Toward a Gandhian Philosophy of Sustainable Development and Environmental Conservation

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Mahatma Gandhi as Environmentalist and Sustainability Precursor

Gandhian Sustainability & Environmentalism




Mainstream Western ideas of scientific and technological development have historically been of decisive importance. So much so that from the era of the Industrial Revolution onwards, an incalculable amount of senseless harm has been inflicted upon the environment, largely in the name of progress and development. However, the very idea of development has today become problematic. As commonly used by the mainstream media, the term “development” mainly refers to economic development, improved infrastructure, and achieving higher standards of living. This brand of development often blatantly disregards the profound humanitarian and environmental concerns about progress as historically observed, about development as we know it. If we are to continue as a species on this planet, it stands to reason that development must not be taken to mean the irresponsible and irreversible plundering of natural resources and of the environment.

It is clear that, while we must have some form of development, it had better be sustainable. This essay views our treatment of the natural environment as a consequence of our worldview and of our morality, and argues that Gandhian philosophy provides a viable (and authentically Indian) conceptual foundation on which to build genuinely sustainable development. Gandhian values need to be accepted as the guiding principles underlying all our development planning. Moreover, since Gandhian values have worldwide appeal, so should their application to important, burning issues of ecology and sustainability.

Mahatma Gandhi’s familiar figure – Gandhi-ji, as we Indians lovingly call him – has become a symbol of peace and nonviolence to the whole world.  He was a leader and a social reformer of extraordinary stature and authority. However, it is not common to think of Gandhi as an environmentalist.  Although, admittedly, he wasn’t an environmentalist in the modern sense (the major environmental problems of the present emerged in the post-Gandhi era), yet the Gandhian ideals – including, centrally, the idea of Swaraj or self-rule – enable a practical of sustainable development that can be implemented without compromising the quality of life. Indeed, Gandhi’s oft-quoted view that “the Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not any man’s greed” may stand as a one line ethical summary of modern environmentalist thinking.

Gandhi was a practitioner and ardent advocate of vegetarianism. He also practiced “nature cure,” a traditional Indian form of medicine that is now achieving a semblance of some acceptance in the West. He was a dedicated practitioner of frugality, of recycling and reuse, and a trenchant critic of various aspects of modernity. Most major Indian environmentalists today are influenced by the precepts of Gandhi’s Satyagraha – nonviolent resistance, which in some extreme cases may even include fasting unto death – in opposing the political status quo.

In spite of his attachment to nature, Gandhi was not chiefly preoccupied with problems of nature or the environment. For example, the dangers posed by the man-eating tigers of Kumaon (made famous by the narratives of Jim Corbett, British-Indian hunter and tracker turned conservationist, author of Man-Eaters of Kumaon) would have left less of a moral impression on Gandhi than instances of political or social injustice, lawyer by training and moralist by calling that he was.

Reportedly, the English historian Edward Thomson once remarked to Gandhi that wildlife was rapidly declining in India, to which Gandhi replied with sarcasm, “Wildlife is decreasing in the jungles, but increasing in the towns.” In the words of the environmentalist Ramachandra Guha, “the wilderness had no attraction for Gandhi.” In his writings, Gandhi does not emphatically celebrate the harmony or untamed beauty of nature; his focus is the study of men, of their mores and morals, of the human condition.  So, yes, there are some obvious limits to calling Gandhi an “environmentalist” without qualification. Yet his immense influence on the life and works of many of India’s best-known environmentalists must not be overlooked. It is arguably its Gandhianism that gives modern Indian environmentalism its depth, strength of character, authenticity, and global appeal.

Gandhi, who considered the earth a living organism, understood nature and existence in terms of a Cosmic Law that entails that the universe is a single self-coherent all-encompassing entity, organized and animated by a cosmic spirit wherein all life and all existence are one.   As a proponent of the monistic (non-dualist) Indian philosophical system of Advaita, he believed in the essential unity of man and nature. He wrote, “I believe in the advaita (non-duality); I believe in the essential unity of man, and for that matter, of all that lives. Therefore, I believe that if one man gains spirituality, the world gains with him, and if one man fails, the whole world fails to that extent.” He held evolution to be impossible without the cooperation and sacrifice on the part of all species, human and nonhuman alike.

Gandhi synthesized his philosophical and spiritual principles out of his deep knowledge of the religious traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity, and Islam. His social, economic and political ideas developed within a conceptual framework that assumed the internal interconnectedness and interdependence of the universe in its entirety. In this context, the well-known Gandhian prescription of “simple living” attempts both to curb human overreaching and greed, and to prevent the mindless exploitation of natural resources.

Philosophical Principles of Gandhianism and Their Ecological Application

The fundamentals of Gandhian philosophy are truth, nonviolence, and asceticism. His life and thinking revolved around his relentless quest for truth: that is also the literal meaning of the term Satyagraha. Ahimsa (nonviolence) literally means non-harm, but to Gandhi nonviolence was much more than the absence of violence: it was a fully defined way of life. According to Gandhi, ahimsa refers to nonviolence in action, speech, and thought. He believed that truth and nonviolence were intertwined, overlapping and interrelated ideas, and that truth can only be achieved nonviolently. The concept of Satyagraha gave practical realization to the ideals of truth and nonviolence. According to Gandhi, Tapasya or ascetic self-sacrifice was necessary to achieve the highest level of truth.

Gandhi’s explanation of the concept of nonviolence can be summarized as follows:

  1. Nonviolence is the law of the human race and is therefore infinitely more powerful than brute force.
  2. Non-violence affords the fullest protection to one’s self-respect and sense of honor.
  3. Individuals and nations who practice nonviolence must be prepared to sacrifice everything for the welfare of the world.
  4. Nonviolence is a power that can be wielded equally by all children, youths, and adults, provided they have a living faith in God as love, and therefore have equal love for all mankind. When non-violence is accepted as the law of life, it must pervade the whole being and not be merely applied to isolated acts.
  5. It is a profound error to suppose that whilst the law is good enough for individuals, it is not so for the masses of mankind.

Gandhi’s style of political protesting was also nonviolent. March 12, 1930, marks the watershed moment in Indian history when Gandhi launched his famous Dandi Yatra (Salt March) in peaceful protest against the archaic salt laws imposed upon India by the British. Thousands of people, including a large number of women and children, joined Gandhi in his march. Gandhi-ji advised them to make salt in their own homes. On April 6, he broke a British law by picking up a chunk of salt on the beach. At that historic moment, the entire world bore witness to the immense power of nonviolence.

Let us observe at this point that the ideology of nonviolence has unlimited ecological potential. Gandhi’s firm belief in nonviolence (with vegetarianism as a just one particular consequence of this faith) made him open to and protective of all diversity, including the diversity of life (today’s term’s of choice is biodiversity), of culture and society, and of spirituality. One cannot help admiring the beautiful philosophical and moral coherence of Gandhi’s worldview. Complementary to the principle of Swaraj (self-rule) was that of Swadeshi (self-sufficiency), with ensuing “decentralization of power.” These concepts have more ecological significance than may seem at first blush. The Gandhian policy of Swadeshi fostered self-reliance through the use of indigenous products, as a way to boost India’s economy and employment rate. While rampant industrialization caused a degradation of India’s biodiversity, this principle of Swadeshi, if applied thoughtfully and consistently to all economy, would have gone a long way in fostering environmentally friendly and sustainable models of development.

Gandhi, it must be noted, was a critic of the contemporary industrial civilization.  He was an admirer of James Ruskin’s criticism of Victorian era industrialization and urbanization in Britain. It was by reading Ruskins’s book, Unto the Last, that Gandhi first realized the importance of manual labor. He was also influenced by Leo Tolstoy’s idea of agriculture as the prime occupation of man. In his own influential volume, Hind Swaraj (Indian Self-Rule), Gandhi argues that what we perceive today as civilization is an illusion, and that a so-called civilization that is unkind to outsiders will also maltreat the insiders.

Importantly, though a critic of modernity, Gandhi was not against technology. What he opposed were the inequalities and hierarchies of power among men, and the blind subjugation of nature to man, resulting from the estrangement of technological development from morality. Modern civilization has come about by doing violence to nature, understood as man’s property. Today’s generation bears witness to the adverse affects of this tussle between men, modernity and nature.

Gandhi Against Environmental and Air Pollution, for Free Clean Air

As a matter of historical record, Gandhi was acutely aware of environmental pollution and of its harm to human health. He was especially concerned about the appalling working conditions in industry, with workers forced to inhale contaminated, toxic air. He expressed those concerns in Indian Opinion on 5 May 1906: "Nowadays, there is an increasing appreciation among enlightened men of the need for open air. Where large cities have come into being, labourers have to work cooped up in factories the whole day. As the price of urban land is high, factory buildings are not spacious enough, and the tenements of labourers are also very small. This invariably results in a steady deterioration of their health. Dr. Newman of Hinsborough in London has shown that the death rate per thousand is 38 in areas where too many people live huddled together in one room, but where the same number live in two rooms, the death rate is 22; where the same number of people share three rooms, it is 11 and where they have the use of four rooms, the death rate is only 5. There is nothing surprising in this. A man can do without food for several days and live a day altogether without water, but it is impossible to carry on without air even for a minute. If a thing that is so very vital to life is not pure, the result cannot but be deleterious. It was for these considerations that large manufacturers like Cadbury Brothers and Lever Brothers, who have always been very mindful of the welfare of their workers, have shifted their factories to open places outside cities. They have built very good quarters for their workers with all the attendant amenities, such as gardens and libraries; although they have spent all this money, they have flourished in their business. A similar movement has spread all over England in the wake of this example”.

