Direct Democracy of Mendha Lekha Village, India

by Pallavi Varma Patil and Sujit Sinha

The word “Development”  is associated with the spread of “Industrialism” —  an ideology of ever-increasing material growth and consumption through faster and faster exploitation of Nature, using the wonders of large-scale Science and Technology, guided by the powerful Nation States and Corporations, accompanied with rising Global Trade and Individualism.  This has brought the world to the brink of ecological collapse, depths of socio-economic inequalities and despair, increasingly dysfunctional political institutions, and hugely stressed socio-cultural systems.

The Living Utopias course offered within and outside of university spaces provides a perspective about a) the crisis of ‘Industrialism’ in the world today and b) the various alternatives to combat this crisis in different interlinked spheres of civilization – ecology, economy, politics, technology, and socio-culture.

The course through well-outlined examples and case studies showcases new and emerging efforts in India and the world which are futuristic and exciting and doable. By doing so, the course aims to provide a sense of hope and encouragement toward building another world based on the premise of a GOOD  SOCIETY  where we all not only survive but flourish! The hope is to inspire participants to initiate some of the things talked about in the course. Some of the key star stories include the Zapatistas, Rojavas, the Amish community, Solidarity Economics, Mondragon Cooperatives, Urban Gardening of Detroit, Participatory Budgeting, Kibbutz, Pedal Power, and Mendha Lekha’s direct democracy experiment amongst others.

The course introduces key frameworks/ideologies/imaginations contrary to Industrialism, like Gandhi and Tagore’s vision in India, Anarchism in Europe, Ubuntu in Africa, Buen Vivir, and Sumak Kawsay in Latin America.  As the crisis deepens, newer ones are appearing – Toffler’s Wave Analysis, Ecofeminism, the De-growth movement in Europe and the USA, Radical Ecological Democracy (RED)  in India, and Rights of Nature in Latin America to name a few. Networks of these alternatives are emerging to try to radically transform collapsing Industrialism with the hope that solutions can and will arise and spread fast to overcome the crisis. All of these talk about a world that consists of just, equitable, healthy, happy, peaceful, creative, caring-sharing, self-sufficient, self-governing, eco-sustainable, non-exploiting, rural, and urban communities.

Today Industrialism continues to grow and spread, the crisis continues to worsen, and the alternatives remain a small minority. If the crisis grows faster than solutions, human civilizations may collapse as they have done many times all over the world during the last 3000 years. Except for this time civilizations are likely to collapse worldwide! We believe that as the crisis comes knocking on the door with crucial planetary boundaries breached there is an urgent need for these alternatives to multiply and grow. By highlighting these alternatives which act as lighthouses to guide us to look beyond Industrialism and rearrange our ways of being and living; the course aims to provide counter-currents of hope and action.  

How do you define radical hope?

Radical hope to us is small but significant steps toward communities that are just, equitable, healthy, happy, peaceful, creative, self-sufficient, self-governing and eco-sustainable.

What is your case study?

This is the story of Mendha Lekha, an Adivasi (Indigenous people) village, in Gadhchiroli District, Maharashtra state, India.  Since 1987 this village embarked on a remarkable journey to translate Gandhi’s vision of a good society – ‘Swaraj’ into action through ‘Satyagraha’ (the philosophy of non-violent, active resistance with an intention to win over the adversary).  This involved, 1) strengthening their consensual participatory democracy practices  –  all decisions at the village level are made by consensus and not by majority voting; 2) building strong village-level self-government institutions to govern the use of their own natural resources(water, land, and Forests); 3) evolving an empowered and informed village level institution called study circles; 4) carving their legitimate sphere of autonomy from the State by acquiring their community rights over Forests from the Government; and 5) applying the Gandhian idea of village socialism in 2013 by abolishing all individual property rights over cultivable land and handing it over to the village assembly.

Some of these radical ideas outlined above and practiced by Mendha Lekha have been adopted by other villages and from 2018 hundreds of villages in Maharashtra have started a similar journey.  The Mendha Lekha story of direct democracy is inspirational for those exploring sustainable governance of commons and building self-sufficient communities.

