Climate change versus conspiracy theory in India

A key aspect of the counter-narratives to the climate change explanations for man-eaters has underlined and originates from this feeling of being-forgotten.

Nayanika Mathur
14 September 2015
Imagining conspiracies

Neuner Stein/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Neuner Stein/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Climate change rejection or denial produces particularly imaginative conspiracy theories. As David Runciman has shown, different sides of the debate – those who deny the existence or seriousness of climate change and those who point out the conspiracies behind climate change denialism – share a conspiracist logic. Pushing this line of inquiry further, I ask if it is conceivable to have an overlap between climate change accounts and conspiracy theories? Distinct as the two might appear, is it possible to tease out any shared beliefs or politics between them? In other words, are conspiracy theories necessarily and always radically incommensurable with climate change accounts? This case study from the Indian Himalaya would suggest not.

I briefly describe two seemingly contradictory narratives: an official one emanating from the local state that adduces certain phenomena to be caused by climate change. The counter-narrative to this, voiced by Himalayan residents, was skeptical of climate change as the causal factor. Their counter-explanations for the very same events were, in turn, dismissed by agents of the Indian state as idiotic conspiracy theories. My suggestion is that these two narratives have more in common than is immediately apparent.

Elsewhere, I have described this co-existence and jostling between narratives in greater detail. I traced the process through which the category of climate change made an entry into a remote place like India’s Himalayan borderland and demonstrated the power that the label of ‘conspiracy theory’ has to silence speech. Here, I take the discussion in a slightly different direction. Through a closer focus on the so-called conspiracy theories, I suggest that they should be read as expressive comments on historical-political injustices and anthropogenic ecological damage. If we take seriously the concept of the Anthropocene and consider climate change in its entanglement with the excesses of capitalism, then these particular conspiracy theories can be seen to possess a family resemblance to climate change narratives.

The ambition here is to ground the discussions of climate change and conspiracy theory within localized politics and to relay the voices and opinions of those people, such as the residents of the Indian Himalaya described here, who are already coping with the damaging consequences of global warming. One need not, after all, be able to use the (English language) category of climate change or speak the same expert language of environmental change and damage or even subscribe to the universalism of science to know that climate change is an overwhelming threat. In its attempt to convey the different terms of speech and concerns of my informants and friends in the Himalaya to the world beyond, this research joins that of an expanding number of anthropologists, amongst other social scientists, who are engaging climate change by practicing new forms of inter-disciplinarity, writing, and public outreach.

Cats that eat humans

The north-Indian Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, where I have worked for close to a decade, experiences high levels of human-big cat conflict. Big cats that turn on humans as nourishment are considered aberrant and are popularly described as ‘man-eaters’. Man-eating big cats have a long history in this region. Surprisingly, this problem receives somewhat limited attention nationally and globally. Official statistics on deaths and injuries are hard to come by and the ones that do exist are, by all accounts, lower than the reality. Despite the absence of hard figures, there is a widespread belief that big cats are becoming more and more violent toward humans in the Indian Himalaya as well as in other parts of India, including heavily populated urban spaces.

Speculation on the causes of the supposed increase in man-eaters is rife. Generally it is believed that big cats turn on humans—an otherwise alien prey—when they are unable to hunt their ‘normal’ food due to old age or injuries. However, many of the man-eaters that were being hunted down in Uttarakhand proved to be young and healthy leopards. Another interesting observable trend was that the majority of the attacks by big cats - approximately 70% - occurred in the winter.

Pulling these two strands together, officials came up with a theory on the cause of the supposed increase in man-eaters. According to them, in the winter leopards are pushed down by snowfall from the higher reaches of the mountains to spaces inhabited by humans. Previously, there was abundant prey available for them (sheep, goats, deer, cattle, and so on). However, due to resource degradation and biodiversity depletion in the Himalaya, the leopards now find themselves faced with sparser options for hunting out their regular prey and are, thus, constrained to turn on humans. This disappearance of regular prey for the leopards is directly related to the set of processes that fall under the rubric of climate change. It follows, they claimed, that the perceived increase in human-big cat conflict is a direct outcome of climate change in the Himalaya.

