perception of reality and influence our inferences.” This demands that we unlearn the dominant ways of knowing and representing the subaltern, he writes. Additionally, it demands that we be engaged in political praxis in our own social locations, participating in acts of resistance and in creating alternatives. The author invites the theological community to discern the need for an ethical relationship with the subalterns, because he writes: “Our political praxis in solidarity with the subalterns becomes our Damascus experience where we encounter the Divine as the represented One.” In other words our participation in their struggles for liberation mediates our own liberation. In fact, it requires more than an intellectual reexamination of the way, we have done theological ethics, it calls for “a new discipleship journey – a detour in the way we live our faith.”
In a chapter on the crisis of the earth, the author uses the concept of the “colonization of the lifeworld” as developed by Jurgen Habermas to critique modernity and advanced capitalism. Zachariah believes that engaging the language of colonization of life forms that has been unleashed on the earth in the name of progress, growth, development and globalization, is the first step in the development of an earth ethics from the grassroots. Unfortunately, God-talk has been used to give divine legitimization to the colonization of the life world, and this should concern us as it is a form of violence. Development, he writes is another neo-colonial mechanism to invade, control, plunder and occupy the lifeworld. Accumulation and consumption have become its credo. He draws attention to Foucault’s postcolonial critique of development which has been at inspiration for subversive political engagement of the new social movements. In other words social movements reject the practice of development per se both because it is a new name for the colonization of the life world and also because it corrodes the moral agency of the people. Neo-liberal globalization promotes the creation of wealth and the free market on the one hand and on the other poverty, indebtedness, the creation of modern forms of slavery and the annihilation of the lifeworld. It has also given rise to the dictum “there is no alternative” denying social movements of people, the moral agency to subvert, resist and create alternatives.
The author traces the rich history and ongoing struggles of Indigenous Peoples and Dalits – the Save the Narmada movement (Narmada Bachao Andolan – NBA). They have continued a relentless peaceful struggle to protect their river, the forests and their own lives and livelihoods. The struggle which took the form of a coordinated movement in the 1980’s is an alternative in itself – an alternative subaltern politics. A chapter of the book describes this movement in some detail – its democratic ways of decision making, its large network of solidarity groups from outside the Narmada valley all over India and all over the world, its methodologies of resistance, and its refusal to engage the government in negotiations of resettlement and rehabilitation. “Dubenge par hatenge nahin” (We will drown but not move) has been its core message. A few examples of the NBA’s efforts to seek alternatives to the dominant development paradigm are also included – such as its alternative forms of education for the children of the valley, and its own sustainable micro hydro electric projects and a democratic and controlled use of energy by the community. Another alternative being developed by the NBA is the economy of permanence which derives from a recognition that capitalist forms of production and consumption based on the logic of profit and accumulation can only be challenged by developing alternative patterns of production and consumption that are labour intensive and ecologically sensitive.
To support his conviction that social movements are theological texts, the author draws on feminist, Dalit and Indigenous social theories as well as the writings of eco-feminists, Dalits and Third World Liberation theologians to explore an epistemology from the grassroots. For too long dominant groups have cornered truth claims so as to exclude the Other. As an example of this: “the scriptural legitimization of the caste-ridden regime of truth….reveals the canonization of the exclusion of the outcastes from the knowledge field,” giving epistemological privilege of reason to a small section in society, he writes. Apart from privileging a few, what is more damaging is that it erases the ways of knowing of the majority. He shows how feminist, Adivasi and Dalit theories and theologies have created “alternative epistemic principles and terrains in the search for a new epistemology”. This breaks through the myth of a disembodied neutral observer and underlines that all constructions of knowledge and truth are political acts and are not value free. Subaltern epistemology enables people to see the truth from their lived reality, it equips and empowers people to resist their oppression and it inspires them to struggle – thus ethics, politics and knowledge intersect.
