The Human Face of the Land: Why the past matters for India's environmental future

At this moment when we are aware that our climate is changing,
and that humans have had a major role in effecting that change, we are
perhaps more aware than ever of the ways in which human and natural
worlds are very closely connected, linked in many ways and at many
levels.

For the last 10,000 years especially, the role of humans in making
the Indian landscape has been quite significant. Agriculture, to take one of the major drivers of landscape change, maintains vegetation complexes at specific, desired successional states which, although often
mimicking ‘natural’ vegetation quite effectively, do lead to change. The
anthropogenic movement of plants and animals around the world, too,
has created conditions of possibility that make each moment in history
in some way ecologically incommensurate with each other. 

Why might these entangled histories matter? In India today we
face of an agrarian crisis, an urban environmental crisis (relating to the
increasingly problematic quality of our air and water), a climate crisis,
and have many other concerns in which environmental issues figure
prominently. 

While this is not the venue to consider any of these in
detail, this paper makes the point that in every case there are histories
that help us not only understand how things came to be as they are
now but also, perhaps, what kinds of strategies have been successful
in the past, and which have failed – and why. 

It is incumbent on those
of us who study the past to look beyond our archives now and then
and think about how our histories might inform on the present, just as
it is for activists and decision-makers grappling with contemporary
issues to heed the lessons of the past, lessons never completely
commensurate with today’s world, never clear or complete, but
nevertheless a critical source of information for us today.

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