Back | Next
ENVIRONMENT > Gandhi and deep Ecology
Gandhi And Deep Ecology
By Thomas Weber
The central importance of Gandhi to nonviolent activism is widely acknowledged. There are also other significant peace-related bodies of knowledge that have gained such popularity in the West in the relatively recent past that they have changed the directions of thought and have been important in encouraging social movements - yet they have not been analysed in terms of antecedents, especially Gandhian ones. The new environmentalism in the form of deep ecology, very closely mirror Gandhi's philosophy. This article analyses the Mahatma's contribution to the intellectual development of Arne Naess and argues that those who want to make an informed study of deep ecology and particularly those who are interested in the philosophy of Naess, should go back to Gandhi for a fuller picture.
Gandhi as a Source of Influence
Gandhi has had a profound and celebrated influence on the nonviolence movement through Martin Luther King Jr, Cesar Chavez, Helder Camara, Thomas Merton, Danilo Dolci, Gene Sharp and many others. In this article, I examine Gandhi's influence on three significant bodies of knowledge that have recently gained wide popularity in the West and which have also stimulated important social movements: deep ecology, peace research and what has become known as 'Buddhist economics', and particularly on the intellectual development of leading figures in these fields: Arne Naess, Johan Galtung and E. F. Schumacher.
Many environmental activists who claim that 'deep ecology' is their guiding philosophy have barely heard the name of Arne Naess, who coined the term. While Naess readily admits his debt to Gandhi, works about him tend to gloss over this connection or ignore it. For example, while a recent article on Naess' environmental philosophy and the Gita (Jacobsen, 1996: 228-230) refers to the link, the chapter on deep ecology in Merchant's book (1992: 88) which surveys 'radical ecology' contains a long list of its sources, including the debt owed to interpreters of Eastern philosophy such as Alan Watts, Daisetz Suzuki and Gary Snyder, without even mentioning Gandhi. The deep ecology of Naess not only talks of a personal identification with nature, but also of self-realization being dependent upon it. For those who know Gandhian philosophy well, this line of reasoning is readily recognized. However, Naess' writings on Gandhi are not particularly well known and Gandhi's influence on him has not received due recognition.
Peace research is a diverse field and Gandhi's influence has only touched certain areas of it. While he is generally not mentioned, and potential causal links are rarely investigated, the literature on conflict resolution is commonly quite 'Gandhian' in its approach. In much of the international relations, defence, security, ethnic conflict and related peace areas the possible relevance of Gandhian philosophy is not even an issue considered worthy of investigating. Although the connection between the two receives scant attention or is very much implicit (see Sorensen, 1992: 143-144, note 15), and a recent speech has called for the 'adding of Gandhi to Galtung' (Herman, 1994), the work of Johan Galtung, one of the leading academics in the peace research area, is centrally and obviously influenced by Gandhian philosophy· While Galtung makes several references to this influence on his thought in the introductory chapters to his Essays in Peace Research and elsewhere (e.g. Gage, 1995: 7), even Lawler (1995), the recent chronicler of Galtung's peace research, does little more than mention it in passing. For him Galtung seems to have moved from positivism to Buddhism, while according to Galtung himself it was Gandhi all the time'.
Unlike the works of Naess and Galtung, Schumacher's writings have made it onto popular bestseller lists· The Gandhian connection, at least at a superficial level, was originally also more explicit· However, Schumacher's 'small is beautiful' philosophy eventually came to be known as 'Buddhist economics and gradually the links with Gandhi took a back seat. His concern for Third-World poverty led to the formation of the Technology Group to develop tools and work methods which are appropriate to the people using them. While this practical work can only be lauded, its philosophical under-pinning should also be remembered.
Arne Naess and Deep Ecology
Although a conservation ethic had been around for decades (Nash, 1989) before the publication of books such as Carson's Silent Spring (1962) and studies such as The Limits to Growth (Meadows et al., 1972), Arne Naess took environmental philosophy into new areas with his call for a 'deep ecology'.
In 1973, Naess provided a summary of a lecture given the year before in Bucharest at the World Future Research Conference. That short article (Naess, 1973) was to take on paradigm-shifting proportions. It introduced us to a terminology that has since become commonplace.