Gandhi went on to remark that in the unjust system strives to exact a price from us for letting us inhale fresh air. "We have seen something of the structure of the body and have learnt that it requires three kinds of nourishment: air, water and food. Of these, air is the most essential. Consequently, Nature has provided it to such extent that we can have it at no cost. But modern civilization has put a price even on air. In these times, one has to go off to distant places to take the air, and this costs money. It is at Matheran that residents of Bombay can get fresh air and only then does their health improve. In Bombay itself, if one can live on Malabar Hill, the air is much better. But one must have money to do this. If Durbanites want fresh air, they have to go to live in Berea. That again means expense. It would not, therefore, be quite true to say in modem times that ’air is free’.”

Key Differences between Conventional Development and Gandhian Sustainable Development

We started out by pointing out that our attitudes toward development are consequences of our ethical and philosophical worldviews. It is easy to see how this is true when one reflects on the fundamental differences between the conventional idea of “development” and a Gandhi-style model. For clarity, let us put these differences in a table.



Conventional Development

Gandhian Development

General attitude

Materialistic, consumerist

Spiritual, selfless

For whom?

Only for man, anthopocentric

For man and nature, ecocentric

Chief goal


Sustainable living

Use of non-renewable resources

Maximal exploitation

Limited, frugal use, with a focus on renewable alternatives

Views on science and technology

Unbridled development and urbanization

Cautious, controlled, responsible use

Modes of production

Industrialized, automated mass production

Sustainable local self-reliant production by the masses

Power structure

Corporate, oligarchic

Decentralized power of the people

Table 1. Conventional vs. Gandhian Sustainability

The Gandhian Legacy in the Modern Indian Environmental Movement

Environmentalist Sunderlal Bahuguna of Chipko AndolanAs we have seen, several decades before environmental degradation became topical, Gandhi had expressed concerns relgarding the exploitation of natural resources, overconsumption, and the harmful effects of rampant development and urbanization. In order to solve the pressing problems of the present times, Gandhi’s principles of Swaraj, power decentralization, and Swadeshi need to be systematically inculcated in our nation. It is unfortunate that India, Gandhi’s own land, has so far failed to abide by his philosophy and has forgotten his ideals of participatory democracy and of empowering the people. This is especially vital since the relevant Gandhian philosophical principles – not merely concepts but practical ideals – have already proven their effectiveness in the practices of the Indian environmentalist movement.

For instance, in the Chipko Andolan (Chipko Movement) of the 1970s, started by Sunderlal Bahuguna, the Gandhian ideology of Satyagraha was used effectively to wage a nonviolent war against environmental injustice. Bahuguna, an outstanding environmentalist, one of the first environmental activists in India and a dedicated follower of Gandhi, has given most of his life to fighting for the protection and conservation of Himalayan forests. Launched in 1973, when such movements were as yet unheard of in the developing world, Chipko Andolan had a tremendous resonance and eventually became the spiritual point of origin for numerous future conservationist movements globally, by setting a precedent of successful nonviolent ecological protest. The movement succeeded in slowing down deforestation, exposing abuses and moneyed interests, and boosting environmental awareness among the public. The cornerstone of the Chipko’s agenda was to advance a Gandhian mobilization for a new society, where man and nature dwell in harmony and in equal dignity, both free from exploitation.

It is heartwarming and hope-inspiring to think of Chipko’s and similar accomplishments, all of which owe an intellectual and spiritual debt to Gandhi. Nevertheless, our institutional, legislative and executive mainstream is currently still very far from embracing a Gandhian notion of sustainability. One does not need to look far to fins examples. India’s notorious Narmada Valley Dams Project illustrates the prevalence of outmoded, unsustainable, unethical thinking about development. In this largest river development effort in India’s history and one of the grandest hydroelectric schemes ever in the world, the country’s government intends to create some 3,200 dams (including 30 large ones) on the Narmada River, which flows through the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Gujarat, emptying into the Arabian Sea. This foolhardy project is expected to harm the environment and biodiversity on an appalling scale, by flooding large territories of jungle and arable land. From the start, there has been widespread opposition to the Narmada Valley Project in India, in the form of Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), or Save the Narmada Movement, as it is known in English. According to NBA, the dams built under this project will force the displacement of about 1.5 million people, chiefly affecting the poor and the tribal populations, robbing them of their traditional sources of livelihood in the name of “development.”

Vandana Shiva, an eminent Indian environmentalist, has argued that this style of development is nothing but a continuation of colonialism. Drawing upon the “Post-Development” philosophy of the Mexican thinker and activist Gustavo Esteva, Shiva describes development as “a permanent war waged by its promoters and suffered by its victims.”

On the other hand, it cannot be denied that Indian society is undergoing rapid change. Are we strong enough to make fundamental changes to out system, so as to make ourselves sustainable?

Related Resources on Gandhi and Environmentalism

The following articles discuss some aspects of Gandhi’s relationship with environmental issues.









Nishtha Sood


Nishtha Sood

Nishtha Sood is a writer and researcher based in New Delhi, India. Her main interests include the environment, politics, and minorities in India. She can be reached at

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