Gandhi and the idea of sustainable development Dr. A. Raghu Kumar Advocate

Nostalgia is no good guide. The time can’t so easily run backwards. It may not be possible to revisit pastoral societies. Every individual or community wants to grow from its present state of affairs to a higher level. Progression is a natural urge and stagnation is indicative of a disease. One of the indicators of growth is economic development. The Western civilization most specifically from the beginnings of the 19th century conceptualized a particular method of development – industrial development with mass production as its basic narrative. Irrespective of their political, sociological and ideological differences, the Western scholarship whether Capitalists or Communists or Social Democrats, there was a consensus of the mode of development – industrial, and mass-production oriented. The nations which were under colonial rule also adopted this model as the only acceptable. The competitive targets of development made developing and developed countries to irrationally exploit their natural resources without concerns for the future. Gandhi was one rare voice which challenged this notion.
Even the religious and philosophical ideas of the West supported this model under the considered opinion that the creation of the God is for the consumption of the man. The philosophers hitherto forgot that the resources of the nature are not unlimited while the human wants are. They forgot that we are dependent on the availability of the natural resources or that the natural resources are finite. The mode of development conceived and adopted by the West and followed by the other decolonized countries led to unimaginable exploitation of the resources of the earth and its resources. As a consequence of this development model consumerism made deep inroads into the societies. One of the ingredient of the present consumerism is ‘use and throw’, a concept purposefully introduced for the greed of the manufacturers in the twentieth century. The West even heckled and ridiculed the development models of the East in general and India in particular – as Hindu growth rate, a highly pejorative description of the Indian economy. This ridicule introduced during the liberalization, privatization and globalization era in the post-WTO world has gone deep into the psyche of all the developing nations which rose up after a long slumber into devouring hunger.
Above all, the model started hurting the environment and ecological balance. The carbon pollution reached such unbearable levels that the human survival on earth has become doubtful. The average temperature levels are continuously increasing compelling the nations for urgent remedial action. Tons of toxic material is released everyday into the rivers and seas, threatening safe water to the future generations and even the survival of many water creatures. Several forms of waste – industrial, plastic, electronic, petrochemical, radioactive etc., are dumped on ourselves. It was only during the late 1990s when the consumption of the developing world also started craving for more that the policy makers woke up. Even the sincerity of the policy makers needs to be doubted in this new argument. In this milieu, the global fora of development started revisiting the idea of development. E.F. Schumacher , the German born British economist, made a compulsive argument in his series of essays, collected and published as Small is Beautiful made a beginning for the cause of alternative development model. Schumacher’s concepts derived their inspiration from the conventional Asiatic models of development and mostly from Buddhist and Gandhian thought. “In the excitement over the unfolding of his scientific and technical powers, modern man has built a system of production that ravishes nature and a type of society that mutilates man.” Gandhi said: “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need but not any man’s greed”. What exactly he meant by that expression? Though shrouded with un-academic and uneconomic expression, the message is loud and clear. We nature can satisfy the needs of all. But when the development models are designed on the consumerism and economic growth as the only indicators, the greed is setting the agenda.
The concept of the sustainable development is multi-dimensional and multi-modal. Economic development cannot be viewed as something independent of the environmental paradigm. The type of development should ensure ecology and environmental impact, and shall keep under its edifice the future generations and their needs. There should be environmental, social, moral and spiritual balance and development sans these is in real terms a degradation and retardation. Sustainable development means to “fulfill the present needs without compromising the needs of future generation.” It needs a philosophy of: Reduce-Recycle-Reuse. Want have to reduced, the products must be such that they are capable of recycling and reuse. We have to urgently dispense with the production model of use and throw.
Asiatic societies have long since lived in harmony with the natural world. They have been practicing this ‘reduce-recycle-reuse model since time immemorial. But the victory of the Western intellectualism over the Asiatics and other African, Latin-American thinking process and demolition of the indigenous intellectualism and uniformization of wisdom led to the present predicament. During the freedom struggle, there was a deeper churning process on the future development model for the independent India. The success of Japan on one side and that of the USSR, England and USA were the known role models for modernists. But one individual was crying in wilderness. He was beseeching on the Indian intellect to think independently. But the Indian intellectuals were by that time intoxicated with the development theories of the West and considered this noble voice as anachronistic and retrograde. This voice was of Gandhi who said : “We must have industry, but of the right kind.”
