Author's Response to GTI Roundtable "Radical Ecological Democracy"

Ashish Kothari

I would like to begin by extending my sincere thanks to the four commenters for appreciating the essay and for their very perceptive remarks to help take the ideas in the essay forward. I should place on record that in, one way or another, their own work has been part of the inspiration for my increasing foray into the world of alternatives.

I would like to deal with the four together, as there are essential complementarities and common threads.

David Barkin suggests that I may be understating the problem of transforming or dealing with business and the state. I agree that my language may not have adequately conveyed my conviction that both of these will need to be confronted, resisted, and transformed through struggle. As movements around the world have found out, this is obviously not easy, not only because these institutions hold much power, but also because they are able to “reinvent” themselves to appear to be legitimate to large sections of the people. Federico Demaria mentions “green, inclusive” growth; this is one among many examples of how corporations and governments are trying to maintain the status quo by merely tinkering around with the current system while appearing to be environmentally sensitive.

Therefore, Barkin’s question about the nature of the transition is important. I am encouraged that he supports a process based on understanding and accompanying communities and peoples who are already finding their own answers and niches, rather than trying to work out some sort of large global vision in the abstract. The transformation has to happen from below even if, for the moment, it would appear as if this will not be adequate to challenge the might of the superstructure of business and the state. But as Helena Norberg-Hodge observes, a point I make in the essay is the need to link these local movements all the way up to a global level, thereby generating the strength to challenge this superstructure. Meanwhile, even as we continue to see ecological, economic, and social collapse across the world, it is absolutely crucial to nurture and, as Barkin says, “tenaciously defend” the myriad movements and the niches they occupy.

Forging local-to-global alliances is an extremely complex process, given the enormous diversity of languages, cultures, ideologies, strategies, and worldviews that peoples’ movements and initiatives represent. It seems to me that such alliances will have to take place not only on a shared understanding of a common enemy or problem, but also on a shared set of values and principles. It is here that Demaria’s points become important; while supporting this contention, he raises the challenge of how multiple alternative frameworks will find common ground yet retain their own specific contextual flavor: the eternal issue of unity and diversity co-existing. This is where Neera Singh’s emphasis on process and on the principles of democracy becomes crucial. Before I get to this, however, I do want to admit a weakness that Demaria highlights, my omission of some of India’s or South Asia’s worldviews that could form crucial back-ups to radical ecological democracy. He mentions J. C. Kumarappa, and I would add Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, and B. R. Ambedkar. I would even add learnings from several ancient texts and traditions (including indigenous, oral ones), though making haste to clarify that I have no sympathy for right-wing religious zealots in India who use “tradition” and scriptures for their own power plays.

Singh’s stress on the need for strengthening RED with the principles of democratic process is spot-on. This is indeed one of the many weaknesses in my essay, and much of what she has written more clearly expresses what may have simply been at the back of my mind. I particularly like the way she says that democratic process should be a verb, not a noun. In this sense, perhaps some of the experiments and explorations in Venezuela and Bolivia on infusing principles of democracy from local to national levels (of course with varying degrees of success and failure), which I mention in passing, are important for all of us to observe and learn from.

The importance of worldviews, ways of being and becoming, ways of relating to the rest of nature (and not simply “to nature,” for we are part of it), and finding new vocabulary—all these comments from Singh are crucial. For me, they further underscore one of Demaria’s points (which I paraphrase here): the need for various alternatives from around the world to be in dialogue with each other. Just as I have learned much of what I write about RED from movements in India and elsewhere, I cannot imagine expanding this into a more global set of worldviews, infused with common values and principles even while respecting and celebrating diversity of strategies and pathways, without engaging in intercultural learning. Finding a way out of today’s mess has to be a collaborative effort in which dialogue and dialectics lead us towards imagining and moving towards a sustainable, equitable, and just world.

Ashish Kothari

Ashish Kothari is a founder of the Indian environmental group Kalpavriksh and the co-editor of Alternative Futures: India Unshackled and Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary.

Cite as Ashish Kothari, author’s response to GTI Roundtable "Radical Ecological Democracy," Great Transition Initiative (July 2014),

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