Environmental Thoughts of Gandhi for a Green Future

By Sasikala A.S.*


The environmental concern as we understand today was not there at the time of Gandhi, but his ideas on development, technology, self sufficiency, village Swaraj etc. disclose his environmental concern. Different streams of environmental philosophy have paid their indebtedness to Gandhi.


We live in a world in which science, technology and development play important roles in changing human destiny. However, over- exploitation of natural resources for the purpose of development leads to serious environmental hazards. In fact, the idea of development is itself controversial in the present situation as in the name of development, we are unethically plundering natural resources. It is true that a science that does not respect nature's needs and a development which does not respect people's needs threatens human survival. The green thoughts of Gandhi give us a new vision to harmonise nature with the needs of people.

Gandhi was not an environmentalist in the modern sense. Although he did not create a green philosophy or write nature poems, he is often described as an "apostle of applied human ecology."1 It is a fact that environmental concerns were minimal in Gandhi's time; but eminent environmental writers like Ramachandra Guha consider him an early Environmentalist.2 His views on nature are scattered throughout his writings. His ideas relating to Satyagraha based on truth and non-violence, simple life style, and development reveal how sustainable development is possible without doing any harm to nature and our fellow beings. His idea that "nature has enough to satisfy every one's needs, but not to satisfy anybody's greed" became one line ethic to modern environmentalism.

Gandhi considered the earth a living organism. His ideas were expressed in terms of two fundamental laws: Cosmic law and the Law of Species. Cosmic Law views the entire universe as a single entity. Nothing could malfunction outside the threshold limits built into the grand system that includes both living and non-living phenomena.3 He believed that "the universe was structured and informed by the cosmic spirit, that all men, all life and indeed all creation were one."4 He wrote: "I believe in the 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 world gains with him and if one man fails, the whole world fails to that extent."5 Regarding the law of species Gandhi believed that without the cooperation and sacrifice of both human and non-human beings evolution is not possible. Being rational human beings, we are the custodians of the rest of creation and should respect their rights and cherish the diversity. It is for this reason that taking more than the required resources is seen as theft. Gandhi evolved these principles from his vast readings and understandings of religious traditions of Hinduism, Jainism, Christianity and Islam. His social, economic and political ideas were framed on the understanding of interdependence of the whole universe.


Truth, Non-violence and Satyagraha

Truth and Non-violence are the fundamentals of Gandhian Philosophy. Nonviolence or Ahimsa means non-injury, but to Gandhi non-violence was much more than the absence of violence. He used it to mean non-injury in thought, word and deed. Ahimsa, Satyagraha and Tapasya were the basic principles that guided his life.6 Truth and Ahimsa are intertwined terms. To Gandhi truth is that "which determines the spirit in which one lives or the religious and ethical criteria which governs the way in which he thinks and acts."7 He believed that truth can be achieved only by means of non-violence. It affords the fullest protection to one's self respect and sense of honor. If truth is the highest law, then non-violence is the highest duty. Gandhi claimed that truth was the most correct and fully significant term that could be used for God. To practice Ahimsa is to realize truth and to realize truth is to practice Ahimsa. The concept Satyagraha gave practical expression to the religious and ethical ideals of truth and non violence. Tapasya or self sacrifice is necessary to achieve the highest truth. It involves freedom from fear and a willingness to die. Gandhi believed that Satyagraha is nothing, but tapasya for the truth. The suffering that has to be undergone in Satyagraha is tapasya in its fullest form.8

Gandhi explained his concept of non-violence in the following terms.

1 . Non-violence is the law of the human race and is infinitely greater than and superior to brute force.

2. Non-violence affords the fullest protection to one's self-respect and sense of honor.

3. Individuals and nations who practice non-violence must be prepared to sacrifice everything for the welfare of the whole world.

4. Non-violence is a power which can be wielded equally by all - children, young men and women or grown up people, provided they have a living faith in the God of love and therefore have equal love for all mankind. When non-violence is accepted as the law of life it must pervade the whole being and not merely applied to isolated acts.

5. It is a profound error to suppose that whilst the law is good enough for individuals it is not for masses of mankind.9

Satyagraha is an active form of non-violence. Gandhi considered it as truth force or soul force. Satyagraha is based on the idea that the moral appeal to the heart or conscience is more effective than an appeal based on the threat or bodily pain or violence. Satyagraha itself originates from the belief that while violence to persons and property diverts the minds of the parties concerned from the real issues involved, non-violent action invites the parties to a dialogue about the issues themselves.

The ecological scope of non-violence is unlimited. Gandhi's faith in non-violence and vegetarianism made him a votary of conservation of all diversity including all forms of life, societies, cultures, religions, and traditions.10 Arne Naess, the pioneer of deep ecology argued that ecological preservation is non violent in nature.11 Naess introduced and Thomas Weber systematized the relation between non-violence, self-realization and mutual dependence of all living beings in the following points.

1. Self-realization presupposes a search for truth

2. All living beings are one

3. Himsa (violence) against oneself makes self-realization impossible.

4. Himsa against a living being is himsa against oneself

5. Himsa against a living being makes complete self-realization impossible12

Naess used these principles to evolve a broader philosophy of environmentalism i.e, deep ecology. He believed that Gandhi's Utopia is one of the few that shows ecological balance.13 As Gandhi envisaged, non-violence has the power to solve all our problems, including ecological crisis. Many thinkers considered the Indian Environmental Movements like Chipko movement, Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) etc. as the living example of Gandhian Environmentalism and they consider Gandhi as a "man with deep ecological view of life, a view much too deep even for deep ecology."14 The key agenda of the Chipko movement was that carrying forward the "vision of Gandhi's mobilization for a new society, where neither man nor nature is exploited and destroyed, which was the civilizational response to a threat to human survival."15 All these together made Gandhi an exponent of Indian environmentalism.


Gandhi's Critique of Modern Civilization

Modern industrial civilization has had a huge impact on human kind as well as on the environment. It made a small part of the population wealthy at the cost of exploiting the world's natural resources. Gandhi believed that it propagates nothing other than the hunger for wealth and the greedy pursuit of worldly pleasures.16 Hind Swaraj, published in 1909, criticized the modern civilization as" 'satanic'. He observed that 'machinery is the chief symbol of modern civilization; it represents a great sin. It is machinery that has impoverished India.'17 The distinguishing characteristic of modern civilization is an indefinite multiplicity of wants, whereas ancient civilizations were marked by an imperative restriction upon, and a strict regulating of these wants.18 Gandhi believed that the ancient civilizations were religious in nature which would surely limit worldly ambitions.

Gandhi believed that true civilizational values are not present in modern civilization. In Hind Swaraj Gandhi argued that what we think as 'civilization' today is an illusion, and that any civilization that ill treated outsiders could hardly avoid ill treating its own people. Gandhi's critique of western civilization and science emanates from his dissatisfaction with the divorce of science and progress from morality.19 He was not against the technology, but the technologism which creates a hierarchical relationship among men as well as between men and nature. Gandhi believed that the greatest achievements of modern civilization have been weapons of mass destruction, the awful growth of anarchism, the frightful disputes between capital and labor and cruelty inflicted on innocent, dumb, living animals in the name of science and technology. He believed a science to be science only if it afforded the fullest scope for satisfying the hunger of body, mind and soul.

Modern civilization involved an egregious amount of violence against nature which was largely seen as man's property. This undermined man's unity with his environment and fellowmen and destroyed stable and long established communities.20 Natural resources were ruthlessly exploited and their rhythm and balance disturbed while animals were killed or tortured for human needs. Gandhi believed that villages would soon disappear due to the urbanization which is part of modern civilization, and of which environmental degradation is a product.

While the western environmentalists spread the message of "going back to the nature" Gandhi spread the message of "going back to the villages". He believed that the "the blood of the village is the cement with which the edifice of the cities is built."21


Ecological Economics of Gandhi

Modern economy is "propelled by a frenzy of greed and indulges in an orgy of envy."22 It makes man more materialistic at the risk of majority and the environment. Gandhi asserted that "true economics stands for social justice; it promotes the good of all equally, including the weakest and is indispensable for decent life".23 Dr. J C Kumarappa summed up Gandhian economic ideas as constituting philosophy that sought to create an "economy of permanence". All nature is dovetailed together in a common cause". Kumarappa argued that "when this interconnection works out harmoniously and violence does not break the chain, we have an economy of permanence."24 He identified different types of economies and realized that the highest form of economy is the economy of service which Gandhi suggests. Gandhian economic Concepts like swadeshi, trusteeship, bread labour etc received attention and acceptance from the whole world.

The swadeshi spirit encourages us to consume commodities made from our own villages, thus promoting small scale industries which help ordinary farmers and weavers to live happily. Limitation of wants is another important aspect in Gandhian economics. Gandhi urged us to minimize our wants to minimize the consumption and thus reduce the burden on nature by avoiding hazardous wastes. Our civilization, culture and swaraj depend on the restriction of wants. Gandhi realized that the modern civilization and the market economics have a tendency to multiply the wants and needs of common people. Bread labour is another important economic concept of Gandhi. He valued bodily labor saying "the rains come not through intellectual feats, but through sheer bodily labor. It is a well established scientific fact that where forests are denuded of trees, rains cease, where trees are planted rains are attracted and the volume of water received increases with the increase of vegetation".25 The Gandhian concept of bread labor encourages the use of human hands and body instead of machines to produce essential items like 7 vegetables, cloth etc.

The economic ideas of Gandhi differed from conventional economics and bore close resemblances with ecological economics. The term sustainable development was not much discussed at Gandhi's time, but his ideal vision of the world known as Sarvodaya safeguard the rights of future generations, through the welfare of all. The following table shows the difference between conventional economics and Gandhian economics and reveals how it contributes to environmental sustainability.

Table 1: Differences between Conventional and Gandhian Economics


Conventional Economics

Gandhian Economics

Basic philosophy Materialistic Spiritual
World View Human Centric Eco centric (considers the equal right of human and non human beings.
Macro Aim Profit Maximization Sustainable communities through agriculture and constructive programmes.
Views on Science and Technology Inevitable part of human progress 'Scientirism' the 'technologism' makes modern man slaves of machines
Views on natural resources Maximum benefit out of natural resources Limited use of resources
Views on modes of production Mass production with the aid of modern technology Production by the masses
Nature of production Capital 'intensive Labor intensive
Views on the market Large scale market induced by globalization Local and national (Swadeshi)
Nature of Power Power vested in the industrial nations or the corporate (centralization of power and resources) Power belongs to people (decentralization of power and resources)
Outcome Urbanization, environmental crisis, resource depletion and natural calamities. Village swaraj, and environmental sustainability


Gandhian Conflict Resolution and Environment

Conflict resolution is an emerging branch of social science which deals with the techniques to resolve conflicts between nations or between individuals. It can also be applied to address environmental issues.

Whenever there is a mismatch between different interests, conflicts arise. Gandhian non-violence or Satyagraha is accepted by many as an effective technique of conflict resolution. Gandhi never used the word 'conflict resolution'; instead he use terms like mediation and 'negotiation'. He never considered conflicts as problems, father, they were opportunities for moral growth and transformation.

'The contribution of Gandhi in conflict resolution was his "working hypothesis that the non-violent resolution of group conflict was a practical goal."26 His philosophy of truth and nonviolence contribute to the theory of conflict resolution. Gandhi believed that truth is one and different individuals perceive it differently. Nobody can claim that their perception is correct. If we are not sure about the supreme truth there is no need of violence or conflict. In order to realize truth one should have to realize God. Self realization is the way to realize God. Self realization will lead us to refrain from violence against other beings.

So far as the Indian environmental movements are concerned, the conflict is often between different interest groups or between the state and people, and are often led by peasant groups or tribal people. It is often in the form of struggle for the protection of livelihood control over resources or some form of self-determination.

Environmental injustice, and marginalization are considered as instances of structural violence. As Gandhi believed violence and counter violence will never help to resolve conflicts, he considered Satyagraha as the "only force of universal application be that of Ahimsa or love" to fight these kinds of problems.27 It is entirely different from mere passive resistance, where there is no scope for mutual love. In passive resistance, Gandhi believed "there is a scope for hatred" but "Satyagraha may be offered to one's nearest and dearest."28

Environmental movements in India used Satyagraha as the moral equivalent of war. Forest Satyagraha was first used effectively in Chipko movement to protest against deforestation. Gandhian techniques like padayatras were conducted to save nature. Conflict resolution techniques based on non-violence and self sacrifice were used by environmental activists like Chandi Prasad Bhatt, Baba Amte, Sunderlal Bahuguna, Medha Patker and others.


