Writing about the environment: a letter

Road to Perdition, a piece by Neha Sinha and myself published in the July issue of Fountain Ink, triggered a response from Aasheesh Pittie: a handwritten letter that he has posted here on his blog. Aasheesh critiques our piece for not being emphatic or dramatic enough, given the drastic, unprecedented, and barely-regulated assault on India’s environment now underway. He raises vital concerns on how we write about the environment and hoped his letter would begin a dialogue. In the spirit of taking the conversation ahead, here is the letter I wrote in response. Do read his letter first before reading on. And add your thoughts and comments!

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3 thoughts on “Writing about the environment: a letter

  1. Yadugiri

    I admire your work and your writing, and your response to Aasheesh Pittie’s letter got me thinking about conservation communication in general. I have a few questions, and I am taking the liberty to think aloud.

    As our country plunges ahead towards an imagined future, there is an urgency about raising our concerns regarding our vanishing wilderness. But science is by nature slow, deliberate and cautious. How does one paint a picture of what would befall our landscapes without letting uncertainties dilute its vividness?

    There is also a problem of disassociation of people from nature. Forests, farms, climate, plants and animals are unknown entities to many people whose lives keep them cocooned in cities. How do you make people appreciate the beauty of a poem they don’t understand?

    There is also a problem of different priorities. We may think of countries as being poorer for trading their wild lands for ‘development’, others may not agree. There may be some cases where the priorities are clearly skewed; there may be others where the choice is much less clear. What does one do in such cases?

    As you have said in your letter, there is the need for more voices speaking up for nature, and words, like saplings growing in your restoration sites, may bear fruit many years hence. Let us hope that there will still be the animals and birds to savour them.

    1. T R Shankar Raman Post author

      Thanks for those thoughtful comments, which I had somehow missed earlier. Those are important questions. I don’t presume to have answers, so what follows are just a few thoughts.

      On uncertainty: I feel we have little excuse regarding communicating the vividness of nature and of the kinds and rates of transformation. The places, the evidence is all around us. We may be limited only by our skill, our imagination, or our tenacity in bearing witness. Communicating scientific uncertainty, or the many forces that could be responsible for what we see, describe, is another thing altogether. I feel if we write with sincerity, laying it all out on the table for the reader, we may be able to persuade people to find there own space somewhere on the line between callous indifference through disinterested appraisal to concern and conviction. The climate movement has done a good job of conveying the findings of science amidst uncertainty, that too against great odds.

      On dissociation: The problem of dissociation from nature is not something extrinsic to communication, which resides only in the minds of people. Nature is not something out there in forests and farms alone. From cities to wilderness, we are in nature, we are part of nature. How we describe and articulate that is the challenge. Nature writing, photography, and stories all too often present nature as an impossibly distant and unattainable, yet coveted space, or as a commodity to be sold and consumed. This may create further dissociation, even if that is not the intention.

      On priorities: I think there remains a lot of scope to present these priorities, not merely as dichotomies (environment versus development, coal versus solar, trees versus tarmac), but as a spectrum of informed, viable choice. As much as environmental writing laments loss, it has to celebrate an alternate vision, provide a picture of a world as it can and perhaps should be. There are many who do that well. There are also alternatives and inspirations to draw from, which we can draw the attention of people to. Take the Vikalp Sangam stories, for example: http://www.vikalpsangam.org/article/

      1. Yadugiri

        Thank you for such a detailed, thoughtful, thought-provoking response. As you have said, it is important (and very much possible) to present a picture that is scientifically sound and honest, and something a general audience sees themselves as being a part of; a picture that inspires ‘a world as it can and perhaps should be’. Thanks again!

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