Senior Lecturer in Anthropology and Development Studies at The University of Adelaide, Australia.

Georgina Drew is a Senior Lecturer of Anthropology and Development Studies in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Adelaide, Australia. Her research interests include the anthropology of water, religion and ecology, the cultural politics of development and climate change, and feminist political ecology. She is the author of River Dialogues: Hindu Faith and the Political Ecology of Dams on the Sacred Ganga (2017, University of Arizona Press). Her work, funded by organizations such as the National Science Foundation and the Fulbright-Hays Program, is also featured in American Anthropologist (2012), the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture (2012, 2015), Himalaya (2014, 2016), South Asia (2014, 2017), The Australian Journal of Anthropology (2014), and many more. In 2015, Drew was awarded a prestigious three-year Discovery Early Career Researcher Award through the Australian Research Council to study sustainable urban water transitions in South Asia.

Twitter: @ginadrew

When the Water Snake Eats its Tail: Cyclical Structural Violence from the Himalayan Headwaters to the Urban Plains

Few symbols speak of entanglement as profoundly as the Ouroboros: A pre-Egyptian image of a snake consuming its own tail. The symbol was historically evocative of an underworld of decay while also representing continuity and renewal in nature’s organic processes. For this talk, we will loosely think with the Ouroboros when examining the gamut of structural violence that is evident in hydrological management practices that span from the high Himalayan headwaters to the low lying urban plains of South Asia—and of India more specifically. To understand these resource inequities, we follow the “man” made hydrological cycle from mountain to city in order to illustrate the range of water inequities that constitute the structural violence of mainstream hydrological management. And to further expand the picture of what is at stake, we then move from the water to the air to think with how the same urban metabolisms that expropriate Himalayan headwaters also lead to their decay through the constant production and transfer of airborne particulate matter that inevitably finds its way onto the glacial masses that help to supply North Indian cities with liquid nourishment. Seen in this way, we appreciate how Himalaya-to-plains resource degradation ultimately leads to a cyclical form of structural violence that portends to further exacerbate urban resource inequities and crises. This cyclical structural violence appears to be self-perpetuating; the Anthropocene’s manifestation of Ouroboros. While drawing cautionary lessons from this symbolism, however, we may also gain insights from human representations of another serpentine figure—that of the Himalayan water dwelling snake god that is the nag or naga. This snake god demands respect for its waters along with collective action to maintain a clean and tidy habitat. When heeded, such requisite collective acts foster self-care and self-preservation. In effect, the snake god’s mandate for habitat preservation offers a complementary moral lesson while reminding us of human-nature entanglements ill served by resource structural violence. 

Professor of anthropology and Asian studies at Hampshire College, USA.

Susan M. Darlington, author of The Ordination of a Tree: The Thai Buddhist Environmental Movement (2012), has conducted research on the environment, Buddhism, and development in northern Thailand for several decades. She received her BA from Wellesley College, and MA and PhD in Anthropology from the University of Michigan. Her teaching at Hampshire College, where she is Professor of Anthropology and Asian Studies and Dean of the School of Critical Social Inquiry, focuses on environmental anthropology, Buddhist studies, and Southeast Asian studies. Sue serves on the board of two Tibetan Buddhist educational organizations.

Grounded Practices, Buddhist Dreams: Buddhism, Environment, and the World In-between

The ultimate goal of Buddhist practice is to remove oneself from samsara, the cycle of rebirth, suffering, and death – in other words, to escape from this world. Yet most Buddhists acknowledge they are far from achieving this Awakening and relief from samsara, and engage in various forms of Buddhist practice to make religious merit to relieve more immediate suffering in their lives and be reborn into a better future life. Increasingly these efforts include dealing with suffering surrounding environmental problems. This talk critically examines the intersections of ideals and actions of Buddhists engaging in environmental activism. Beginning with a focus on “environmental monks” in Thailand, I will compare the efforts of and challenges facing these monks with those in other parts of Asia, including the political, economic and religious factors involved. How do Buddhists address the environmental problems in the world today while remaining true to the religion’s basic teachings? Finally, I ask how Buddhist environmentalism fits within a broader framework of religion and ecology worldwide, looking for lessons of balance between spiritual beliefs and worldly practice.

