By Joern Fischer
I’m just reading Gandhi’s autobiography “Experiments with Truth”. This is actually the second time I’m reading this — but the first was many years ago, and I thought it would be interesting to take a fresh look at it.
Needless to say, there are plenty of things to be inspired about when it comes to Gandhi — one of the most notable and influential individuals in modern history. Gandhi tackled some of the big problems of his days head on. He mobilised huge numbers of people around him to fight non-violently for justice and truth. Reading all this made me wonder if there isn’t something we could learn from this for the cause of sustainability. As in: the big problems Gandhi addressed were suppression of Indians in South Africa, and rule of the British over India — the big problem we face today is that we’re seriously transgressing “planetary boundaries” and are failing to adequately address justice issues (including both intragenerational and intergenerational justice).
For now, I haven’t got very far with my analysis, but perhaps far enough to justify a short blog entry. So far, I can see four big differences that make it hard to directly “learn from Gandhi”. Perhaps others have better ideas… for now, four obvious differences I can see are:
1. We lack sustainability leadership. Gandhi was an absolute outlier in terms of being utterly principled, and in striving for truth and spiritual purity. Such individuals are simply rare, and the cause of “sustainability” perhaps just has not yet attracted such an individual.
2. We lack focus. The problems of “Indians being suppressed in South Africa”, or “India being ruled by the British” were huge, but they were specific. Sustainability, by contrast, is a messy concept, which is globally diffuse, and it’s simply difficult to nail what it actually is, and where exactly which change is needed.
3. We lack a clear group of “affected people” who can be mobilised to change things for the better. Gandhi did not single-handedly bring about change, but he managed to mobilise large masses of people. Those masses, in turn, could be mobilised, because they were directly affected; they did not need the same level of “spiritual purity” to join that may have been driving Gandhi himself. In other words, many “ordinary people” could be convinced to join the big cause; arguably at least partly because it was in their self-interest to become involved. Sustainability is different. It is not clear who the group of people is that ought to be rising against current patterns of unsustainability. A particular case of this problem is that some of the groups most strongly affected are sentient beings, but not even people: for example, animals are going extinct, but are obviously unable to rally against the injustice arguably done to them.
4. We lack a clear set of “leaders” who we ought to address. Gandhi addressed the governments of South Africa and the British Empire. With sustainability problems being global in scale, but there being no functional global (formal) institutions, it’s simply much harder to know who we ought to address.
For now, these are just random ramblings, but perhaps they spark some thoughts… I guess one question we can ask is: If these are key problems, are there ways to get around them or their consequences — so that perhaps we can, after all, learn from Gandhi for sustainability?