Mahatma Gandhi and the Environment

01 Oct 2019
Dr John S Moolakkattu

As India celebrates the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr John S Moolakkattu revisits Gandhi's thinking and views on environment. In his book, Mahatma Gandhi and the Environment, he says that Gandhi's environmentalism fitted in with his overall vision for India and the world that sought to extract from nature what is absolutely necessary for human sustenance. His ideas on environment are intimately linked with his ideas relating to the polity, economy, health, and development. The author concludes that Gandhi's environmentalism is largely built on ecological practices of peasants and tribal communities.

Gandhiji 150th birth anniversary
Mahatma Gandhi had anticipated most of the environmental problems that we face today. He envisaged an ecological or basic needs model centred on limitation of wants in contrast to the modern civilization that promoted material welfare and profit motive.

Was Gandhi the progenitor of environmental ideas in the country? The answer is both 'yes' and 'no'. He was an environmentalist if we discern the implications of his social, political, and economic ideas on the environment. Many environmental movements in India have drawn inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi. He cannot be called an environmentalist if we do a mechanical content analysis of his statements based on the present understanding of environmental issues, since words like 'environment' and 'ecology' do not appear in his Collected Works. The Encyclopaedia of Human Ecology edited by Julia R Miller and others did not have an entry on Gandhi in their otherwise impressive list. This article seeks to look at the implications of his ideas for an ecologically sound system of living.

Environmental consciousness is a phenomenon that gained momentum only in the last five decades or so. But it is implicit in worldviews, traditions, culture, religion, and folklore. Ecology is a subject that seeks to understand the relationship between living organisms and their environment. Human ecology visualizes human beings and their environment as constituting an integrated whole. The Western tendency to compartmentalize everything into different categories does not agree with the ecological perspective. Gandhi saw everything in an interrelated way. In his writings, we find elements of economics, politics, and sociology suffused with an interconnectedness informed by ethics. Gandhi said: 'I believe in advaita (non-duality), I believe in the essential unity of man and, for that matter, of all that lives.' J C Kumarappa, Gandhi's economist, who developed his ecological views in a clearer fashion, said: 'In the traditional archives of knowledge, religion, sociology, and economy have all been reserved their separate and exclusive spheres. Man has been divided into various watertight compartments. The left hand is not to know what the right hand does. Nature does not recognize such divisions. She deals with all life as a whole.'

A human ecology perspective is thus holistic. Gandhi did not recognize separate rules for separate spheres of human life, but saw all spheres in an integrated manner. The issues currently discussed under the label of environment were not prominent during his lifetime. However, his description of the modern (industrial) civilization as a 'seven-day wonder' contains a prognosis and a warning. Gandhi had anticipated most of the environmental problems that we face today. He envisaged an ecological or basic needs model centred on limitation of wants in contrast to the modern civilization that promoted material welfare and profit motive. Gandhi said: 'A certain degree of physical harmony and comfort is necessary, but above a certain level it becomes hindrance instead of help. Therefore, the ideal of creating an unlimited number of wants and satisfying them seems to be a delusion and a snare.' According to him, a man who multiplies his daily wants cannot achieve the goal of plain living and high thinking. He warned against the perils of industrialization. He said: 'God forbid that India should ever take to industrialization 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.'

Jainism influenced Gandhi. Jainism looks at nature as a living entity and exhorts human beings to continually purify themselves by respecting the diverse life forms. Hinduism also looks at nature and all life forms with equal reverence. Rabindranath Tagore represented nature in his poems and works. Shanti Niketan, the institution that he founded, was another example of nature-friendly study and living.

Gandhi drew on a number of Western thinkers, who, although were not wholly against the modernist project, romantically cherished the pre-industrial order. John Ruskin, for example, was critical of industrialization in that it had sapped human sensibility and destroyed the harmonious relationship humans had with nature. Henry David Thoreau, American poet and naturalist, whose essay on civil disobedience had influenced Gandhi, even believed that nature could exist without humans. Edward Carpenter, who was influenced by John Ruskin and Hindu mysticism, also wanted to lead a life that was simple and close to nature. His critique of civilization was a major influence on Gandhi's first book Hind Swaraj. Carpenter, a socialist, was also an early animal rights activist. What is special about all these thinkers is a kind of romanticism about nature and a general distaste for industrial civilization and urbanization. We also have statements of Gandhi expressing similar romanticism. The example of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of nature and animals, certainly appealed to Gandhi.