How do you see radical hope emerging or playing out in your case study?

Since the 1990s Mendha Lekha village’s unique achievements have attracted the interest of many village leaders, civil society organizations, students, and volunteers.  They visit to understand how a participatory village assembly works and how can a community collectively manage and govern its own forest resources. After 2009, when Mendha won the Community Forest Rights (CFR), many neighboring villages learned from its success and embarked on their own journey for obtaining CFRs. Today Gadhchiroli district, Maharashtra state in India has by far the highest number of villages of any district in India to have obtained CFR. Some of these villages are now trying to evolve Mendha like participatory governance and strengthen their village assemblies to make them more inclusive.

In Nov 2018, ninety neighboring villages decided to form a regional forum where they can come together for collective deliberations and actions. Representatives of these villages have met bi-annually in what is termed as a ‘Maha Gram Sabha’ (A multi village assembly).  To ensure women are equally involved in this process they have formed a rule that each village must be represented by two women and two men.

This is how hope has emerged in this case study building up strength by strength fuelled by communitarian ethos. An indigenous vision of a good society foregrounding gentleness and dignity is able to take on the might of centralized representative government –not only in their own small village but by shaping and spreading its wings at the regional level too.

You can find the full syllabus for Pallavi Varma Patil and Sujit Sinha’s class here!

Selected Readings

Pathak Broome, N. (2018). Mendha Lekha: Forest Rights and Self-Empowerment. In Alternatives in a World of Crisis, Publisher: Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung Brussels Office and Universidad Andina Simon Bolivar, Ecuador, pp.136-177

Pallavi. A. (2013).  Mendha Lekha Residents Gift all their Land to Gram Sabha, Down to Earth, September 7, 2013. Retrieved from

Singh, S. (2010).  Participatory Forest Management in Mendha Lekha [Case Study]. Retrieved from

Tofa, D.N and Hiralal M.H. (2007). Mendha (Lekha). (P. Cholkar, Trans.) Chandrapur, India: Vrikshamitra

Varma Patil, Pallavi and Sinha, Sujit. “Reinventing Gandhian Ideas and Practice of Consensual Democracy, Satyagraha, and Village Socialism in Today’s Context: the Case of Village Mendha Lekha, India.”  Seventh South South Forum on Sustainability, July 8-9, 2020,  Global University for Sustainability, Hong Kong.

Kinship, Longing, and Belonging

Peer Reviewed

“Beyond the Map: Spikescapes and Wild Strawberries,” by Alastair Bonnett

“The maps of human and physical geography can seem overwhelming; the forces at work have become too unpredictable to be easily or neatly summarized. That’s why we need to attend to the hidden places, like the overlooked zone of anti-pedestrian cobbles and jagged paving that forms the spikescape of the modern city.”

“Black Goo: Forceful Encounters with Matter in Europe’s Muddy Margins,” by Stuart Mclean

“This article seeks both to explore the limits of certain canonical formulations of historicity and historical knowledge and to ask what new cultural and political imaginaries and what possible futures might become thinkable through a more sustained engagement with the recalcitrant materiality of Europe’s muddy margins.”

Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime by Bruno Latour

Bruno Latour argues that the complex and ambiguous figure of Gaia offers, on the contrary, an ideal way to disentangle the ethical, political, theological, and scientific aspects of the now obsolete notion of nature. He lays the groundwork for a future collaboration among scientists, theologians, activists, and artists as they, and we, begin to adjust to the new climatic regime.

Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait by Bathsheba Demuth

Drawing on her own experience living with and interviewing indigenous people in the region, Bathsheba Demuth presents a profound tale of the dynamic changes and unforeseen consequences that human ambition has brought (and will continue to bring) to a finite planet.

“The Limits of Care: Vitality, Enchantment, and Emergent Environmental Ethics among the Mapuche People,” by Piergio Di Giminiani

Caring for nonhumans entails a reflexive awareness of the ontological and ethical limits of human care, limits made visible by the nonhumans’ potentials to respond to our actions and affect us. Reflections on the limits of care foster an attentiveness to the conditions responsible for nonhumans’ ability of enchantment, a term that in Bennett’s proposal concerns an awareness on the singularness and surprising character of life. 

“Toward a Ruminant Gastronomy: Exploring the Creaturely Pleasures of Feeding Goats Well,” by Kelly Donati

This article proposes gastronomy as a fertile discourse, practice, and site of scholarly inquiry for thinking about the social and sensual pleasures of eating and living well across species difference. Based on ethnographic fieldwork with a cheesemaker in southern Australia, this article asks what it means to take seriously goats as gastronomic subjects and to consider what a ruminant gastronomy might look like within the web of creaturely relations that make cheese possible. 

Recovering Lost Species in the Modern Age, by Dolly Jørgensen

Jørgensen explains why emotional frameworks matter deeply—both for how people understand nature theoretically and how they interact with it physically. The identification of what belongs (the lost nature) and our longing (the emotional attachment to it) in the present will affect how environmental restoration practices are carried out in the future. A sustainable future will depend on questioning how and why belonging and longing factor into the choices we make about what to recover.

“Situated Kinmaking and the Population ‘Problem,’” by Katherine Dow & Janelle Lamoureaux

What does population mean, and how is this concept being put to use at a moment when the urgency of climate change seems to elevate the appeal to/of numbers? What role has and should kinship play in understanding “population”? Through a discussion of three recent books—Adele Clarke and Donna Haraway’s edited collection Making Kin Not Population, Michelle Murphy’s The Economization of Life, and Jade Sasser’s On Infertile Ground—this book review essay grapples with the place of human numbers in our understanding of the connections between human reproduction, kinship, and environmental issues. 

“Footprints through the Weather-World: Walking, Breathing, Knowing,” by Tim Ingold

By becoming knowledgeable I mean that knowledge is grown along the myriad paths we take as we make our way through the world in the course of everyday activities, rather than assembled from information obtained from numerous fixed locations. Thus it is by walking along from place to place, and not by building up from local particulars, that we come to know what we do.

How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human, by Eduardo Kohn

Avoiding reductionistic solutions, and without losing sight of how our lives and those of others are caught up in the moral webs we humans spin, this book skillfully fashions new kinds of conceptual tools from the strange and unexpected properties of the living world itself. In this groundbreaking work, Kohn takes anthropology in a new and exciting direction–one that offers a more capacious way to think about the world we share with other kinds of beings.

Animal Intimacies: Interspecies Relatedness in India’s Central Himalayas, by Radhika Govindrajan

What does ­it mean to live and die in relation to other animals?  Animal Intimacies posits this central question alongside the intimate—and intense—moments of care, kinship, violence, politics, indifference, and desire that occur between human and non-human animals.

Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People by Timothy Morton

What is it that makes humans human? As science and technology challenge the boundaries between life and non-life, between organic and inorganic, this ancient question is more timely than ever. Acclaimed Object-Oriented philosopher Timothy Morton invites us to consider this philosophical issue as eminently political. In our relationship with non-humans, we decided the fate of our humanity.

Persistent Callings: Seasons of Work and Identity on the Oregon Coast, by E. Taylor III

In crisp prose and succinct chapters, Persistent Callings carries readers from aboriginal times to the present, illustrating the wisdom of seasonal labor, the complex relationships between work and identity, and the resilience of rural economics across more than a century of almost continual change.

The Matter of History: How Things Create the Past, by Timothy J. LeCain

The Matter of History brings these scientific and humanistic ideas together to develop a bold, new post-anthropocentric understanding of the past, one that reveals how powerful organisms and things help to create humans in all their dimensions, biological, social, and cultural.

