In October I was invited by the Indian Permanent Mission to the United Nations to give a presentation on the international Day of Nonviolence, which was also the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. Below is the full text of my remarks, which were delivered at United Nations headquarters in New York.
In the remarks, I identified three aspects of Gandhian thought and action that are directly relevant to the challenge of protecting the environment and preventing climate disruption. At the end of my presentation, I added a brief comment on the situation in Kashmir, which seemed necessary to include in an event organized by the Indian government.
“Gandhi’s message is highly relevant to today’s global climate crisis. I emphasize here three of his most important themes: simplicity, equity and nonviolence.
Gandhi became the “greatest person in the world” (as many called him) not through power and wealth but through selflessness and humble service to others.
He didn’t have anything. All of his possessions at the end of his life fit into a small box.
He lived simply and rejected materialism. He moved from a large home to live communally in an ashram. He shed his three-piece suit to became a man in loincloth, wearing a simple dhoti and shawl of homespun, even in cold and rainy London.
In 1931, while participating in the round table negotiations with the British government, Gandhi and other Indian delegates were invited to tea with the king. When Gandhi arrived at Buckingham Palace in his usual sparse attire, ‘half-naked’ Churchill once derisively commented, a reporter asked if he was underdressed for the occasion. Gandhi replied, “Don’t worry. His majesty has on enough for both of us.”
In his emphasis on simplicity and non-possession, Gandhi was revealing a profound truth about the roots of our current crisis, and he was pointing toward the pathway to a more sustainable future.
In his early book, Hind Swaraj, he described the quest for material goods and the endless multiplication of wants as “satanic.” If India were to follow the industrialism and economic imperialism of the West, he later warned, it would “strip the world bare like locusts.”
Gandhi’s critique of excessive materialism calls into question today our constant striving and demand for more goods. Are we consuming too much? Have our wants out-stripped our needs?
His critique also calls into question our model of economics. Our modern economic system is predicated upon endless growth, but there are unavoidable limits to the earth’s biological carrying capacity. We cannot keep dumping ever greater amounts of waste products into the atmosphere and the oceans.
The current global effort to stem carbon emissions focuses on the supply side. Produce more efficiently with less energy. Use renewal materials and resources. All good, but it is insufficient. We must also look at the demand side and explore ways to produce less, to consume less.
The global supply chains of today stretch from the high consuming West, to the high producing East, especially India and China. While emission levels have moderated slightly in the West, they are rising in the East, to satisfy the excess wants and manufacture the superfluous goods demanded in the West.
Curbing our demand for products does not mean that we abandon the struggle against poverty. On the contrary, we must continue and accelerate the work of fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals, as was discussed recently at the UN. But surely we can find a way to continue lifting people out of poverty without further ruining the environment or undermining the life support systems that are necessary to sustain human dignity into the future.
In calling for fewer wants and less consumption, I am not saying we should go about in loincloth or live in an ashram. But we can and must commit ourselves to living more simply and modestly.
Those of us who have achieved middle class status must demand less for ourselves and share more with others, especially the disinherited.
Gandhi devoted himself to serving the poor. In his famous Talisman, he said we should ask ourselves how our actions will affect the poorest and the weakest. We should act in ways that will help to liberate the hungry and lift up the least of these.
We know that the harmful effects of pollution and climate chaos fall disproportionately upon the poor and powerless. The rich and mighty can move to higher ground or cooler climes, but the impoverished do not have that option.
We should heed the wisdom of Pope Francis on this issue. The Holy Father links the marginalization of the poor to the exploitation of the environment. In his historic encyclical Laudato Si, he calls us to be in solidarity with the miserando, the lowly who are “mired in desperate and degrading poverty, with no way out, while others … [are] vainly showing off their supposed superiority and leaving behind so much waste that, if it were the case everywhere, would destroy the planet.”
Gandhi would agree with that. He thought of excess consumption as thievery. If we take more than is necessary for own needs, he believed, we take it from others. All people must have an equal opportunity, Gandhi said. This does not mean that everyone literally has the same amount, rather that everybody has enough for his or her needs.
Gandhi’s most important contribution to the world, I believe, is his philosophy and method of nonviolence. He demonstrated the power of disciplined peaceful disobedience, how mass noncooperation with injustice can change the course of history.
His philosophy of nonviolence is based on the principle of ahimsa, non-harm, the refusal to hurt another person, and also the responsibility to stand up for those who are harmed or threatened by others. He said that love and nonviolence are the pathway to spiritual fulfillment and divine truth, and he showed that they can also be means of overcoming oppression and injustice.
We reject violence because it is based on domination and coercion. Peace on the other hand is rooted in cooperation and freedom. Peace and nonviolence are indivisible. Life is sacred, and all living beings are interrelated. We are inescapably bound together in a web of mutuality through the interdependence of all living beings and the natural world.
As we strive to live peacefully with our fellow human beings, we must also be at peace with the earth. With all of our energy and strength, we must take up the responsibility to protect and preserve this precious, vulnerable envelope of air, water and soil that sustains all life and that is increasingly in peril due to our own actions.
As we reflect today upon Gandhi’s teachings on nonviolence, we would be remiss, I believe, if we did not mention the current situation in Kashmir.
Gandhi played a role in Kashmir in 1947, traveling to Srinagar to meet with Maharaja Hari Singh. When discontent and violence ensued after Kashmir acceded to India, Gandhi said, “If anyone can save Kashmir, it is only the Muslims, the Kashmiri Pandits, the Rajputs and the Sikhs who can do so.”
Today there is renewed discontent, and a risk of violence, but this must be avoided, as Gandhi would insist. The only path to a just settlement in Kashmir is through nonviolent democratic means.
Long live the spirit and message of Mahatma Gandhi!”
Pope Francis, Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, Encyclical Letter (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 2015), 62-63, ¶91.
Quoted in Ramachandra Guha, Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018), 823.