Lord Bhikhu Parekh says that Gandhi took exception to the anthropocentric view that man has unlimited right to lord over the non-human world and instead proposed a cosmocentric anthropology that 'establishes a more balanced and respectful relationship between him and the natural world, assigns the animals their due place and provides the basis of a more satisfactory and ecologically conscious philosophical anthropology'. In fact, Gandhi's ecological concerns emerged from his focus on a basic needs model of social order that would not exploit nature for short-term gains, but take only from it what is absolutely necessary for human sustenance. Gandhi had to concede that life involves a certain amount of violence to nature even if it is unintended. What we can do is to minimize it.

Gandhi had been a major influence on a number of writers like E F Schumacher and deep ecologist, Arne Naess, who called his own brand of environmentalism 'biospherical egalitarianism', and points out that he was influenced by the Mahatma's metaphysics. Gandhi has been, and continues to be, the major influence on the environmental movements in India. Chipko movement, the largest environment movement in Asia as well as a good number of Indian environmentalists and environmental historians such as Vandana Shiva, Anil Agarwal, Madhav Gadgil, and Ramachandra Guha have acknowledged their debt to Gandhi's ideas. Guha has described him as the 'single most important influence on the environmental movement'. But, he says that it was left to J C Kumarappa and Mira Behn to build an ecological programme along Gandhian lines. But what is special about all those influenced by a Gandhian brand of environmentalism is their exclusive focus on the rural areas.

Kumarappa did not write for an academic audience. But his Economy of Permanence has been often cited as an example of green thought and sustainable development couched in a Gandhian framework. The very title of the book is ecologically rooted. He was advocating an economy based on the natural order. He said: '[i]n studying human institutions we should never lose sight of that great teacher, Mother Nature. Anything that we may devise if it is contrary to her ways, she will ruthlessly annihilate sooner or later. Everything in nature seems to follow a cyclic movement. Water from the sea rises as vapour and falls on land in refreshing showers and returns back to the sea again... A nation that forgets or ignores this fundamental process in forming its institutions will disintegrate.' According to Kumarappa, industrialism is possible only through predation. In contrast, an agricultural system does not interfere much in the 'the system ordained by nature' and in many ways agriculturist only aids nature or improves it much faster than what could take place naturally over a long period. Kumarappa was therefore concerned with improving the fertility of the soil through use of organic manure and processed human excreta for agricultural operations.

Gandhi said, 'the great Nature has intended us to earn our bread by the sweat of our brow'. He also added: 'I venture to suggest that it is the fundamental law of Nature, without exception, that Nature produces enough for our wants from day to day, and if only everybody took enough for himself and nothing more, there would be no pauperism in this world, there would be no man dying of starvation in this world'. He also looked at acquisitiveness as not only wasteful, but also immoral. As an ardent advocate of indigenous system of medicine with a strong slant towards nature cure, Gandhi tried to prod most of the medical practitioners of his age to undertake research on the medicinal properties of plants.

Gandhi did not talk much about the abstract notion of Earth, but he talked a lot about land and soil. To support the agricultural economy, he also emphasized artisan economy (spinning of clothes with charkha, repairing of agricultural tools, arts and crafts) that made these rural peasant communities free from depending on machine-made and mass-produced industrial goods and tools.