Professor, Dr. of History and Philosophy of China, Department of East Asian Studies, Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany

Heiner Roetz studied philosophy and sinology at the J. W. Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main. His main field of research is the classical philosophy of China and its relation to modernity. He has among other things published on Chinese „axial age“ ethics, on the relation of Chinese culture and human rights, on cross-cultural biomedical ethics and on attitudes towards nature and the question of ecological thought in China.

Light or darkness from the East? Attitudes towards nature in Chinese thought

According to a familiar self-description, China has a long tradition of the unity with nature that was only interrupted together with the intrusion of the West. Correspondingly, the modern ecological crisis would not have its roots in Chinese culture but in the spreading of Western instrumental rationality. Once having stripped off the Western mentality and returned to its origins, China would be able to rebuild its former ecological civilization.
Contrary to this one-sided picture, the fact that China is today one of the most ecologically threatened regions of the globe is due to a combination of imported and indigenous attitudes towards nature. The local history of the conquest of nature in China reaches far back into antiquity with already early marks of the "anthropocene". This process is already early reflected in the Chinese literature and above all in the classical philosophies, where it is even a core topic. There is a critical response, above all in Daoism. It deplores the severing of the umbilical cord with nature by the awakening of the manipulative human reason, which gives an artificial human face to the world, and calls for a return to the age of “highest unity”. But there is also an affirmative response, above all in Confucian texts, borne out the conviction that the subjection of nature to the dictate of man is the prerequisite of a civilized and secure human existence. And if there are expressions of ecological thought in China, they are reactions to a destructive practice rather than testimonies of a primordial harmonious relationship with nature. On balance, Chinese culture, not unlike the culture of the West, is more part of problem than of the solution. There is no simple message from the East as to how to solve the ecological crisis.

Cancelled - Unfortunately Mahesh Rangarajan had to cancel his participation

Professor of History and Environmental Studies, Ashoka University, Ph.D. Oxford University.

Mahesh Rangarajan's most recent book is Nature and Nation ( 2015) and a co edited volume, Nature's Present is under review. 

Ecology meets history - Making Space for Nature in 21st century India

Asia's emergence on the world stage in terms of political independence was the story of the mid twentieth century and after; its economic transformation is central to our own times. Political and economic changes have manifold ecological consequences, both intended and unforeseen. What is striking in the Indian case, after more than quarter century of economic reform is the wider salience of the challenges of making spaces for nature in a country with a billion people and one of the fastest growing economies on earth.

The longer term perspective matters as there is still an astonishing wealth of life forms from small to large taxa, terrestrial and marine. Whether this was due to cultural norms or state action, specific policy choices or accidents of history is of relevance today. The outcomes matter for more than biological diversity for the cycles of renewal and repair in rivers and lakes, farm and forests, cities and hillsides, coasts and hinterland can have major economic consequences.

The imperial past as well as decades of democratic practice are both critical to the way contests over nature and space play out. The talk will explore the possibilities and challenges in forging a way forward that makes spaces for nature. To do this via fiat in the British era for imperial officials or princes was simple but often deeply inimical to under class groups. Taking up the task in a society with multiple disparities and diversities was always complex. Yet successive Indian governments have affirmed such goals and the democratic process with its limitations is both vital and complex. 

What are the wider insights from the practices and experiences in a land of a billion people?More so when they share the space with 1500 species or butterflies over 1300 bird and 500 plus mammals and 25000 flowering plants? Having been a key arena in the rise and fall of global empire, can India be a key theatre of new ways of addressing issues of peace with nature in inclusive and just ways? The challenges are real as is the potential: the past can illumine the present and perhaps give ideas about the future.