Mahatma Gandhi and the Environment: Analysing Gandhian Environmental Thought
T N Khoshoo and John S Moolakkattu
The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI Press) 2009
ISBN 978 81 7993 223 0, pp152
Few books on Gandhi and the environmental implications of his thought have so far appeared. It is only in recent decades that we have become aware of the huge impact that human activities are having on our environment and although Gandhi did not say a great deal specifically about the environment his general outlook is very relevant to caring for our planet.
This book is based on one by the late Dr T N Khoshoo and is written by John S Moolakkatu who holds the Chair of Peace Studies at the University of Kwazulu Natal and is also Editor of Gandhi Marg.
Gandhi absorbed from his Indian background the idea of the unity of all things in the universe and this can lead naturally to a respect for all human beings, for animals and plants, and even for the inanimate. This is significantly different from the idea of exploiting nature for human benefit, which has been for some centuries the approach in the West. Gandhi’s orientation is therefore cosmocentric rather than anthropocentric.
With Gandhi’s life being his message his “personal lifestyle was the most sustainable one – simple, austere, clean, need-based, adequate worldly possessions, and reasonably comfortable” (p10) This however runs counter to the economic system we have all been exposed to and which is still the dominant one in the West and is rapidly embracing all countries. In these circumstances Gandhi’s approach is truly a revolutionary one. It is also, however, common sense. Unrestrained economic growth is simply impossible in a world which will probably have 10 billion people before long.
Amazingly Gandhi saw this in his own time: asked if he would like to see the same standard of living for Indians as for the English, he replied:
“It took Britain half the resources of the planet to achieve this prosperity. How many planets will a country like India require!”
Some of Gandhi’s specific practices would make a big difference if adopted. Significantly reducing the quantity of imported goods and using as much local produce as possible (swadeshi) is something we could move towards. Adopting a vegetarian diet is another – but why does the author call veganism ‘puritanical vegetarianism’ when there are strong evidence-based reasons for it? Trusteeship of one’s wealth and possessions, meaning that they should be used for the wider good, not oneself alone; this would mean greatly reducing luxury items and thus reducing wasteful production.
While new technology will be of some help in reducing environmental impact in the hazardous decades ahead, changes in lifestyle will be more important and this puts Gandhian ideas centre-stage. The book contains a very useful appendix of some of Gandhi’s sayings relevant to the issue, although it is surprising that the references for the many quotations in the book are not given – nor is there an index.
Nevertheless it is an excellent presentation of a subject that is of the highest importance and demonstrates how Gandhi can challenge us all six decades after his death.