Some of the residents of Uttarakhand, however, disagreed with the climate change explanation. Instead, they voiced a variety of different theories on why there has been such a marked increase in attacks on humans by big cats. One theory went that due to the poaching and trafficking of big cats across the border to China, leopards were getting angry at humans and were therefore killing them in order to seek retribution. The most popular theory related to the alien or non-indigenous nature of the man-eaters. This theory claimed that the true provenance of the man-eaters was located in the plains. When leopards grow old in their zoos in the plains then the plainspersons send them up to the mountains to die. At other times, when zoos get overcrowded with leopards then, too, they ship them up to the mountains. As these leopards are used to being provided with meals and some are, in any case, too old to hunt wild animals, they turn on the easiest prey of all—humans.

The second theory has to be understood in the context of a historical mountain-plains animosity that dominates the politics of this impoverished borderland region. A movement for statehood that allowed for the creation of a distinct Himalayan state of Uttarakhand in 2000 had voiced a long-held and much fretted over perception of systematic neglect of this region by the post-colonial nation state. The neglect is coupled with an active exploitation of this region’s rich natural resources such as water, timber, minerals, and herbs that has been going on from the colonial period right through to the present. Releasing old leopards and tigers from zoos up to what the plainspersons merely consider ‘jungle’ with no heed paid, as usual, to the perils this poses for its inhabitants was considered just another event in a long list of actions that combine abuse and neglect of the mountain-people by the plains-people.

These differing versions of the reasons for the occurrence of man-eating big cats were entirely rejected by state officials who were keen to maintain the ‘climate change’ explanation; an explanation that they considered to be premised upon Science and rational deduction. Any explanation for man-eaters that did not stem from this scientific fact of global warming and changes in the climate was dismissed as evidence of native idiocy and the proclivity to imagine conspiracies.  

Climate change and conspiracist talk: a family resemblance?

But are these so-called conspiracy theories all that wildly different from the climate change explanation? Instead of seeing them as opposed to one another – as climate change and conspiracy theory always is – could we think of them as, at their core, politically aligned?

In the first place, there might be some – if not complete – truth to the theories on the man-eaters that were dismissed as ‘conspiracy theories’. There is a strong correlation between the practice of hunting and human-animal conflict. Recent work points out that the regions in India that continues to battle big cats are also precisely those regions where hunting, poaching, and/or trafficking persists. The notion that man-eaters in the Himalaya are killing and feasting on humans in order to dispel retributive justice might not be, then, quite as far-fetched as it would immediately appear.

On the argument that these are alien leopards that are coming up from zoos in the plains or have been sent up from someplace else, I met many eyewitnesses who swore they had seen the release of big cats into the mountains brought from elsewhere. While I could never establish any official confirmation of this, the practice of capturing and relocating big cats is commonly undertaken by the Indian state. From a fascinating study conducted in the city of Mumbai, we learn that the capture and relocation of big cats greatly and directly increases conflict with humans. This work from Mumbai suggests that the more one interferes with these large felines that can – and have – traditionally lived peacefully in and around human habitations, the more the possibility of conflict will be aggravated.

But let us move beyond the feasibility of these so-called conspiracy theories. What if we were to not take them literally but instead were to regard them as instantiations of critical subaltern speech? What is it that they can then tell us and how might they then possess some connection to climate change?

The alternative explanations for the existence and perceived increase of man-eaters are, quite straightforwardly, voicing discontent with the operations of hegemonic power and, especially, with the marginalisation of the Himalaya. In that sense they share two key features with climate change: its capacity to reveal the worst aspects of capitalism, especially the gross inequalities the system perpetuates; and the interconnected nature of the globe where actions in one part directly affect the rest.

Shared features

Consider, first, the shared trait of pointing out inequality. The discourse of climate change holds within itself the potential to radically unmask contemporary inequalities. Naomi Klein, amongst many others, argues that climate change is a civilizational wake-up call that renders explicit the many injustices of capitalism. Academic literature as well as environmental organisations are hard at work making stronger links between market capitalism, consumption and lifestyle patterns in the west as well as the rich in poorer countries, and anthropogenic climate change. The conspiracy theories, too, indicate a world, albeit within the nation-state of India, where people in the plains continue to live on in relative comfort and ease with little heed paid to the mountains-people. At the same time as they are releasing big cats into the mountains where they are also unthinkingly using up the region’s natural water or cutting down their forests for personal use. The suspicion of people from the plains, in fact, stems from precisely this long-standing ecological devastation that has been visited upon the Himalaya by the colonial and post-colonial state.

