Gandhi Ecology and Personal Environmental Impact

A marvelous analysis of Gandhi Ecology and its relation to world ecological and environmental responsibility was provided by the eminent scholar of applied Gandhian philosophy Dr. M. P. Mathai* in 2010 in Gandhi Marg, the official journal of the Gandhi Peace Foundation.  I have capsulized the key takeaways here.  Adherents of both Gandhi and sustainability can derive much wisdom from Dr. Mathai’s Gandhi ecology consideration.

Gandhi ecology is key

Dr. M. P. Mathai

“Humanity has come out of its foolish self-complacency and has awakened to the realization 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, underscored by applied Gandhi Ecology” 

The most pertinent question today, therefore, seems to be: ‘why these violations?’ Why sidestep the most crucial existential issues relating to the protection of ecosystem?

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 and embrace Gandhi ecology.

Gandhi Ecology and the Defining Features of an Unsustainable Lifestyle

The most remarkable feature of this enticing modern lifestyle, of course is its consumerist 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 Westerner  but also among the majority of middle classes across the globe. Malls have become the cultural symbols and centres of our contemporary civilization  The level of consumption has become the yardstick for measuring the worth of a person and his/her life.

Gandhi Ecology and 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.

The intellect came to be taken as the sole defining constituent of the human self. Cogito 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 idolatry 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.

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 civilization 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. The opposite of Gandhi ecology.

Gandhi Ecology and Environmental Impact

This craze for material consumption has led to several psychosocial 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.

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, in direct opposition to Gandhi ecology.

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 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.

Gandhi Ecology and the Inverse Correlation of Happiness and Consumerism

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. This is not Gandhi ecology.

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 precondition  for individual 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. 

Gandhi Ecology Lifestyle Insights

For Gandhi ecology, 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 cornerstone 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.

For Gandhi ecology protection and preservation of creation becomes the sacred 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 Isha Upanishad puts it.) and, therefore, every object in Nature, highly or less evolved, possess an inherent dignity inherited from the Ultimate. Humans, must therefore, treat every creation with reverence. Gandhi’s ecological perspective, contained in this aphoristic statement that ” the Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’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 preconditions 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 a 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. 

Gandhi Ecology and the Triad of Harmony

A healthy lifestyle, envisaged by Gandhi takes cognizance of the Triple Harmony of the three dimensions: 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.

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.

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 Gandhi ecology and the Gandhian lifestyle.

Gandhi’s Life: A New Personal Ecological 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. 

Gandhi Ecology and Nature

“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.

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.

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.

Gandhi Ecology and Personal Environmentalism

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.

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. 

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.

Gandhi Ecology, A Conclusion

Gandhi’s life and writings show that he was attempting to bring about a planetary paradigm shift by providing holistic and ecologically sound alternatives to the unsustainable life model established by modern industrial civilisation. He tried 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.

>> Read M. P. Mathai’s complete essay here

*M.P. Mathai is the Director of the Gandhian Studies Program at Gujurat Vidyapith in Ahmedabad, India. He is a renowned Gandhian scholar, author of Mahatma Gandhi’s Worldview, and editor of the journal “Gandhi Marg.”


  1. Rosario Lamb says

    The GBT demands that all treaties must be honoured no matter how iniquitous they may be. So, whether it is the CTBT, or the WTO, or even the whole slew of human rights treaties that US has forgotten to sign, India must be a dutiful signatory. The GBT also argues that rights are a complement to the market and that what sustains the democracy is the market. The marketisation of democracy commodifies rights and destroys the commons that sustain the life-world of so many marginal groups.