Gandhi and the Environment: A Tribute for World Environment Day

Mrs. Indira Gandhi was the only Head of State at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held at Stockholm in 1972, apart from the host Prime Minister Olaf Palme, who was the host. The speech she gave at the Conference, linking human development, poverty and peace to environmental conservation is definitely one of the first steps towards the articulation of sustainable development. i.e., ‘meeting the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

But long before this Gandhi, there was another Gandhi who was calling the world’s attention to these issues. Who else but Mahatma Gandhi!

Hug the Trees!

Gandhiji may not have articulated his thoughts on the environment in terms that we use today. But his whole philosophy was deeply rooted in concepts of what we now call sustainability: taking only what one needs from the environment, simplifying wants, equity, non-violence towards all life forms, and a caution against mindless pursuit of ‘development’. Many environmental movements like Chipko or Narmada Bachao Andolan are in fact inspired by Gandhiji.

On the occasion of Stockholm+50 and WED, here are some quotations from the Mahatma, which mark him as a very early spokesperson for environment and sustainable development.

‘I suggest that we are thieves in a way. If I take anything that I do not need for my immediate use, and keep it, I thieve it from someone else. I venture to suggest that it is the fundamental law of Nature, without exception, that Nature produces enough for our wants from day-to-day, and if only everybody took enough for himself and nothing more, there would be no pauperism in the world, there would be no man dying of starvation in the world.’

Speech on ‘Ashram Vows’ at YMCA, Madras. 16 Feb, 1916. CWMG Vol 13, 230-231.

‘Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.’

Quotation popularized by Gandhi.

‘We cannot have ecological movement unless the principle of non-violence becomes central to the ethics of human nature.’

Mohan-mala. A Gandhian Rosary. Ahmedabad. Navajivan Publishing House. 1997. 93-94.

‘God forbid that India should ever take to industrialization after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of a single island kingdom (England) is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.’

Young India. 12 Dec 1928. CWMG Vol. 38. 243.

If it is man’s privilege to be independent, it is equally his duty to be inter-dependent.

‘In the modern rush, the chief use we have for our rivers is to empty our gutters in them and navigate our cargo vessels, and in the process make them dirtier still.’

Young India, 23 December, 1926.

‘Civilization, in the real sense of the term, consists not in the multiplication, but in the deliberate and voluntary reduction of wants.’

Yeravada Mandir. Navjivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad.  

‘We cannot have ecological movement unless the principle of non-violences becomes central to the ethics of human nature.’

Mohan-mala. A Gandhian Rosary. Navjivan Publishing House.


Credit: Centre for Environment Education put together a collection of Gandhiji’s thoughts to mark the 10th anniversary of the Earth Charter, in a publication called ‘Earth Charter & Gandhi: Towards a Sustainable World.’ Compiled by Karikeya Sarabhai, Meena Raghunathan, Amishal Modi. These quotations are taken from there.

The Timeless Wisdom of Gandhi

This week, up until Oct 2, the posts will be dedicated to remembering Gandhiji. This issue, it is quotes from his writing, focussing on the ethical foundations of economics. As relevant today, as ever. As relevant at an individual level, as for a country. Food for thought indeed.

Earth provides enough for every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.

Popularized by Gandhi

Civilization, in the real sense of the term, consists not in the multiplication, but in the deliberate and voluntary reduction of wants.

Complete Works of Mahatma Gandhi. Vol 44, 103-104.

This mad rush for wealth must cease, and the labourer must be assure, not only of a living wage, but a daily task that is not mere drudgery.

Young India, 13 Nov 1924.

I must confess, I do not draw a sharp or any distinction between economics and ethics.  Economics that hurt the well-being of an individual or nation are immoral and therefore sinful. Thus the economics that permit one country to prey upon another are immoral. It is sinful to buy and use articles made by sweated labour.

Young India, 13 Nov 1924.

We may neither take nor keep a superfluous thing..

Harijan. 31 March, 1946.
The real meaning of economic equality is ‘To each according to his need.’

Harijan. 31 March, 1946.

A certain degree of physical harmony and comfort is necessary, but above a certain level it becomes hindrance instead of help. Therefore the ideal of creating an unlimited number of wants and satisfying them seems to a delusion and a snare.

CWMG. Vol  63. 241.

I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore to him a control over this own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to Swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away.

CWMG. Vol 89. 125.

Economic equality …mean(s), however, that every will have a proper house to live in, sufficient and balanced food to eat, and sufficient khadi with which to cover himself. It also means that the cruel inequality that obtains today will be removed by purely non-violent means.

Harijan. 18 August, 1940.


These are from a compilation I was lucky enough to work on, launched at the Gandhi Ashram by Mr. Steven Rockefeller, to commemorate the Tenth Anniversary of the Earth Charter.

Sarabhai, K., Raghunathan M., Modi A. (Compiled). Earth Charter & Gandhi: Towards a Sustainable World. Ahmedabad. Centre for Environment Education. 2010.


“His vocation to be a medical healer was deeper than his vocation to practice law.  He practiced law for about 20 years and then quit forever (though vigorously engaged in politics); his medical healing of sick individuals continued throughout the rest of his life.”

A recent lecture by Dr Mark Lindley at the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad explored Gandhi’s persona as a healer, and health advisor as well as practitioner. Lindley himself wears many hats! An internationally renowned musicologist, as well as an ecological economist, he is also a Gandhi scholar with particular interest in Gandhi’s views on health.

While I was aware of Gandhi’s strong and passionate views on health, diet and lifestyle, a lot of which can be found in his seminal work Key to Health, Lindley’s talk revealed several new aspects of Gandhi which I felt would be interesting to share.

We all know that Mohandas Gandhi went to England in 1888 when he was 18 years old to study law, under advice from family elders. What is perhaps not as well known is that Gandhi’s own desire was to study medicine there. At that point however, apparently the popular perception that becoming a barrister would be an ‘economically’ more practical choice prevailed.

The idea resurfaced around 1908 after he had already been practising law in South Africa. Gandhi may have felt that he could serve people better by practicing medicine than by practicing law. This time, it was the fact that studying medicine would involve vivisection that led him to reject the idea. During his visit to London in 1909, he wrote to a friend that a certain doctor there “…tells me that in the course of his studies he must have killed about fifty frogs. An examination in physiology without this, he tells me, is not possible. If this is so, I have absolutely no desire to go in for medical studies. I would neither kill a frog, nor use one for dissecting if it has been specially killed [by someone else] for the purpose of dissection.”

Interestingly Gandhi’s writings soon after that visit reflect a radical change of view. In Hind Swaraj which he wrote on board the ship while returning from England in 1909, Gandhi vociferously avers “I was at one time a great lover of medical profession. It was my intention to become a doctor for the sake of my country. I no longer hold that opinion.”

“It is worth considering why we take up the profession of medicine. It is certainly not taken up for the purpose of serving humanity. We become doctors so that we may obtain honours and riches. I have endeavoured to show that there is no real service of humanity in the profession, and that it is injurious to mankind. Doctors make a show of their knowledge, and charge exorbitant fees. …The populace, in its credulity and in the hope of ridding itself of some disease, allows itself to be cheated.”

Reading these lines, 109 years later, I was struck by how much this sounds like some of the concerns about the medical profession today!

As the famous French epigram goes “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”, in other words “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”