Gandhi and the Ecological Sensibility

(Second of a long series that will continue through the year on the occasion of the 150th birth anniversary of Mohandas Gandhi.)

The word ‘ecology’ appears nowhere in Gandhi’s writings and similarly he never spoke on environmental protection as such. Yet, as the Chipko Movement and the Narmada Bachao Andolan, or, in a very different context, the manifesto of the German Greens and the action against the Mardola dam in Norway have clearly shown, the impress of Gandhi’s thinking on ecological movements has been felt widely.  The Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, who traveled through India in 1969 with Johan Galtung and Sigmund Kvaloy, and with whose name “deep ecology” is associated, confessed that it is from Gandhi that he came to the realization of “the essential oneness of all life.”  Gandhi was a practitioner of recycling decades before the idea caught on in the West and he initiated perhaps the most far-reaching critiques of the ideas of consumption and that fetish of the economist called “growth” that we have ever seen.  Thus, in myriad ways, we can begin to entertain the idea that he was a thinker with a profoundly ecological sensibility.

In one of several books that he wrote on India, the late V. S. Naipaul skewered Gandhi for his narcissism.  Adverting to the three years that Gandhi spent in London as a law student, Naipaul points out that his autobiography is stunningly silent about the landscape, trees, vegetation, or the much vaunted English notion of ‘nature’.  It is certainly the case that Gandhi was sparse in his discussion of the relationship of humans to their external environment.  Similarly, though Gandhi was a great admirer of Thoreau, and had read, besides his famous essay on the duty of civil disobedience, Walden and the essay on ‘Walking’, I wonder what he made of Thoreau’s enterprise of retreating into the woods for a two-year stay.  Gandhi was no naturalist. When the English historian Edward Thompson once expressed his concern to him about the rapid disappearance of wildlife in India, Gandhi reportedly replied, “wildlife is decreasing in the jungles, but it is increasing in the towns.”

The ecological dimensions of Gandhi’s thinking cannot be comprehended unless one is prepared to accept that ecology, ethics, and politics were deeply enmeshed into the very fabric of his being. Take, for example, his practice of observing twenty-four hours of silence on a regular basis. The maun vrat has a honorable place in Hindu religiosity and one might be tempted into thinking that Gandhi was only following Hindu tradition, and, to take the argument further, it was his way of entering into an introspective state and making himself receptive to the still voice within. A more political reading might suggest that it was also his way of bending the English to communicate on his terms.  But it was also an ecological gesture, a mode of conserving energy and a devastating indictment of the modern industrial culture of noise and consumption.  We talk too much, eat too much, and consume too much.  The phrase “noise pollution”, and India is the most egregious example of it in the world, is nowhere in Gandhi but he tacitly had a full-fledged critique of it.

There are other respects, and I shall take up only three, in which the ecological vision of Gandhi’s life opens itself up to us.  First, he was of the considered opinion that nature should be allowed to take its course.  The environmental crises and “extreme weather events” that are upon us have been precipitated by the gross and appalling instrumentalization of nature. The earth is not merely there to be mined, logged, farmed, domesticated, and hollowed out.  However, we have to first preserve the ecological equanimity of the body.  Nature’s creatures mind their own business:  if humans were to do the same, we would not be required to legislate the health of all species.  Thus Gandhi did not, for instance, prevent others from killing snakes but a cobra entering his room was left alone.  “I do not want to live”, he said, “at the cost of the life even of a snake.”

Secondly, Gandhi mounted a rigorous critique of the “waste” that is behind modern industrial civilization in more ways than we imagine.  European colonization the world over was justified with the claim that natives and indigenous people “wasted” their land and did not render it sufficiently productive. But Gandhi also held to the view that humans are prone to transform whatever they touch into waste.  His close disciple and associate, Kaka Kalelkar, narrates that he was in the habit of breaking off an entire twig merely for four or five neem leaves he needed to rub on the fibers of the carding-bow to make its strings pliant and supple.  When Gandhi saw that, he remarked:  “This is violence. We should pluck the required number of leaves after offering an apology to the tree for doing so. But you broke off the whole twig, which is wasteful and wrong.”

Thirdly, as is well known, Gandhi was a staunch vegetarian, and he would have been pleased with a great deal of modern research which has established that the extreme pressures upon the soil and water resources have also been induced by the meat industry and the massive increase in levels of meat consumption when people start entering into the middle class in countries such as India.  But to be ‘ecological’ in sensibility also means harboring a notion of largesse towards others; it is a way of being in the world.  European visitors to his ashram, where only vegetarian meals were prepared, had meat served to them if they desired.  To inflict a new diet upon someone who was habituated to meat at every meal was, in Gandhi’s thinking, a form of violence. As he once told Mirabehn, “People whose custom it is to eat meat should not stop doing so simply because I am present.”

Gandhi strikes a remarkable chord with all those who have cherished the principles of non-injury, cared for the environment, practiced vegetarianism, worked energetically to conserve our air, soil, and water, resisted the depredations of developers, recycled paper, or accorded animals the dignity of humans. In contemplating his life, his anticipation of the Anthropocene is striking. “God forbid that India”, Gandhi told an interlocutor in 1928, “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 millions took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.” What if, Gandhi is also asking, nature was the bearer of rights?  What would nature have to say on this subject?

Not less remarkably, though Gandhi wrote no ecological treatise, he made one of his life.  This is one life in which every minute act, emotion, or thought was not without its place:  the brevity of Gandhi’s enormous writings, his small meals of nuts and fruits, his morning ablutions and everyday bodily practices, his periodic observances of silence, his morning walks, his cultivation of the small as much as of the big, his abhorrence of waste, his resort to fasting—all these point to the manner in which he orchestrated the symphony of life. No philosopher of ecology could have done as much.

(First published in a slightly different form as “An Environmentalist by Nature”, The Hindu (2 October 2019), special supplement, Gandhi@150, 18-19.)

This article is also available in a French translation by Mathilde Guibert here:  https://mathildeguibert.imedix.fr/gandhi-et-la-sensibilite-ecologique.html