Book review: Inventing Global Ecology by Michael Lewis

In the 1950s and 1960s India used to import not only subsidised sewing needles and milk, but also wildlife conservation science from the US. Michael Lewis argues this science -- also imported for decades after -- came in baggage tainted with skewed priorities: the interests and beliefs of the West. With each kilogramme of knowledge India received as support -- for instance, radio collars imported under US funds to track elephants -- came the biases of us ecologists in the US, quite like weed-infested imported wheat. Lewis persuades readers that these biases -- coupled with the thinking of the first generation of indigenous ecologists in India -- has shaped Indian wildlife research policy and direction today...

 
By Nitin Sethi
Published: Sunday 29 February 2004

-- Inventing Global Ecology Tracking the Biodiversity Ideal in India 1945-97 by Michael Lewis Orient Longman 2003 Rs 675

In the 1950s and 1960s India used to import not only subsidised sewing needles and milk, but also wildlife conservation science from the us. Michael Lewis argues this science -- also imported for decades after -- came in baggage tainted with skewed priorities: the interests and beliefs of the West. With each kilogramme of knowledge India received as support -- for instance, radio collars imported under us funds to track elephants -- came the biases of us ecologists in the us, quite like weed-infested imported wheat. Lewis persuades readers that these biases -- coupled with the thinking of the first generation of indigenous ecologists in India -- has shaped Indian wildlife research policy and direction today.

Lewis cuts through the historical undergrowth of conservation science by swinging two scythes simultaneously. With one, he cuts through the shrouded histories of institutions that have become the hotspots for research today, like the Wildlife Institute of India (wii) and the Bombay Natural History Society (bnhs). With the other, he deconstructs the icons of wildlife research in India, like the legend called Salim Ali. He demystifies the persona, providing ample evidence that Ali's conclusions on wildlife issues were at times driven more by passion than by logic. He shows how Ali's successful campaign for the creation of Keoladeo National Park had more to do with his access to the political powers of the era than any ardent crusade.

Lewis' scholarship has received a mixed reaction from India. But each of his critics has been fervent in what they have said; they are either passionately appreciative or have acerbically dismissed it as 'annoying' in parts. Some, like Madhav Gadgil, whose work at the Bangalore-based Centre for Ecological Sciences (ces) is brought under the scanner, have also reportedly protested against 'misleading errors'. He has reportedly expressed strong reservations about Lewis concluding that ces has been influenced by us ecologists. In India, where wildlife conservation and human right groups often find themselves pitted in opposite camps, it is simpler to categorise Lewis as one of the two and then throw stones. It is far more difficult to accept some of the bitter pills of historical facts he has to offer. And there's plenty of that.

But let us look at some of the failings that take away from the otherwise excellent perspective-embedded research.

For one, Lewis gives the impression that only three Indian institutions have formed the bedrock of wildlife research -- wii, ces and bnhs. He completely ignores other institutions such as the wildlife department of the Aligarh Muslim University, the intellectual source of many of wii's best faculty.

Two, Lewis simplifies the matrix of relations between the Indian Forest Service (ifs) cadre and the non-governmental scientists. The perpetual love-hate relation between them, the changing character of the foresters and its consequences for the protected areas and research prioritisation is left untouched.

Third, Lewis is a bit too much of a historian for a popular book. The book is a relatively sedate post-product of his doctoral work. If the history he has recorded carries in it a whiff of inaccessible documents in the Union ministry of environment and forests, it also hides behind a handful of individuals who have almost completely run the business of wildlife policy in India. Lewis hesitates to shed the mask of officiousness from his sources, refuses to let them become characters in the drama. They are shielded; quoted as experts who make statements. They are not represented as interested parties with their own set of prejudices and vehement beliefs. The adjectives and adverbs in the narrative are sorely missed. Lewis might want to keep the book academic, but the readers shouldn't get fooled. For, there is nothing academic about the ferocity with which Indian wildlife scientists defend their beliefs, and at times their dogmas. Despite these niggling shortcomings, Lewis nevertheless peels off quite a few layers of misconceptions from this debate. For that alone, the book is worth purchasing.

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