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What Gandhi can teach us about sustainability

Vaidehi Daptardar writes: Though not a structured model, Gandhi’s concept of trusteeship envisioned every member of society as the trustee of wealth generated out of the collective efforts of all. He expected that trusteeship will result in non-violent and non-exploitative socio-economic relations and development models based on production systems centred around the preservation of nature.

Gandhian relevance to environmental sustainability

Dr. Vaidehi Daptardar, MKGandhi.org

Environmental sustainability is a burning issue with which every one of us is related very closely. Environmental Sustainability means to ‘sustain ability’, both the ability of the environment to regenerate and the ability of people to retain control over their living conditions (Kuhn 1998). In the terms of the 1987 Brundtland Report, sustainability is “Meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” Sustainable development may be described as a process for improving the range of opportunities that will enable individual human beings and communities to achieve their aspirations and full potential over a sustained period of time, while maintaining the resilience of economic, social and environmental systems (Munasinghe 1994). The concept has evolved to encompass three major points of view: economic, social and environmental, as represented by the triangle.

Each viewpoint corresponds to a domain (and a system) that has its own distinct driving forces and objectives. The economy is geared mainly towards improving human welfare, primarily through increases in the consumption of goods and services. The environmental domain focuses on protection of the integrity and resilience of ecological systems. The social domain emphasizes the enrichment of human relationships and achievement of individual and group aspirations. In other words, sustainable development requires increase both in adaptive capacity and in opportunities for improvement of economic, social and ecological systems (Gunderson and Holling 2001). Improving adaptive capacity will increase resilience and sustainability.


Contemporary Environmental Movement:
There were no concerted efforts made before 1960s in the direction of conservation of environment and its sustenance. At the international level, the world faced oil crisis in 1970s and debt crisis in 1980s. However, ecological movements first started as radical cultural movements, as an attempt by individuals to control and understand the consequences of their actions. In 1970s, the ecological movement became a political movement and there was awareness that the demands of ecology were not only sectorial and local aspirations but rather represented a value shared across nation divides. The efforts made at the International level for Environmental sustainability may be enlisted as follows:

  1. 1970 – The first environmental event to have any real social and cultural impact. It was decided to have an Earth Day to draw attention to environmental degradation.
  2. 1972 – At the Stockholm Conference, the Club of Rome published a report called ‘Limits to Growth‘. It attempted to combine optimism concerning human potential to innovate and transcend environmental and demographic problems with the warning that if the then prevailing trends continued, there would be dire consequences bringing deliberate controlled end to growth.
  3. 1980 – The Brandt Commission published its ‘North – South; A Programme For Survival’, placing the responsibility for human survival firmly in the political arena at a time when leaders seemed more concerned with the cold war and ideological posturing than addressing the issues of global poverty, inequality, human rights and justice and depletion of natural resources. The commission strongly emphasized that the prime objective of development is to lead to self fulfilment and creative partnership in the use of a nation’s productive forces and its full human potential.
  4. 1983 – The work started by the- World Commission for Environment and Development.
  5. 1987 – The publication of the report titled ‘Our Common Future’ by Brundtland Commission stated the limits imposed by present technology and social organizations, as well as the ability of the biosphere to absorb the effects of human activities, on environmental resources. It gave the definition for the sustainable development for the first time clearly recognizing a suitable political, economic, social, technological, international and administrative and production system having coherence and capacity for self-correction. It was a realization that a shift is necessary in understanding from impact of ‘growth on environment’ to ‘environment on growth’, or else, it would lead to global crisis.
  6. 1992 – The Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro produced a number of agreements including ‘Rio Declaration’ on environment and development, the ‘Framework Convention on Climate Change’, the ‘Convention on Biological Diversity’ and an agreement known as ‘Agenda 21’. It created awareness that contemporary consumption patterns has led to degradation of environment.
  7. 1997 – The Kyoto Protocol is adopted by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which attempted to make it legally binding to affect climate change in member countries, expecting reduction on greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2% by 2012 relative to 1990 level.
  8. 2006 – ‘The Living Planet’ report says the lifestyle followed by the western societies disturbed the subtle balance of the planet earth.
  9. 2007-08 – The Human Development Report 2007 – 08 on the theme Fighting Climate Change: Human Solidarity in a Divided World noted “Climate change calls to question the enlightenment principle that human progress will make the future look better than the past”. So there is desperate search for method to decarbonize the environment and re establish the atmosphere prevailing before industrial revolution.
    Joseph Stiglitz in his book, ‘Making Globalization Work’ wrote that in a globalised world, western nations gave precedence to material values over environmental values. He further wrote that 80% of global warming is caused by hydrocarbon and the rest by deforestation. The earth cannot cope up with cars combined with refrigerators and air conditioning as it will cause irreversible damage to the ozone layer and carrying capacity of the earth.


Gandhi’s concept of development and environmental sustainability:
In Mahatma Gandhi’s opinion, in any scheme of development, man should be at the centre. A long term view of development has to be taken, for we owe our debt to posterity as well. Man has to make a judicious use of natural resources. The ecological balance should not be disturbed. The objective should not be to build islands of prosperity in the ocean of poverty; but to raise the standard of life and to combat poverty.

Gandhi’s ideas are also reflected in the total value shift in production, consumption, habits and political systems. It places more emphasis on moral responsibility of the individual at the personal, social, national and universal level.
Gandhi believed in Sarvodaya and therefore the welfare of all was the basis of his thinking; hence his community centred approach towards sustainability emphasized on ‘betterment of human life’ and ‘ensuring fulfilment of basic needs of all human needs’. Welfare of the human beings being the ultimate goal by avoiding all sorts of exploitations, Gandhi felt that human dignity needs to be established.

Gandhi was an economist of the masses and an environmentalist without any structured model. However, interlinking all his thoughts together, we get his logically built up environmentally sustainable development model.

Gandhi pleaded for decentralization of power in society. He visualized ‘Swaraj’ at the individual level, ‘Gram Samaj’ at Local level and ‘Sarvodaya’ at global level. He believed that power resided in the people. A mutually interdependent cooperative working at the world level helps in making noble environment.

His trusteeship concept is for Sarvodaya. Every member of the society is the trustee of the wealth generated out of the collective efforts of all. Thus, it denies individual pursuit and collection of wealth and converts it into the wealth of all for a better society. He expected that the trusteeship will result in non-violent and non-exploitative socio-economic relations and development models based on production systems centred around the preservation of nature.
His sustainable development is based on a holistic paradigm which lays stress on all round development of individual and society in relation with nature. This entire thinking was based upon an ethical vision in which the individual is at the centre. If inward change is achieved, outward change takes care of itself. A judicial shift from the consumer society to the Conserver Society seems to be the demand of modern age.

In Hind Swaraj (1909), he talked about the dangers of unplanned and reckless industrialization; the growth oriented theory must be replaced by theories of sustainable development that will not damage but will guarantee harmonious co-existence of man and the ecosystem. Sustainable development is an ideology, drawn at the global level, showing human beings are interrelated with the ecosphere. It is a movement as it suggests a way of life. It involves the active participation of all the members of society. Self-help, self-reliance, decentralization of industries and labour intensive technology; these are the qualitative goals of satisfying meaningful life.

Gandhi wrote in the first decade of 20th century in ‘Hind Swaraj‘ that a relentless quest for material goods and services and civilization driven by endless multiplication of wants is ‘Satanic’ and defined civilization in terms of the preferences of duties; ‘adherence to moralities and exercise of restraint’, thus limiting greed. Hind Swaraj became the manifesto of sustainable development after the first ‘Satyagraha’. For eight years (1906-1914) it became a movement against the exploitative nature of of the modern western civilization. In a much broader sense, it had the challenging and compassionate vision of saving the planet earth.

Harmonious existence of mankind and nature presupposes an approach based on equity and justice and coexistence of all cultures and civilisation. In 1911, Gandhi used the phrase, ‘Economy of Nature’ which brings out the sensitivity and deeper understanding of human actions vis-a-vis ecology. In 1928, he wrote, “God forbid that India should even take to industrialization after the manner of the west. If the entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.” This statement appears contemporary for a world struggling to survive against the unprecedented global warming and climate change.

Dandi Yatra of 1930

Gandhi followed an unprecedented method of asserting the right of the common man over natural resources, of which, salt is most basic and primary one. If we look at Dandi Yatra from the independence struggle point of view, its broader objective was of freeing the world from the monstrous greed of materialism. This action along with his famous statement, “Earth has enough resources for everybody’s needs but not for anybody’s greed” has eternal lasting impact on the minds of the world.

Energy crisis:

Greater use of coal, oil and gas has resulted into global warming. The increasing use of biodiesel and ethanol from corn and sugarcane is likely to result in food production shortage and greater water consumption. All this is due to mindless consumption of unsustainable natural resources. India is also subject to the vagaries of oil market and price volatility. Minimizing the wants is the way shown by Bapu. During Dandi March, somebody brought oranges for Bapu on a motorcycle. Bapu declined the offer of oranges, saying that when you can walk, avoid the motorcycle.

Water Problems:

Water scarcity and polluted water are the two main problems today. Declining water table, declining water level and deforestation are the main issues to be handled at the government level. Gandhi was well aware about all such problems sixty years back. During the independence struggle at Kathiawar region in Gujarat, drought was experienced. Knowing that afforestation on a large scale can be an effective step to face water crisis, Gandhi asked for plantation of trees. At a prayer meeting in Delhi in 1947, he suggested that water harvesting has to be practiced for irrigational purposes to avoid famines and food shortages. Surprisingly the same was suggested by the M. S. Swaminathan committee in 2006. This means that Gandhi was much ahead of his time.