After series of crises – environmental and existential, the World Fora started realizing the folly. Sustainable development adopted by the World Commission of Environment now considers that development can not dominate environment. Therefore development should be seen as a delicate balance between human needs and nature’s capacity to give, hence emerged concept of sustainable development. The consequences like global warming, climatic change, draughts and floods, resource depletion, social and political unrest, diseases, disharmony, mental stress, increased crimes rates, extinction of plants and animals etc are demanding our urgent attention. Basic law of economics also recognizes that resources are limited and needs are always unlimited. Human beings should satisfy their needs within these limited resources. This fact is being realized day by day with depleting natural resources. The naïve confidence of the pre-Nineteenth century supremacy of man over other beings is no more available to us. World commission on Environment and development has defined sustainable development as “A process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investment, the orientation of technological development and institutional change all are in harmony and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations.”
Some economists suggest that a new economic system at global level is necessary for long term survival of the human race on earth. ‘The present economic system is characterized by maximum flow of money, maximum profit, maximum production, maximum consumption, and maximum resources use.’ This ‘frontier economy’, as it is called now, should be replaced by ‘spaceship economy.’ A spaceship economy or sustainable economy promotes conservation of renewable resources, product durability and a clean and healthy environment. In 1987, the Bruntland Commission published its report, “Our Common Future”, in an effort to link the issues of economic development and environmental stability. In doing so, this report provided the oft-cited definition of sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” . Albeit somewhat vague, this concept of sustainable development aims to maintain economic advancement and progress while protecting the long-term value of the environment; it “provides a framework for the integration of environment policies and development strategies.”
The precautionary principle establishes that “where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measure to prevent environmental degradation” . Explicitly stated in the Rio Declaration, the notion of common but differentiated responsibilities recognizes that each nation must play their part on the issue of sustainable development. Developed nations, therefore, bear greater responsibility in light of the resources they require and the pressures they exert on the environment. The term ‘sustainability’ should be viewed as humanity’s target goal of human-ecosystem equilibrium, while sustainable development’ refers to the holistic approach and temporal process that lead us to the and point of sustainability.” “The spatial distributron of development in Europe and its underlying sustainability correlations.” In the man-machine dichotomy, the West’s model of development stood on behalf of the machine, condemning man to be subservient to its own creation. This world view was challenged since long in many Eastern Societies which stood for machine only as a tool in the hands of man, serving man. However, the movement of idea decisively defeated the voices against machine’s superiority over two centuries. After Buddha, there was one person who stood against this onslaught of machine over man, ridiculed by the modernists and materialists alike. Sunil Sahasrabudhey argues: “In fact, Gandhi’s opposition to the machine is so complete that it looks like a challenge to modern science, to its claims of veracity, universality, enlightenment, and material well-being.”
Sudheendra Kulkarni explained: ‘Mainstream Western ideas of scientific and technological development have historically been imposing on the thought process of all other systems. From the Industrial Revolution onwards, the mode of production invoked by the West inflicted an incalculable amount of senseless harm upon the environment. However, the very idea of development became problematic now. Gandhian philosophy provides a viable conceptual foundation on which to build genuinely sustainable development. He wasn’t an environmentalist in the modern sense since the major environmental problems of the present emerged only after 1990s. Protection of the environment and sustainable development were not quire on the global or India’s agenda when Gandhi was alive. Nevertheless, we see how he was far ahead of his time in warning the world about the potentially disastrous consequences of the Western model of economic growth, which has, alas, now become, with some local variations, the globally accepted model.’ But he was a dedicated practitioner of frugality, of recycling and reuse, and a trenchant critic of various aspects of modernity. His Hind Swaraj was a severe critique of the West and its civilization, and here Gandhi meant by civilization, the mode of development after the industrial revolution. Gandhi’s cosmic view conceives evolution ‘to be impossible without the cooperation and sacrifice on the part of all species, human and nonhuman alike.’ His social, economic and political ideas developed within a conceptual framework that assumed the internal interconnectedness and interdependence of the universe in its entirety. He was an admirer of John Ruskin’s Unto the Last. He was also influenced by Leo Tolstoy’s idea of cooperation as the prime way of life. Gandhi was not against technology as such. What he opposed was the technology which makes man subservient to the machine.
Lord Keynes in 1930s wrote: “….fair is foul and foul is faire; for foul is useful and fair is not….” This is an example of how the development was conceived by the West’s best mind. But the Eastern wisdom feels inconvenient to accept this proposition. Theodore Roszak in his ‘Introduction’ to E.F. Shcumacher’s Small is Beautiful said: “….Schumacher’s point was that Gandhi’s economics, for all its lack of professional sophistication (or perhaps for that reason) was nonetheless the product of a wise soul, one which shrewdly insisted on moderation, preservation, and gradualism, on the assumption that to seek “progress” by releasing cataclysmic social change is only a way to demoralize the many and make them the helpless dependents of the rich and expert few. And even then, it may not be a way to feed the hungry.

