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Environmentalism And Philosophy Of Mahatma Gandhi

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Introduction

The environmental crisis that has engulfed the world today is worsening day by day with climate change, environmental degradation and pollution being the focus of every national or international, informal or formal political forum. In wake of this crisis, new terms like Environmentalism and Sustainable Development have become the catchwords of the 21st century in every walk ranging from commerce, politics, policies and framing of law.

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Mahatma Gandhi has not outrightly spoked about environmental degradation because it had not become a problem then. However, in the post-Gandhian era, environmental problems emerged at a breakneck speed with large scale and indiscriminate industrialisation leading to environmental hazards and degradations. Mahatma Gandhi’s critique of modernity in his writings, speeches and messages reveals his concern about the emergence of social order that exploits nature for short-term gains.

Much before the term Sustainable Development was outlined, it was Mahatma Gandhi who underlined the critical necessity of sustainability by interrogating modern civilization based on multiplication of wants and desires. His book ‘The Hind Swaraj’ outlined the threat to the common future of humanity, caused by a relentless quest for more material goods and services. Today any approach which puts limitations on passion and greed and which aims at fulfilling the fundamental needs remains central to the concept and practice of sustainable development.

Global Environmentalism and Gandhi

Today in the green political thought we have mostly three perspectives towards environmentalism and ecology — Modernist Ecology, Social Ecology and Deep Ecology. The modernist ecology and social ecology while proposing sustainable development talk about intergenerational justice and radical social change respectively. The deep ecology, on the other hand, emphasizes on paradigm change; change in our core thinking and assumptions about the world. It is this new environmentalism in the form of deep ecology that closely mirrors Gandhi’s philosophy. Arne Naess, the proponent of deep ecology himself noted that while Gandhi may have been concerned about the political liberation of his homeland, the liberation of the human being was his supreme aim i. e. , self-realisation.

Influenced by the teachings of Jainism, Gandhi believed in the philosophy of Advaita (non-duality) i. e. , the essential unity of atman and parmatman, body and soul. Reiterating that world is one, that there is no distinction between man and nature, Gandhi believed in the dignity of all life. His faith in non-violence and vegetarianism made him an ardent advocate of conservation of all diversity including all forms of life, societies, cultures, religions, traditions, etc. His argument for conservation of biodiversity was simple; since a ‘human being has no power to create life, he has, therefore no right to destroy life’. He believed that other forms of life had the right to live as much as we humans do and felt a living bond between humans and the rest of the creatures. He believed that humans should live in harmony with their surroundings.

Mahatma Gandhi’s influence is discernible through the writings of Global environmentalists, more especially resonating in the work of Indian environmentalists in one way or the other. So, if one needs to look into the philosophy of deep ecology, one should go back to Gandhi for a fuller picture. Though concern for environmental problems gained momentum in the post-Gandhian era, he could foresee the future and visualize the dangers posed by the unsustainable development discourse the world marched on.

To Gandhi, the main plank of modern civilization is the insatiable and endless pursuit of material pleasures and prosperity. He saw the root cause of the problem of environmental degradation in human greed, needs and wants of the individual. To him, the individual needs to change himself from inside out. So, based on his philosophy and spiritual principle, he prescribed ‘simple living’ that attempts both at curbing human overreaching and greed, and to prevent the mindless exploitation of natural resources.

The three fundaments of Gandhian philosophy — Satyagraha (truth), Ahimsa (non-violence) and Tapasya (asceticism) form the core of Gandhian environmental thought. His principle of non-violence is environmentally sustainable with vegetarianism as its one particular outcome, made him open to and protective of all diversity. He believed that there cannot be any ecological movement, that would prevent violence against nature unless the principle of non-violence becomes central to the ethos of human nature. He reiterated to respect and maintain the delicate and holistic balance that exists in nature, otherwise, he warned of an ecological backlash which may engulf the human race, with nowhere else to go. Gandhi was a dedicated practitioner of frugality, self-discipline and of recycling and reuse.

Most of the environmental movements today, about seven decades after Gandhi have a clear influence of Gandhi’s non-violent resistance. In India, the first major environment movement that started in the early 1970’s in the Himalayas, was the Chipko Movement. It was a non-violent movement against commercial deforestation. Led by Sundarlal Bhaguna, the movement used non-violent techniques. Then in the late 1980s, we have Narmada Bachao Andolan, that was launched against dam building in India. This was led by people like Mira Patkar, who wore khadi, lived simply and refused to use armed means. Further, if one looks at different environmental movements in India, they have often started or ended on October 2nd or 30th January. So, there is a kind of Gandhian symbolism to the environmental movements.

