“The incessant search for material comforts and their multiplication is an evil. I make bold to say that the Europeans will have to remodel their outlook, if they do not want to perish under the weight of the comforts to which they are becoming slaves.” Mahatma Gandhi
Mohandas Gandhi, called by his people Mahatma, which means “great soul”, loved India’s villages. He believed that they were the key to happiness and prosperity. In the face of powerful political and economic forces, he tried courageously to preserve their simple way of life. Economic behaviour determines the way a society treats the earth, therefore any discussion of environmental values has to include economics. The village economics of India give a practical example of an environmental way of living.
The original meaning of economics is “household management”. This is a science as well as an art which is handed down from parents to children : how to grow food and prepare it; how to produce cloth; how to construct a simple shelter and care for it; how to join with others, including animals, to facilitate the struggle for survival. All this is learnt…organically, by participation and by sharing experiences. These experiences pass from generation to generation and give rise to “economics”, to as many ways of living as there are climates, terrains and peoples in the world.
In the last few hundred years, this stream of acquired wisdom was interrupted. This happened first in Europe. Later the interference spread through colonial domination and trade to every continent. Alien sources of knowledge, from outside the family or community circle, were introduced into the cycle of living. As a result, the balance of economic life, which had been maintained over the ages, was upset. The golden rule of economics had always been : what you take must be returned and whatever you return will come back. Now humanity is taking and not returning.
If we want to resolve the environmental problems which now beset us, we must examine the connection between our environment and our way of life, our philosophy of life. According to Gandhi, our environmental problems have their roots in individual behaviour and attitudes. Just as he argued that it was not only the British who were to blame for India’s predicament, but also Indians themselves, we would have to recognize that it is not just governments or big businesses who are responsible for our crisis : it is the people as well, because the people “keep them”.
We are all partners in the destruction of nature, because we all agree to benefit from its spoils. Therefore, it would not be enough for us to call upon others to stop cutting down the rain-forest or producing carbon dioxide from the factory chimneys unless we were prepared to make similar sacrifices. Nor would it be enough for us to introduce lead-free petrol or environmentally friendly cars, because these do not address the issue. They allow us to keep our wasteful habits while postponing the day of reckoning. We would have to find an alternative to cars themselves and to the western way of life which is based upon them. This would undoubtedly mean a good deal of personal sacrifice and public commitment.