Gandhi as the Father of Environmentalism

by M. P. Mathai

Tree hugging photograph; courtesy

The ecological crisis we confront today has been analysed from various angles, and scientific data on the state of our environment are readily available. Humanity has come out of its foolish self-complacency and has awakened to the realisation that over-exploitation of nature has led to a very severe degradation and devastation of our environment. Scholars, through joint studies and research projects, have brought out the direct connection between consumption and environmental degradation. For example, professor of planning and development, Inge Ropke, has raised pertinent questions in his paper, “The Dynamics of the Willingness to Consume”: Why are productivity increases largely transformed into income increases instead of more leisure? Why is such a large part of these income increases used for consumption of goods and services with a relatively high materials-intensity instead of less material-intensive alternatives?

The climate change experienced today has convinced many that unless we take urgent remedial measures life might be wiped out. There have been several international summits and important agreements have been signed. But to our great dismay, most of the provisions have been blatantly violated, rather than scrupulously honoured and implemented. Awareness of the issues involved has become almost universal, but the determination to take corrective steps is sorely missing.

The most pertinent questions today, therefore, seem to be: Why these violations, and why are we sidestepping the most crucial existential issues relating to the protection of the ecosystem? One answer is that we are not willing to change our lifestyles, the way we live. We have developed, adopted and internalised values which are a part of an unsustainable and destructive paradigm. We seem to cherish it so deeply and religiously, so to say, that we can neither abjure nor modify it. Our modern lifestyle has become addictive and has succeeded in entrapping an ever-growing number, particularly the emerging middle classes. It could be reasonably argued that one of the most important reasons why humanity is not able to find its way back from self-annihilating eco-destruction is its addiction to an unsustainable consumerist lifestyle.

Lifestyle: Defining Features

The most remarkable feature of this enticing modern lifestyle, of course is just this consumerism. It is important to distinguish between legitimate/existential consumption and conspicuous/extravagant consumption, between need-based and greed-based consumption. In the contemporary way of living, consumption has been elevated to the level of an ideology, nay, a religion. Shopping is the most important and exhilarating cultural activity, not just in the life of an average Westerner, but also among the majority of the middle class across the globe. Malls have become the cultural symbols and centres of our contemporary civilisation. The level of consumption has become the yardstick for measuring the worth of a person, and our lives.

The Paradigm Shift from Being to Having

How did humanity reach this state? One school argues that the scientific revolution brought about radical changes in the way human beings were viewed and understood. Significantly, humans have shifted from the affect to the intellect. The importance of the affect/emotional dimension of the human personality was demeaned and the intellect was elevated to a higher plane. The intellect came to be taken as the sole defining constituent of the human self. Cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am” became the maxim. Intellect became the guiding factor and force. This perspective gave rise to the idolatry of rationality. Internally the goal of life became the development of and control by the intellect and externally the production of more and more material things. And in the process, the human person was transformed into an object, a thing. As a result the goal of life changed and the emphasis shifted from the perfection of the human individual to the perfection of things. To be was replaced by to have. There, of course, are two modes of existence: being and having. With being, the worth of a person is determined by what he/she is, while with having worth is based on material possessions. Having characterises the contemporary civilisation and in having, more is always better and less is always worse. We crave for more and buy things superfluously, sometimes knowing that we will never use them.

Impact on Environment

This craze for material consumption has led to several psycho-social and environmental problems besides the economic ones. It is necessary to examine the relation between production and consumption and the impact it makes on the natural environment. The logic of contemporary economics should imply that production increases when demand increases. But this has, strangely, been reversed. Today, invention leads necessity.

The early twentieth century economist Alfred Marshall, that master craftsman of the theory of consumption, once wrote that, “Although it is man’s wants in the earliest stages of his development that give rise to his activities, yet afterwards each new step upwards is to be regarded as the development of new activities giving rise to new wants rather than of new wants giving rise to new activities.” Demands are created artificially through advertising and other means. Production, when no longer based on needs or demand, becomes propelled by greed and profit. Over-production of non-essentials like consumer durables and luxury goods makes a very heavy demand on the natural environment. There is a rat race for non-renewable resources, resulting in unhealthy, cutthroat competition, the over-exploitation and consequent devastation of nature. The damage this does to the environment is both predictable and irreparable. The war in Iraq is a typical example. The insatiable and ever-growing demand for oil, necessitated by a pathological automobile dependency in Europe and America, has led to a chronic crisis in the Arabian Gulf region, and to the Iraq war. Petroleum-geology experts have exposed the irreparable natural destruction caused by oil excavation. Their warnings should be seriously considered. The correlation between lifestyle and ecology is clearly discernible, let us say obvious.

Happiness and Consumerism, an Inverse Correlation

World religions and philosophies agree that what people seek in life is happiness. So, how do people become happy? Does a superabundance of material possessions and conspicuous consumption of goods and services make people contented and happy, or lead them to a sense of fulfilment? The answer has mostly been in the negative. Instead, it leads to a deeper and more enduring restlessness. When the gap between expectation and fulfilment is bridged all too easily, it gives rise to unexpected problems.

