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Culture and Difference: Non-Western Approaches to Defining Environmental Issues

Abstract and Keywords

Can non-Western traditions offer the West intellectual resources to re-conceptualize the human–nature relationship, and transform our ethical relationship to the natural world? This essay argues that there have been two kinds of approaches to this question: first, an almost purely ethical approach that is termed “civilizational,” which follows the logic inherent in biocentric critiques of Western anthropocentrism and instrumentalism; and second, a more political approach which is called “neo-Gandhian,” which takes inspiration from the political thinking of Mahatma Gandhi. After describing each approach at length, the chapter argues that the latter is a more sophisticated way to turn to non-Western traditions for environmentally just solutions to the global environmental crisis. It not only avoids reproducing the binaries and dichotomies to which the former approach seems indebted, but it also marries normative environmental concerns with practical, material concerns and explicitly political critique and action.

Keywords: non-Western traditions, M. K. Gandhi, anthropocentrism, biocentrism, environmental justice

How have human relationships to the non-human world been conceived of in different cultural traditions? In an attempt to discover intellectual resources for addressing the environmental crisis, much scholarship has sought to ask whether alternative ethical understandings of the relationship between humans and the non-human or natural world can be found in “non-Western” traditions. Could these traditions offer the West new ways to conceptualize the human–nature relationship? If so, would they provide resources with which to transform our ethical relationship to the natural world and address the environmental crisis? In what follows, I first identify what I characterize as a “civilizational” set of approaches to this question. These approaches are explicitly normative, emerging from studies of non-Western religions, philosophies, and cultures. These “civilizational” approaches follow the logic inherent in critiques of Western anthropocentrism and instrumentalism, which trace such tendencies back to the metaphysical or philosophical foundations of Western science and culture, and suggest that alternative philosophical foundations may produce different cultural attitudes toward nature. After problematizing these approaches, I describe a different approach to environmental issues which continues to rely on a non-Western intellectual tradition, but does so in a more sophisticated way, without reproducing the binaries and dichotomies to which the “civilizational” approach seems indebted. Because it is based on the moral and political thinking of M. K. Gandhi, I will term this a “neo-Gandhian” approach or method, highlighting how specific thinkers and communities in contemporary India have taken up Gandhi’s conception of environmental issues as irreducibly linked to questions of everyday material needs and socio-economic justice. I will demonstrate how the method begins by turning outside the West for answers to environmental problems, but does not simply see other traditions as repositories of ethical knowledge, or rest with the question of ethics. Rather, it goes further than “civilizational” approaches (p. 40) do, by marrying normative environmental concerns with practical, material concerns and explicitly political critique and action, thus serving as an exemplar of an ethically- and materially-oriented environmental political thought. As such, the method can also be inspirational to many contemporary environmental justice movements outside India such as the food justice movement, and can serve to further the project of comparative environmental theorizing, in which ideas and practice from different cultural traditions can inform one another.

Philosophical and Ethical Foundations

As the extent of the environmental crisis began to become clear in the latter half of the twentieth century, scholars across a variety of disciplines began to examine the role that components of the West’s civilizational heritage—religious, social, political, cultural, or scientific—may have played in this outcome. Variously characterized as environmentally destructive, rapacious, acquisitive, or anthropocentric, the Western intellectual tradition, along with its philosophical and even metaphysical foundations, was brought under scrutiny for the instrumental and utilitarian relationship with nature it had ostensibly encouraged. Perhaps the most common target of this critique was the Enlightenment view of scientific rationality. The Enlightenment’s confidence in the capacity of human beings to assert control over the natural environment, to classify, quantify, categorize, and use it for their sustenance, was variously attributed to a combination of Judeo-Christian, Cartesian, and scientific worldviews, all of which were said to have alienated modern humans from nature. Carolyn Merchant famously argued that the achievements of the Scientific Revolution in the seventeenth century were deeply implicated in human dominion over nature, and in the ecological crisis that has since unfolded (Merchant 1983). While Merchant and others have acknowledged that the idea of dominion over the earth had existed in both Greek philosophy and Christian religion (Merchant 1983: 3), the detached observation, mastery, control, and manipulation of nature for the satisfaction of human economic utility that emerged in the modern era was a product of the Scientific Revolution view of nature as “brute,” inert, and available for conquest (Passmore 1995; Bilgrami 2006). Such a notion of mastery and control was necessarily wedded to a Cartesian dualism in which the “human” person, “conjoining mind and body, could be set in total opposition to the non-human world” (Passmore 1995: 133). For Descartes, it was man’s task therefore to make himself master and possessor of nature (Passmore 1995: 134). Val Plumwood points out that such dualism explains many of Western culture’s most problematic features in its treatment of nature, producing in turn further dualisms that cast the very conception of the “human” as not only anthropocentric but masculinist, agentic, and rational, in contrast to the feminine, construed as inert, passive, and emotive, thus less than fully human, closer (p. 41) to nature, and hence subject to rule (Plumwood 1993: 38–9). For Merchant, Bilgrami, Passmore, Plumwood, and many others, the history of Western philosophy can be characterized by the steady victory of its rationalist, scientific, mechanistic, anthropocentric, mercantile, and instrumental elements over its holistic, affective, feminine, organismic, or paganistic ones.

