Ecology and Lifestyle: A Gandhian Perspective

By M. P. Mathai*

Rising Awareness, Chronic Inertia

The ecological crisis we confront today has been analysed from various angles and scientific data on the state of our environment made 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 several studies, have brought out the direct connection between consumption and environmental degradation. For example, Inge Ropke in his paper 'The dynamics of willingness to consume' raises pertinent questions like: 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 of the face of the Earth. There have been several international summits and important conventions have been signed. But to our great dismay, most of the provisions of these covenants 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 question today, therefore, seems to be: 'why these violations?' Why sidestep the most crucial existential issues relating to the protection of eco-system? One direct answer to this vexing question is that we are not willing to change our lifestyles, the way we live. We have developed, adopted and internalised the values of a lifestyle which is a part of an unsustainable and destructive development paradigm. We seem to cherish it so deeply and religiously, so to say, that we can neither abjure nor modify it. Modern lifestyle has become addictive and has succeeding in entrapping an ever growing number to its fold, particularly the emerging middle classes. It could be reasonably argued that one of the most important reasons why humanity is not able to retrace its steps from the perilous path of self-annihilating eco-destruction is its addiction to modern or contemporary lifestyle.

Lifestyle: Defining Features

The most remarkable feature of this enticing modern lifestyle, of course is its consumeristic orientation. It is important to distinguish between legitimate/existential consumption and conspicuous/extravagant consumption, between need-based and greed-based consumptions. 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 Westener, but also among the majority of middle classes across the globe. Malls have become the cultural symbols and centres of our contemporary civilsation. The level of consumption has become the yardstick for measuring the worth of a person and his/her life.

The Paradigm Shift: from Being to Having

How did humanity reach this state? There have been several analysis of this question from different perspective. One stream argues that the scientific revolution brought about radical changes in the way human beings were viewed and understood. Significantly, humans have split from the affect to the intellect. The importance of the affect- emotional dimension of the human personality- was discounted and the intellect was elevated to a higher plane. The intellect came to be taken as the sole defining constituent of the human self. Cognito ergo sum- I think, therefore I am, became the maxim. Intellect became the guiding factor and force. This perspective gave rise to what came to be known as 'the idolatory 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 got transformed into a thing. As a result the goal orientation of life changed and emphasis eventually shifted from the perfection of the human individual to the perfection of things. 'To be' is pushed out by 'to have'. There, of course, are two modes of existence: the being mode and the having mode. While in the being mode, the worth of a person is determined on the basis of what he/she truly is, in the having mode it is on the basis of a person's material possessions that he/she is evaluated. Having mode of living manifestly characterises the contemporary civilsation and in the having mode, more is always better and less is ever bad. Humans, therefore, crave for more and buy things superfluously, sometimes even knowing that they 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. Demand-supply logic of conventional economics would imply that production would increase only if there is demand. But in this century, this has, strangely, been reversed. Today, it is the invention that leads to necessity. Marshall, the master craftsman of the theory of consumption says, "Although it is man's wants in the earliest stages of his development that give rise to his activities, yet afterwards, each new step is to be regarded as the development of 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, now not based on either needs or demand, is propelled only by greed and profit motive. Over-production of non-essentials like consumer durables and luxury artifacts makes a very heavy demand on the natural environment. There is a rat-race for non-renewable resources, resulting in unhealthy, cut-throat competition, their over-exploitation and consequent devastation of nature. This would lead to gradual but heavy militarisation and probably to war. The damage it does to the environment is unpredictable and irreparable. The war in Iraq is typically illustrative. In fact, it is insatiable and evergrowing demand for oil necessitated by the pathological automobile dependency of the American and the European population that has led to chronic crisis situation in the Arabian Gulf region and the Iraq war. The irreparable natural destruction caused by oil excavation has been exposed by petroleum-geology experts and their warnings should be seriously considered in this context. This, the correlation between lifestyle and ecology is clearly discernible.

Happiness and Consumerism, the Inverse Correlation

World religions and philosophies converge on this point that what people seek in life are happiness. So, how do people become happy? Do a superabundance of material possessions and conspicuous consumption of goods and services make people contented and happy and lead them to a sense of fulfilment? The answer has mostly been in the negative. Instead, this 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 deeper within ourselves, it could be understood that our basic urge is for happiness for oneself and well-being of the community. Well-being of the community is an "essential pre-condition" for indivudal happiness. Gandhi precisely pointed to this 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 one's lower self, i.e., one's selfishness, narcissism, greed, ego. It also means experiencing oneness with our fellow human beings, and the rest of creation. This connectedness is to be achieved affectively, but not intellectually. Well-being 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. So, a shift from having mode to being mode 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 into 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 and way of living are rooted in his philosophy of life, or more precisely, his world-view. By observation and study, he developed a deep-rooted conviction that all life is one. This intuitive perception og oneness of life constitutes the cornerstine of his world-view. He believed that all creation- the living and non-living, are so closely interdependent that one cannot harm the other without at the same time harming oneself. So, for Gandhi, protection and preservation of creation, becomes the bounden duty of every human being because the human being for him, was a conscious, moral agent and hence owed it to the rest of creation. Gandhi also believed that everything in this universe is a manifestation of the Ultimate (isavasyamidam sarvam, as the Isavasya Upanishad puts it.) and, therefore, every object in Nature, highly or less evolved, possess an inherent dignity inherited from the Ultimate. We, humans, must therefore, treat every creation with reverence. Gandhi's ecological perspective, contained in this aphoristic statement that " the Earth provides enough to satisfy everyman's needs, but not for anybody'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, hence, inevitable pre-conditions for sustainable living.

