Ecology, Economy: Quest for a Socially Informed Connection

by Felix Padel, Ajay Dandekar and Jeemol Unni


Felix Padel, is a British anthropologist who has spent many years living in the forest areas of Odisha. He is now a professor at the School of Rural Managament, Indian Institute of Health Managament Research, Jaipur.

In 2010 Felix co-authored, with Samarendra Das, Out of This Earth: East India Adivasis and the Aluminium Cartel (Orient Black Swan, Hyderabad, 2010). That book, which I reviewed on this site in 2011, found a wide readership and has had an important impact on the discussion of mining in India.

Ecology, Economy: Quest for a Socially Informed Connection is Felix Padel’s next book, and it is co-authored with Ajay Dandekar and Jeemol Unni. It is to be published by Orient Black Swan in March this year.

 The introduction to Ecology, Economy explains that the book grew out of a course of lectures. As such, it addresses a wider range of issues than Out of This Earth.

In effect it is a snapshot of India at a particular moment in history, focused around key controversies highlighted while Jairam Ramesh was Minister for Environment and Forests from May 2009 until July 2011, when he made a series of crucial, controversial decisions and statements about balancing environmental and economic imperatives. These controversies reflect an opening in perspectives about economic-ecological balance, and in how to deal with corruption and blatant violations of Law. Jairam’s analysis of ‘Two Cultures’ (Ramesh 2010) provides our starting-point in chapter one, and Rule of Law is the theme in our final chapter.

Although uneven, the book offers many insights – as for example in this passage on the so-called ‘Green Revolution’.

Earthworms are the key to ‘living soil’ – the subject of Darwin’s last research and book [1881]. Thousands of farmers tempted into Green Revolution fertiliser-based methods have found themselves complicit in a holocaust of worms.

This is what had happened to Upendra, he was told by the government, the companies and many others that if he spent his money on agricultural chemicals he would make more money. He tried it and it worked. For five years his yield increased, the more he spent, the more he used and the more he seemed to make. Little did Upendra know that the reason for this was the combined efforts of the natural richness of the soil and the chemical fertilisers’ boosting effects. While this was happening nothing was being put back into the soil. The chemicals were killing his soil, the worms and other organisms… all the life of the soil. Soon there was nothing left and his yield went down. Now he had nothing but the hybrid seed and chemicals to produce his crop and year after year he began to pay more and more to the companies while, now knowingly, destroying his own soil. (Taylor 2011)

Until he started working actively with worms, breeding them in compost to bring back the nutrients to his starved soil. Fertilisers kill earthworms within a few hours of application to fields. And what life-forms do pesticides kill? Punjab witnesses a silent spring already, yet Rachel Carson, the visionary scientist who issued the first major warning against fertiliser-pesticide-intensive agriculture in Silent Spring (1962), was the subject of vicious attacks and attempts to discredit her meticulous research by the chemical industries (Laura Orlando 2002).

So plans for a new Green Revolution in Eastern India, and MoUs recently signed between Monsanto, Du Pont and other multinational biotech/seed companies, and state governments including Odisha and Rajasthan, spell grave danger for accelerating the already rapid displacement of small-scale cultivators from the land, by promoting hybrid rice and other new cash crops, in a context where the role of unrepayable debts to seed companies is already a major cause of farmers’ suicides, and where farmers in Punjab are committing suicide due to the legacy of the Green Revolution, due to the land’s infertility and a vast depletion of ground-water (Living Farms, Dec 2010).


Ecology, Economy addresses important and complex questions with a refreshing directness:

For a start, what is poverty? Does industrialisation reduce it or massively increase it? Its definition changes rapidly, in accordance with ‘poverty reduction programmes’ that claim to reduce it; and claims to raise people out of poverty are the rationale behind the very development projects displacing people. Jean Dreze has co-authored books about The political Economy of Hunger (1990), and displacement and impoverishment by the Narmada dams. His recent essay with Amartya Sen (‘Putting Growth in its Place’, November 2011), shows how industrial-development-oriented growth is not equivalent to real development, and has massively increased poverty, in stark contrast to current developmentalist rhetoric.


Unusually for a book with ‘ecology’ and ‘economy’ in its title, this one pays close attention to the etymologies of many terms that have become hackneyed with use (this may be because Felix is also a trained classicist):

Mort-gage is medieval French for ‘death pledge’, mortuum vadium in Latin – a type of contract forbidden under Christian law. Indeed, usury (moneylending at interest) was forbidden under Christian law until the Medici got around the restriction in the 14th century by masking it under foreign currency transactions, and it remained forbidden under Islamic law until recent times.

Ecology, Economy provides a valuable overview of some of the most pressing issues that confront India, and indeed the world, today. It is essential reading for all who seek to understand why so much of India’s population is up in arms against the policies that are being imposed upon the country by its elite.




3 thoughts on “Review: ‘Ecology, Economy: Quest for a Socially Informed Connection’”
  1. I share these concerns that you have shared in this book review and yet at times, I feel guilty if I am being old fashioned and not being able to see the benefits technology can bring in future. Most of the time, activists worried about environment or poor persons or whatever, present a set of issues and describe them in a certain way, while pro “progress” lobby including big corporations, present issues & describes them in the completely opposite manner, as if there can’t be any meeting ground between the two. I don’t know if that is the best way.

    For example, I wonder if biotech or GM seeds can be freed from the control of Monsanto and Cargill, and can provide more resistant crops, without needing excessive pesticides and destruction of soils, would they be acceptable? Actually I am very suspicious of GM foods and don’t want to touch them, but I have doubts that nag me if I am being unreasonable. Sorry for going off the tangent from your book review.

  2. Thanks for the review Sir!

    An addendum, not for the book, but for one of its authors. Would love to inform the readers here that Felix Padel is the great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin! 🙂

  3. The review is great and I completely endorse your views. The book is a timely addition to the new debates surrounding our environment and globalised economy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *