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A Gandhian Future

Nature in the Hindi language is Prakriti, made of two words ~ Pra and Kriti. Pra means superior/best and Kriti means creation. Nature is the life form. Earth is the mother. Nature itself fulfils the nourishment of the Earth.


Nature in the Hindi language is Prakriti, made of two words ~ Pra and Kriti. Pra means superior/best and Kriti means creation. Nature is the life form. Earth is the mother. Nature itself fulfils the nourishment of the Earth. Just as animals grow in the lap of the mother, it becomes easy to develop life in the company of nature. We human beings are also the creations of nature.

Nature is a part of our life. We draw everything needed for our survival from nature. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat and the thousands of articles we use daily all come from nature. But our relationship with nature is not the ‘right’ one; there is only the understanding of a relationship. Whereas a right relationship implies the acceptance of a formula conforming to what is right as well as respectable, the understanding of a relationship undergoes constant modifications and changes.

Most of us are not aware of the relationship. For example, we never look at trees, or if we do, we look at them exclusively with utilitarian purposes; we never look at a tree without projecting ourselves and utilising it for our own convenience ~ either to sit in its shade or to cut it down for lumber. We treat the earth and its products in the same way. There is no love for the earth, there is only usage of the earth. We are always using nature, either as an escape or for utilitarian ends. Actually, we have lost the sense of tenderness and sensitivity which is imperative for understanding a true relationship. In the words of J. Krishnamurti: “That sensitivity does not come in the mere hanging of a few pictures, or in painting a tree, or putting a few flowers in your hair; sensitivity comes only when this utilitarian outlook is put aside.”

In his classic book, Small is Beautiful (1973), E. F. Schumacher, a German-British statistician and economist, wrote: “Modern man does not experience himself as a part of nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it. He even talks of a battle with nature, forgetting that if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side. Until quite recently, the battle seemed to go well enough to give him the illusion of unlimited powers, but not so well as to bring the possibility of total victory into view… The illusion of unlimited powers, nourished by astonishing scientific and technological achievements, has produced the concurrent illusion of having solved the problem of production. 

The latter illusion is based on the failure to distinguish between income and capital where the distinction matters most.” Nature has always been benevolent to us. But the cardinal blunder of our industrial way of life is that we are consciously blind to the basic reality of our relationship with the Earth’s limited resources. This impervious attitude is reinforced by the methods of accounting for natural resources, which always treat their uses as income rather than withdrawals from the capital.

This, in the words of economist Harman Dally, is “a colossal accounting error.” He says: “At least we should put the costs and benefits in separate accounts for comparison.” Our demands on the earth exceed its regenerative capacity by a wider margin each day. The overwhelming emphasis of modern economic activity on ‘growth’ rather than ‘development’ is the root of major problems. Long-term economic growth stretching over centuries would seem to present a puzzle. How can the world economy and population continue to expand if Earth itself is finite? Does Earth have adequate resources ~ water, land, air, and ecosystem services such as harvests of forests and fisheries ~ to sustain a growing economy? In short, can economic growth be reconciled with environmental sustainability? Indeed, the unprecedented growth in world consumption and production through the depletion of nonrenewable natural resources has caused a wide range of environmental problems.

The litany of ecological complaints encompasses a long list of problems. Those problems include anthropogenic climate change (global warming), the depletion of stratospheric ozone (the ozone hole), the acidification of surface waters (acid rain), the destruction of tropical forests, the depletion and extinction of species, and the precipitous decline of biodiversity. These environmental degradations are true of global concern.

There are other environmental crises that appear to be more localised ~ air pollution, water pollution, soil degradation, desertification and so on. Since the late eighteenth century, great thinkers have pondered over the environmental crisis. They have wondered whether gains in living standards would prove to be illusory as the world ran short of primary resources. Would scarcity doom humanity to poverty in the long term? These worries are increasingly heard, as crises of climate change, land degradation, water scarcity, and loss of biodiversity continue to deepen.

The issues currently discussed under the label of the environment were not prominent during the lifetime of Mahatma Gandhi. But he was a visionary who could foresee the ills of industrialisation and modernisation that we face today. Indeed, he was “an early critic of the dehumanising character of modern industrial civilisation”. His Hind Swaraj depicts his understanding of the chaos of modern civilisation. His description of the modern (industrial) civilization as a ‘seven-day wonder’ contains a prognosis as well as a warning.

In the words of Schumacher: “If human vices such as greed or envy are systematically cultivated, the inevitable result is nothing less than a collapse of intelligence. A man driven by greed or envy loses the power of seeing things as they really are, of seeing things in their roundness and wholeness, and his successes become failures.”

Gandhi envisaged an ecological or basic needs model centred on the limitation of wants in contrast to the modern civilisation that promoted material profits, and greedy industrial society. He was baffled at the thought of India being heavily industrialised and its culture eroded through dehumanising. He wrote in Young India (1928), “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialisation 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 (India’s population in 1928) took to similar exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.” He elaborated that “to make India like England and America is to find some other races and places on earth for exploitation. So far it appears that the western nations have divided all the known races outside Europe for exploitation and that there are no new worlds to discover, what can be the fate of India trying to ape the west?” Modern economy is “propelled by a frenzy of greed and indulges in an orgy of envy. It makes a man more materialistic.”

Gandhi said: “A certain degree of physical harmony and comfort is necessary, but above a certain level it becomes a 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.” He emphatically reminded us that “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need but not for every man’s greed.” The cultivation and expansion of needs are the antitheses of wisdom.

From an economic point of view, the central concept of wisdom is permanence. Permanence is incompatible with a predatory attitude which rejoices in the fact that “what were luxuries for our fathers have become necessities for us” (Schumacher). The present environmental crisis that has gripped the world needs an immediate and effective damage control strategy if we are to ensure our peaceful and healthy existence. The Gandhian approach gives us plenty of opportunities to overcome the crisis.

Frugal living and spartan life may not be feasible for the present generation but a consideration with rationality and sensibility towards translating Gandhi’s ideas into practice would help save the earth from impending disasters. Gandhi belonged to that school of thought where the remedy was preferred to cure. He worked as a worthwhile alternative for man’s peaceful, purposeful, and happy existence. Gandhi is an ardent champion of a life pattern based on simplicity, slowness and smallness, and he successfully implemented it. This made him an environmentalist with a difference.

Many environmental movements in India have drawn inspiration from 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. Environmental consciousness is a phenomenon that gained momentum in the last decades or so. Gandhi saw everything in an interrelated way.

Man has been divided into various watertight compartments. But Nature does not recognise such divisions. She deals with life as a whole. A human ecology perspective is holistic. Gandhi did not recognise separate rules for separate spheres of human life but saw all spheres in an integrated manner. Albert Einstein once said: “A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.” Going back to the thoughts of Gandhi is essential to build a green future, where there is no greed.