The second important postulate relevant in this connection is Gandhi's concept of body, mind and spirit. So, for him any approach that treats human being as a one-dimensional entity, accepting either the body or the intellect or the spirit as the sole defining constituent was ill-conceived and hence should be repudiated. Just as the human persons consist of body, mind and spirit, human transactions are shaped by our thoughts, words and deeds and therefore all the three play a decisive role in the lifestyle.

Triple Harmony

A healthy lifestyle, envisaged by Gandhi takes cognizance of the Triple Harmony of the three dimensions, viz., the intra-personal, the inter-personal and the environmental/cosmic. There is also a dimension of transcendence which connects human beings to the Ultimate which is the source and goal of life on Earth. At the intra-personal level, there must be proper correlation between body-mind and spirit leading to their harmonious development. A disproportionate growth of any one, neglecting the others, would hamper the organic evolution of human personality. For example, if intellectual development is given predominance, overlooking both physical and spiritual developments, the result would be an intellectual giant, who would be 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 in healthy lifestyle.

For Gandhi, human beings have certain special endowments like capacity for moral discretion, and the potential to be godly. That was why he characterised human beings as moral agents and put moral agents and put special emphasis on inter-personal 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) and that there is no conflict between individual and social/collective interests. People must learn to accept others as part and parcel of their own selves. Such an outlook would lead to inter-personal harmony and create social synergy which is the next essential aspect of a healthy lifestyle.

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 Gandhian lifestyle.

Gandhi's life: a Paradigm

Gandhi's life in total bears testimony to the ceaseless effort he made to achieve the above mentioned harmony. In universe, he found that there is an unalterable Law that governed and held everything together. It is because of this law, which is a sustaining principle, that the universe is an orderly assemblage of things, a cosmos, and not a chaos. He called this Law God and Truth. For Gandhi, an unflinching faith in this Law, God or Truth is an essential pre-condition 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 about 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 eleven vows- tryth, non-violence, 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 (discrimination), known as Ashram Vows, for achieving the necessary moral and spiritual discipline for it. 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: an overview

"God manifests Himself in innumerable forms in this universe and every such manifestation commands my spontaneous respect.", wrote Gandhi. 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, declare to us, as it were with a million tongues the greatness and glory of God." Gandhi's insistence on concepts like limitation of wants and simplicity has great ecological significance and it is highlighted today by all well-meaning economists and environmentalists. While in the modern scientific (?) approach, 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 the ruthless attempts to cater to the ever increasing human wants that are artificially created.

Gandhian Praxis vis-avis Environment

Gandhi considered modern civilisation which has set the satisfaction of material wants and attainments of physical comfort (read sensual pleasure) as the central purpose of life, as the root cause of all social maladies including environmental degradation we witness today. To discard this, and to adopt a sustainable alternative in its place, is therefore indispensable for maintaining 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 pressurise decision makers to adopt and implement appropriate policies and to change anti-people and eco-destructive projects, Gandhi gave us the method of Satyagraha or non-violent direct action.

But Gandhi knew that there was also a personal dimension to this problem and that related to individual responsibility. Individual human interactions with nature are of crucial significance, believe Gandhi. 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 towards them?  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 one's 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 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 made any of the natural resources, our duty must be to minimise our use (use we must, though) and to replenish as much as possible what we take.

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

Concluding Observation

Gandhi's life and writings show that he was trying to give a paradigm shift by providing holistic and ecologically sound alternative to the unsustainable life model established by the modern industrial civilisation. He tired 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 traits of deep ecology are constitutive elements of his philosophy and way of life, and that is why many hail him as the father of modern environmentalism. And the relentless effort he made to attain the triple harmony- of body, mind and spirit, and of thought, word and deed - earned for him the title of Mahatma which means a person in whom thought, words and action are amalgamated into a whole.

Adapted from the original article which appeared in Gandhi Marg, Volume 32, Number 2, July-September 2010

Original paper presented at a National Consultation on "Global Ecology and the Indian Context", jointly organised by Orthodox Theological Seminary, Kottayam & ISPCK, Delhi on July 2 & 3, 2010 at Orthodox Theological Seminary.