Particularly controversial was an earlier argument made by historian of science Lynn White, who had gone even further, positing that this anthropocentric scientific rationality was directly linked to the earliest metaphysical foundations in Christian scripture, wherein human dominion over nature was explicitly mandated by the Creator (White 1967). White attributed Western civilization’s anthropocentrism to Christianity, and specifically to the Western/Roman interpretation of Christianity, in contrast to its Eastern Orthodox one: God makes everything for man’s benefit and dominion, man shares God’s transcendence over nature, and it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his own sustenance. By destroying pagan animism, Christianity desacralized natural objects, making it possible to exploit them in a mood of indifference to their spirit (Passmore 1985: 132). Perhaps counterintuitively, White argued that modern science and technology, rather than representing a secularized departure from Christianity, were in fact the progressive realization of the Christian dogma of man’s transcendence and mastery over nature, for every major figure of the Scientific Revolution from Bacon to Newton explained their motivation in religious terms: namely, understanding the mind of God by learning how creation operates (White 1967).

White’s provocative thesis predictably created a furor (see, among others, Dobel 2008). Indeed, though his thesis was by no means uncontroversial, its influence has been tremendous. At least two different edited collections of texts on environmental ethics include his now-classic article as the lead piece in the very first sections of their respective volumes, suggesting openly that the ecological crisis was rooted in the metaphysical foundations of the Western tradition (Pojman and Pojman 2001; Van De Veer and Pierce 1998). On the heels of such discourses linking the ecological crisis to the intellectual and metaphysical foundations of the Western tradition, many scholars—most notably, the thinkers of eco-centrism or biocentrism—began proposing alternative ethical and philosophical foundations for non-anthropocentric relations with nature (Leopold 1949; Naess 1984, 1986; Devall and Sessions 1985; Callicott 1987). If White was indeed right that “more science and more technology are not going to get us out of the present ecologic crisis until we find a new religion, or rethink our old one,” then perhaps alternative foundations were indeed required. Thus, scholars began to ask the question of whether religious or philosophical traditions outside the West could provide intellectual foundations for such an alternative view. Perhaps most famously, Arne Naess, the thinker credited with articulating the “deep ecology” alternative to Western anthropocentrism, explicitly cited Hindu metaphysics as inspirational for his own particular version of biocentrism (Naess 1986: 24). Naess was motivated by Hindu metaphysics when calling for a “biocentric” egalitarianism in which all things in the biosphere should be accorded equal rights to live, while non-human life is to be accorded intrinsic rather than instrumental value. For Naess, realizing our identity as one with all living beings calls for us (p. 42) to recognize that violence against any living being is violence against the self (Naess 1984; Jacobsen 1996).

Indeed, as early as the 1960s, the indigenous Other—and particularly the Native American—had become a “symbol in the ecology movement’s search for alternatives to Western exploitative attitudes. The Native animistic belief-system and reverence for the Earth as mother were contrasted with Judeo-Christian heritage of dominion over nature” (Merchant 1983: 28). Since then, there has been a flood of scholarship casting indigenous approaches to nature as more environmentally conscious and thus ethically exemplary (Booth 2003: 348–9). Subsequently, many scholars of non-Western religions and philosophies began to posit that alternative understandings of the human relationship to nature might be found within the metaphysics, ethics, and practices of non-Western civilizations such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and so on. In these works, both White’s provocative thesis as well as the general sense of anthropocentrism in the worldviews and cultures associated with Abrahamic religions are often cited as motivations for such exploration (Tucker and Grim 2000: xxiv–xxv; Chapple 2000: xliii; Tucker and Grim 2002: xxii–xxiii).

Civilizational Approaches

Such scholarship tended mainly to cast ethical behavior as linked to metaphysical precepts contained in scriptural and/or philosophical texts and therefore to the wider cultural soil in which such behavior is rooted. I term these approaches “civilizational,” for they implicitly or explicitly link attitudes and behavior toward nature with the intellectual, philosophical, and metaphysical foundations of a civilization, as reflected in the wider socio-cultural environment. Some scholars seem to be following the intuition that philosophical or religious foundations of a culture—in other words, broad “civilizational” influences—can explain something about human relations with nature in that culture (Cort 2001; Selin 2003). These works tend to be interdisciplinary, emerging from disciplines such as religious studies, philosophy, ethics, and Asian studies, reflecting the fact that these disciplines, considered disparate in the modern West, are often inseparable in the study of many non-Western traditions. This set of discourses is a curious mix of two antithetical tendencies: one strain tends to emphasize the radical contrast of non-Western holism with Western anthropocentrism, while a second strain insists on casting doubt on such stark contrasts as essentializing or falsely dichotomizing.

The first strain tends to emphasize those aspects of non-Western traditions—particularly South Asian and East Asian ones—that are considered more gentle, less violent, and more holistic in their cosmologies, that is, more aware of the continuities between the human and non-human worlds (Selin 2003: xix). In particular, South Asian religious traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism are often cited as exemplars. Hinduism, for instance, it is said, has a more pronounced ontological continuity between divine and particular living beings than the Abrahamic traditions. Vedic accounts of creation set forth the oneness of the divine reality and the material (p. 43) world, and an examination of the multitude of Hindu cosmogonic myths demonstrates an organic and biological vision in which the completed universe is imagined as a living organism, in which everything belongs to the living pattern of the whole. Where the Abrahamic faiths are said to be God-centric, in that the divine Creator is above all else, including nature, and the worship of anything in nature as “divine” is considered sacrilegious, no such prohibition is found in Hinduism, where divinity is routinely manifested in the form of the natural elements and non-human life, often sacralized and worshipped as such (Coward 2003; Chattopadhyaya 2003).

Both Jainism and Buddhism, South Asian religions which originate in a rejection of Hinduism, are also characterized in this strain as demonstrating little or no discontinuity between human beings and other forms of life. Rather, karmic theory, which both of these theologies retain from their Hindu roots, includes living creatures of all kinds, and on this view, we travel endlessly through the cycle of birth and death, until liberation from rebirth is achieved. While liberation can ultimately only be achieved from a human birth, there is no difference in the essence of a human being, an animal, or a tree: each of these species can transform into the other over the course of multiple births. All beings are subject to the law of karma, and are mutually dependent upon one another, for any living being could be a relative, a loved one, or great sage in another life (Sahni 2008; Chattopadhyaya 2003; Sponsel and Natadecha-Sponsel 2003). In turn, this sense of mutual interdependence and connectedness gives rise to the notion of ahimsa or nonviolence toward all living beings, human or otherwise. It is important to note that this concept of ahimsa was particularly influential on Naess’ articulation of deep ecology (Naess 1986).

As mentioned earlier, a second strain within these explorations of non-Western texts criticizes the strict examination of differences between the cosmological assumptions of different traditions, if it tends to essentialize or romanticize non-Western traditions, or emphasize only their otherness. No tradition is monolithic, this strain asserts, and the wholesale characterization of many non-Western traditions as gentle and holistic is also often acknowledged as a caricature. While there may be significant differences in cosmologies between certain traditions, the unselfconscious association of “non-Western” or “indigenous” spiritual traditions with a nonviolent and reverent attitude toward nature may rely in an uncritical way on the archetype of the “noble savage,” often depicted as living closer to nature without being imprisoned in the artificial cultural constructs so prevalent in modern Western civilization (Kalland 2003). Some thinkers warn against this stereotype in environmental discourse, where it has served to romanticize or idealize the non-Western Other as the polar opposite of our industrialized, modernized and artificial Western selves. Non-Western or indigenous peoples and cultures are sometimes portrayed as static, untouched by history, eternally savage and wild, as required for them to serve as the Other of our anthropocentric, acquisitive selves. In other words, only by being “authentic” that is, uncontaminated by our “modern” ways, can these non-Western Others be noble and worthy of our consideration (Ray 2013). But to insist on idealizing all non-Western people as more connected to their ancient heritage, and as thus more noble and altruistic in their interactions with nature, creates (p. 44) a false dichotomy that reduces them to our antithesis, instead of exploring the continuities between “our” worldviews or practices and theirs (Kalland 2003).

