On Gandhi and the green movement
Gandhi prophesised that an economy built on material consumption would cause a serious threat to the environment. In recent years, many greens have sought to capitalise on this anti-industrial message. But what exactly is the Gandhian remedy and how useful is it for the present day?
Gandhi called on Indians to ‘unlearn’ everything they had learnt under colonial rule. Only then, could India return to its true and natural state. ‘Natural’ India, according to Gandhi, was simple, constant, unchanging. It was all of the things that life in Europe and modern-day India, with its automated machinery and the mass production of consumer goods, was not. Gandhi sought a return to this golden age, where the people were at one with their natural surroundings.
Of course, there are a number of problems with Gandhi’s idealised view of the past. India did not exist, either as a concept or as reality, until the Raj period. This poses the question: what exactly was Gandhi seeking to resurrect? At what time and where exactly did his ideal community live? What language did they speak and what were their religious beliefs or caste? And who was to decide which community was the authentic representation of India?
Gandhi’s response to such questions and implicit criticisms was to turn inwards. He became even more entrenched in his views. After having read Leo Tolstoy’s tract, The Kingdom of God is Within You, his scepticism of the modern, industrial world, extended to an abhorrence of statehood. Gandhi began to see the modern bureaucratic state as debilitating and prone to using excessive force against those that stood in its way.
With the blessing of its namesake, Gandhi set up Tolstoy Farm – an experiment in self-sufficient communal living – in 1910. He sought to show how a simpler way of life based on collective endeavour, goodwill and spiritualism could work in practice. As a prototype, Tolstoy Farm failed to inspire. There was no flurry of copycat communes. Without wealthy benefactors, experiments such as Tolstoy Farm simply could not emerge.
Even more important than the lack of capital to fund such utopian projects, was the unwillingness of most people to reject modern comforts and material gains that the new industrial age seemed to offer. Whilst Gandhi criticised Europeans for having been corrupted by materialism – ‘money is their God’ – he failed to address the fact that many parts of Asia were also becoming increasingly reliant on mass production techniques. Gandhi’s efforts to associate industrialism with the west, and therefore paint it as a system that was foreign, had limited impact. For peasants and the urban poor, the sight of a London-educated lawyer dressed in dhoti must have seemed strange. Even stranger though, was his insistence on sleeping on pillows made from wood at Tolstoy Farm and his self-imposed fruit and nut diet. Whilst Gandhi was denying himself the luxuries that he could afford and attempting to embody his political and spiritual views, others viewed his behaviour as odd.
Just as Gandhi retreated to the past to find solutions, so too many greens today look backwards rather than forward. There is a nostalgic longing for a lost idyll where times were simpler and people did not aspire to possess material goods. The problem with this approach is threefold: it is based on a fallacy, it is unappealing to the majority living in both developed and developing countries, and it fails to recognise that the ‘environment’ is not exclusively a natural phenomenon – it quite often includes the results of human intervention and creativity. That is why the Gandhian remedy is of limited use today. To claim – as Gandhi did – that industrialism is inherently destructive is wrong. New technologies have the potential to damage, conserve and even improve the environment.