The author critiques the tendency to essentialize the subalterns as protectors of the environment or of titling them as “natural environmentalists”, but affirms that in their practices in dealing with the earth there is evidence of prudence and their pantheistic spirituality has contributed to the protection of the earth that they hold as sacred. Their perception of their lifeworld is influenced by a variety of factors not least of which is their collective political strength as a social movement. A grassroots earth ethics emerges from seeing “as an oppositional subaltern gaze” that challenges the dominant imperial and development gaze which has given rise to the colonization of their lifeworld. The symbiotic relationship the subalterns do have with creation is mediated through their struggles for survival.
Zachariah suggests that there is a need to go beyond mainline eco-theology and environmentalism, which while based on a new awareness to save the environment and “to inspire the faith communities to the care of creation”, are often “based on a false notion of universality” because they too draw from ecological and cosmological meta-narratives. He acknowledges the recent attempts to link eco-justice with a wider commitment to social justice, but asserts that even this falls short methodologically as it does not recognize the agency of the victims of environmental destruction. He critiques such theologies for targeting dualism and anthropocentrism which can be corrected by affirming interconnectedness, relationships and community; or some contemporary eco-theologies propose biocentrism or biocentric egalitarianism to save the planet. In the author’s own words, “the dominant critique of anthropocentrism unfortunately led to misanthropy and reduced theological reflections on ecology and environment to conservationism and the greening of the mind.”
An alternative subaltern ethic however would call for a “non-anthropocentric anthropology that affirms the being and becoming of a new humanity in the community of creation.” Such a world view would put the onus on humanity to develop a political and ethical praxis for living in right relationships with each other and with the earth; and more importantly, would affirm the moral agency of the subaltern, the dispossessed, to subvert, to resist and live towards alternatives.
The book maps out the essential ingredients for an earth ethic from the grassroots. The starting point for those who do Christian ethics will have to be a commitment to stand in solidarity with social movements, affirming the moral agency of the subaltern communities to create another world. The struggle against the colonization of the lifeworld as “proleptic signs of the eschatological vision of the redeemed earth is hence the discursive arena mediating the construction of authentic Christian ethics.” This challenges theologians to rethink traditional and given sources for doing theology such as scripture and tradition but to turn to social movements as the site for doing Christian ethics – in other words from, “the epistemological locus of the wounded earth and wounded humanity.” This is not “a rejection of the place of the Bible in Christian ethics, but a rejection of the claim of inherent authority of the text apart from the community that reads it.” In fact Zachariah underlines that the biblical visions of creation and new creation are foundational to the construction of a grassroots earth ethics. The social movement is seen as a testimony of the people’s will to resist and survive and this demands an ethical Christian response.
Zachariah concludes that a grassroots earth ethics, as it is based on the ethics of liberation, stresses that the absolutization of the totality of the present is an ethical problem. It challenges us to stop trying to reform the system or claiming that there is some goodness in the colonizing project. He urges us to recognize the subaltern vision that takes us beyond the totality. This will include a break from the prevailing hegemonic God-talk, a grassroots earth ethics emerges from the politics of the Divine as revealed in the life of Jesus, stemming from the conviction that the Divine is “savingly present” outside the domain of totality, and by demystifying the doctrine of the totality that there is no alternative – it strives to create alternatives unincorporated.
This book makes three important contributions. It calls for a new way of thinking of environmental ethics and affirms a grass roots earth ethic so as to come to a stronger defense and care of the lifeworld – the rights of the earth and of the people of the earth to survive and flourish. This would require us to go beyond present forms of environmental ethics that overemphasize anthropocentrism and instead stress on the moral agency of the people and their social movements to resist and search for alternatives. This demands the moral responsibility of theologians to stay in conversation with social movements and recognize them as theological text. Finally, it liberates subaltern communities such as the Indigenous, the Dalits, and feminists and liberation theologians to continue to explore with more confidence the intrinsic link between the earth, political action and environmental ethics from their perspective, as there is something special they have to offer to the cartography of a new earth ethic. This book also makes an important contribution to the teaching of earth ethics and is a must for every theological library.