The Wake of Crows: Living and Dying in Shared Worlds, by Thom van Dooren

Moving among these diverse contexts, this book tells stories of extermination and extinction alongside fragile efforts to better understand and make room for other species. Grounded in the careful work of paying attention to particular crows and their people, The Wake of Crows is an effort to imagine and put into practice a multispecies ethics. In so doing, van Dooren explores some of the possibilities that still exist for living and dying well on this damaged planet.

Other Media

“An Eye for Winter: In Praise of Local Beauty,” by Jeff Filipiak

The best way to motivate appreciation is to share glimpses of what I see, of the types of imagery I look for as I walk. All of these photos are from metropolitan areas in Wisconsin (except one from a rest area); you don’t need to travel far in order to find some of the magic that winter brings into our lives.

“To Be Held,” by Linda Hogan (Poem)

To be help / by the light / was what I wanted / to be a tree drinking in the rain…

“Learning from and with Invasive Species: Pluralities, Refractions, Futures!” by Estraven Lupino-Smith

Learning from and with Invasive Species: pluralities, refractions, futures, a 4 part series of pieces concerned with how humans choose to relate to species perceived to be “out-of-place” as shaped by ontologies, socioeconomic context, place-based histories, and desires of knowing and belonging to the world. By drawing attention to invasivity as historical production and the fickleness of its adoption, the series takes up discussions around invasion ecology and its relationship to the politics of land, labor, resources, selfhood, and place-making.

“Long in the Tusåk: Narwhals, Then and Now.” by Aylin Malcolm

I wrote my thesis on what may be the world’s most astounding tooth: the long, spiraling tusk of the narwhal (Monodon monoceros). I estimated tusk breakage rates from photographs, examined specimens at museums, and read widely about this reclusive polar mammal. But to this day, I have never seen a narwhal. My knowledge of the species was constructed entirely via images, testimonials—and teeth.

Stop the SOLObration!

By Sariah J Stewart

The Red Solo Cup has become an emblem of American popular culture and a household necessity for friendly gatherings. However, the cups are detrimental to the environment.

Solo’s production plant in Urbana, Illinois produces around 7.4 billion plastic cups a year: including clear polyethylene terephthalate (PET) cups, plastic cups for commercial use, and the classic colored polystyrene solo cups.

Polystyrene is categorized under plastic 6. It takes 450-1000 years to decompose, breaking down into its smallest form as microplastics that fill the ocean. Even when recycled Plastic 6 poses many complications, releasing harmful chemicals (like styrene) when heated. Many recycling facilities are unequipped to accommodate plastic 6 and end up forwarding these plastics to the landfill, rendering the recycling efforts pointless.

The demand for single-use plastic cups increases in summertime when used for holiday parties, barbecues, picnics, pool parties, and other summer activities. These outdoor activities, built from an appreciation for the beautiful spring and summer weather, have become especially damaging to the environment. The reputation of the cup as the ultimate party maker has been pushed by SOLO, with excellent marketing invitations to “SOLObrate good times together” with the cup they claim is the “go-to connector for food, fun, and friendships.” Public figures echo this portrait. Renowned country artist Toby Keith sings the cup is the “best receptacle for barbecues, tailgates, fairs, and festivals” in his song dedicated to the object “Red Solo Cup.” The lyric continues, “

you, sir, do not have a pair of testicles, if you prefer drinkin’ from glass,”  shaming those who choose other cups. “Let’s have a party. I love you, red solo cup (What) I lift you up Proceed to party (party)

Keith won the CMA Video of the Year in 2021 for his ‘home-video’ style piece depicting a typical rowdy house party overcrowded with red solo cups. Honoring of the cup this way highlights the invisibility of the harmful consequences of single-use disposal cups.

Red Solo cups are in the spotlight on college campuses, has become the foundation of the frat or college house party. Even in the hands of potentially more liberal and environmentally conscious students, the cup is likely to be exploited for the image of ‘coolness’ it holds at college parties.

The cups have become the top choice for the consumption of alcohol, leading to impaired of judgment while under the influence. Taking this into account, we can assume that the likeliness of these cups being properly disposed of is low, even for those who may typically recycle. My experiences on UT Austin’s West Campus, walking streets littered with dozens of these vibrant cups when I walk my dog on weekend mornings, attests to this.

