Need vs Greed: Mahatma the Environmentalist

Mahatma Gandhi once famously said that ‘the earth has enough resources for our need but not for our greed’. This statement of the Mahatma has often been quoted in recent times as we battle environmental degradation and climate change crisis. This statement of Gandhi also brings forth his deep concern for nature and the environment. It will be apt to note that he was in practise and vision among the world’s early environmentalists.
All the efforts since 1970s, be it Stockholm Conference or Rio Earth Summit or these days as the world struggles to implement Paris Accord have all happened much later than the time Gandhi expressed concerns about the environment and its effects. Environmentalists and movements across the world today are deriving inspiration from Gandhi’s vision on the subject. If we take a closer look at movements at home to protect environment and save us from ecological disasters, all are following Gandhian approach and deriving inspiration from it. Be it Chipko Andolan of Sundar Lal Bahuguna or Narmada Bachao Andolan by Medha Patkar and others. Gandhi in his speeches, through his writing and messages to people often expressed his concern for environment, urbanisation and mechanisation.

Gandhi and urbanisation
“I need no inspiration other than Nature’s. She has never failed me as yet. She mystifies me, bewilders me, sends me to ecstasies.”– Mahatma Gandhi
Gandhi expressed his views on urbanisation in 1934. He wrote in Harijan “It is a process of double drain from the villages. Urbanisation in India is a slow but sure death for her villages and villagers. It can never support 90 per cent of India’s population, which is living in her 7,00,000 villages” (number of villages in 1934). He was a big votary of sustaining cottage industries in villages because he believed that if that is removed then villagers would lose whatever little opportunity existed to make skilled use of hand and head. He wrote “And when the village handicrafts disappear, the villagers working only with their cattle on the field, with idleness for six or four months in the year, must be reduced to the level of the beast and be without proper nourishment either of the mind or the body, and, therefore without joy and without hope”.
Mahatma Gandhi was acutely conscious of large scale industrialisation and its perils. He had cautioned the world much before anyone that it will lead to destruction of the environment. In one of his most celebrated works written more than a hundred years ago in 1909, in Hind Swaraj, he had warned about the dangers that the world is facing today in the form of environmental destruction and threat to the planet. He always distinguished between ‘need’ and ‘want’ of the human being. He was very clear that we must keep the future generation in mind before the present generation use up all the natural resources. He once said “The earth, the air, the land and the water are not am inheritance from our fore fathers but on loan from our children. So we have to handover to them at least as it was handed over to us.”

Production by the masses
Dr Rajnarayan R Tiwari, Director, ICMR-National Institute for Research in Environmental Health says that ‘The Gandhian idea becomes still more relevant when sustainable growth and development is to be achieved because he emphasised on production by the masses instead of mass production. According to him this will result in the development of an economic system that can minimise environmental degradation and achieve sustainable development. His idea of Swaraj or self-rule enables a practical sustainable development that can be implemented without compromising the quality of life’.
If we scrutinise history we find that Gandhi was very much aware of environmental pollution and its bearing on human health. He frequently used to express his concern about pathetic working conditions in industry where workers were forced to inhale contaminated, toxic air. He expressed those concerns in Indian Opinion on May 5, 1906 and said “Nowadays, there is an increasing appreciation among enlightened men of the need for open air”. Dr. Tiwari says that Gandhi always emphasized the importance of natural resources and its conservation. He says that ‘this has a direct bearing on the man-and-environment relationship. The importance of Gandhian philosophy is well-felt in the present period in which the lifestyle of human beings has been developed in a direction of high consumerism and generation of waste. This has a two-way impact on nature. Firstly, the rate of depletion of resources has increased tremendously, and secondly, the presence of toxicity in air, water and soil has increased’.

Conservation of biodiversity
Once English historian Edward Thomson said to Gandhi that wildlife was rapidly declining in India, to which Gandhi replied with sarcasm, “Wildlife is decreasing in the jungles, but increasing in the towns.” He firmly believed that the pursuit of limitless industrialisation by every country posed serious problem ‘for the very existence of not only man but also for all living creatures and all kinds of species on our planet’.What he preached and practised corresponds to what we today call eco-friendly measures and living in harmony with nature.

A thinker with ecological sensibility
His writings and speeches may not have mentioned the subject as it is discussed today but undoubtedly Gandhi was a thinker with ecological sensibility. The Norwegian philosopher, Arne Naess, who gave the world the idea of ‘deep ecology’ had said that it is from Gandhi that he came to the realisation of ‘the essential of all life’.
Vinay Lal, Professor of History at University of California in one of his essays says that ‘he was of the considered opinion that nature should be allowed to take its course. The environmental crises and “extreme weather events” that are upon us have been precipitated by the gross and appalling instrumentalisation of nature. The earth is not merely there to be mined, logged and hollowed out. However, we have to first preserve the ecological equanimity of the body. Nature’s creatures mind their own business; if humans were to do the same, we would not be required to legislate the health of all species.’
Gandhi had a profound vision about the environment. He cautioned and exhorted Indians to be critically aware of the fallout and blind acceptance of technology and eating up with the west in terms of its living standards. He tried to make people see the adverse link between the western civilisation, the growing consumption practice and the threat to natural resources leading to what we today refer as ‘ecological crisis’. He cautioned against exhaustion of earth’s resources if every country tread the path of the west. Most importantly the thinker with profound ecological sensibility himself practised what he exhorted people to do.

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