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

 

Advertisements

*Climate Change:  A Catastrophic Future for India?

In India’s recently concluded elections, there was much that divided the BJP from an array of political parties constituted as the opposition, among them the Congress, the CPM, and the parties that forged the so-called mahagathbandhan.  But there was also much that was common to all the parties, nothing more so than the fact that climate change was almost entirely obscured as an issue deserving of the voter’s attention.  What does it mean for the country that not one political party has shown any real sensitivity to the question of climate change and any awareness of the catastrophic certainty that it will seriously erode any possibility of “normal life” for hundreds of millions of Indians unless the country changes course?

PollutedNewDelhi

New Delhi: Capital of India, and world capital of air pollution. Is this the royal city that the architects dreamt of?

To the extent that there is any discussion of climate change in India, it is most commonly viewed, rather erroneously, as being synonymous with “global warming” and that, in turn, has been reduced to the question of pollution.  It is unquestionably true, of course, that air pollution has altogether altered the landscapes—physical, social, economic, emotional—of everyday life in India.  The highly respected British medical journal, the Lancet, in a study published in December 2018 noted that 1.24 million deaths, accounting for 12.5% of all deaths in India, could be attributed to air pollution in 2017.  Delhi did not have a single day in 2018 when the air quality was recorded as “good”; alarmingly, it has the distinction of being the most polluted megalopolis and capital in the world, even if there are smaller cities, such as neighboring Gurgaon, that are still more polluted.

PollutionMonitorLodhiColonyDelhi

Air pollution level monitor in Lodhi Colony, New Delhi.

Seven of the world’s 10 most polluted cities are in India.  Schools over most of north India have to be shut down every winter for at least a few days since the air poses a peril to children.  While the poor are disproportionately affected, and constitute the bulk of those who become “climate refugees”, elite South Delhi neighborhoods cannot escape altogether the dire consequences of hazardous levels of air pollution.  In a country where little these days is democratic, air pollution at least promises to be unsparing of the rich and the poor alike.

PollutedGurugram2019

Gurugram, formerly Gurgaon: not much is visible of this satellite city ringed by skyscrapers and fancy restaurants, as well as massive potholes and the usual ramshackle structures that constitute the Indian ‘city’. It has been named the most polluted city in the world alongside neighboring Delhi.

However, climate change signifies something even more ominous than global warming, which is a reference to the earth’s rising surface temperature on account of the greenhouse effect caused by increased levels of carbon dioxide, chlorofluorocarbons, and other gases and pollutants.  In consequence of this warming, glaciers are melting, sea levels are rising, and the habitats of most wildlife are being decimated.  Though the process whereby nature has been altered by the impress of human activity has been going on for thousands of years, the Industrial Revolution precipitated a massive increase, by several orders of magnitude, in global warming; over the course of the last five decades, especially, the hand of man has “achieved”, if that is the word, in the span of one human lifetime what would have normally have been done over hundreds of thousands of years in geologic time.

Smoke billows as a truck drives past the waste of leather tanneries at a dumpyard in Kanpur

Kanpur in 2019: in British times, it was known as Cawnpore, and it is today another contender for the world’s most polluted city. The assault on the senses is of a magnitude scarcely comprehensible to those in the affluent West or Japan.

To live in the anthropocene age, then, means that we have to for the first time contend with the fact that human history intersects with geological history in unprecedented ways.  The complex planetary weather and climate systems have been altered by the hand of man.  Some parts of the earth are cooling, if in the short run, even as most others are warming; extreme weather events are becoming more common worldwide.  Himalayan glaciers have been melting at record pace, and the Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment, jointly authored by scientists from Nepal, India, China, Tibet, and Bangladesh, suggests that most of these glaciers will have disappeared by 2100, and in the Central and Eastern Himalayas by as early as 2035.  The loss of forest cover in India over the last 17 years is about four times the size of Goa:  the carbon locked up in the tissues of trees that are felled is released into the air and further contributes to the greenhouse effect. The entire phenomenon of climate refugees, often displaced when their farms and livelihood have been destroyed by an environmental disaster, and climate migrants to India, fleeing rising sea levels in Bangladesh and increasing salt-water intrusions in the Sundarbans, has barely registered in public discourse.  “By 2020,” the World Bank notes, “the pressure on India’s water, air, soil and forests is expected to become the highest in the world.”

Himalayas-Glaciers-Melting

This picture taken on November 22, 2018 shows a general view of the Imja glacial lake controlled exit channel in the Everest region of the Solukhumbu district, some 140km northeast of Kathmandu. Photo Credit: PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP/Getty Images.

