We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive. ~ Einstein

We live in a world where the anxiety to achieve economic growth has resulted in over-exploitation and unethical plundering of natural resources. Relentless global warming, unpredictable climate change, depletion of the ozone layer, rise in the sea-level, unemployment, poverty, economic inequality and social injustice. This is also affecting the life-support system (air, water, soil and bio-diversity); polluting cities, rivers and the environment.

Indeed, the Earth is not loved, only used. According to the former Executive Director of UNEP, Mustafa Jobla: “Unless we begin to use our natural resources rationally, and fairly, the world would face an environmental catastrophe as complete and irreversible as any nuclear holocaust.”

A man driven by greed and envy loses the power of seeing things as they really are. Mahatma Gandhi was well aware of such tendencies. Hence his advice to use the bounties of nature, but not with an element of greed. He firmly believed that the ‘Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not for every man’s greed.’ Greed was the major issue addressed by Gandhi.

He was not an environmentalist in the modern sense. His name is associated with political movements of defiance against British rule as well as social reform campaigns, but it is striking that he never explicitly initiated an environmental movement. But prominent environmentalists of the post-Gandhian era acknowledge that threy were inspired in large part by Gandhi. He was remarkably silent on the relationship of humans with their external environment, but his whole life was his message and a lesson on environment for the whole of mankind.

The word “ecology” does not appear in his voluminous writings, but he saw all spheres of human life in an integrated manner, which exemplified the human ecological perspective. He did not write books on green philosophy or one poems, because in his reckoning as a practitioner, not a mere preacher, a book would be meaningful only if it contained something that could be put into practice for the betterment of humanity.

The Mahatma was no naturalist. But his views on nature are scattered throughout his writings. But he never wrote about a waterfall or an imposing Himalayan peak; even his autobiography is silent on his experience of the ocean, over which he undertook several journeys. However, his entire life and work form an environmental legacy for humanity.

He combined social, economic, environmental, equity, and ethical imperatives for obtaining political independence and economic salvation through rural development for the teeming millions of India. Thus Gandhi was undoubtedly an apostle of applied human ecology, deeply concerned about the well-being of both the biosphere and humankind.

Every thinker formulates his ideas based on a concept of self, man and human nature. Some declare it in explicit terms, while others prefer not to make it very explicit. Gandhi’s voluminous writings are littered with remarks on the exploitation of nature. Although during his lifetime environmental problems were not recognised as such, but with his amazing foresight he had predicted that things are moving in the wrong direction. The importance of Gandhi lies is the fact that he had dwelt on the foregoing issues that are now being discussed about environment. He was indeed a profound and visionary environmentalist. Eminent environmental writers like Ramachandra Guha consider him an early environmentalist.

The main plank of the modern industrial civilisation is the insatiable and unending pursuit of material pleasure and prosperity. It makes a small segment of the population wealthy and at the cost of exploiting the world’s natural resources. Gandhi criticized the modern civilisation as ‘Satanic’ and also observed that ‘Machinery is the chief symbol of modern civilisation; it represents a great sin.’

If the trend of the modern civilisation is not arrested and an appropriate alternative to it provided Gandhi believed, it will play havoc with nature. As early as in 1909 in his book , Hind Swaraj, he cautioned mankind against unrestricted industrialisation and materialism. This seminal book was ‘the seed from which the tree of Gandhian thought has grown to its full stature’, according to Anthony Parel. Gandhi was not against machinery as such but against mass production that renders a large number of people unemployed.

The alienation of the worker and its effect on the psyche has been well illustrated by Charlie Chaplin in his film Modern Times.’He criticized mills and factories for polluting the air with smoke and noise. What he advocated in place of industrialisation and consumerism was a simple life based on physical labour. This can be done only if people can distinguish between their real needs and artificial wants and control the latter.

Humankind is the pinnacle of creation, biologically it is only one out of about 1.6 million species of plants, animals, and microorganisms described so far. Mere birth as a human being and the amassing of wealth by committing wanton destruction upon the environment does not entitle one to be called a civilised human being in the real sense of the term. Gandhi saw humankind’s role as a trustee of all other living creatures. To explain his environmental ethics, he said: “The earth, the air, the land and the water are not an inheritance from our forefathers but on loan from our children. So we have to hand them over at least as it was handed over to us.’

Gandhi’s views on the relationship between humankind and nature were influenced by the Vedic perceptions about the Earth being a home of a very large family of living organisms. He emphasised: ‘It is an arrogant assumption to say that human beings are lords and masters of the lower creatures. On the contrary, being endowed with greater things in life, they are the trustees of the lower animal kingdom.’ There is an interesting story on wildlife. A British writer, Edward Thompson, once told Gandhi that wildlife was rapidly disappearing in India. Gandhi paused and replied, ‘Wildlife is decreasing in jungles, but it is increasing in the towns.’

This understanding makes him an environmentalist par excellence. He was not an environmentalist who analysed the causes and consequences of depletion in the ozone layer or the increase in global warming. He never used the word environment protection, but what he said and did made him an environmentalist.

He belonged to the school which believes in remedy rather than cure. In Plato’s ideal state, where there was no place for doctors, he advocated the practice of a life style in which nobody would fall ill. Gandhi also subscribed to this line of thinking. He proposed a kind of life, culture and society which will never lead to environmental problems.

Gandhi was concerned about women who have actually been traditional conservators and far more committed to conservation than men. Woman by her very nature creates, cares and shares. Gandhi ‘worshipped women as an embodiment of the spirit of service and sacrifices’ and helped them to take up national reconstruction.

The real importance of Gandhi as an environmentalist lies not in his vision and his right understanding of man-nature relationship. He suggested that one must be the change that one wants to see in the world and hence he made honest efforts to translate into actual life what he preached and believed. Indeed, his life was his message. He was a passionate champion of a life pattern based on three cardinal principles ~ simplicity, slowness and smallness.

The present environmental mess, ranging from deforestation, soil and loss of biodiversity, pollution, and change in the chemistry of the air, is not the disease but only a symptom, just as high fever is not a disease in itself but may be only a symptom of other ailments.

The writer is a retired IAS officer.