Several decades before the rise of environmental movements, Gandhi picked up fundamental environmental issues like over-consumption, violence to man and nature and so on. There are several movements in different parts of me globe fighting against environmental injustice. Some of them are violent in nature, but in India environmental movements have been forged by Gandhian traditions of non-cooperation and non-violence. The Gandhian definition of non-violence is far more than mere passive resistance, rather "it is a way of life, which affects everything from what a person eats through to how they relate to the world around them"29. Gandhian Satyagraha often functions as a conflict resolution technique. Gandhi wrote much about the colonial power, its impudence, and the heinous destiny it has imposed on the country. He criticized modernization and industrialization for its lethal effects on the society. He believed that "the economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom (England) is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts."30 He observed that the Indian situation demanded a new vision on economics which is centered on agriculture and village industries. He conceptualized a new economic order based on ecological balance. The village romanticism of Gandhi has been considered as central to his environmental philosophy. However, going back to the thoughts of Gandhi is essential to build up a green future, where there is no place for human greed.

Notes and References

  1. T N Khoshoo, Mahatma Gandhi: An Apostle of Applied Human Ecology (New Delhi: TERI, 1995), p.9.
  2. Ramachandra Guha, "Mahatma Gandhi and Environmental Movement in india" in Arne Kalland and Gerard Persoon (ed), Environmental Movements in Asia (London: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies & Routledge, 1998), p.67.
  3. R P Mishra, "Facing Environmental Challenges; The Gandhian Way". Anasakti Darshan, 5, 2 (July-December 2009), p.9.
  4. Bhikhu Parekh, Gandhi's Political Philosophy; A Critical Examination (London: Macmillan, 1989), p.72.
  5. Young India, December 4, 1924.
  6. Daniel M May ton II, Non Violence and Peace Psychology: Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, societal and World peace (New York: Springer and Science + Business Media LLC, 2009), p.6.
  7. Glyn Richards, The Philosophy of Gandhi: A Study of His Basic Ideas (UK: Curzon, 1991), p.33.
  8. Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (CWMG), (New Delhi: The Publication Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, and Ahmedabad: The Navajivan Trust, 1965), Vol. XVI, p.13.
  9. Harijan, September 5, 1936
  10. T N Khoshoo, op.cit. p.3.
  11. Arne Naess, "Self Realization: An Ecological approach to Being in the World" in John Seed, Joanna Macy (ed), Thinking Like a Mountain: Towards a Council of All Beings (Philadelphia: Society Publishers, 1988), p.26.
  12. Thomas Weber, 2009, p. 18
  13. The Selected Works of Arne Naess (SWAN), Edited by Allen Drengson in cooperation With the Author, (Netherlands: Springer, 2005), Vol.2, p. xviii.
  14. R C Sharma, Gandhian Environmentalism (New Delhi: Global Vision, 2003), p.45.
  15. Vandana Shiva and Jayantho Bandopadhyay, “Chipko in India’s Civilizational Response to the Forest Crisis” in India’s Environment: Myth and Reality (Dehra Dun: Natraj, 2007), p. 21
  16. Ramashray Roy, Self and Society; A Study in Gandhian Thought (New Delhi: Sage, 1985), pp. 36-38
  17. M K Gandhi, Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Trust, 1938), p.81.
  18. Young India, June 2, 1927
  19. Shambhu Prasad, "Towards an understanding of Gandhi's views on science", Economic and Political Weekly, 36, 39 (Sept.2001), pp. 3721-3723.
  20. Bikhu Parekh, op.cit., p. 23.
  21. CWMG, Vol.XCI, p. 57
  22. E F Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered (London: Vintage Books, 2011), p.18
  23. Harijan, Oct. 9, 1937
  24. J C Kumarappa, Economy of Permanence: A Quest for a Social Order Based on Non-violence (Wardha, C. P. : All India Village Industries Association, 1946), p. 5
  25. Young India, October 15, 1925
  26. SWAN, Vol V, p.5.
  27. CWMG, Vol. XLVIII, p.341.
  28. CWMG, Vol. XXXIV, p.97.
  29. Timothy Doyle, Environmenal Movements in Minority and Majority Worlds: A Global Perspective (London: Rutgers University Press, 2005), p.18.
  30. CWMG, Vol. XLIII, p. 413.

* SASIKALA A S is a Research Scholar attached to the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras, Chennai. Email: