The Global Gandhi
According to Gandhi, inner transformation is the key to social change. Can it be applied to the climate crisis? An exploration by Diana Calthorpe Rose of the Garrison Institute.
The nonviolent power of satyagraha inspired one of the most powerful social change movements the world has ever known, the Indian struggle for independence led by Mahatma Gandhi. Today we need the same power of satyagraha as we confront the seemingly intractable problem of climate change.
Satyagrahais the term that Gandhi coined for the political movement he founded. It means “the power of truth,” or literally “truth force,” and came into wide usage with Gandhi’s 1930 Salt Satyagraha, or Salt March. Truth force refers to the truth that doing and being are consonant—one does not achieve peaceful ends with violent means, but with peaceful ones. Al Gore had Gandhi’sidea of truth force in mind when he coined the term “inconvenient truth,” saying, “Global warming is, first and foremost, a challenge to the moral imagination… Gandhi used the word ‘satyagraha,’ or ‘truth force’…”
The connection between satyagraha and climate change is profound and potentially radical, and has a special resonance for the American climate movement. It is not simply that Gandhi spoke about environmental issues, though he did, saying things like, “The Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need but not every man’s greed,” and “God forbid India should take to industrialism after the manner of the West… It would strip the world bare like locusts.”
Nor is it just that Gandhi’s work had environmental applications, though many environmental movements in India and around the world, including the American organic farming movement, grew directly out of the work of Gandhi and his followers.
In fact, Gandhi is part of a lineage of nonviolent thought with a strong American strain. His influences included Emerson’s self-reliance and Thoreau’s civil disobedience (which some scholars argue he got from the Algonquin), and his inheritors include Martin Luther King, Jr. and his doctrine of agape.
Along with Gandhi’s nonviolent tactics, King embraced the idea (both Gandhian and Emersonian) of a relatedness, reflexivity, and purifying dynamic between opponents that makes nonviolence so powerful. In his final sermon, King expressed this view in terms that clearly address our environmental predicament:
Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood… We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.
This contains a clue to a deeper resonance of satyagraha to the climate movement. That dimension of inner, personal rectitude— “what I ought to be”—holds the key to righting others and creating positive outward change. Gandhi stressed the radical requirements of nonviolence, which depends on the satyagrahi being all he or she ought to be. He taught that when another person’s welfare means more to you than your own, when his or her life means more to you than even your own, then you are pushing at the boundaries of consciousness.
It is that inner perfectibility, that practical exploration of new forms of consciousness itself, that creates the conditions for radical social (and environmental) change. Gandhi famously said, “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.” That certainly means we must practice what we preach, but more deeply it suggests the possibility that if we can transform ourselves—our own consciousness and our personal relations with the environment and with each other—then we can tap the power of truth needed to overcome the obstacles to a sustainable future.
These ideas were recently the focus of an international conference and a major forum on the principles of satyagraha held in New York. The Garrison Institute, a non-profit whose Initiative on Transformational Ecology reconnects contemplative wisdom to environmental work, organized a weekend of events connecting Gandhi and the climate movement. It coincided with the opening of the New York Metropolitan Opera’s revival of Philip Glass’s opera “Satyagraha,” with its libretto drawn from the Bhagavad Gita. Participants took in the opening, attended a two-day contemplative retreat, and then spoke at a public forum at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine attended by more than a thousand people.
Leaders of contemporary Gandhian movements, such as Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne, founder of Sri Lanka’s Sarvodaya movement, and Sulak Sivaraksa, of the Thailand Spirit in Education Movement and the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, traveled to New York to take part (carbon offsets were purchased to balance the travel footprint).
As Sivaraksa said, the invocation of Gandhi suggested the American climate movement was “on the right track.” He and Dr. Ariyaratne led meditations and recounted their own peace and social justice work, demonstrating that the same Gandhian methods they use also apply to healing environmental violence: personally face the truth, open our awareness, change our consciousness, and act accordingly in the world. Rajmohan Gandhi, Gandhi’s biographer and grandson, said that as his grandfather used nonviolence and truth force to combat and transform the insensitive occupation of India by the British, so we must combat and transform our own insensitive occupation of planet Earth.
John Francis recounted the story of his personal liberation from environmental violence, renouncing motorized transport for twenty-two years after witnessing an oil spill and maintaining a vow of silence for seventeen years. During that time he not only walked across much of the planet and touched millions of lives, but somehow earned a Ph.D. and became a leading expert on oil spills in time to be tapped as a policy advisor to the U.S. government in the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster (he rode his bike to Washington). Francis is a very funny man, the embodiment of Gandhi’s playful three-word summary of his philosophy: “Renounce and enjoy.”
Mary Evelyn Tucker, cofounder of the Forum on Religion and Ecology, and youth leader Billy Parish, founder of the Climate Campaign and cofounder of the Energy Action Coalition, spoke of seizing our own “moments of obligation.” This moment in history, they said, calls all of us back to our highest ideals of moral courage and personal responsibility.
One current running through this discussion was swaraj, the Gandhian term for independence, ostensibly from foreign rule. It also has connotations of freedom from state control and individual and community self-sufficiency, but more deeply it means self-rule or self-liberation, which is the true object of the struggle for social change. Change one’s own consciousness, face one’s own fear of violence and overcome complicity in it, master oneself, and outward repression falls away.
Or perhaps it doesn’t. At the end of Gandhi’s life, the retreatants were told by the distinguished writer Ved Mehta, he thought he had failed in his mission. Although the British had relinquished control of India, self-rule came at the price of a blood bath in which up to a million people may have died. Gandhi spent his last years in continual atonement for this, but it did not defeat him or alter his determination to personally push the boundaries of consciousness through love and nonviolence. It’s as though he focused on the inner dimensions of this work, trusting the outward results to reflect them for good or ill.
What is striking about all this in relation to climate change is its resolute inwardness. Climate change is the definition of an objective, real-world problem, one that seems to defy real-world solution. Could the key to it lie in an inner reality?
The climate movement has much to learn from Gandhi: the supreme efficacy of his tactics, the deep personal rectitude demanded of a true satyagrahi, the real-world strategic value of loving one’s opponent (especially given the fact that we are all deeply part of the problem). But more than that, we might learn to reframe the problem in a solvable way if we can expand the boundaries of our consciousness as Gandhi did. Victory on this inner front may be difficult, but if it is conceivable, or possible, then so is victory on the outer front of saving the planet.
This is a message that the climate movement seems ready to hear. As David Orr writes in his recent essay, “At the End of Our Tether: The Rationality of Nonviolence,” “The transformative idea of nonviolence can no longer be dismissed as an Eastern oddity, an historical aberration, or the height of naiveté. At the end of our tether, it is rather the core of a more realistic and practical global realism. There is no decent future for humankind without transformation of both our manner of relations and our collective relationship with the Earth.” This is an emerging view, but it is also ancient wisdom about the inseparability of mindful action and spiritual reflection, stated in the Bhagavad Gita, quoted by Philip Glass in his opera, and lived by Gandhi and his inheritors: “The high estate attained by men of contemplative theory, that same state achieve the men of action. So act as the ancient of days old, performing works as spiritual exercise.”