The initiative taken in Germany to establish a Green party and pursue policies consistent with nature conservation clearly explains the relevance of Gandhi to the environmental sustainability movement. One of the founders of the party, Mrs. Petra Kelly admirably summed up the impact of the Mahatma. She once said, “in particular area of our work we have been greatly inspired by our Mahatma Gandhi, i.e. in our belief that lifestyle and method of production, which relies on endless supply of raw material and which use those raw material lavishly also provide motive force for violent appropriation of raw materials from other parties. In contrast, responsible consumption of raw material as a part of ecologically oriented life style and economy reduces the risk that policies of violence will pursue”. This makes a case for pursuing policies consistent with nature preservation.

Sustainable development is a synthesis of economic and ecological ideas – Socio-economical, political and ecological concepts are put together to solve environmental crises. At the ecological level, it is designed as a science dealing with systematic relation between plants and animals and their habitat and environment.

Sustainable development is not an ideology but also a movement and a vision. As an ideology it has drawn our attention to the global responsibility and indicated that human beings are interrelated with the ecosphere. As a movement, it suggests a way of life and calls for active participation of all members of society.


Action points to save the environment:
In globalization, everybody is after wealth creation and accumulation. But we need to change our approach towards wealth creation. We need a new economic order based on Gandhi’s concept of containment of wants. Greed can lead to only destruction of the mother earth. We need to change our outlook and approach. Our attitude needs to be changed to accommodating everyone for making this earth a living place for all. We need to change the methods of creation of wealth through fairer means. Such means will not endanger nature. Let us remember that the ends do not justify the means.

Economic Philosophy based on human consideration can ensure a better world order. Gandhi emphasized that creation of wealth through fairer means and without endangering sustainable development has to be the basis of economic policy. Simple living and high thinking should be our philosophy of life. Gandhian ideas are spiritually orientated and have a holistic approach. It is inclusive in nature.

Let us understand that. Let us save the earth and the earth will save us. The human greed, persisting to draw more by exploiting more will deplete the resources. The day the resources vanish and the earth becomes a barren piece of planet, we will understand that we have been cruel to our children and future generation. We need to resist unsustainable practices. Only the required amount of food should be taken as food wastage results into generation of more methane.

Our lifestyle today is highly unsustainable. We travel in an air conditioned car and then walk to sweat out! We ask others to carry our bags and then sweat in the gym to burn our extra calories! If you can’t change your fate, you change your attitude! We need to unlearn the bad practices. We need to practice REDUCE, REUSE and RECYCLE. The carrying capacity of Earth is limited. We are puttinga  disproportionate burden on it.

Adopt a simple and friendly environment approach. Good people do not need laws to tell them but they themselves are self-disciplined and so act wisely. In order to save the energy and oil stocks, car pooling may be an easiest way to be adopted. Simple habits of water use with utmost care and caution can lead to saving of water. Non-conventional energy sources need to be harnessed much more. We, therefore, need to resolve and learn things as human beings. Our ability to do things is our wealth.

The universal acceptance of market reforms based on demand and supply which primarily focus on ‘Survival of the fittest’ is contrary to Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of making everyone fit to survive. Commercial considerations driven by technological advancements can trigger off a wedge between the ‘haves and have-nots’ leading to divided world based on their economic strengths.

Change is inevitable but it is necessary to know, for what to change, to what extent to change and what could be the price to bring this change. Indiscriminate changes could bring in disastrous consequences. GDP and market index could at times be misleading and even meaningless, unless development is inclusive with gap between agriculture and industry, villages and cities being narrowed down to a minimum. Unless a level playing field is provided and the feelings and aspirations of all are taken care of, there cannot be lasting peace and happiness.

Prof Herbert Girardet in his book, “Surviving the Century: Facing the Climate Chaos’ gives the concept of ‘Earth community’. He draws heavily from the Mahatma’s words: “Earth has enough resources for everybody’s needs and not for anybody’s greed.” Time magazine in 2007 came out with a Global Warming Survival Guide. The 51st point talks of sharing more and consuming less for a simpler life. We can learn to live simply so that others can simply live. Instead of asking the question, why should I, let us ask the question, why should I not?


As Gandhi said let us start with ourselves so that future generations do not blame us.

Gandhi once said, “I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you. Apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man, whom you have seen and ask yourself: If the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he be able to gain anything by it? Will it restore to him control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to Swaraj for hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and yourself melt away”. We need to recollect these words of the Mahatma every moment.


  1. Prabhath S.V. (2009); Gandhi Today, Serials Publications, New Delhi.
  2. Mahatma Gandhi, (1938); Hind Swaraj, Navajivan Publishing House.
  3. Mahatma Gandhi, (1927); My Experiments with Truth, Navajivan Publishing House.
  4. Various Reports on Environment.


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