Learning from Gandhi for sustainability?

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?


6 thoughts on “Learning from Gandhi for sustainability?

  1. Hi Joern,

    I think it is very interesting to ask what we can learn from exceptional individuals, and I appreciate your analysis. My feeling is that the answer very much lies in your point 3, which speaks to the so called environmentalists paradox and the fact that the effects of “not being sustainable” are felt too late. I think there are examples to address your points 1, 2 and 4. Rachael Carson springs to mind, whose legacy changed how freshwater systems are managed in the US. So perhaps to address the complexity of sustainability problems we do sometimes need to be more specific, focused, and targeted than we are prepared to accept when otherwise believing and extolling the fact that degrading ecological systems are complex and that such complexity needs to always be understood and grappled with to elicit positive change on a given front …


  2. A very interesting confrontation, and I agree that the concept of sustainability is complex – so many people do not see (or feel) the direct connection and affection to it. This might also be true because we may lack empathy towards creatures and dimensions that not human-like (for example earthworms). I think sustainability affects so many areas of life, that it is helpful to allocate actions, and from there it can spread. There are leaders that dedicate their lifes and fight for aims which can be seen as steps towards sustainability: for example Yacouba Sawadogo (link: http://www.1080films.co.uk/project-mwsd.htm), who plants trees in the desert, and Julia Butterfly Hill (http://www.juliabutterfly.com/), who peacefully fought to protect Redwood trees.

  3. Great post! During my PhD fieldwork which looked at the impacts of climate change on rural livelihoods in India, I re-read Gandhi’s autobiography. His ideas on localism, austerity, and community action resonated deeply with me and have important implications for ‘bottom-up’ sustainable development. An interesting article on this is http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/blog/relevance-gandhi-capitalism-debate-rajni-bakshi

    PS: Just a small correction, his name is spelt Gandhi not Ghandi. It seems this is a common mistake!

    • Thanks! Both for the comment, the link, AND the correction! Your observation that it’s a “common mistake” makes me feel slightly less stupid for having misspelt Gandhi’s name 🙂

  4. Quite interesting a post… I would tend to answer your last question with a “no”. What Gandhi did was great and he is a terrific example of how you can achieve something if you strive for this consequently and stubbornly (even though, one should add, the Mahatma was not a perfect man himself–see, e.g., his attitude towards his marriage). He also managed to inspire many others. But he encountered limits, too. His letter to Hitler obviously did not prevent World War 2. In this particular context, he has been criticised for his consequence in embracing non-violence. Nevertheless, by and large you can view him as a great example. In general terms. When it comes to sustainability, however, it looks less encouraging. Indeed, you have identified the issues, and I think 2 and 4 are the crucial ones because they are insurmountable. Sustainability, and even parts of it (say, climate change or biodiversity loss) are utterly multi-dimensional, long-term problems–exactly the psychological preconditions a problem “needs” to be largely ignored by human beings. Personally, I do not see a solution to this and consequently have not much optimism regarding the achievement of sustainability. On the other hand, and this may be what we can learn from Gandhi–he did not “save the world”. In addition to the problems that were created or of which we became aware later, many of the problems of his time, even some of the problems he tried to tackle, have remained unsolved. But still, he made the world better. It certainly cost him and his companions a lot, but they achieved something. I think, this is not the most we can do, but it also is the least that we try.

    P.S. Sorry for the lofty words at the end, it’s not my style actually, it jsut somehow happened;-)

    • Thank you for your thoughtful response. I particularly appreciate you trying to “balance” things a bit, i.e. highlighting that Gandhi was not perfect, either. I think that’s important. And recognising that for sustainable development (as opposed to sustainability?) the path towards it is partly the outcome we need, is probably important, too. Cheers!

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