From Empire to Earth Community: 10 Principles of the More Beautiful World We Know Is Possible
From Empire to Earth Community: 10 Principles of the More Beautiful World We Know Is Possible
By Ashish Kothari /

If the aim of human society is happiness, freedom, and prosperity, there are indeed many alternative ways to achieve this without endangering the earth and ourselves, and without leaving behind half or more of humanity. This applies to India as to any other country, though the specifics of the alternatives will vary greatly depending on ecological, cultural, economic, and political conditions.

Broadly, an alternative framework of human well-being could be called Radical Ecological Democracy (RED): a social, political and economic arrangement in which all citizens have the right and full opportunity to participate in decision-making, based on the twin principles of ecological sustainability and human equity. Ecological sustainability is the continuing integrity of the ecosystems and ecological functions on which all life depends, including the maintenance of biological diversity as the fulcrum of life. Human equity, is a mix of equality of opportunity, full access to decision-making forums for all (which would include the principles of decentralization and participation), equity in the distribution and enjoyment of the benefits of human endeavour (across class, caste, age, gender, race and other divisions), and cultural security.

Linked to these are some basic principles or values that need to be respected:

Principle 1: Ecological integrity and limits. The functional integrity and resilience of the ecological processes, ecosystems, and biological diversity that is the basis of all life on earth, respecting which entails a realisation of the ecological limits within which human economies and societies must restrict themselves.

Principle 2: Equity and justice. Equitable access of all human beings, in current and future generations, to the conditions needed for human well-being – socio-cultural, economic, political, ecological, and in particular food, water, shelter, clothing, energy, healthy living, and satisfying social and cultural relations – without endangering any other person’s access; equity between humans and other elements of nature; and social, economic, and environmental justice for all.

Principle 3: Right to meaningful participation. The right of each person and community to meaningfully participate in crucial decisions affecting her/his/its life, and to the conditions that provide the ability for such participation, as part of a radical, participatory democracy.

Principle 4: Responsibility. The responsibility of each citizen and community to ensure meaningful decision-making that is based on the twin principles of ecological integrity and socio-economic equity, conditioned in the interim by a ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ in which those currently rich within the country take on a greater role and/or are incentivised or forced to give up their excessively consumptive lifestyles in order for the poor to have adequate levels of human security. This principle should also extend to the impact a country has on other countries, with a ‘do no harm’ component as a basic minimum component.

Principle 5: Diversity. Respect for the diversity of environments and ecologies, species and genes (wild and domesticated), cultures, ways of living, knowledge systems, values, economies and livelihoods, and polities (including those of indigenous peoples and local communities), in so far as they are in consonance with the principles of sustainability and equity.

Principle 6: Collective commons and solidarity. Collective and co-operative thinking and working founded on the socio-cultural, economic, and ecological commons, respecting both common custodianship and individual freedoms and innovations within such collectivities, with inter- personal and inter-community solidarity as a fulcrum.

Principle 7: Rights of nature. The right of nature and all its species, wild or domesticated, to survive and thrive in the conditions in which they have evolved, along with respect for the ‘community of life’ as a whole.

Principle 8: Resilience and adaptability. The ability of communities and humanity as a whole, to respond, adapt and sustain the resilience needed to maintain ecological sustainability and equity in the face of external and internal forces of change, including through respecting conditions, like diversity, enabling the resilience of nature.

Principle 9: Subsidiarity and ecoregionalism. Local rural and urban communities, small enough for all members to take part in face-to-face decision-making, as the fundamental unit of governance, linked with each other at bioregional, ecoregional and cultural levels into landscape/ seascape institutions that are answerable to these basic units.

Principle 10: Interconnectedness. The inextricable connections amongst various aspects of human civilisation, and therefore, amongst any set of ‘development’ or ‘well-being’ goals – environmental, economic, social, cultural, and political.