Gandhi was not fascinated with wilderness and rainforests like naturalists. We do not see him visiting places of interest to naturalists. Yet he believed that nature should be allowed to take its own course. Gandhi even prohibited people to stock medicines against poisonous bites and talked about the possibility of co-existence with the non-human world. In fact, ecological life was part and parcel of Gandhian ashram life. Since Gandhi's cottage in Sevagram was not reptile-proof, he often had to pick up snakes with the help of a pair of long tongs that he always kept, and release them in places far away from the people. He looked at all life as sacred and all human beings as part of the divine, living in harmony with other beings. Suffering of all living beings was of concern to him. Gandhi realized that there is some kind of continuity between lording over nature and lording over other 'inferior' people as in colonialism. Human beings have to be trustees of the lower animal kingdom. This notion of stewardship of the Earth, and all living beings on it is the hallmark of Gandhian ecology. Conservation was a part of Gandhi's day-to-day life. He would use water most sparingly. It could be said of money and other personal resources also. He also found the need to conserve his sexual energy for larger goals. One could dismiss them as austere practices associated with him in a personal capacity. Since Gandhi did not try to distinguish between his personal and public life at any point in time, he conveyed the value of conserving resources for the future generation. In all these he personified a true ecologist. His antipathy towards urbanization also reflected an attitude full of implications for the environment. In some ways, his bania thriftiness came in handy as an environmental principle worthy of adoption. Gandhi had a special love for the cow. It epitomized the sub-human world, and he saw cow protection as one of the duties of human beings that enables them to relate themselves best with the non-human world. This is because the cow not only provides nourishing milk for the family, but also helps us in agriculture, both for tilling the land as well as for supplying the necessary manure.

Ahimsa, for Gandhi, envisaged or subsumed an awareness of the interdependency of all life. Ahimsa can emerge only in a disciplined environment in which a person renounces pleasures of the body for a higher spiritual pursuit. Vandana Shiva, an ecofeminist and environmental activist who acknowledges Gandhian influence on her thinking and work has embarked on programmes like seed satyagraha to protect biodiversity and seed, and prevent it from becoming the monopoly of a handful of corporations. Gandhi is also often called the father of appropriate technology.

He advocated small, local, and village-based technology that allowed its users to relate themselves with what they produce. For him technological progress was not a sign of real progress. The Charkha represented the ideal technological equipment for Gandhi. A technology that would not replace human labour was what was in his mind. E F Schumacher was strongly influenced by this idea of Gandhi who popularized it through his concept of 'intermediate technology'.

From a Gandhian perspective, the present environmental mess, ranging from deforestation, soil and biodiversity loss, to pollution and climate change, is not a disease but only a symptom. A good doctor treats the disease and not the symptom. The disease is the very concept and patterns of growth and development that are being followed everywhere.

In conclusion, we can say that Gandhi's environmentalism fitted in with his overall vision for India and the world that sought to extract from nature what is absolutely necessary for human sustenance. His ideas on environment are intimately linked with his ideas relating to the polity, economy, health, and development. His asceticism and simple living, a rural-centred civilization based on village autonomy and self-reliance, handicrafts and craft-centred education, emphasis on manual labour and absence of exploitative relationships are infused with elements of an ecological vision. Even his approach to gender did not attempt to break the connection with nature, but to manoeuvre within it and provide some space for women to uplift themselves. It is, therefore, no wonder that Gandhi is a major inspiration for many environmental movements worldwide, particularly for those who link their movement with larger concerns for human sustenance and development. He would not be an inspiration for radical environmentalists who allow little space for human sustenance and livelihood issues. Although he was not anthropocentric in his approach, he was not prepared to allow the question of human survival to be sidelined in discussions on environment. Finally, non-violent methods of Gandhi also represent an evolutionary approach to resolving disputes within an overall ecological frame. There is now a rethinking on the desirability of development. An idea like 'happiness' does not suggest that high level of material progress is necessary to realize it. Gandhi's environmentalism, it must be admitted, is largely built on ecological practices of peasants and tribal communities.

(Dr John S Moolakkattu is Professor, Department of International Relations, Central University of Kerala. He was earlier Professor at IIT Madras, Mahatma Gandhi University, and University of KwaZulu Natal, Durban. He is also the Chief Editor of Gandhi Marg, the Quarterly Journal of Gandhi Peace Foundation)

The article had first appeared in the October issue of TerraGreen.

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