Let us turn to the second correspondence between climate change and the conspiracist talk: their shared capacity to reveal the interconnectedness of the world. A defining feature of climate change is the manner in which it shifts scale from the local to the global; from specific communities and spaces to a global ‘us’. As Ulrich Beck wrote, with climate change “geographically remote spaces become literally perceptible, ‘knowable’ places of possible concern and action”. The Himalayas primarily figure in mainstream accounts in India as the distant and supposedly-natural frontier of the nation. The plethora of conspiracy theories that this region produces vis-à-vis the Indian state cannot but be linked to the overwhelming feeling of neglect that echoes through this region. Indeed, a key aspect of the counter-narratives to the climate change explanations for man-eaters has underlined and originates from this feeling of being-forgotten.

It is noteworthy that the catastrophic threat of the melting of the Himalayan glaciers has brought a new, gentler form of attention to this space. It has allowed for the Himalayas to become a common, pan-Indian and, indeed, a global cause of concern. Similarly, the otherwise largely invisibilised problem of human-big cat conflict receives a surprisingly large amount of media and public attention when it is refracted through the lens of climate change. The rising number of articles in the international media on human-animal conflict are evidence of the latent potential of the discourse of climate change to make widely accessible issues of human-animal conflict in hitherto marginalised areas. The fear of climate change creates the space, for instance, for a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) employee to urge everyone in the world to change their consumption patterns and be conscious of the environment for otherwise, “the only way that the royal Bengal tiger will survive this century is with scuba gear.” This particular report goes on to make explicit connections between consumption patterns in the west and the increased submergence under water of the forests in which tigers live in South Asia.

Interviewing a man with one arm

To restate, my suggestion is that both the climate change and the so-called conspiracist explanations for man-eaters do a very similar work of sharply delineating historical, political, structural and economic inequalities of this region. Just as critical work on climate change shows us how the local is folded into the global, so too does the conspiracist talk in the Indian Himalaya draw our attention to inequality and active marginalisation, albeit within the nation-state of India. To illustrate this claim, let me end with snippets of an interview I conducted with a young man who had his right arm chewed off by a leopard.

This young man had been walking home from a friend’s house one evening when the leopard suddenly appeared from nowhere and dug his teeth into his arm. As it was early evening and he was in the middle of the town, other people came running up to defend him and managed to yank the leopard off his body. In doing so, a large chunk of his arm was ripped off and had to be subsequently amputated in its entirety. All through our conversation, he kept gesturing with his left hand to the prominent absence on the right side of his body:

“Do you know why that leopard attacked me? Because he has no food left for himself anymore up here in the mountains. Everything here is dying: the forests, the rivers, the soil, the animals. The only living beings left are us humans and even we won’t last here for much longer at the rate things are going. And the reason for all of this is that they [the They he is referring to is the Indian state and the plainspeople] come here to cut down our trees, to steal our water and to generate electricity for this own houses in the cities of the plains…they drive around in their big cars but they don’t even bother to build roads for us up here. Their industries spew out all this filth which comes up here to ruin our environment… We are being eaten up by leopards but even then they remain more concerned with saving the life of the leopard than our human life.....”

Narratives of such a nature were absolutely commonplace. They consistently referred to an exploitative state that was only interested in furthering the interests of its own narrow coterie of powerful and wealthy people, all living in the distant plains of India. To do so not only did they not care if human lives were being brutally lost but also they were interested only in the exploitation and expropriation of the rich natural resources of the mountains. While the narratives emanating from victims and their families did not actually utilise the term ‘climate change’, all the practices that they were talking of are the ones that contribute to anthropogenic climate change. Furthermore, the utilisation of metaphors of death, destruction and endings in these localised narratives bear strong affinity to more mainstream narratives on catastrophic climate change - for instance of the sort presented in Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us. With the increasing penetration of the notion of climate change into the hitherto marginalised Himalayan regions, it is worth speculating what the intersections or rather the collisions of these different-yet-similar narratives might produce in the future. 

In a recent piece, the writer Amitav Ghosh rails against what he considers an astonishing failure to grasp the urgency of climate change in India. He argues that while Indians are good at indignation and the politicisation of several causes, they seem to be ignoring the most urgent of them all: climate change. My argument here runs counter to Ghosh’s reading in its suggestion that criticism of climate change abounds in the political. Those seemingly absurd counter-narratives or silly conspiracy theories – big cats being shipped up to eat the natives or big cats turning on humans for revenge – can and should be seen as angry commentaries on the wider politics and practices underpinning anthropogenic climate change. A failure of the imagination is evident not, as Ghosh despairs, in the deep politicisation of the world to the exclusion of an ecological focus. Rather, it lies in our inability to read these political commentaries as intrinsically critical of the processes that cause and sustain global warming in the first place. 

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