(Adapted from: Peoples’ Sustainability Treaty on Radical Ecological Democracy)

Taking the above principles together (and undoubtedly others that can be added), RED is a continuous and mutually respectful dialogue amongst human beings, and between humanity and the rest of nature. It is also not one solution or blueprint, but a great variety of them. These would include systems once considered valuable but now considered outdated and ‘primitive’: subsistence economies, barter, local haat- [traditional market] based trade, oral knowledge, work-leisure combines, the machine as a tool and not a master, local health traditions, handicrafts, learning through doing with parents and other elders, frowning upon profligacy and waste, and so on. This does not mean an unconditional acceptance of traditions — indeed there is much in traditional India that needs to be left behind — but rather a re-considered engagement with the past, the rediscovery of many valuable practices which seem to have been forgotten and building on the best of what traditions offer. This is not the kind of revivalism that India’s right-wing Hindu chauvinists talk about; traditions need to be rescued from those who use them in a bigoted way.

"From Empire to Earth Community"


Part 2

Local resources, locally managed

Localisation, a trend diametrically opposed to globalisation, is based on the belief that those living closest to the resource to be managed (the forest, the sea, the coast, the farm, the urban facility…), would have the greatest stake and often the best knowledge, to manage it. Of course this is not always the case and in India many communities have lost the ability because of two centuries of government policies, which have effectively crippled their own institutional structures, customary rules, and other capacities. Nevertheless a move towards localisation of essential production, consumption, and trade, and of health, education, and other services, is eminently possible if communities are sensitively assisted by civil society organizations and the government.

There are thousands of Indian initiatives for decentralized water harvesting, biodiversity conservation, education, governance, food and materials production, energy generation, and waste management (in both villages and cities). Indeed the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Indian Constitution (mandating decentralisation to rural and urban communities), taken to their logical conclusion, are essentially about localisation.

Working at the landscape level

The local and the small-scale are not by themselves adequate. For many of the problems we now face are at much larger scales, emanating from and affecting entire landscapes (and seascapes), countries, regions, and indeed the earth. Climate change, the spread of toxics, and desertification, are examples. Landscape and trans-boundary planning and governance (also called ‘bioregionalism’, or ‘ecoregionalism’, amongst other names), are exciting new approaches being tried out in several countries and regions. These are as yet fledgling in India, but some are worth learning from. The Arvari Sansad (Parliament) in Rajasthan brings 72 villages in the state of Rajasthan together, to manage a 400 river basin through inter-village coordination, making integrated plans and programmes for land, agriculture, water, wildlife, and development. In Maharashtra, a federation of Water User Associations has been handed over the management of the Waghad Irrigation Project, the first time a government project has been completely devolved to local people.

Building on decentralised governance and management would be a rational land use plan for each bioregion, state and the country as a whole. This plan would permanently put the country’s most fragile or important lands into some form of conservation status (fully participatory and mindful of local rights and tenure). Such a plan would also enjoin upon towns and cities to provide as much of their resources from within their boundaries as possible, through water harvesting, rooftop and vacant plot farming, decentralised energy generation, and so on; and to build mutually beneficial rather than parasitic relations with rural areas from where they will still need to take resources. The greater the say of rural communities in deciding what happens to their resources, and the greater the awareness of city-dwellers on the impacts of their lifestyles, the more this will happen.

Ultimately as villages are revitalised through locally appropriate development initiatives, rural-to-urban migration, which today seems inexorable, would also slow down and may even get reversed, as has happened with certain villages in the states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan.

Governance, local to national

Central to the notion of RED is the practice of democratic governance that starts from the smallest, most local unit, to ever-expanding spatial units. In India, the Constitution mandates governance by panchayats at the village and village cluster level, and by ward committees at the urban ward level. However, these are representative bodies, subject to the same pitfalls that plague representative democracy at higher levels. It is crucial to empower the gram sabha (village assembly) in rural areas, and the area sabha (smaller units within wards) in cities, or other equivalent body where all the adults of the individual hamlet or village or urban colony are conveniently able to participate in decision-making. All critical decisions relating to local natural resources or environmental issues should be taken at this level, with special provision to facilitate the equal participation of women and other underprivileged sections. Already there are examples of this. For example, the Gond adivasi village of Mendha-Lekha (Maharashtra), adopts the principle of ‘our government in Mumbai and Delhi, but we are the government in our village’. All decisions are taken by consensus in the full village assembly, based on information generated by abhyas gats (study circles). In the last three decades the village has moved towards fulfillment of all basic requirements of food, water, energy and local livelihoods, as also conserved 1800 hectares of forest.

