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The Challenge Of Our Time: Building Sustainable Communities

By Jack Santa Barbara 

Whenever he found himself Gandhi took on the big challenges.  In South Africa he challenged racial discrimination; in India he took on the challenge of gaining independence for his people from the oppression of the world’s greatest imperial power.  He entered these battles (and he did see them as battles) not with hatred against these injustices but with a strong sense of what was just, and with a sense of love for both the oppressed and the oppressor. 

There are many lessons for us today from the way Gandhi approached these challenges.  They are directly applicable to our theme of building sustainable communities. 

Gandhi evolved his tactics in these battles over the years, but there are some common threads that are evident in his earliest examples.  He directly challenged the authorities that perpetrated the injustices he fought against: by exposing in writing, by making direct appeals to the authorities to right the wrongs, by providing hope to the oppressed and teaching them that they had the power to make a change.  He organized boycotts and marches, directly challenging the injustices that were institutionalized by those in power.  When he negotiated he did not compromise basic principles.  All of these activities are needed now in challenging the many aspects of our community which are unsustainable. 

He is of course, famous for these public struggles, and especially for conducting them with brilliance in a nonviolent way.  There is also a quiet background to these public struggles.  Gandhi believed it was not enough to exhort others to change their unjust and harmful laws and practices.  He believed it was also necessary to live the change he fought for; to demonstrate what was possible and what the benefits of this right living were for all concerned. 

While he dealt with large issues of unjust national laws and imperial exploitation, he started with himself in making the changes he believed were necessary for justice and goodness to prevail.  Self-realization, being the best one can possibly be, was a very central principle for Gandhi.  This continuous, life-long process involved understanding how one contributed to the very injustices and suppression that one was the victim of, and refusing to continue making those contributions to ones own repression—to aiding and abetting the oppressor.  One can imagine Gandhi today asking himself how in his daily living he was contributing to make the community unsustainable, and what he could do to change this. 

Gandhi appreciated that self-realization is about having clear priorities and living as though they mattered.  He also appreciated that self-realization could only occur in community.  His tradition of establishing a special community to live out his principles goes back to his early days in South Africa.  He understood the joy of community, the energy derived from a common purpose, the shared struggles of everyday life, the value of a protected environment where one could live and experience justice, a safe environment in which one could conduct what he called “experiments with living.” 

Upon his return to India the establishment of ashrams in Ahmedabad and elsewhere provided other safe havens where basic values were evident in daily living with others.  In all these settlements Gandhi taught us much about building sustainable communities.  He taught us that little mundane activities such as drafting petitions, that living simply without more material possessions than we actually need (as distinct from desire) could be satisfying and fulfilling, that respecting all forms of living creatures was in our own best interests (as well as theirs), that equality was fundamental to both living well and protecting the natural world whose bounty we depend on. 

When we reflect upon these examples we can see that there are many lessons for us today.  If the Mahatma himself were to be standing before us here and now, what would he identify as the major challenges he would attend to, how would he live in order to set an example, what kinds of political actions would he take?  I believe there are enough examples from Gandhi’s life and writings to make some good guesses. 

He might well choose to deal with the ongoing threat of nuclear war, which remains as real today as it did during the days of the Cold War.  This is a distinct possibility.  I doubt, however, that he would take up the so called “War on Terror” unless it was to challenge the imperial power that has both created the conditions that give rise to terrorism, and which perpetuates the “war” as a smokescreen for its own greedy goals. 

Would Gandhi focus on the enormous inequities that have magnified many times over since he last walked the earth?  His example of simple living surely speaks to the changes that we are all challenged to make to deal with this gross injustice.   And today it is even more evident that those of us who enjoy a high standard of material consumption are doing so at the expense of the majority who are deprived.  This happens not because we are thoughtless and insensitive to the needs of others, but because our ingrained habits and basic institutions perpetuate this violence, and it is difficult for us to break these habits and to live outside and independently of these institutions.  When Gandhi established a small community it was in part to avoid participating in this institutional violence in the activities of daily living. 

If he were among us, might Gandhi decide to focus on the ecological crisis?  Or the unprecedented human interference with the natural systems which are also the preconditions for life as we know it to thrive?  Climate change, energy descent, loss of biodiversity, degradation of soil fertility, pollution of water and air—it is easy to imagine Gandhi having something to say about all of these challenges. They are all affronts to the basic principle of nonviolence which he espoused so forcefully.  They are all examples of violence against people.  Many are also examples of violence against nature, and as we are part of nature it is therefore also violence against ourselves. 

I have no special insight into which of these major challenges Gandhi might choose to focus on were he here among us now.  Some of these issues are examples of direct violence, but most are examples of structural violence—violence that is inherent in the way we design and run our institutions—our businesses, our economy, our transportation systems, our trade, even our philanthropy.  To the extent we make use of any of these institutions, to that extent we contribute to the violence they perpetrate against people and nature—the violence against ourselves and our children. 

