Nikita Sud: Life and land

Professor Nikita Sud is an interdisciplinary scholar looking at nature as an everyday part of our societies. Focusing on India, Singapore and Indonesia, Nikita talks about minorities in the global South that bear the brunt of consumer-driven emissions from elsewhere.  

Read on to find out how Nikita engages with the climate crisis in geography, politics and developmental studies. 

Explain the area of your research that relates to climate change.

I am interested in how institutions like the state, market, and political parties interact with nature - in policy and formal processes, but also in the everyday.  

For much of the 20th Century, these institutions sought to achieve modernity by controlling nature. Think for instance of mass, scientific agriculture by taming the land, crops, and insects that depend on these. Or the damming of rivers to generate electricity. These attempts to control nature have defined progress for the longest time, which has led to the climate crisis today. 

My work has focused on India, placing the experiences of this vast country, in wider debates on development and the postcolonial condition. My most recent work is on Southeast Asia, with a focus on Singapore, and Indonesia. 

What are the major research developments you're noticing in your field? 

There is an ecological, nature-regarding turn in many disciplines, including mine. I am an inter-disciplinary scholar, with initial training in history, and more recent writing in geography, politics, and development studies. I see scholars turning to engagement with the climate crisis in all these disciplines. They are responding to the urgency of the moment, even if their academic training does not address these matters. 

How do you view the balance between personal and institutional responsibility when it comes to reducing carbon footprints? 

Coal, and fossil fuels more generally, are the single biggest contributor to global heating. The industrial revolution hooked us on to coal, spreading the hunger for it across the globe. So in a way, the climate crisis is a crisis of the capitalist system of production, and the need to generate more and more goods in society, and make us want and consume more and more.  

The climate crisis that was triggered by institutions, and a particular system of production, goes well beyond individuals - especially individuals in the parts of the world I study. However, we’re at such a tipping point, that leaving the responsibility of climate change mitigation on institutions alone is stupid, and dangerous. We will end up with endless conferences, and declarations.  

We also need behavioural change in society, with individuals doing their bit. This could be pushing governments to act, and act now. But it also means rethinking our travel, our use of energy, our habits of consumption. Do we really need all those clothes, that destination wedding, exotic food flown or shipped across continents? This has to be a concerted effort, or we are facing extinction, as are the many species of insects, animals, birds, and plants that have no responsibility for global heating, but are suffering the terrible consequences.  

Climate change is very much a social justice issue as well. The capitalist, consumerist lifestyles I talk about here have never reached, say, 1/3rd of the land of Pakistan, which recently suffered catastrophic floods. Yet, the people there have paid the price for someone else's emissions. This is why raising climate inequalities is crucial for us, especially as social scientists. 

How do you think climate change efforts in one part of the world impact efforts in another? 

Countries have to take differential responsibility for climate change, tracing emissions over time. This is why we talk about reparations for climate change, or funding for Loss and Damage. However, while the more capitalist countries, whose massive economies have heated the atmosphere the most, need to do more than others, everyone else cannot just sit back. This is why all countries of the world today have carbon emissions reduction targets, as agreed at various UN-initiated processes like the COP conferences.  

There is also much to learn from each other in terms of policy and practice. China's green energy transition, for instance, is rapid and awe inspiring. Countries in the West may want to look at this process with neutral eyes. However, geopolitics, old rivalries and such come in the way of sharing climate lessons. The same goes for replicating old patterns, with the world's poorer countries today becoming experimental grounds for, say, green energy projects. We are seeing massive land grabs, much as we have in colonial times. This is very clear in my recent field sites in South and Southeast Asia, with a green energy race initiated by bigger world powers. 


Take a look at this video to learn more about Nikita’s take on the socially entangled life of land: