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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 6 New Delhi January 26, 2019 - Republic Day Special

Survival Crisis and Increasing Relevance of Gandhiji’s Ideas for Resolving this Crisis

Monday 28 January 2019

by Bharat Dogra

I Introduction

There is a growing realisation that our world is increasingly faced with a survival crisis in the sense that the very life-nurturing conditions of our planet, which made such amazing biodiversity possible on earth, are threatened. Time-bound solutions have to be found within the next two decades to prevent several of these threats from crossing the much-feared tipping points beyond which these may slip out of human control. As finding time-bound solutions for these threats becomes the biggest responsi-bility of humanity, the relevance of Gandhiji’s core ideas has increased even more than before as these can be extremely useful for providing the basic value system which is most conducive for resolving the survival crisis.

II The Survival Crisis

IN 1945, after the use of the first two atomic bombs it was realised, perhaps for the first time, that human action can be so destructive as to threaten the life-nurturing conditions of our planet. This feeling accentuated with the subsequent accumulation of nuclear weapons and availability of more information about the potential destruction chemical and biological weapons can also cause.

In the 1970s information started becoming available that human-made environmental changes can also be highly threatening for the basic life-nurturing conditions of our planet. This understanding became more definitive from the 1990s onwards and the publication of IPCC Reports. Apart from climate change, about 10 survival-threatening environmental issues can be mentioned in this context. The concept of tipping point tells us that these problems have to be resolved within a very limited time-frame or else the situation may go out of humanity’s hands.

The United Nations Environment Programme issues periodic reports on the state of the world’s environment, recent trends and future prospects. The latest of these — Global Environment Outlook 5—has presented “undeniable evidence that the world is speeding down an unsustainable path”. This report has voiced a clear warning that urgent changes are needed “to avoid exceeding critical thresholds beyond which abrupt and generally irreversible changes to the life support functions of the planet could occur”.

This issue of critical significance has been taken up in greater detail in the work of the scientists at the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC). Johan Rockstrom, the Director of the SRC, says: “The human pressure on the Earth System has reached a scale where abrupt global environmental change can no longer be excluded. To continue to live and operate safely, humanity has to stay away from critical ‘hard-wired´ thresholds in the Earth’s environment, and respect the nature of the planet’s climatic, geophysical, atmospheric and ecological processes.”

The scientists at the SRC first identified the Earth System processes and potential bio-physical thresholds, which, if crossed, could generate unacceptable environmental change for humanity. They then proposed the boundaries that should be respected in order to reduce the risk of crossing these thresholds. The nine boundaries identified were: climate change, stratospheric ozone, land use change, freshwater use, biological diversity, ocean acidification, nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the biosphere and oceans, aerosol loading and chemical pollution. The study suggests that “three of these boundaries (climate change, biological diversity and nitrogen input to the biosphere) may already have been transgressed”. In addition, it emphasises that “the boundaries are strongly connected—crossing one boundary may seriously threaten the ability to stay within safe levels of the others”.

The period 1990-2018 is a period of lost 28 years in the sense that the seriousness of the survival crisis was well-realised but nothing very effective was done to check this. In fact various aspects of the survival crisis continued to become more serious during this period.

The last one or two years have been particularly bad from this most crucial perspective as the most powerful and resourceful country (the USA) has moved away from the solutions more than ever before. Due to a complex of reasons the threat of actual use of weapons of mass destruction has increased, while robot weapons (AI or autonomous weapons) are also fast emerging as a major threat.

While these various issues are generally discussed in their individual context, at a practical level the world will increasingly face these accentuating problems together at the same time. Hence there needs to be a much greater sense of urgency regarding these most serious problems at the world level. If the present world leadership is not according adequate and appropriate importance to these issues (as is certainly the situation now), future hope of resolving these issues will be centred mainly on people’s efforts and actions.

III Value-System Needed to Resolve Crisis


WHILE technological solutions are being proposed for these various problems and international conferences are organised regularly to provide a detailed framework for this, it is increasingly realised that we are lagging much behind in the tasks of highest urgency. As the United Nations Secretary-General’s High-Level Planet of Global Sustainability stated, “Despite the adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and its Kyoto Protocol, annual global carbon dioxide emissions from fuel combustion grew by about 38 per cent between 1990 and 2009, with the rate of growth faster after 2000 than in the 1990s.”

The agreements on curbing accumulation and possibility of use of weapons of mass destruction appear to be weaker today than a few decades back.

One main reason of this failure is that the prevailing value systems in the present-day world are not conducive to resolving the survival crisis. If the existing value systems do not become favourable to resolving the crisis on time, the search for immediate technical-fix solutions in the form of highly dubious huge geo-engineering changes may be pushed by authoritarian regimes with their own narrow agenda. Our effort with the greatest sense of urgency should be to find solutions for the many-sided survival crisis within the framework of democracy, peace and justice.

To give just one example, if the desire of ever-increasing consumption, including wasteful and harmful consumption, continues to remain unchecked, then despite technological innovations in the area of replacing fossil fuels success in reducing overall GHG emissions can elude us, or else limited success in this can be accompanied by increasing problems in other areas.

On the other hand, if such technological solutions are accompanied by willingness for overall very significant reduction in consumerism, luxury consumption and wasteful consumption, then along with very significant reduction in GHG emissions several other aspects of environment protection can be achieved at the same time, along with other important benefits such as improved health and reduced mortality rates.

In particular the biggest scope may be for reducing production and use of small and big arms, including weapons of mass destruction. If the overall value systems in the world strongly favour peace and are against all forms of violence, then it may be possible to reduce all arms and ammunition production and use by about 80 to 90 per cent.

There is clearly a strong need for spreading the values of peace and non-violence directly. In addition, however, the efforts for reducing consumerism and greed can also create conducive conditions for peace and non-violence. As greed decreases, so does the inclination at all levels to snatch the share of others. This leads to a much lesser inclination for violence, and provides much more favourable conditions for the spread of the values of peace and avoiding use of force.

Widespread conditions of peace were always needed, but these will be increasingly needed all over the world to resolve survival issues and to secure international cooperation for this.

In brief, then, there is clearly a need for efforts and campaigns which create in society a base for values which are favourable for resolving the survival crisis. The values of frugality and simplicity and curbing endless consumerism on the one hand and the values of peace and non-violence on the other are very important and essential components of this value system that we need. These two components are also closely inter-related.

IV Ideas of Mahatma Gandhi

BOTH of these components of the value system were emphasised repeatedly by Mahatma Gandhi. These are so closely identified with him, and rightly so, that anyone being emphatic about these two aspects is often referred to as Gandhian in India.

Mahatma Gandhi was a most remarkable man of many-sided accomplishments but is best known for his life-long resistance to injustice using an approach of complete and uncompromising non-violence. This inspired numerous other struggles, including many small and big social and environmental movements, in post-independence India. Gandhiji’s example also inspired many important non-violent struggles outside India, including those led by Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.

This legacy of Mahatma Gandhi will be extremely useful in future for people’s movements to influence governments and institutions to make the changes which are necessary for resolving the survival issues on time. The kind of moral and ethical force which Mahatma Gandhi could bring to these non-violent movements will be increasingly needed by these movements.

The overall emphasis on non-violence in all aspects of life and as a way of life which Gandhiji emphasised can be very valuable for creating the base for a peaceful world. Wide-spread conditions of peace are of course highly desirable in themselves, but in addition will be increasingly needed to meet the challenges of various survival issues.

In a world inspired by the principles of non-violence and peace at all levels, the chances of reducing arms and ammunition to a significant extent and for the success of disarmament agreements at various levels will be much higher.

Gandhiji placed strong emphasis on voluntary limitation of consumption by people by basing it on need rather than greed. This reduces greatly the chances of conflict and improving the prospects of peace because there is less likelihood of snatching the resources of others. Gandhiji has become a symbol of simple and frugal life and yet could get the long-term following of millions. Given the trends of present-day populist politics, this is a lesson that things can be done differently.

At a time of growing trends of urbanisation and centralisation, Gandhiji placed increasing emphasis on the decentralised rural pattern of life. He emphasised the creation of self-reliant rural communities. These communities should be very creative in terms of making the best possible use of local resources and skills for meeting as many needs of daily life as possible. The carbon costs of transporting food and goods of daily need would be very low. It is in these patterns of life that we have the most scope for community action for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in many ways. He also spoke against tendencies of over- mechanisation, which often involve higher GHG emissions, and a greater scope for human creativity and skills.

Gandhiji’s experiments with community living may be increasingly relevant in new contexts which bring out how basic needs of all people can be met in healthy and harmonious ways on the basis of sustainable livelihoods, reducing the chances of all conflicts while keeping GHG emissions at extremely low levels.

The great need of today is for integrating the agenda of justice with the agenda of environment protection and here again Gandhiji’s ideas are very helpful as he placed the needs of the poorest people above everything else. His concept of trusteeship is also significant in this context.


AS the world grapples with the increasingly difficult task of finding time-bound solutions to various aspects of the survival crisis in the near future, it will no doubt look out with an increasing sense of urgency for inspiring figures in human history whose ideas and work can be useful and beneficial for meeting this challenge. In this context there is no doubt that there will be an increasing need and scope to learn from the work and ideas of Mahatma Gandhi and their relevance for the 21st century will continue to grow more and more.

Hence there is a clear need to examine various concepts, ideas and work-experiences of Gandhiji in the more contemporary context of learning and inspiration for resolving the most urgent issues, particularly those relating to various aspects of the survival crisis.

[Note—This paper was first written for Ekta Parishad and the Jai Jagat Campaign. The author’s latest book, Planet in Peril—Survival Crisis, People’s Response Only Way Forward, has been published recently by Vitasta Publishers, Delhi.]

The author is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements and initiatives.

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