I do, however, think a strong case can be made that regardless of what issue he might focus on, Gandhi would establish a community here in Hamilton which would exemplify solutions to all of the above challenges.  The way Gandhi would do this would ensure the community was sustainable, from both an ecological and social perspective.  It is even possible that give all the solutions that must be integrated into such a community (nonviolence of all types, self-realization, self-sufficiency, justice and equality), Gandhi might just view building such communities as the main focus of his work. 

The basic principles Gandhi established for building communities are as relevant today for Hamilton as they were for South Africa and India those many decades ago.  The current challenges we face of major climate changes, and especially of energy descent (that is, a decline in the amount of energy available with the depletion of our primary but non-renewable energy sources—oil, gas and coal) require restructuring of our communities and our priorities if we are to survive and thrive.  There is an urgency to dealing with these challenges that our governments and institutions are not addressing.  Gandhi suggested that “If the people will lead, the leaders will follow.”  Never has there been a time when leadership from below is more urgent. 

What are the basic principles Gandhi exemplified both in his life and his teachings that might guide or building of sustainable communities? 

First and foremost is nonviolence.  Violence comes in many guises.  We are most familiar with the direct violence of physical harm from assault, murder and war.  But far more harm is done through structural violence which kills and disadvantages far more people, albeit more slowly and less visibly.  The gross inequities that characterize our world are evidence of this structural violence.  The evidence is here in Hamilton.  The unprecedented environmental threats we have now created are yet another form of violence that is no less relevant or harmful for being indirect and slow acting; indeed, this violence against nature is a threat to humanity itself. 

The principle of advaita is also relevant.  This is the principle of non-duality, of oneness, of interconnectedness.  For Gandhi, self-realization involved understanding our connectedness to each other and the rest of the natural world of which we are a part.  When we do violence to nature, we do violence to ourselves.  The opposite of violence is love, and in loving others and cherishing nature, we acknowledge this oneness and that the well being of one and all cannot be separated. 

These principles are inspiring, but they have practical aspects as well.  Gandhi spoke of swadeshi or self sufficiency—applying this principle in a community context requires us to serve our neighbours before serving others more remote from us.  He interpreted this as requiring local production and consumption.  His famous quote about “production by the masses rather than mass production” is as much about justice as it is about treading lightly on nature.  By consuming local good we support our neighbours who produce the goods, providing them with employment and a place of honour in the community—what modern researchers now tell us is one of the major determinants of human happiness and well being. 

Local production also helps us move from being dependent consumers (dependent on remote production and long distance trade) to independent producers.  Self-sufficiency was an important principle for all the communities Gandhi helped establish, and was intended as an example for nations to follow. 

Also, when we produce goods locally we must rely on the resources nature provides locally to make the goods.  This makes us more aware of the need to protect nature’s capacity to continue providing the same resources over long periods of time.  We now understand that sustainability requires renewal.  If we degrade or deplete these resources so they cannot renew themselves, then we are inflicting an injustice on our children and grandchildren.  Likewise, the means of local production are less likely to pollute the air, water and land, as we live where we produce and consume. 

The principle of simplicity, or frugality, is also central to building sustainable communities, and Gandhi set a very high standard to emulate. He owned little in the way of material possessions, and those he did own were all locally produced.  He rejected material abundance and waste.  He did no t believe in trade solely for the sake of profit and to provide luxuries for the few at the expense of the many.  He realized that the earth’s limited resources needed to be shared fairly rather than concentrated in the hands of the privileged.  He considered taking more than we need (as distinct from desire) as theft; our unnecessary use deprives someone else, perhaps today, perhaps in the future. 

These simple principles are not only principles for a sustainable community.  In a world about to undergo major climate change and reduction in energy availability, these principles becomes principles for survival.  Our society’s focus on materialism and individualism is about to be disrupted by these large scale changes.  We each need to challenge ourselves in Gandhi’s spirit of self-realization, connecting our own well being to that of others and the rest of the natural world.  We each need to come to grips with the violence we all now both participate and benefit from (the structural violence against the unseen majority and nature), if we are to leave enough for our children and grandchildren to meet their basic needs.  To the extent we continue to participate in the mass organized violence of our mainstream culture, to that extent we reject Gandhi’s principles as irrelevant to our situation.  Gandhi’s example is no longer only the right thing to do on moral grounds.  The urgency of the crises we face makes building sustainable communities a requirement for survival.  There is no greater moral imperative than to create communities that are based on nonviolence of all kinds, equality, self-sufficiency and simplicity. 

This is our joyous task.

Gandhi Festival 2007 Keynote Address