What Would Gandhi Do On Climate Change?

When Gandhi was asked by a reporter, "What do you think of Western Civilization?" he apparently quipped, "I think it would be a good idea."

It is hard to imagine Gandhi being flippant, but perhaps, he wasn't joking.

Western civilization, or at least, modern economies are based on the axiom that self-interest trumps all else in human affairs and that, as a species, we have to reshape and mold Nature to suit our comforts. And as a multiplicity of human desires are met, happiness accrues. 

This is just humbug and therefore, Gandhi's quip may have been serious. Towards the end of his life, Gandhi was asked the secret of his Life in three words and he chuckled and answered, "Renounce and Enjoy." He was quoting from the Isha Upanishad while summarizing the Bhagavad Gita in that short reply. For the modern economist, his was probably a very strange reply. "Acquire and Enjoy," or "Consume and Enjoy," would have been more apropos. But Gandhi knew that all enjoyment from acquisition or consumption is fleeting at best.

Abundance is contextual. And the Bhagavad Gita asserts that you must work for the abundance of others and renounce it for yourself in order to enjoy it. This is what Gandhi meant by "Renounce and Enjoy." At a species level, we must work for the abundance of all other creatures on Earth and renounce it for ourselves in order to enjoy it. And this is precisely the opposite of what we do in the modern world where we routinely destroy a Florida-sized area of forests every two years, mainly to meet our rising demand for meat and dairy foods. To date, half the world's forests have been destroyed and three quarters of its ocean has been overfished and destroyed, with half that destruction occurring in the last 50 years alone.

For Gandhi, the Bhagavad Gita was his mother and teacher. As such, he would have abhorred the modern practice of treating forests and biodiversity as the equivalent of play dough, to be molded into livestock, fish sticks and furniture for human enjoyment and comfort to the detriment of all other life forms on earth. "Destroy and Enjoy" is the very opposite of "Renounce and Enjoy."

Gandhi was thrust in his world leadership role when he was thrown off the luxury compartment of a train in South Africa by a white traveler who didn't think that "coolies" were entitled to such luxuries. For that white traveler, Gandhi was not an individual, but a faceless lesser being. Gandhi dusted himself off and proceeded to evict the British from India by simply persuading 300 million Indians to politely ask them to leave - in unison. Gandhi's revolution was about restoring equity across racial and caste boundaries within the human family. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela continued his revolution during the twentieth century, but it is still being played out in the struggle for equity of our LGBT brethren and in the Occupy movement.

When we routinely destroy a Florida-sized area of forests every two years just so that we can eat cheese and other animal foods, we are behaving precisely like the white traveler in South Africa, throwing other creatures off the luxury compartment of the train that is the living planet. While those creatures will probably never organize to politely kick us out of the planet, Mother Nature is proceeding to do precisely that through climate change and mass extinction. And the Gandhian revolution we need in the 21st century is about restoring equity across species boundaries within the family of Life. Until now, we don't really see all those other life forms as individuals, but rather as interchangeable agglomeration of species. We have bought into the notion that extinction is only now ramping up because a tiger is a tiger. So what if 97% of the tigers were killed off in the last century? As long as there are still around 3000 tigers left in the wild, it is still just an endangered species, whose population can recover a la Noah and the Ark. Of course, we would be horrified if this same "coolie" logic was applied to our pet dogs and cats, who surely have individual personalities.

The question for us is whether we will voluntarily acquire humility and stop behaving like that arrogant white traveler in South Africa or whether Mother Nature needs to whack us on the head umpteen times before we "get it". The Renunciation we need to practice is Veganism, or Compassion for all Creation, and the result is also pure enjoyment, as I can assure you after nearly four years of practice. This is precisely as the Gita had predicted. And if every human being turned Vegan today, 40% of the land area of the planet would be returned to Nature to regenerate forests, sequester carbon, stop biodiversity loss and quite possibly halt the planet's climate system from tipping over and frying us and our children and grandchildren. After all, we are part of the most amazing, self-healing system called Life.

Therefore, please go Vegan as if Life on Earth depends on it. It does. It's as simple as that. Pleas for moderation are really only pleas to maintain the status quo. For moderation is like the white train traveler promising to treat Gandhi equitably on weekdays, while relishing the right to throw him off the train on weekends. 

Moderation simply propagates the "coolie" mindset in our relationship with animals. 

But even those who are vocal advocates of environmental action don't seem to have grasped the enormity of the cultural shift that we need to accomplish. The carbon Tax and Dividend approach that Al Gore and Jim Hansen advocate is an inadequate response to this challenge. Such techno-fixes say that there we aren't yet adult enough to acknowledge and correct our own oppressive behavior on the planet. Carbon Tax and Dividend is like Gandhi agitating for an Oppression tax to be levied on white train travelers, to be collected and redistributed equally to all white train travelers in the form of dividends, so that they have an economic incentive to reduce their overall oppression of non-whites. 

I'm so glad that Gandhi came up with a more holistic solution to the oppression he faced and taught us all such valuable lessons.