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

 

8 thoughts on “Gandhi and the Ecological Sensibility

  1. The view of the ecological crisis as the result of Anthropocentrism or to talk of the Anthropocene disguises the reality that it is not humans as some homogenous entity who are causing this problem. Indeed, the ecological crisis will impact the poorest and most marginalized people in the world first, who also happen to be those who are least responsible for it. The solution, then, is not to collapse Purusha and Prakriti: the Samkhya philosophers had it right, there ought to be a division in our moral universe even though there is no division scientifically speaking. Any analysis that blames “humanity” as a whole rather than viewing the ecological crisis as a middle class and elite phenomenon, triggered by their consumption, which the masses of humanity are not contributing to in any significant way, must be found wanting.

    • You are entirely right that not all human beings have contributed to the problem of climate change in equal measure. The West, and the very rich in the global South, account for far more of the earth’s resources than the poor. The difference is in orders of magnitude. I am wholly aware of this but a 1200 word essay doesn’t get into these nuances, though I have written about this elsewhere. However, I also have to sound a word of caution: the whole objective of “development” is to “lift” the poor so that they become better consumers. And, whether one likes it or not, most people who are in the ranks of the poor consume less not out of choice but because they don’t have the resources. It is one thing to disown the material life, or at least forgo consumption; but I don’t see that anywhere, except among a miniscule number of people who have embraced poverty or at least put a check to their consumption. In this sense, the problem does reside in “humanity” as a whole. That is one reason why Gandhi had an incipient critique of the modern ideology of “development”.

  2. Prof Lal,

    This is some what off topic however I’m curios if you have given some thoughts to suggestions made in a book written by G.D. Bakshi that Bose, Not Gandhi, Ended British Rule In India. The book suggests that in 1956, during a visit to Calcutta, British PM Clement Attlee disclosed to the then Governor of West Bengal Justice PB Chakraborthy, that he decided to grant independence to India because of Subhash Chandra Bose and that Mahatma Gandhi’s contribution was only “minimal”.

  3. I’m afraid I must differ from this perspective for some philosophical and political differences. But in any case, too, I am sure that if we tracked Gandhi’s own carbon footprint, what with his frequent train rides and steamship rides and so on, we would find it to be much higher than that of most people of the age.

  4. Hello Professor Lal,

    As always, your elucidation of the life led by Mahatma Gandhi is appreciated. The stunningly beautiful words Gandhi prepared for such items as the modest twig demonstrate such an enviable level of mindfulness achieved on the part of Gandhi. Classes have resumed as you know Professor Lal, and so I’ve lost much of the time that I’d like to use to read for my own personal development and enjoyment. However, I have found meditating on the words of Gandhi to be a thoroughly healthy way to conclude my studies for the day. And so I thank you for this piece Professor Lal.

    Best,
    Michael

  5. It is a shame that this Gandhian perspective on environmentalism, though sometimes evoked by Indian politicians, is always forgotten when it comes time to craft environmental policy. It is also unfortunate that Jawaharlal Nehru, perhaps Gandhi’s closest pupil, seems not to have thoroughly considered this ecological sensibility when he pursued an economic agenda for India that was quite ecologically harmful, not to mention harmful for the people who live closest to nature such as farmers, Adivasis, etc. Despite my deep misgivings with the subtle misanthropy and the romanticization of the “untamed world”, and of course, the romanticization of poverty itself, that Gandhian environmentalism is associated with, there is clearly much to be learned from Gandhi’s ecological sensibility. I worry, however, that the misanthropic sensibility (misanthropy is certainly an inaccurate word for Gandhi but I refer to the idea that “humanity” has exploited “nature”), is precisely what has been allowing fascists and supremacists of various types to develop an affinity for environmentalism, as the ambivalence towards humanity lends itself well to eugenics. Even for those who aren’t fascists it often leads to “population control” policies, which postcolonial India has certainly had a bad history of, though not nearly as bad as its northeastern neighbor. I am also uncomfortable with the notion that poverty is ennobling in some way, though I am aware that this idea has been present for a long time and has often been used by elites to obfuscate their role in the creation of exploitative economic systems. It is also true, though, that Gandhi was quite clear that poverty is itself violence, something which many of us may forget. Gandhi’s ecological sensibility is in many ways a challenge for me to accept but that is perhaps a good thing as it makes me think and therefore appreciate this article. Nonetheless, his spirit of nonviolence towards all living creatures, of the appreciation of silence and of the natural world, is something we would do well to learn from and adopt.

    • Hello Pranav,
      Thanks for your very thoughtful comment. You have raised a great many issues which are germane to this subject, but (and here I repeat an obvious fact) shorter pieces cannot explore everything in subtle detail. Your discussion of poverty, for instance, is to the point and you are right in suggesting that, on a Gandhian reading, poverty should also be construed as a form of violence. But, as I am certain you will recognize, the matter is very complex. There are many kinds of poverty; the poverty that has come about as a consequence of industrial civilization is, needless to say, very different from the poverty that is willingly embraced by a renouncer. In my view, in America the tacit definition of someone who is “poor” is that the person is not enough of a consumer. One could speak dialectically and write about poverty by taking up the lives of the super-rich. There are dozens of words for poverty in many languages, and the reason for that is precisely that we have to distinguish between registers of poverty. Similarly, the question of fascism and ecology is extraordinarily interesting. I appreciate this intervention on your part because it is, like my piece itself, an invitation to reflect further on these matters.

      • Hello Prof. Lal,

        Thank you for your reply. “Poverty” meaning those who do not participate enough in consumerism is a very interesting way of thinking about how we use that word that I had not thought about before but it certainly is useful for interrogating the concept. While I tend to think about poverty and inequality from a socialist perspective which does not adequately consider the complexity of the concept of poverty in different cultural contexts that you discuss, it is clear that we must do so if we wish to construct a future which is not only economically just but which also does not replicate the same presumptions that we wish to do away with.

        I am glad I found this blog as I am truly enjoying reading through these articles. While I have seen your lectures on YouTube and talked with you via email, as you may recall, I have found these articles quite interesting and enlightening.

        Pranav

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