If we search within ourselves, we can well understand that our most basic urge is for happiness, and for the wellbeing of the community. Wellbeing of the community is a pre-condition for individual happiness. Gandhi pointed this out when he wrote that, “the good of the individual is contained in the good of all”. And happiness, in its true sense, means being in accord with human nature. This can be achieved only by overcoming the pulls and pressures of selfishness, narcissism, greed, and ego. It means experiencing our oneness and interdependence with fellow human beings, and the rest of creation. This connectedness is achieved affectively, if not intellectually. Wellbeing implies becoming what one potentially is. It is to experience one’s true self in the act of being and becoming, not having and consuming. A shift from having to being becomes an imperative for creative living. It is against this background that the relevance of Gandhian insights into ecology and lifestyle has to be examined and understood.

Gandhian Insights about Lifestyle

For Gandhi, lifestyle was nothing but translating what one believed into practice, in other words, trying out one’s ideals in day-to-day living. It is important to understand that Gandhi’s ideas on ecology are rooted in his philosophy of life, or more precisely, his world-view. Through observation and study, he developed a deep-rooted conviction that all life is one. This intuitive perception of the oneness of life constitutes the cornerstone of his worldview. He believed that all creation, living and non-living, is so closely interdependent that one cannot harm one without harming the other, and so harming oneself. For Gandhi, the protection and preservation of creation becomes the bounden duty of every human being because we are conscious, moral agents with a responsibility to the rest of creation.

Gandhi also believed that everything in this universe is a manifestation of the Ultimate, and, therefore, all of Nature possesses an inherent dignity inherited from the Ultimate. We must treat all of creation with reverence. Gandhi’s ecological perspective, contained in this aphoristic statement that “the earth provides enough to satisfy everyone’s need, but not everyone’s greed” is derived from this metaphysical, ethical position. Treating nature with reverence, protecting and preserving creation, limitations of wants and consumption, and simplicity are the pre-conditions of sustainable living.

The second important point is Gandhi’s concept of body, mind and spirit. For him any approach that treated the human being as one-dimensional, accepting either the body, the intellect, or the spirit as the sole defining constituent was ill-conceived and hence should be repudiated. Just as persons consist of body, mind and spirit, human transactions are shaped by our thoughts, words and deeds and therefore all three play a decisive role in defining how we are to live, and how we live.

Triple Harmony

A healthy lifestyle, as envisaged by Gandhi, takes cognisance of these three dimensions; the intra-personal, the inter-personal and the environmental. He adds to this transcendence, or a connection of the person to the Ultimate source and goal of life on Earth. At the intra-personal level, there must be a harmonious correlation between body, mind and spirit leading. A disproportionate emphasis on one to the neglect of the others would hamper the holistic evolution of personality. For example, if intellectual development is given predominance, overlooking both the physical and spiritual, the result would be an intellectual giant, but a moral dwarf and a physical weakling. By the same token, there must also be complete harmony between thought, word and deed. Any disjunction may result in serious emotional disequilibrium in the individual, which in turn, may lead to social conflicts. So, achieving this intra-personal harmony is crucial for a healthy lifestyle.

For Gandhi, human beings have special endowments, such as the capacity for moral discernment, and the potential to be godly. That was why he characterised human beings as moral agents and put a special emphasis on interpersonal relations. He wanted us to understand that “the good of the individual is contained in the good of all”, the first principle of sarvodaya he learned from John Ruskin. That is, there is no conflict between individual and social, collective interests. People must learn to accept others as part and parcel of their own selves.

Endowed with intellectual acumen to comprehend the laws of nature and discern the intimate and intricate inter-relation between everything that exists, human beings must consider themselves as nature’s stewards and try to protect and preserve it, and thus achieve harmony with the natural environment/cosmos. This is the third dimension of the triple harmony envisaged in a Gandhian lifestyle.

Gandhi’s Life as a Paradigm

Gandhi’s life in total bears testimony to his ceaseless effort to achieve the above mentioned harmony. In the universe, he found, there is an unalterable Law that governs and holds everything together. It is because of this law and sustaining principle that the universe is an orderly assemblage, a cosmos, and not chaos. He called this law God and/or Truth. An unflinching faith in this Law, in God or Truth, is an essential precondition for developing and sustaining a living consciousness about the oneness of life and making it one’s guiding principle in all human transactions. This living consciousness of the oneness of life is the founding principle of his environmental vision. He resorted to regular prayer, fasting and observation of silence to achieve this. He also practised the eleven vows: truth, nonviolence, non-stealing, non-possession, chastity, control of the palate (diet), bread-labour, fearlessness, equality of (and equal respect for) all faiths, swadeshi, and non-practice of untouchability, or non-discrimination. These so-called Ashram Vows he thought the basis for achieving moral and spiritual discipline. His insistence on sartorial integrity, vegetarianism, naturopathy, organic farming, revival of khadi and village industries and his rejection of modern industrial civilisation are all integrally related to his basic vision.