Gandhian Philosophy of Sustainable Development

When we talk of development, we are reminded by the developed countries, their living standards, per capita income and Gross National Income. Historically, it has been of decisively importance so much so that from the period of Industrial Revolution onwards, a tremendous amount of senseless harm has been inflicted on the environment, largely in the name of progress and development. Today, in the globalised world, the very idea of development has however become problematic.

Development is mainly seen as economic development, improved infrastructure and achieving higher standards of living. However, this pessimistic view blatantly disregards the humanitarian and environmental concerns about progress as historically observed, about development as we know it. So there was a need to look for an alternative model of development that brings growth and is also environmentally sustainable and it was only in 1987 when the Brundtland Commission published its report ‘Our Common Future’, stressing on making the development sustainable. The report provided the oft-cited definition of sustainable development as ‘development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. Although it took decades to realise the developed world of their unsustainable model of life and path of development, attempts are now being made to rectify this curse. Today we see major powers are desperately working towards decarbonising the environment.

The unsustainability of the modern world based on the increasing consumerist culture and multiplications of wants and desires was understood by Gandhi at the beginning of the 20th century. In his book ‘The Hind Swaraj’, he outlined the threat to the common future of the humanity caused by the relentless quest for more material goods and services. The Hind Swaraj became the manifesto of sustainable development.

Further, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which espouses 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s), is captured by the tagline ‘Leave No One Behind’ which resonates in the Gandhian principle of Sarvodaya (upliftment of all). For instance, the SDG 1, that sets targets to end poverty in all its forms and everywhere reflects the powerful statement of Mahatma Gandhi where he says ‘Poverty is the worst form of violence’. The SDG’s are distinguished by their emphasis on sustainability, which forms the core of Gandhian teachings. To this, he has said, ‘What we do today is our future’. Moreover, if one goes by the definition of the sustainable development, it reflects the message of Gandhi when he said, ‘We should not look upon the natural resources — water, air, land — as an inheritance from our forefathers’. He considered them to be the ‘loan given by our next generation’. Human development, eradication of hunger, gender equality is today well-established assumptions in our developmental discourse in general and form the part of SDG’s in particular. All these goals are noticeable in Gandhiji’s expressed thoughts.

Gandhi precisely condemned and rejected the modern western socio-economic and political systems. Gandhi was critical of modern civilisation, rapid industrialisation and galloping urbanisation. As he travelled across India through the second half of the second decade of the 20th century, he came to understand what could be the problems with India imitating the western modern style of industrial economic development. When asked if he would like to have the same standard of living for the teeming millions as was prevalent in England, he quipped, ‘it took Britain half of the resources of the planet to achieve the prosperity. How many planets will a country like India require!’. This statement echoes his experience of dealing with environmental and developmental issues.

Gandhi’s reservations about the wholesale industrialisation of India are usually ascribed to moral grounds i. e. , he did not wanted Indians to industrialize, modernise and urbanise because they will become accusative, greedy, selfish and violent and predatory, predating on each other. For Gandhi, industrialisation after the manner of the west was at odds with the moral progress. To his, he said, ‘The incessant search for material comforts and their multiplication is such an evil, and I make bold to say that the Europeans themselves will have to remodel their outlook if they are not to perish under the weight of the comforts to which they are becoming slaves’. If we look today on the current debates on climate change, sustainable development and environment degradation, it is clear that Gandhi’s prediction has come true.

In his influential volume, Hind Swaraj, Gandhiji argues that what we perceive today as civilisation is an illusion, and that a so-called civilisation that is unkind to outsiders will also maltreat the insiders. Further, complementing his principle of Swaraj (self-rule), he also put forth the principle of Swadeshi which ensued ‘decentralisation of power’. The concept of swadeshi fostered self-reliance through the use of indigenous products, as a way to boost India’s economy. While rampant industrialisation caused degradation of the biodiversity and the growth of social inequalities. To this, the principle of swadeshi if applied thoughtfully would go a long way in fostering environment-friendly and sustainable models of development.

Inspired by James Ruskin’s criticism of Victorian-era industrialisation and Leo Tolstoy’s idea of agriculture as the prime occupation of man, Gandhi’s principles of Swaraj, Power decentralisation and Swadeshi are insightful in solving the pressing problems of the present times and in achieving the goal of sustainable development. For instance, the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) aroused when the need for sustainability gained momentum. But the idea was envisioned by the great man even when there was no need seen when he put forth the idea of trusteeship. It is thus evident from his practice and preaching’s that Gandhi was a crusader of sustainable development without using the nomenclature per se.

Was Gandhi an Environmentalist?

There are various kinds of people trying to claim Gandhi’s legacy but are not doing it. But if we look back and think of what Gandhi means and what aspects of his life and work still speak to us today, most of the scholars would argue that there are three ways in which his life and legacy continues to resonate. The first being his philosophy of non-violent resistance or satyagraha. Second, his opposition to discrimination by caste, gender and race. The third aspect that is still recognised is his opposition to religious discrimination. However, there is this fourth aspect of his legacy which this paper has focused on, though less studied but not less relevant to India and the world of today. It is the question of his environmental thinking. Was Gandhi an environmentalist? and In what specific ways did he in his writings anticipate the contours of the environmental debate as we know it today?

Many scholars who claim Gandhi as an early environmentalist cite his anti-industrial book of 1909, ‘Hind Swaraj’. But when one looks at Hind Swaraj, it says nothing about environment, nature and protection of biodiversity. It is a manuscript against violence, a manifesto of Hindu-Muslim harmony, but it is not a treatise on the environment.

Nevertheless, his writings, speeches and messages illuminate his environmental sensibility. While studying Gandhi’s writings, the very first intimations of him being an environmentalist occur in an article of August 1913, where he makes a telling contrast between the city dweller and the farmer, in terms of their respective connections to nature. Though put forth in 1913, it is significantly relevant today, when Gandhi said, ‘A farmer cannot work without applying his mind. He must be able to test the nature of his soil, must-watch changes of weather, must know how to manipulate his flaws skilfully and be generally familiar with the movements of the stars, the sun and the moon. However clever a city dweller maybe, he feels altogether out of his elements. The farmer can say how seed should be sown’.

Gandhi’s understanding of rural India and its agrarian life was deepened by Champaran Satyagraha of 1917 and Kheda Satyagraha of 1918, where he came face-to-face with economic life in India. As he travelled across India, he came to understand what could be the problems of India imitating the western style of development. Quoting from his writing in the ‘Harijan’ of December 20, 1928, he said, ‘God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom (England) is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts’.

Gandhi’s reservations about the wholesale industrialisation of India are usually ascribed to moral grounds, but actually, his reservation about western-style industrialisation also had a strong environmental resonance. From the diagnosis of ills of industrialism after the manner of the west, followed Gandhi’s solution wherein economic development would be centred from the villages. Thus advocating a decentralisation of political and economic power. In this discourse, he was not going backwards but was looking forward, when in 1937 he proposed the idea of model village. Reflecting on this very precise and carefully delineated discourse offered by Gandhi, many elements in this picture would fit into the utopia of modern environmentalists — local self-reliance, a clean and hygienic environment, collective managers and use of the gifts of nature solely necessary for human life.

After reviewing Gandhi’s writings, speeches and his life, it emerges that indeed Gandhi was an environmentalist that too in many ways. At the level of individual advocating voluntary simplicity of lifestyle, at the level of community, at the level of the nation. He also appreciated modern science and technology as long as it enhances the dignity of life of the ordinary people and without exploiting the environment, or making technology the means of the domination of one person over one another. Gandhiji was an environmentalist, but at the same time he was not someone, one can turn to for solution to every problem of today. He was someone who rather offered a philosophical critique of rapacious economic growth, someone who focused on collective action in managing the environment. Gandhi was an environmentalist without any structured model. However, while interlinking all his thoughts together, we get his logically built up environmentally sustainable development model which encompasses every aspect be it environment, personal, physical, mental and spiritual health, politics, economics and law & justice.

Conclusion

Mahatma Gandhi, apart from being a political leader, a revolutionary, a saintly figure was an environmentalist too. His entire life and work is an environmental legacy for all humankind. He was a preacher and practitioner of sustainable development much before the term came into use and his reverence for the salience and senility of nature needful for human existence makes him an environmentalist par excellence.

Today, when sustainable growth and sustainable development have become the talk of the town, Gandhian philosophy has become explicitly relevant. The Gandhian approach can be said to be the best remedy for solving environmental problems and make development sustainable. Finally, P. N. Haskar, a noted Indian thinker of our times has said, ‘there is need to reiterate Gandhian values and instead of merely garlanding the portraits of Gandhiji, we must translate his ideals into real life’.

10 December 2020

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