The politics of the cup are even exploited by politicians, used as an “emblem of unpretentious” to demonstrate relatability between the representative and their constituents, setting a precedent for Americans all over the country and contributing to the increase of it’s use.

The detrimental consequences of the production and disposal of polystyrene have been widely known by producers since the 1980s. But the economics of plastic spoke louder. Regulation against such plastics has surfaced in recent years, including total bans from some countries and statewide bans in 3 states. When looking towards the future, we need to follow the example of places that have implemented a ban, such as New York City, and expanded to the whole state starting January 1st of 2021. All 26,000+ restaurants and cafes in NYC have had to become more creative with their packaging, only allowed to use paper or compostable cups and to-go containers. If one of the world’s largest cities was able to rid itself of polystyrene, surely college campuses and the neighborhood barbeques could as well – maybe even the rest of the world.

Solo Cup. “About SOLO: History, Timeline, Press Releases, & Reasons to Celebrate!” Accessed August 14, 2022.

Board, Gazette Editorial. “EDITORIAL: Polystyrene Foam Ban, Taking Effect Jan. 1, Is Long Overdue.” The Daily Gazette, December 29, 2021, sec. Editorial.

Don Dodson. “Urbana’s Solo Cup Churns out 7.4 Billion Cups, Lids a Year.” The News-Gazette. Accessed August 14, 2022.

Robb, Alice. “How the Red Solo Cup Became a Political Football.” The New Republic, October 31, 2013.

Toby Keith – Red Solo Cup (Unedited Version), 2011.

Booting Up: Out with the Old, in with the New

by Grecia Martinez

Generally worn by soldiers, the Hessian Military Riding Boot dates to 18th century German. As trade became more prevalent during the 18th and 19th centuries, the boots were introduced to the Americas and were used in armed conflicts against Britain. The boots were sturdy and long-lasting, made from leather, and included a steel shank in the construction. However, the boot’s look was still appropriate for practical events. In combination with the tough construction, these boots became desirable to high society men in the 19th century. The Hessian boot resembled contemporary “Cowboy” boots, at least construction-wise. They were nearly knee high, made of black leather, and ornamented with tassels and a short heel. However, all trends come to an end, or as former creative director of Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld once said, “Trendy is the last stage before tacky.” And by tacky, I’m of course referring to the awful tassel.

Drawing of Hessian boots.

The Hessian boot gave way to the Wellington and the modern rubber Willy. In the transition to the Wellington, the Hessian lost the tassel and were shortened for comfort while riding. According to English heritage, military fashion was introduced to civilian life to recruit soldiers. The Wellington (still constructed with leather) was highly popular, especially because Arthur Wellesley, both a military commander and later Prime Minister, wore them. In the mid-1800s, factories began manufacturing rubber Wellingtons, but they did not become widespread until the early 20th century to combat trench foot during World War I. The condition resulted from one’s feet being wet too long. Rubber Wellingtons helped soldiers’ feet to stay clean and dry, preventing a painful and dangerous condition. The modern Willy is a rubber boot that is a practical everyday item used in farms and gardens and comes in an assortment of colors and designs, used by both adults and children.

1827 caricature of the Duke of Wellington as a Wellington boot. (Source: English-heritage.)

Through the Wellington, the Hessian style similarly influenced modern American Cowboy boots. One big difference between the Wellington and the modern Cowboy boot was that the former was constructed of calfskin, a softer construction, whereas the latter was constructed of cowhide, which is much thicker. The change was necessary for the cowboy or rancher as a barrier against snakes and other hazards.

As the trend has been so far in this story, the use of these work boots became fashionable with the rise of Western films in the 1950s. Today, the cowboy boot had become a symbol of American patriotism. These boots can be constructed of many materials, a diverse range of animal skins, colors, designs, and styles. But in the fashion industry, the boot is not always built for durability.

Embellished cowboy boot. (Source: Wikimedia.)

There have been a few consistent themes throughout this story so far: utility, mass-production and consumption, and trade among the most important. Shoe-making technology has developed an immense amount. From the use of leather to waterproofing, designs that were originally developed for military purposes are now widespread in the shoe-making industry. We see these same functional designs implemented into the modern hiking boot. Originally developed for hunters and other workpeople, they are also used for recreational activities. Forest History explains how as the United States began to industrialize, people spent less time outdoors. This created a demand for outdoor activities leading to the creation of outing clubs, parks, and natural areas. As the demand for outdoor recreation has grown, so has the demand for adequate gear. Forest History claims that hiking gained popularity because it was affordable and easily accessible. Yet, they overlook the “adventure gap”, affecting low-income and minority individuals. According to Outdoor Foundation, “40 percent of people who participate in outdoor recreation have household incomes of $75,000 or more.” The construction of a durable hiking boot requires costly materials resulting in expensive and often inaccessible products.

In response, companies like Timber Wolf have tried to provide less expensive hiking boots. Yet, a feasibility analysis by Naoki Hashizume explains the most likely scenario for Timber Wolf’s manufacturing plant in Paraguay would be the exploitation of Paraguay’s cheap labor and materials to lower the price of the shoes. The alternative is using cheaply made hiking boot look-a-like, meant to be worn in everyday wear.

While hiking boots can engender environmental hope through outdoor activities like visiting national parks, hiking, or just walking in nature, they can also drive environmental despair. History reveals how as utilitarian products like shoes often enter the fashion industry, demand can grow, and cheaply made products that only last a season continue to cycle through. While shoe-making technology has developed, the materials used in shoes have become increasingly harmful. The production of rubber leads to harmful toxic chemicals and products that are harmful and dangerous to discard. We are stuck in the cycle of consumerism that continues to harm not only the environment, but the lives of people we do not see. Those who participate in fast fashion are blamed for using products that do not last, made from materials that are bad for the environment. However, when people cannot afford more than a ten-dollar t-shirt, one can hardly blame them. Ideally, these conditions would change to reduce consumption as the “trend” for ethical sourcing and consumption.

Ayotte, A. (2019, August 9). Hessian boots, some of our research. Fugawee. Retrieved February 27, 2022, from


The interesting history of the cowboy boot. Tim’s Boots. (n.d.). Retrieved February 27, 2022, from

Hiking in America. (2017, March 13). Forest History Society. Retrieved February 27, 2022, from

Machado, A. (2017, July 10). The strangeness of being a Latina who loves hiking. Vox. Retrieved February 27, 2022, from

Nelson, C. (1984). Those Funny Looking Shoes…: Sport or Camp Shoes in the Civil War. Military Images, 6(3), 23–23.

Newcomb, E., & Newcombe, E. (2016). Camping, Climbing, and Consumption: The Bean Boot, 1912-1945. Material Culture, 48(1), 10–27.

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Willard-Wright, R. (n.d.). The invention of the Wellington Boot. English Heritage. Retrieved February 27, 2022, from


Peer Reviewed

An Agrarian Republic: Farming, Antislavery Politics, and Nature Parks in the Civil War Era by Adam Wesley Dean

By showing Republicans as men and women with backgrounds in small farming, Dean unveils new connections between seemingly separate historical events, linking this era’s views of natural and manmade environments with interpretations of slavery and land policy.

Billionaire Wilderness: The Ultra-Wealthy and the Remaking of the American West by Justin Farrell

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City in a Garden Environmental Transformations and Racial Justice in Twentieth-Century Austin, Texas by Andrew Busch

As Austin modernized and attracted an educated and skilled labor force, the demand to preserve its natural spaces was used to justify economic and racial segregation. This effort to create and maintain a “city in a garden” perpetuated uneven social and economic power relationships throughout the twentieth century.

Roses from Kenya: Labor, Environment, and the Global Trade in Cut Flowers by Megan Styles

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Environmental Justice in a Moment of Dange by Julie Sze

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Other Media

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