Gandhi’s Views on Nature: a Summary

“God manifests Himself in innumerable forms in this universe and every such manifestation commands my spontaneous respect”, Gandhi wrote. He understood and explained the ancient Indian practice of tree and cow worship, from an ecological perspective, as a reverential attempt by humankind to identify with the plant and animal levels of existence. Look at his words, “I find in the practice of tree worship, an instinct of deep pathos and poetic beauty. It symbolises true reverence for the entire vegetable kingdom which, with its endless panorama of beautiful shapes and forms, declares to us, as it were with a million tongues, the greatness and glory of God.” Gandhi’s insistence on concepts such as the limitation of wants and simplicity has great ecological significance. In modern manufacture and consumerism nature came to be looked upon as a repository of resources to be exploited and consumed, in the Gandhian paradigm the use of natural resources is to be guided by certain basic ethical principles and considerations. Needs for him, are basic and if they remain unsatisfied, individuals will be subject to painful tension and therefore, legitimate consumption is in order. But wants are neither basic nor essential; more often than not they are superfluous and redundant. The environmental crisis we confront today could legitimately be attributed to ruthless attempts to cater to ever increasing human wants that are in turn being artificially created.

Gandhian Practice and the Environment

Gandhi considered modern civilisation, which has set the satisfaction of material wants and attainments of physical comfort as the central purpose of life, as the root cause of all social maladies including the environmental degradation we witness today. To reject this and adopt a sustainable alternative in its place is therefore indispensable for maintaining an eco-balance and for ensuring human survival. This is essentially a structural issue to be addressed at the level of political decision making, particularly with regard to development. In order to persuade and pressure decision makers to adopt and implement appropriate policies and change eco-destructive projects and patterns, Gandhi gave us the method of Satyagraha or nonviolent direct action.

But Gandhi knew that there was also a personal dimension to this problem, related to individual responsibility. He believed that individual human interactions with nature were of crucial significance. When we are born into this world, we inherit a great and wonderful legacy. We have abundant bounty at our disposal besides what our ancestors have kept for us. It appears strange that we are given access to something for which we have not contributed anything. What ought to be our duty? To drive home the relevance of individual responsibility, he drew upon the ancient concept of yajna and gave it his own original interpretation. Yajna, or selfless service and sacrifice, also means the duty, which comes with birth. We are debtors all our lives, argued Gandhi. He wrote,  “As a bond slave receives food, clothing and so on from the master whom he serves, so should we gratefully accept such gifts as may be assigned to us by the Lord of the Universe.” For Gandhi, a whole gamut of consequences comes out of this conviction. As we have not created any of these natural resources, our duty must be to minimise our use, and replenish as much as possible what we use.

As we are capable of grasping the laws of Nature, it is our duty to live and act in accordance with these Laws, and ensure that all our activities conform to laws, which sustain life. Yajna also teaches the principle of renunciation of self-interest and advocates the path of selfless service. Natural resources are not for human consumption only but are also for all creatures; they are not only for this generation but are also for generations to come. Thus Gandhi rejects anthropocentrism and substitutes it with bio-centrism. He exhorts us to change our orientation from materialism to spirituality, from having to being. This is crucial for maintaining an eco-balance.

Concluding Observation

Gandhi’s life and writings show that he was trying to teach us a paradigm shift by providing holistic and ecologically sound alternatives to the unsustainable model propounded by modern industrial civilisation. He tried to replace consumerism with conservation, mass production with production by the masses, private ownership with community ownership, quantity obsession with quality concern, dominating power with enabling power, centralisation with decentralisation, reductionism with holism, and crass materialism with authentic spirituality. These aspects of deep ecology are integral elements of his philosophy and way of life, and that is why many hail him as the father of modern environmentalism. The relentless effort he made to attain the triple harmony of body, mind and spirit, and of thought, word and deed, earned him the title of Mahatma, which truly means a person in whom thought, words and action are wholly integrated.

A NOTE ON THE TEXT: This paper was presented on July 2 & 3, 2010 at the conference, Global Ecology and the Indian Context, held at Orthodox Theological Seminary, Kottayam, organized also with ISPCK, Delhi. A slightly different version appeared in Gandhi Marg, Volume 32, Number 2; July-September 2010; courtesy of

EDITOR’S NOTE: M. P. Mathai is a professor at Gujurat Vidyapth University, Ahmedabad, India, which was founded by Gandhi. He has been Dean, Gandhi Research Foundation, and Professor and Director at the School of Gandhian Thought and Development Studies, M.G. University, Kerala, India. His works include Gandhi’s Worldview and he is as well an editor of Gandhi Marg. For this information we are grateful to

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi