India to sign Paris accord: What would Gandhi say about climate change?

On Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that India will ratify the Paris climate agreement on Oct. 2 – Mohandas Gandhi's birthday.

Biswaranjan Rout/AP/File
In this 2012 file photo, a worker sprays water on a statue of the late Mahatma Gandhi at Gandhi Park in Bhubaneswar, eastern India.

On Sunday, the Paris climate accord inched ever-closer to fruition with India’s support.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said that India will ratify the agreement on Oct. 2 – Mohandas Gandhi's birthday. The deal, which must be ratified by 55 UN member nations accounting for 55 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions before going into effect, has been hailed as a turning point in international climate change policy.

At last count, some 60 countries representing 48 percent of emissions had ratified the agreement. India’s participation brings a considerable 4.5 percent to the table, but the country’s promise may reflect something loftier: Gandhi’s lesser-known legacy of environmentalism.

Mohandas Gandhi wasn’t considered an environmentalist in his day, at least not in the same way Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir were. The Indian independence leader almost never used the term “environment” explicitly, nor did he advocate for the establishment of vast nature reserves, as many early conservationists did.

That may be because, in the early 20th century, environmental issues simply weren’t at the forefront of global conversation. In Gandhi’s view, such concerns didn’t make up a separate discipline – they were interconnected with political, economic and moral issues. In a 1928 edition of the journal Young India, he linked the competitive economic behavior of western nations to the depletion of natural resources.

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

Raised under British colonial rule, Gandhi was well aware of the relationships between rich and poor nations. He saw a vicious cycle, where nations depleted their own resources before moving on to extract from developing countries. Then, in the pursuit of industrial economy, those same developing nations would begin to do the same. The result? Deforestation, pollution, and loss of biodiversity.

In a paper for the World Wildlife Fund’s 1996 symposium “Gandhi and the Environment,” Triloki Nath Khoshoo argued that the same dynamic exists today:

The present environmental mess, ranging from deforestation, soil and biodiversity loss, pollution, change in chemistry of air, and so on is not a disease by itself but only a symptom ... What then is disease in the present day environmentalism? The disease is the very concept and patterns of growth and development that are being followed in the resource-rich/technology-poor developing countries, and resource-poor/technology-rich industrial countries.

In this way, Gandhi’s environmentalism was a form of social justice. In advocating against the caste system, he argued that humanity could thrive only if no person took more than they needed. That perspective lives on today in the ethos of sustainability.

“Gandhi’s ecologism (if we can call it that) was about rural peasants eking out their subsistence and necessities from a piece of land,” Pramod Parajuli, a professor of political ecology at Prescott College, wrote in 2002. “In short, he might not have theorized the mathematics of sustainability but he showed us how to pursue sustainable livelihoods…”

It is unclear how Gandhi might have dealt with the question of climate change, which is itself so intertwined with economic and political issues. As the UN pushes to ratify the Paris agreement, many developing member nations have expressed concern that their own growth would be stunted by strict emission limits. Fully industrialized nations, the say, have already reaped the benefits of environmental carelessness.

On that point, Gandhi would probably have agreed. In “Mahatma Gandhi and the Environment,” Khoshoo attributes a particularly eerie prediction to the late civil rights activist.

“A time is coming when those who are in mad rush today of multiplying their wants, will retrace their steps and say; what have we done?”

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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