By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
Colombo, November 15: Mahatma Gandhi is known as the one who conceived and successfully led the world’s first peaceful struggle against imperialism. But what is less known is that he was a tireless environmental crusader and an “apostle of applied human ecology.”
In his paper Gandhi as a Human Ecologist John S. Moolakkattu, Professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, regrets that the Encyclopedia of Human Ecology edited by Julia R Miller, does not mention Gandhi. No doubt, Gandhi was a 24X7 political activist. But he was also passionately involved with issues of the environment and ecology. He even declared that his main source of inspiration was nature.
“I need no inspiration other than Nature’s. She has never failed me. She mystifies me, bewilders me, sends me to ecstasies,” he said.
Writing in www.mkgandhi.org, Sasikaka A.S says: “Environmental concern, as we understand today, was not there at the time of Gandhi, but his ideas on development, technology, self-sufficiency, and village Swaraj (self-rule) disclose his environmental concern.” She points out that Gandhi believed that man should be the custodian of the rest of creation and should respect their rights and cherish diversity.
Rajnarayan R. Tiwari says in his 2019 paper published in the Indian Journal of Medical Research: that Gandhi had cautioned the world, much before any modern day environmentalist, about the problems of large-scale industrialization, which we are confronting today. He was acutely aware of environmental pollution and was especially concerned about the appalling working conditions in the industries in urban conglomerates like Bombay, with workers forced to inhale toxic air.
He denounced consumerism and generation of waste, pointing to the depletion of scarce resources, and air, water and soil pollution. Gandhi himself led a simple life not wasting any resource. “There’s enough to meet everybody’s need but not for greed,” he famously said decrying consumerism and the destruction of the environment to meet the ever burgeoning demands of consumerism which is nothing but greed.
His concept of Sarvodaya is based on sustainable development and the practice of environmental ethics. He inspired Dr.A.T.Ariyaratne to set up Sarvodaya in Sri Lanka, the tree protection movement “Chipko” and “Save the Narmada River” movement in India. Tiwari points out that Gandhi foresaw a population explosion, mass poverty, over-utilization of renewable resources, overuse of fertilizers leading to water pollution.
Describing Gandhi as a “human ecologist”, Prof. John.S. Moolakkattu of Natal Kwa Zulu University in South Africa says that human ecology sees human beings and their environment as being mutually interlinked, as part of an integrated whole. Gandhi believed in coexistence with other living creatures and shunned hierarchical notions between man and other living creatures even if the latter were poisonous.
Moolakkattu recalls. “Since Gandhi’s cottage in Sevagram was not reptile-proof, snakes sometimes sneaked in, and he used to pick them up with the help of a pair of long tongs that he always kept, and release them in places far away from the people. He looked at all life as sacred and all human beings as part of the divine, living in harmony with other beings. Suffering of all living beings was of concern to him. Even when he discussed the ways and means of preventing malaria, he was thinking in terms of how mosquitoes could be chased away with the help of repellents rather than kill them outright.”
Moolakkattu points out that for Gandhi “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 (human beings) are the trustees of the lower animal kingdom. Gandhi felt that there is some kind of continuity between lording over nature and lording over other ‘inferior’ people as in colonialism.
Gandhi had derived his holistic approach from Buddhism. Speaking in Calcutta in 1925, he said that the Buddha had taught the Hindus “not to take but to give life.” He further said: “Many friends consider that I am expressing in my own life the teachings of Buddha. I accept their testimony. I am trying my level best to follow these teachings.”
The Western tendency to compartmentalize everything into different categories is anti-ecological, Moolakkattu says. He argues that different facets of human life like politics, economics, sociology, culture and so on, need to be seen in an integrated way. Then only, each of them can be understood fully. Gandhi did precisely that.
Gandhi’s economic resource person, J.C. Kumarappa, said that traditionally, religion, sociology and economics are assigned separate and exclusive spheres, but nature does not recognize such divisions. Nature deals with all life as a whole. And that was Gandhi’s view too.
Kumarappa’s book Economy of Permanence reflects Gandhi’s ideas, which, in present-day parlance, would be termed “green thought”. He advocated an economy based on the natural order. “In studying human institutions we should never lose sight of that great teacher, mother Nature. Anything that we may devise, if it is contrary to her ways, she will ruthlessly annihilate sooner or later,” he said.
“Everything in nature seems to follow a cyclic movement. Water from the sea rises as vapor and falls on land in refreshing showers and returns back to the sea again. A nation that forgets or ignores this fundamental process in forming its institutions will disintegrate,” Kumarappa predicted.
In a very Buddhist way, Gandhi advocated moderation of wants. “A certain degree of physical harmony and comfort is necessary, but above a certain level, it becomes 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. The incessant search for material comforts and their multiplication is an evil. I make bold to say that the Europeans will have to remodel their outlook, if they are not to perish under the weight of the comforts to which they are becoming slaves,” Gandhi said. He famously said, the earth has enough resources for our need but not for our greed.
When Gandhi was asked if he would like to have the same standard of living for India’s teeming millions as the British had, he quipped: “It took Britain half the resources of the planet to achieve this prosperity. How many planets will a country like India require!” With a prophetic vision, Gandhi warned: “A time is coming when those who are in mad rush today of multiplying their wants, will retrace their steps and say; what have we done?”
This fits in with the present-day ‘harmony model’, which has a strong ecological tenor about it, Moolakkattu points out. “There is now a new index called ‘happiness index’ that is being developed. One of the features of this index is that high levels of material development need not produce equally high levels of happiness. Gandhi placed emphasis on the theme of contentment and would have found the ‘happiness index’ a particularly useful one.”
Moolakkattu observes that if one looks at the current debate on climate change, the manner in which the West is frantically trying to persuade the emerging countries to reduce their carbon emissions and the billions of dollars being spent by developed countries to slow the pace of climate change, it seems Gandhi’s prediction has come true.
But realization has been very late in coming, Moolakkattu points out. “Although from the early seventies we were made aware of the environmental perils through books like Small is Beautiful (Schumacher1973) and Limits to Growth (Meadows et al.1972), it took more than a decade for the world to understand the gravity of the situation.”