Empirical examinations of specific practices of particular communities and subgroups within a tradition repeatedly demonstrate that the myth of the ecologically noble Other barely holds up to scrutiny, for non-Western or indigenous practices can be environmentally rapacious or destructive (Kalland 2003). Moreover, traditional ecological knowledge has rarely been static or untouched by change. But in insisting on romanticizing an Other forever locked into an ecologically friendly and exotic past, stereotypes of the noble savage deny non-Western peoples the right to engage with history, to evolve, develop, and to pick and choose the elements of modernity they may wish to incorporate into the evolution of their traditional practices. Critiquing deep ecology’s invocation of Eastern spiritual traditions, the Indian historian Ramachandra Guha has famously asserted that “modern Western man has no monopoly on ecological disasters,” rejecting the discourse in which the East is defined by a uniquely spiritual and non-rational “essence,” denied agency and reason, serving merely as a vehicle for Western projections (Guha 1989).

Thus, while some scholars insist on drawing contrasts between Abrahamic/Western and non-Abrahamic/non-Western religions and philosophical traditions, others are attentive to the dangers of characterizing traditions in essentialist or romanticizing terms (for examples of the latter, see Patton 2000; Chapple 2001; Cort 2001). Often, these two strains appear in the same piece of writing, or within the same edited volume, suggesting the difficulty of undertaking such comparison while walking the fine line between recognizing and over-emphasizing distinctions among traditions. It should be noted that the more nuanced scholars are appropriately cautious in reflecting the dissent and internal plurality within non-Western traditions, often pointing out the environmentally destructive potentials inherent in traditions that are otherwise uncritically characterized as “biocentric.” For instance, they point out, in both Hinduism and South Asian Buddhism, there is a tension between withdrawal from the world and affirmation of it. That is, there is a tension between those texts, myths, and practices which suggest that material reality is itself a creative manifestation of the divine, and should therefore be worshipped or at least treated with care; and those which suggest that material reality is ultimately insignificant, because all that matters is human liberation from the illusion of material life. Nature is matter (prakriti), while spirit (purusha) is timeless and eternal. The eighth-century Hindu philosopher Sankara argues that there is a radical separation between the ultimately reality, which is divine consciousness, and everything else in the phenomenal world, including nature. The realm of the world of nature is called by Sankara maya or illusion, in the sense that we take it to be real due to our sense perception, but it is not what is ultimately real (Chapple 2000: xliii; Nelson 2000: 136). So on this view, nature is simply part of the illusory material world that ceases to exist once we realize the ultimate truth in the enlightened state. This might lead to a disregard for the natural world as irrelevant to the task of spiritual liberation: why care about the destiny of a tree or a forest or even the entire planet, if the main goal of human life is to transcend the material world? (p. 45)

Meanwhile, more nuanced interpretations of Western traditions also continue to recognize that it is hardly univocal on questions pertaining to nature. Akeel Bilgrami reminds us for instance that the zeal to control, use, and manipulate nature which emerged from the new scientific outlook of the Enlightenment was hardly unanimous. Rather, it gave rise to a fierce philosophical critique which articulated the threatening consequences of seeing nature as inert or passive. These dissenting thinkers of the Enlightenment era were openly pantheistic, insisting that the natural world was suffused with divine value. To simply contrast scientific rationality with religion would be an oversimplification of Western intellectual history, for these dissenters did not deny or oppose the achievements of scientific rationality. Instead, they were deeply concerned about the cultural and political consequences of marrying such scientific rationality to a view of brute, desacralized nature available for conquest, domination, exploitation, and control (Bilgrami 2006). In much of pre-Enlightenment Europe, Merchant tells us, animism, the sacralization of nature, and the notion of earth as living organism and nurturing mother acted as a cultural constraint on the use of nature for technological and commercial purposes. European culture, as Merchant thus reminds us at length, “was far more complex and varied,” scarcely reducible to the monolithic voice of scientific rationality married to the desire for dominion over nature (Merchant 1983: 29). More recently, instrumentalist, utilitarian attitudes toward nature have also been challenged by romantic strains of thought throughout modernity (including Transcendentalists such as Thoreau), and the modern quest to dominate nature has been thoroughly subjected to criticism by the first generation of critical theorists, particularly Adorno and Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment, not to mention more recent “green” thinking spanning a variety of perspectives from liberalism to pragmatism, Marxism, eco-feminism, biocentrism, and a whole host of others (Coole 2013; Lambacher, Biro, Stephens, all this volume).