The metropolitan centers in India have had something of a public discourse around pollution—caused largely by industrial emissions, household emissions, and vehicular traffic—since environmental activists such as Anil Aggarwal brought this matter to the fore in the 1980s.  Every winter there is something of a hue and cry over the unbearable levels of pollution, especially if schools are closed for a few days, but the country as a whole appears to be both singularly ill-informed about, and indifferent to, the entire question of climate change.  Academic work in India, barring a voice here and there, has continued apace as though speaking of climate change was a luxury in a country where issues of grinding poverty, resurgent nationalism, xenophobia, conflicts over caste, staggering unemployment, and violence against women stare one in the face.  The poor, of course, are more likely to be pushed into the ranks of climate migrants and refugees; they will be disproportionately affected by rising sea levels, climate-induced droughts, or rising temperatures.  The poor are also far more likely to be susceptible to respiratory problems or succumb to heat waves.  These are doubtless some of the reasons why the question of climate change remains to the elites and the country’s middle class something of an abstraction, though if they think that way they have yet to awaken to the fact that the devastations wrought of climate change will spare no one.

PollutedNewDelhi2

School children in Delhi on a polluted winter morning.

 

As the recent elections demonstrated, political parties in India have shown little awareness of the critical importance of climate change.  The political manifesto of the Congress party devotes several paragraphs to “environment and climate change”, but strikingly Congress politicians made absolutely no mention of climate change when they were canvassing for votes.  People do not read manifestos, as the BJP surely surmised.  Not surprisingly, the BJP performance in this matter is, if anything, more pathetic.  The BJP manifesto speaks of increasing India’s “renewable energy” capacity, and how climate change and terrorism are issues which the country seeks to address. Just how climate change is to be addressed is altogether ignored.  Some politicians may think that installation of solar panels is enough to address the question of climate change, but that is only a reflection of how singularly ill-informed they are of the gravity of the problem.

Many people of liberal disposition with whom I’ve spoken have pointed to China’s apparent success in greatly diminishing pollution levels in the country’s huge metropolises, including Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.  Some readers might recall the headlines that appeared regularly in newspapers around the world in the early parts of this decade, through 2015-16, excoriating the Chinese government for unregulated development that had turned cities into death traps.  The Guardian, relying upon a study completed at the University of California, noted on 14 August 2015 that “Air pollution in China is killing 4000 people every day”. “Smog so Thick, Beijing Comes to a Standstill,” declared the New York Times on 8 December 2015 as an environmental emergency was declared and schools, factories, and major roads were shut down.  The latter newspaper, three years later, found it apt to reverse itself with this unequivocal headline:  “Four Years After Declaring War on Pollution, China is Winning” (New York Times, 12 March 2018).  Though the air pollution level in Beijing is still five times higher than the limit set by WHO, Beijing is not even half as polluted as Delhi, and air pollution levels in Beijing dropped by 40% over 2016-18.

BeijingDelhiSmogLevels31Oct2018

The pollution levels in Beijing and Delhi on 31 October 2018.

One is scarcely surprised, then, that Indians are being advised that the Chinese should be emulated.  One major Indian English-language daily’s view on this matter is representative:  “A Lesson or Two Delhi Can Learn from Beijing, Once Most Polluted,” declares the writer, suggesting that China’s “all-out-war against air pollution” is a model that India must follow if it seeks to save itself from “airpocalypse.”  The metaphor of “war” should itself be cause for concern:  we’ve had the war on terror, the war on drugs, the war on poverty, and all such ‘wars’ have, to use an euphemism with its own unsavory histories, collateral damage.  In the case of China, as a very recent scientific study suggests, a decrease in pollution levels in the large cities was achieved by moving energy production with the concomitant increase in air pollution levels to the countryside.  There is a larger problem here, and subject for other blog essays, namely that the countryside exists in most countries as ancillary to the city, as a place whose inhabitants are routinely called upon to sacrifice themselves for the nation.  The ‘Great Leap Forward’ exacted the lives of tens of millions nearly six decades ago, largely from the countryside where peasants dying from hunger were treated as disposable excess matter, and I suspect that the very same attitude persists to the present day, even if the sugarcoating has become more sophisticated.

This is not to say that there may be not be some “lessons” to be learnt in India from China’s attempts at reducing air pollution levels.  But there is far from being a policy on climate change as a whole in China that is worthy of emulation.  The only thing that is certain is that if we in India do not start addressing the question of climate change at once, there will be little, if anything, left to discuss a few decades from now.

 

For the French version of this article, translated by Jean-Etienne Bergemer, “Changement climatique: un avenir catastrophique pour l’Inde?”, click here.