Larger level governance structures need to essentially emanate from these basic units. These would include clusters or federations of villages with common ecological features, larger landscape level institutions, and others that in some way also relate to the existing administrative and political units of districts and states. Governance across states, and across countries, of course presents special challenges; there are a number of lessons to be learnt from failed or only partially successful initiatives such as river basin authorities.

Employment and livelihood

The combination of localisation and landscape approaches also provides massive opportunities for livelihood generation, thus tackling one of India’s biggest ongoing problems: unemployment. Land and water regeneration, and the resulting increase in productivity, could provide a huge source of employment, and create permanent assets for sustainable livelihoods. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), one of the current government’s flagship programmes, as also other schemes such as the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), could well be oriented towards such environment-employment combinations. Also important in the new ‘green job’ deal would be a renewed emphasis on labour-intensive rural industries and infrastructure, including handlooms and handicrafts, local energy projects, rural roads, and others that people can be in control of, building on their own traditional knowledge or with easily acquired new skills.

The United Nations Environment Programme and the International Labour Organisation estimate that there is considerable employment opportunity in ‘green jobs’, defined as ‘decent work’ that helps to tackle the ecological crises we face. For instance, organic, small-scale farming can employ more people than conventional chemical-based agriculture. Renewable energy generation, and energy efficiency, as yet in its infancy, could provide jobs to tens of millions. For both farming and energy (generation and efficiency), as also several other sectors, such as transportation, energy- efficient building, decentralized manufacture, recycling, forestry, and others, the potential in India must be truly astounding. Yet no comprehensive study on this potential has ever been carried out.

Economic democracy

RED requires not only a fundamental change in political governance, but also in economic relations of production and consumption. Globalised economies tend to emphasise the democratisation of consumption (the consumer as ‘king’…though even this hides the fact that in many cases there is only a mirage of choice), but not the democratisation of production. This can only change with a fundamental reversal, towards decentralised production which is in the control of the producer, linked to predominantly local consumption which is in the control of the consumer.

Village-based or cottage industry, small-scale and decentralized, has been a Gandhian proposal for decades. Such industry would be oriented to meeting, first and foremost, local needs, and then national or international needs. Since this would be a part of a localized economy in which producer-consumer links are primarily (though not only) local, the crucial difference between such production and current capitalist production is that it is for self and others, primarily as a service and not for profits.

Groups of villages, or villages and towns, could form units to further such economic democracy. For instance, in Tamil Nadu, the dalit panchayat head of Kuthambakkam village, Ramaswamy Elango, is organizing a cluster of 7-8 villages to form a local trade zone, in which they will trade goods and services with each other (on mutually beneficial terms) to reduce dependence on the outside market and government. This way, the money stays back in the area for reinvestment in local development, and relations amongst villages get stronger. In Gujarat, the NGO Bhasha is promoting a similar idea, local Green Economic Zones, to encompass dozens of tribal villages, based on the “concepts of sustainability, ecological sensitivity, and an ingrained understanding of the cultural roots of a people”.

Money may remain an important medium of exchange, but would be much more locally controlled and managed rather than controlled anonymously by international financial institutions and the abstract forces of global capital operating through globally networked financial markets. Considerable local trade could revert to locally designed currencies or barter, and prices of products and services even when expressed in money terms could be decided between givers and receivers rather than by an impersonal, non-controllable distant market. A huge diversity of local currencies and non-monetary ways of trading and providing/obtaining services are already being used around the world.

Financial management itself needs to be radically decentralized, away from the mega-concentrations that today’s banks and financial institutions represent. These globalized institutions and the free rein given to their speculative tendencies, have been at the heart of the latest financial crisis. But simultaneously, across the world a host of localised, community-based banking and financing systems have also cropped up over the last couple of decades.

The role of the state

Though communities (rural and urban) will be the fulcrum of the alternative futures, the state will need to retain, or rather strengthen, its welfare role for the weak (human and non-human). It will assist communities in situations where local capacity is weak, such as in generating resources, providing entitlements, and ensuring tenurial security. It will reign in business elements or individuals who behave irresponsibly towards the environment or other people. It will have to be held accountable to its role as guarantor of the various fundamental rights that each citizen is supposed to enjoy under the Constitution of India, including through appropriate policy measures such as the Right to Information Act the government brought in in 2005. Finally, it will retain a role in larger global relations between peoples and nations.