Naess (1973: 95) points out that a shallow but influential ecological movement and a deep but less influential one compete for our attention· He characterizes the 'shallow' ecological movement as one that fights pollution and resource depletion in order to preserve human health and affluence, while the 'deep' ecological movement operates out of a deep-seated respect and even veneration for ways and forms of life, and accords them an 'equal right to live and blossom'.
In a later elaboration, Naess puts the contrast between the two in its most stark form: shallow ecology sees that 'natural diversity is valuable as a resource for us'. He notes that 'it is nonsense to talk about value except as value for mankind', and adds that in this formulation 'plant species should be saved because of their value as genetic reserves for human agriculture and medicine'. On the other hand, deep ecology sees that 'natural diversity has its own (intrinsic) value' and he notes that 'equating value with value for humans reveals a racial prejudice', and adds that 'plant species should be saved because of their intrinsic value' (Naess, 1984: 257).
During a camping trip in California, Arne Naess and George Sessions (1985: 69-70) jointly formulated a set of basic principles which they presented as a minimum description of the general features of the deep ecology movement: the 'well being and flourishing' of human and non-human life have intrinsic value; the richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are therefore also intrinsic values; humans have no right to reduce this richness or diversity except where it is necessary to satisfy vital needs; the flourishing of human life and culture is compatible with a large decrease in the human population, and a flourishing of non-human life requires it; human interference with nature is excessive and increasing; and, therefore, economic, technological and ideological policies must change. This ideological change will mean an appreciation of the quality of life rather than the standard of living; and those who subscribe to these points 'have an obligation directly or indirectly to try to implement the necessary changes'.
Naess loved nature and identified with it from early childhood. As a philosopher he researched and was influenced by Spinoza (Rothenberg, 1993: 91-101) who maintained a spiritual vision of the unity and sacredness of nature and believed that the highest level of knowledge was an intuitive and mystical kind of knowing where subject/object distinctions disappeared as the mind united with the whole of nature. However, as important as those inputs were, the influence of Gandhi is also clearly visible in his formulation of deep ecology. In fact Naess himself admits in a brief third-person account of his philosophy that 'his work on the philosophy of ecology, or ecosophy, developed out of his work on Spinoza and Gandhi and his relationship with the mountains of Norway' (Devall & Sessions, 1985: 225).
Gandhi experimented with and wrote a great deal about simple living in harmony with the environment (Power, 1991) but he lived before the advent of the articulation of the deep ecological strands of environmental philosophy. His ideas about human connectedness with nature, therefore, rather than being explicit, must be inferred from an overall reading of the Mahatma's writings. Naess (1986:11) explains that 'Gandhi made manifest the internal relation between self-realisation, non-violence and what sometimes has been called biospherical egalitarianism', and points out that he was 'inevitably' influenced by the Mahatma's metaphysics 'which contributed to keeping him (the Mahatma) going until his death'. Moreover, 'Gandhi's utopia is one of the few that shows ecological balance, and today his rejection of the Western World's material abundance and waste is accepted by progressives of the ecological movement' (Naess, 1974: 10).
While Gandhi allowed injured animals to be killed humanely to save them from unreasonable pain and at times even because they caused undue nuisance, his nonviolence encompassed a reverence for all life. In his hut at the Sevagram Ashram there is a large pair of wooden tongs which were used to pick up snakes so that they could be taken beyond the perimeter and released as an alternative to killing them.
A review of the Gandhian literature (while keeping in mind the time in which it was written as a reason for anthropocentric expression) readily reveals statements such as: 'If our sense of right and wrong had not become blunt, we would recognise that animals had rights, no less than men' (Hingorani, 1985: 10); 'I do believe that all God's creatures have the right to live as much as we have' (Harijan, 19 January 1937); and 'We should feel a more living bond between ourselves and the rest of the animate world' (Patel & Sykes, 1987: 50). The clearest indication of Gandhi's respect for nature, however, comes through his interpretation of the Hindu worship of the cow. Gandhi saw cow protection as one of the most wonderful phenomena in human evolution. 'It takes the human being beyond his species. The cow to me means the entire sub-human world. Man, through the cow, is enjoined to realise his identity with all that lives' (Young lndia, 6 October 1921).
Another way to illustrate Gandhi's concerns with the oneness of life is to look at his writings on ahimsa. Usually translated as nonviolence, it can be seen as the fountainhead of Truth - the ultimate goal of life. From his prison cell in 1930, Gandhi wrote to his ashramites that 'Ahimsa and Truth are so intertwined that it is practically impossible to distangle and separate them. They are like two sides of a coin ...' (Gandhi, 1932: 6).
For Gandhi, ahimsa meant 'love' in the Pauline sense and was violated by 'holding on to what the world needs' (Gandhi, 1932: 5). As a Hindu, Gandhi had a strong sense of the unity of all life. For him, nonviolence meant not only the non-injury of human life, but as noted above, of all living things. This was important because it was the way to Truth (with a capital 'T') which he saw as Absolute - as God or an impersonal all-pervading reality - rather than truth (with a lower case 't') which was relative, the current position on the way to Truth.
Naess had been an admirer of Gandhi since 1930 (Naess, 1986: 9). When he read Romain Rolland's Gandhi biography (Rolland, 1924) as a young philosophy student in Paris in 1931, he must often have come across Gandhi's statements on Truth and the essential oneness of all life. In some of his works, Naess notes that 'nature conservation is non-violent at its very core' and quotes Gandhi to this effect:
I believe in advaita (non-duality), I believe in the essential unity of man and, for that matter, of all that lives. Therefore I believe that if one man gains spiritually, the whole world gains with him and, if one man fails, the whole world fails to that extent. (Young India, 4 December 1924)
As this implies, for Arne Naess deep ecology is not fundamentally about the value of nature per se, it is about who we are in the larger scheme of things. He notes the identification of the 'self' with 'Self' in terms that it is used in the Bhagavad Gita (that is, as the unity which is one) as the source of deep ecological attitudes. In other words, he links the tenets of his approach to ecology with what may be termed self-realization. And here the influence of the Mahatma is most clearly discernible. Naess notes (1986: 9) that while Gandhi may have been concerned about the political liberation of his homeland, 'the liberation of the individual human being was his supreme aim'.
The link between self-realization and Naess' environmental philosophy can be clearly seen in his discussion of the connection between nonviolence and self-realization in his analysis of the context of Gandhian political ethics. Starting with the 'one basic proposition of a normative kind' when investigating Gandhi's teachings on group conflict - 'Seek complete self-realisation' (the manifestation of one's potential to the greatest possible degree') - Naess summarizes this connection as:
Figure 1. Naess' Systematization of Gandhian Ethics
This conceptual construction evolved into ever more complex and graphic presentations. In his 1974 work, Naess provides various systematizations of Gandhi's teachings on group struggle where self-realization is the top norm and which contain the critical hypothesis that all living beings are ultimately one, as set out in in Figure 1.
In a discussion with David Rothenburg over human destruction of the environment without adequate reason (for example, where a parent kills the last animal of a species to save his or her child from its attack), Naess is asked whether protection of nature should occur because we should think not only of ourselves or because natural things are part of us also. Naess refuses to separate the two approaches. He answers with another allusion to Gandhi: 'When he was asked, "How do you do these altruistic things all year long?" he said, "I am not doing something altruistic at all. I am trying to improve in Self-realisation"' (Rothenberg, 1993: 141-142). There need be no divide between the intrinsically valuable and the useful. And, in a Gandhian way of feeling rather than intellectualizing, he adds: 'if you hear a phrase like, "All life is fundamentally one", you should be open to tasting this, before asking immediately, "What does this mean?"' (Rothenburg, 1993:151).
Along with other deep ecological theorists, Naess is attempting to clarify what the deep ecology movement stands for. Ecological philosophies are continually expanding, and other writers have also added their analytical skills to the deep ecology literature (see, for example, Devall & Sessions, 1985). Recently, we have seen the rise of eco-feminism, Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis and aggressively radical movements and philosophies such as Earth First! While Gandhi certainly would not have welcomed some of these later developments (for example, the employment of 'ecotage' techniques such as tree-spiking and the disabling of logging equipment), and Naess does not, the Mahatma's influence is clearly discernible through the writings of Arne Naess.
Source: Journal of Peace Research; Vol. 36, No. 3, May 1999