Surely we have a responsibility to leave for future generations a planet that is healthy and habitable by all species.
~ Sir David Attenborough

Sustainable development is simply defined as a means to ‘fulfill the present needs without compromising the needs of future generations.’ The very beginning of human society and its onward march is woven critically around this concept that has assumed significance for the survival of the modern civilization and planet earth.

In Mahatma Gandhi’s opinion, sustainable development is economic development based on ecological principles like environmental harmony, economic efficiency, resource (including energy) conservation, local self-reliance, and equity with social justice. It is implicitly environmentally sustainable. Without environmental sustainability, economic stability and social cohesion can hardly be achieved. Whenever human civilization receded from the path of sustainable development the danger to its survival was ensured.

There is no doubt we live in an increasingly insecure world. It is also equally clear that the business-as-usual paradigm of growth is leading the planet towards the vortex of inequality and unsustainability. In the words of the former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, ‘Sustainable development is the central challenge of our times. Our world is under strain. Poverty continued to plague communities and families. Climate change threatens livelihoods. Conflicts are raging. Inequalities are deepening. These crises will only worsen unless we change course.’

Gandhi had prophetically remarked that modern industrial civilization contained in itself its own seeds of destruction. Growth, measured in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), is mistakenly equated with development. The rise in GDP per capita is far from a perfect measure of well-being. Because the economies that pursue GDP growth suffer from manifold inefficiencies.

First and foremost is its inability to tackle income distribution either at domestic or the international level; second, it fails to tackle the environmental costs of blinded economic growth; third, it pays no attention to the social costs such as the wear and tear of human beings in the workplace in unsafe domestic environments and insanitary conditions of living and work.

Even the Nobel Economics Laureate Simon Kuznets, the brain behind the modern apparatus of measuring GDP, had warned that oversimplification of GDP calculation could be misleading and subject to ‘illusion and resulting abuse.’

In spite of all such inadequacies, governments the world over have for decades been obsessed with GDP growth as a measure of the country’s performance, both in absolute terms (how fast is a country growing) and in relative terms (is a country growing faster than its neighbours).

The present-age development is based on Keynesian economics. It has failed, because it is unsustainable. In his essay The economic possibilities for our grandchildren, Lord Keynes said in 1930, ‘For at least another hundred years we must pretend to everyone that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice, usury and precaution must be our Gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity and into daylight,”

Our lives are predominately dependent on availability of natural resources. So the improving the quality or well-being of all obviously implies living within the carrying capacity of the supporting ecosystem. But the rapid growth of human civilization powered by astonishing scientific and technological achievements are colliding with the supply of key natural resources on which billions of lives depend. Because modern men do not experience themselves as a part of nature. Rather, it is used for utilitarian ends.

It is believed that the nature is endowed with an unlimited supply of resources for indiscriminate human use and is also considered as an outside force destined to be dominated and conquered. Under such an illusion the cardinal error has been committed by treating irreplaceable natural capital as income. We are extracting the non-renewable natural resources indiscriminately causing multiple signs of assaults on nature: the prospective extinction of 20 to 50 per cent of all the living species on Earth within the century; around three-quarters of the world’s original forest have already vanished; the acidification of the oceans; the depletion of topsoil and groundwater resources at unsustainable rates and more.

Above all, the single most important and threatening manifestation is the climate crisis. The growing blanket of pollution is smothering the atmosphere’s ability to mediate the radiative balance between the Earth and the sun, trapping extra heat energy each day in the lower atmosphere than would be released by 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs. In the process, we are profoundly altering the water cycle of the Earth, destroying crucial ecological balances, and compounding the injuries we are inflicting on nature, including the plants and animals upon which we depend. The prevalent obsession and method of measuring development in terms of economic progress, industrialization, huge consumption of energy and natural resources and urbanization have been inadequate to address the miseries of the millions and also to ensure sustainable development.

Few can grasp the complex ground realities and have the openness for innovative thinking, strategies and ways of doing. Gandhi was one individual who was far ahead of his own time in grappling with the challenges to planet earth arising out of lifestyle fueled by multiple greed and want. He opposed the exploitation, ruthless drive for economic abundance and personal aggrandizement, massive technical progress, severe competition; unbridled consumerism and concentration of wealth and power. In his reckoning, greed is detrimental to social good. The guiding principle of economics has to be the meeting of needs not greed. There is need to apply environmental economics rather than classical economics.

What he advocated in place of industrialisation and consumerism was a simple life based on physical labour. He implored the people to ‘live simply so that other may simply live.’ It is worthwhile to mention his prophetic statement, ‘The Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.’ This statement of his has gone into the folklore of world environmental literature. Gandhi wanted that the rich must not only restrict their wants but also treat their wealth as a ‘trust’ for the poor.

Gandhi also believed that one must ‘be the change one wants to see in the world’ and hence he practised what he preached and used to say his life was his message. He firmly adhered to the proverb, ‘Waste not, want not.’ He was extremely frugal and used to exercise the utmost economy in items of food, clothing, housing, and stationery. Even paper pins and safety pins were not trifles to him. He used scraps of paper to write brief notes and reversed envelopes for reuse to send letters.

He dared to think and understand the issues and challenges of our times. He did not believe in survival of the fittest, but survival and good survival of all. He launched the first Satyagraha in 1906. Though it was launched for restoration of democratic rights of Indians against the exploitation of the modern western civilization, in a much broader sense it was a Satyagraha which had the
challenging and compassionate vision of saving the planet earth.

Sustainable development needs to be understood as a function of intensified democracy. It is not about technology, but about a political framework, which will devolve power and give people ~ the victims of environmental degradation ~ rights over natural resources. The involvement of the local communities in environmental management is a prerequisite for sustainable development.

Gandhi strongly advocated the decentralization of political and economic power in favour of more or less self-sufficient and self-governing village Panchayats. In the final analysis, he cherished the ultimate objectives of Sarvodaya, or the welfare of all, irrespective of any distinctions. In his words: ‘Everybody would regard all as equal with oneself and hold them together in the silken net of love.’

The quintessence of Gandhian philosophy is that the human values and not the market should govern life.

The writer is a retired IAS officer.