International relations

The reversal of economic globalization does not entail the end of global relations! Indeed there has always been a flow of ideas, persons, services and materials across the world, and this has often enriched human societies. RED, with its focus on localized economies and ethical lifestyles, learning from each other, would actually make the meaningful flow of ideas and innovations at global levels much more possible than a situation where everything is dominated by finance and capital.

Is such a transformation possible?

RED entails huge shifts in governance, and will be resisted by today’s political and corporate power centres. But in India, there are many signs that a transformation is possible over the next few decades, including:

1. Growing civil society mobilisation to resist elements of the dominant economic growth model. There has been a marked growth in mass movements against destructive development projects, especially amongst communities most impacted by displacement or the degradation of their environment, supported by civil society groups in urban areas.

2. Civil society facilitating basic needs. The repeated failure of the state to deliver on many counts, has prompted civil society organizations (community-based, or NGOs) to take on the role of provision of basic facilities and amenities and of facilitating local empowerment. But care is needed that they do not exempt the state from its roles as described above.

3. Policy shifts and reforms. Civil society advocacy and initiatives by progressive individuals from within the state itself, has led to some policy shifts and reforms that are against the general trend of economic globalisation. Three recent legislative measures are examples: the Right to Information Act 2005, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2006, and the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006. Each of these has a base in people’s initiatives; e.g. the RTI emerged from grassroots struggles in Rajasthan, Delhi and elsewhere, led by groups like the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) demanding access to official records on employment and funding.

4. Technological shifts. Many technological innovations are making human life not only less dreary but also more ecologically sensitive, in industrial and agricultural production, energy, housing and construction, transportation, household equipment. There is also growing appreciation of the continued relevance of many traditional technologies, e.g. in agriculture, textiles and other manufacturing, and other fields. Countries in a ‘developing’ stage, have the unprecedented opportunity to leapfrog directly from some of the most wasteful industrial, energy, and transportation technologies, into super-efficient ones, provided they are given the opportunity and support to do so by the industrialized world.

5. Financial measures. A range of reforms in macroeconomic and fiscal policies have been suggested to move towards greater sustainability. Shifting subsidies from ecologically destructive practices such as chemical-heavy agriculture, to truly sustainable ones like organic farming, are one powerful set of changes that a number of civil society groups have demanded in India. Taxes that reflect something of the true value of natural resources being used by urban and industrial-scale consumers, discourage ecologically destructive practices including consumerism, and reduce income disparities, would also contribute substantially.

6. Awareness, education, capacity. Ecological and social awareness and the capacity to deal with associated problems have risen exponentially in the last 2-3 decades. Yet amongst decision-makers and business elites it remains particularly poor. A transition to RED will require a massive campaign to spread awareness about the multiple crises we face and their root causes and build capacity to spread meaningful solutions.

India is perhaps uniquely placed to achieve the transformation to RED. This is for a variety of reasons: its thousands of years of history and adaptation (including ancient democratic practices that perhaps predate even the famed Greek republics), its ecological and cultural diversity, its resilience in the face of multiple crises, the continued existence of myriad lifestyles and worldviews including of ecosystem people who still tread the most lightly on earth, the powerful legacy of Buddha, Gandhi, and other progressive thinkers, the adoption of revolutionary thinking from others like Marx, zealously guarded practices of democracy and civil society activism, and the very many peoples’ movements of resistance and reconstruction. But of course it cannot do this alone, it will need to convince, teach, and learn from, other countries and peoples…which too it has done for many centuries, but now in an entirely new and far more challenging context.


Ashish Kothari is a founding member of the environmental group Kalpavriksh. He has taught at the Indian Institute of Public Administration, and coordinated India’s National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan. He has authored and edited over thirty books, including Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India, co-authored with Aseem Shrivastava. He has also been active with various people’s movements throughout India.

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From Empire to Earth Community: 10 Principles of the More Beautiful World We Know Is Possible