Gandhi’s ecological legacy

Gandhi’s ecological legacy

A satyagraha for life

Gandhi renewed and regenerated India’s ecological civilisation from the ruins of colonialism, and the colonising world view of the imperial West. His ecological vision, which is India’s civilisational vision, is even more urgently needed in our times of ecological emergency and an imminent ecological collapse of the living systems and processes that support our lives.

The ideas and actions that Gandhi practised have inspired and guided my own life’s work in defending the earth and people’s rights. Distilling the teachings of the Isha Upanishad, Gandhi reminds us: “The Earth has enough for everyone’s needs, but not for a few people’s greed”. The first mantra of the Isavasya Upanishad says the universe and the Earth is permeated by the divine and is for the benefit of all beings. We should enjoy the gifts of the earth through renunciation, not through the greed of possession and exploitation. Taking more than our share to fulfil our needs is theft from other species, other humans and the future.

Across the world, young people are striking against the theft of their future. The earth is being brought to the brink by greed. Giant corporations are making super-profits at the cost of nature and people. Ordinary citizens are participating blindly as “consumers”, contributing to destabilising the self-regulatory processes through which Gaia, the living earth, maintains the biosphere and the climate system.

The IPCC has warned that we have twelve years to limit climate change catastrophe. As my book, Soil, not Oil and other reports show 50% of greenhouse gas emissions that are driving the climate chaos come from an industrial food system based on fossil, fuels and chemicals. The interrelated aspects of the ecological crisis are creating new vulnerabilities for food and farming.

Insects and birds are fast-disappearing. Two hundred species are being pushed to extinction every day. A million are threatened. We are living through the sixth mass extinction. And we could be among the millions of species that disappear if we do not shift from violence to non-violence in our minds and our practices.

The industrial fossil fuel chemical-based food system which is playing a major role in the planetary emergency is also failing to feed people. One million people are hungry. Two million are sick because of industrial food-related chronic diseases.

In Hind Swaraj Gandhi critiqued fossil fuel-based industrial civilisation stating: “This civilization seeks to increase bodily comforts, and it fails miserably even in doing so”. The rapid explosion of industrial food-based chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes, cancers is the failure of industrial agriculture to provide bodily comfort. Gandhi also predicted: “This civilisation is such that one has only to be patient and it will be self-destroyed”. The warning scientists are giving today, Gandhi gave a century ago.

I was woken up to the violence of industrial agriculture based on toxic chemicals in 1984 with the violence in Punjab, and the Bhopal disaster due to a leak of toxic gas from a pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide. I studied the Green Revolution, and took a pledge to promote non-violent agriculture which is chemical-free, and regenerates the earth, her biodiversity, the soil, the water, and also reverses the processes driving climate change. The organic farming and agroecology we practice is Ahimsic Kheti inspired by Gandhi’s principles on Ahimsa and non-violence.

It is the teachings of Gandhi and our ecological civilisation that inspired me to evolve the idea and practice of Earth Democracy, living on our fragile planet with the full awareness that the Earth is alive, and that all beings, including all human beings, have a right to be alive. Over five decades I have learnt that if we live on the earth as Earth citizens, we can create abundance and well being for all.

In 1987, at a conference on the new biotechnologies, the chemical companies that had brought us toxins that are killing life on earth, now said they would introduce GMO seeds to get patents and collect royalties from farmers. And they would use trade treaties like GATT to own of life through patents.

Gandhi had resisted the Empire of Cotton with the spinning wheel. Inspired by the Spinning Wheel I started to save seeds, to resist the Empire over the life that the chemical companies are trying to establish through patents on seeds and patents on life. That is how Navdanya and the seed saving movement, Bija Swaraj movement was born.

Gandhi always combined creative constructive action with creative resistance. For him, swaraj and satyagraha were two aspects of the movement for freedom. For Gandhi, satyagraha, the force of truth used to not cooperate with an unjust law, was a ‘no’ from our deepest conscience. When Gandhi picked up salt from the sea on the Dandi beach he had said that nature gives it for free, we need it for our survival. In Navdanya we say that our seeds have been given freely by nature and our ancestors who bred and evolved them. It is our duty and right to save our seeds and biodiversity. We will not cooperate with laws that falsely claim that corporations have “invented” seed and can take patents on seeds, laws that aim to criminalise farmers saving and exchanging their seeds and rob us of our seed freedom. We have spread the Seed Satyagraha across the world to protect biodiversity and defend Seed Freedom.

Gandhi has inspired a new Satyagraha for a sacred economy which is a “system of production that creates the most number of jobs with the least investment in Capital as also with least damage to nature”. As we stand at the precipice, staring into possible ecological collapse and extinction of the human species, Gandhi’s ecological vision creates the possibility of sowing seeds of our common future. The satyagraha of our times is a ‘Satyagraha for Life’.


(The writer is Director, Research Foundation for Science, Technology & Ecology)

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