Thursday, September 15, 2011

Gandhi on Sustainable Development

In a recent NY times Op-Ed entitled Going Green but Getting Nowhere , Gerrot Wagner tries to make the point that individual acts are inconsequential in solving global environmental problems. He suggests that the only route to a sustainable economy is through top-down policy. That's a nice thought, but while we keep waiting, and waiting...... and waiting for policy-makers to do anything regarding the greenhouse gas crisis, maybe a voice from a different era has some insights.

Gandhi helped lead India to independence, but I think if he were alive today he would be trying to save modern civilization from itself. As he presciently argued in chapter six of his 1919 work, the Hind Swaraj, "this [Western] civilization is such that one has only to be patient and it will be self-destroyed." As we heedlessly pollute our own water supplies and destabilize our fragile climate system, his 100-year old words began to take on a prophetic character.

Gandhi saw a lot of flaws in Western civilization. He wrote of men "enslaved by temptation of money and the luxuries that money can buy" who "keep up their energy by intoxication", "can hardly be happy in solitude", and who "require something to eat every two hours." What better description of 21st century America with its chaos of purple energy drinks("energy by intoxication"), maxed out credit cards("enslaved by luxuries"), and furiously buzzing social networks ("hardly happy in solitude")?

We live in a consumer-driven economy. Consumer spending dictates the growth of our economy, and economic policy-makers are desperately trying to get consumers buying again. For example, this article:  "The chief of the U.S. central bank says American consumers have been “exceptionally cautious” in their spending habits in recent months, one reason that the country’s economy is growing at a tepid pace."

One of Gandhi's great fears was that India would become a consumer society, dependent on machine-made imports for its basic goods, and the functioning of its economy (in other words, present-day America). In 1922, he wrote that "[it would be] an economic blunder of the first magnitude... to supply cheap bread through huge bakeries established in the chief centres in India and to destroy the family stove." He argued that "instead of half a dozen cities of India and Great Britain living on the exploitation and the ruin of 700,000 villages of India, the latter will be largely self-contained."

In the quotes above, Gandhi is arguing against centralized production. For Gandhi, localized production is preferable because it grants individuals "economic freedom and equality of all"; it makes one "feel aglow with the possession of power that has lain hidden within himself, and makes him proud of his identity."

Gandhi would look at the proliferation of big-box stores, multi-national corporations, and global commerce and say, Where is the individual's economic freedom? Where is individual self-respect? Where is identity? He would say, bake your own bread, grow your own vegetables, make your own clothes. Gandhi would buy local food, shop at farmer's markets, eschew Target and Wal-Mart.

Returning to Wagner and his claim that the individual has no power to "Go Green", I would say, yes, you are right, the individual has little power. But, what about the community? Gandhi saw an India of 700,000 self-contained, sustainable, villages, a nation thriving with local economies. Why not an America of 700,000 local economies? What better way to subvert the environmental carelessness of profit-minded, global corporations than by spending dollars in one's own community? Jobs shouldn't be created by driving up consumer spending so that Wal-Mart will build more stores. People should create their own jobs by, well, by creating.

A proliferation of local economies does not mean a return to village life. A local economy is a neighborhood of a city that has urban farms, bakeries, breweries, tailors...

More to follow.....

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