The eco-fundamentalists

First Published: 2015-03-08

The Modi government is right to crack down on foreign financing of environmental NGOs

The recent furore over the Modi government’s ban on the Indian branch of Greenpeace receiving funding from its foreign parent raises some important issues. What should be the role of foreign NGOs in Indian democracy – particularly since, as I have argued at length in my Reviving the Invisible Hand, a host of the environmental ones are the stormtroopers of the anti-globalisation movement? What are their true aims? Is there any international civil society of which they can be taken to be the spokesmen, as they claim? And what are we to make of their local representatives who seek to influence their countries public policy to the agenda of their foreign sponsors?

NGOs are pressure groups which have been a part of the political process in the UK and US for over 200 years. The American "pluralist" school of political sociology has considered them to be benign, with perfect competition among interest groups, and the state acting as umpire, leading to the political analogue of the perfect competition paradigm of the economist. This benign view was punctured by Mancur Olson who showed that they are predatory: aiming to use the political process to obtain special benefits for their members at the expense of the common weal.

But, within the domestic domain, such distributional games need only concern the domestic polity. What is different about the international NGOs (particularly the green ones) is that instead of promoting sectional interests they are dealing with particular causes whose resonance comes from some form of universal moral claim. They are, in the apt phrase of my former University College of London colleague David Henderson (in his Misguided Virtue), "global salvationists", who resemble religious fundamentalists.

Anna Bramwell in her Ecology in the 20th Century: A History emphasises that the stronghold of environmentalism has been in Protestant Europe (Britain and Germany) and the United States. Its origins lie in the death of the Christian God with the scientific and Darwinian revolutions. As I argued in my Unintended Consequences, the West has been haunted by St Augustine’s City of God. Carl Becker in his The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers showed how the philosophes of the Enlightenment demolished Augustine’s Heavenly City, only to rebuild it with more up-to-date materials. The Garden of Eden was replaced by Greece and Rome, and God became an abstract First Cause – the Divine Watchmaker – and instead of Holy Writ, God’s laws were recorded in the Great Book of Nature that the scientific revolution of the 19th century had begun to decipher. But when Darwin showed that the Divine Watchmaker was blind, the Christian God died, as Nietzsche proclaimed from the housetops.

This did not, however, end variations on the theme of Augustine’s City. There were two further mutations in the form of Marxism and Freudianism – and the more recent mutation in the form I have labelled Eco-fundamentalism (see my article in International Affairs, July 1995). This carries the Christian notion of contemptus mundi to its logical conclusion. Humankind is evil and only by living in harmony with a deified Nature can it be saved. As Professor Bramwell puts it, in the past the West was "able to see the earth as man’s unique domain precisely because of God’s existence…When science took over the role of religion in the 19th century, the belief that God made the world with a purpose in which man was paramount declined. But, if there was no purpose, how was man to live on the earth? The hedonistic answer, to enjoy it as long as possible, was not acceptable. If Man had become God, then he had become the shepherd of the earth, the guardian, responsible for the oekonomie of the earth". (p. 23).

The religious nature of the Green movement is further supported by its failure to admit that its predictions have been wrong, eg its Malthusian beliefs which have been belied by the "demographic transition" now spreading through the developing world. Based on faith rather than reason, it has great similarities with the religious fundamentalisms sweeping the world. For though it may appear that the environmental movement is "scientific" and hence "modern", whereas religious fundamentalists are "non-scientific" and "pre-modern", they both share a fear and contempt of the modernity whose central features are rightly seen to be an instrumental rationality that undermines humankinds traditional relationship with God or Nature.

The sense of loss with modernity’s "disenchantment of the world" of the ecologists is paralleled by the fundamentalist’s fear of losing cherished traditional lifestyles. Both are also pre-modern, claiming to have a privileged view of reality which brooks no discussion. Both too have adherents willing to use coercion (including violence) to impose their beliefs, as witness the various threats of physical violence and arson by animal rights activists on university medical researchers, and Greenpeace’s own antics like the recent desecration of an ancient pre Inca World heritage site in Peru. These eco-fundamentalists are not Charlie Hebdo, but closer to the Islamist fundamentalists who slaughtered its journalists. As such the Modi government is right, in my view, in preventing foreign financing of their activities in the country.

Nor is their claim that they represent the world’s citizens and thence an international civil society whose interests they serve, sustainable. There are no world citizens as there is no world polity. There are only citizens of nation-states to whom in democracies their governments are accountable. The chief characteristic of a state is the monopoly of coercive power, which in democracies is given to governments elected by the electorate, and only they can be responsible for making domestic and international laws.

What of the local agents of these eco-fundamentalists? They are best seen as what the Chinese called "Rice Christians". As citizens of the country they are free to pursue their secular religion as they see fit, but as with other religions in a secular state they can have no privileged position, nor can they use intimidation to enforce their beliefs. Their oft repeated claim that they represent the popular will was tested when the last government adopted much of their program under the aegis of a National Advisory Council stuffed with their activists, creating an environmental Permit Raj. The overwhelming rejection of this programme at the last elections showed their claim to be serving the popular will to be wrong. Moreover, to correct the damage the environmental license Raj has done to India’s growth prospects, it needs to be repudiated along with the eco-fundamentalists – both foreign and local – who have promoted it.

First published at the Business Standard and posted here with the kind permission of the author.


Deepak Lal is the James S. Coleman Professor Emeritus of International Development Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, professor emeritus of political economy at University College London, and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He was a member of the Indian Foreign Service (1963-66) and has served as a consultant to the Indian Planning Commission, the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, various UN agencies, South Korea, and Sri Lanka. From 1984 to 1987 he was research administrator at the World Bank. Lal is the author of a number of books, including The Poverty of Development Economics; The Hindu Equilibrium; Against Dirigisme; The Political Economy of Poverty, Equity and Growth; Unintended Consequences: The Impact of Factor Endowments, Culture, and Politics on Long-Run Economic Performance; and Reviving the Invisible Hand: The Case for Classical Liberalism in the 21st Century.

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