Sudheendra Kulkarni examines the Gandhian environmentalism as integrally linked to his world-view of nonviolence. ‘It is an arrogant assumption,’ he wrote, ‘to say that human beings are lords and masters of the lower creatures. On the contrary, beings endowed with greater things in life, they are the trustees of the lower animal kingdom’. He wanted ‘to realize identity with even the crawling things upon earth, because we claim descent from the same God, and that being so, all life in whatever form it appears must essentially be so’. In a highly original re-interpretation of colonialism, he affirmed that lording over nature and lording over other ‘inferior’ people are both manifestations of colonialism.

Kenneth E. Boulding (1910-93), an American economist and peace activist who was greatly influenced by the life and teachings of Gandhi, posed a pertinent question: ‘Are we to regard the world of nature simply as a storehouse to be robbed for the immediate benefit of man? … Does man have any responsibility for the preservation of a decent balance in nature, for the preservation of rare species, or even for the indefinite continuance of his race?’ Gandhi had recognized this inherent conflict between economic and ecology in the modern era of limitless consumption fed by limitless exploitation of nature. Erich Fromm (1900-80), a widely respected American psychoanalyst, echoed Gandhi’s concerns when he observed : ‘Material production was once supposed to be a means for a more dignified, happier life and the aim was clearly the fuller, more dignified and more human life. Today production and consumption have become ends in themselves. Nobody asks any longer, why or what for? We are happy discovering how we can produce more. In fact, our economic system is based on ever increasing consumption and production. But why we want to produce more, why we want this, that, and the other… is a question which is not asked.’

Robert Hart , in his essay ‘Gandhi and the Greens: Road to Survival’, writes; ‘In today’s world, generally Gandhi’s truest political heirs are the Greens.’ Long before the 3-R principle of reduce-recycle-reuse became popular in the discourse on sustainable development, he had made its compliance mandatory in his ashrams. Most of the letters he wrote were on the blank side of the reusable paper that came to him. He made the utmost use of the pencils he wrote with, until they became one-inch stubs and hence incapable of being gripped by his fingers. His ashrams were exemplars of zero-waste, the modern principles of sustainable development.. ‘Gandhi abhorred the industrial civilization because it was based on callous exploitation of non-renewable resources. It made bodily welfare the sole object of life, which reduced man to nothing but a clever animal’. He adds: As in agriculture, so in industry and in every other walk of life, we need to give our attention to the developing and perfection of nonviolent methods to find answers to the threefold crises of the modern world – the crisis of resource exhaustion, the ecological crisis and the crisis of man’s alienation and disorientation. All this requires work – that is, Gandhian work with a spirit of truth and nonviolence which inspired Gandhi’.

Petra Kelly (1947-92), a founder of the German Green Party, acknowledged: ‘In one particular area of our political work we have been greatly inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. That is in our belief that a life style and method of production which rely on an endless supply and a lavish use of raw materials generates the motive for the violent appropriation of these raw materials from other countries. In contrast, a responsible of these raw materials, as part of an ecologically oriented life style and economy, reduces the risk that policies of violence will be pursued in our name.’ Another pioneer of the green movement in Europe was Arne Naess (1912-2009), who is internationally known as the originator of a sub-movement called Deep Ecology. His spiritual vision, which affirms the unity and sacredness of nature, was deeply influenced by Buddha Spinoza and Mahatma Gandhi. Naess’s writings on Gandhi, such as his books Gandhi and the Nuclear Age (1965) and Gandhi and Group Conflict: An Exploration of Satyagraha, (1974) shaped the thinking of both the green and peace movements around the world.

The change in our approaches started with the realization that the earth has a limited supply of resources, that recycling and the use of renewable resources will prevent the depletion of resources, that life’s value does not depend on our material wealth alone, that we must develop a symbiotic relationship with nature, that we must live in NATURE and in UNITY with nature and minimize the waste we long for extended living on earth. For this we need appropriate technology – small and medium sized machines which maximize human output. This was the idea Gandhi introduced in the form of Charkha during the freedom struggle. The charkha stands as a symbol for such technology which would not displace the human hands.