To seek resources for environmental ethics in non-Western traditions is thus a fertile yet fraught endeavor. Those who do so seem to take their cue from critiques of the wider culture of anthropocentrism, mercantilism, domination, and instrumentalism supposedly rooted in the intellectual history of the West. I have cast this kind of scholarship as “civilizational” because it seems to draw a line of causal connection between a civilization’s intellectual, philosophical, or metaphysical foundations, and the attitude of its adherents toward nature. Such scholarship is also ethically-oriented, for it suggests that the question of relations between the human and non-human world is one of normative import, both because its roots emerge from textual resources that are utterly normative in their thrust, and because it can have a discernible impact on the decline of the natural environment, seen as a good to be preserved. While a general exploration of the theoretical or philosophical underpinnings of a given civilization may be a useful way to begin exploring attitudes toward nature across traditions, in the remainder of this essay, I demonstrate an alternative way of approaching this question.

I go on to describe an approach that marries broad philosophical or metaphysical exploration with an emphasis on specific questions of political justice. Here, I describe a more practical and existential approach, and term it a “neo-Gandhian” approach (p. 46) or method, inspired by the work of M. K. Gandhi. Such an approach would ask how a particular thinker, community, or movement takes inspiration from a civilization’s unique philosophical foundations, but would also put such foundations into practice within the context of specifically political questions and dilemmas. As Diana Coole notes, the ethical project alone in environmental thinking is deficient if it is not accompanied by “a critical analysis of the social structures that ethical beings inhabit,” of the “systemic obstacles” such systems engender as a consequence of “politically invested institutions” and of those who “benefit materially and disproportionately from them” (Coole 2013: 463). In other words, while the “civilizational” approaches attempted to search solely for ethical or normative resolutions to the environmental crisis, the “neo-Gandhian” approach I detail here combines this attention to ethics with explicitly political critique and attention to systemic forms of injustice, and as such, incorporates both ethics and environmental political thought.

A Case Study: Contemporary Gandhian Environmental Thought and Practice in India

Contemporary Indian environmental practice provides perhaps one of the most fertile illustrations of a “neo-Gandhian” approach. Not only is India home to a plurality of spiritual traditions, as we have seen, the vast majority of these traditions are characterized by non-Western or non-Abrahamic ontological, philosophical, scriptural, and theological assumptions. More saliently, however, contemporary Indian thinking and practice around environmental issues presents a diverse mix of political commitments, discourses, and practices. And, while it is impossible to characterize the depth and diversity of India’s countless environmental struggles monolithically, we see across a variety of cases that some of India’s most prominent environmental advocates and thinkers explicitly appropriate the terminology, political commitments, and methodological approaches of M. K. Gandhi. Thus, the South Asian tradition is an ideal way to explore the intersection between broad philosophical approaches and concrete, specific practices, as well as that between ethical commitments and political critique.

Most scholars of the political thought of M. K. Gandhi see him as an idealist committed to moral principles in politics. Yet, despite his well-known principled commitments to satya (truth) and ahimsa (nonviolence), both taken from ancient Vedic metaphysics (Godrej 2006), political questions for Gandhi were not to be seen in the abstract, and could not be contemplated independently of everyday human needs and concerns. Gandhi famously claimed that “even God dare not appear to the poor man except in the form of bread.” This emphasis on the political importance of fulfilling daily needs is particularly salient when examining his approach to environmental questions. Gandhi often expressed the idea that nature is valuable, but refuses to consider it an object of (p. 47) divine worship. While some scholars wish to read Gandhi as expressing a Vedic or Hindu reverence for nature, I have argued that Gandhi’s approach to nature can be characterized as an ultimately anthropocentric position, in that nature is subordinate to the importance of human goals, needs, and desires (Godrej 2012).

In particular, questions of truth and justice for Gandhi were intimately connected to how human beings were able to produce, reproduce, consume, or otherwise stand in relation to their material environment. Gandhi was deeply concerned with truth-seeking as a matter of daily, bodily activity. Truth for Gandhi was not to be manifested simply through abstract commitments to moral knowledge, but rather through daily struggles with bodily, material life and the fulfillment of these needs. For Gandhi, swaraj (self-rule) and swadeshi (self-reliance or indigenous production) were not simply philosophical concepts emerging from India’s rich Vedic tradition, or pertaining to India’s independence from colonial rule; they were questions of access to material resources, and to specific modes of daily engagement with one’s material environment (Gandhi 1949, 1958–94, 1962, 1955, 1993). The search for self-rule included autonomous decision-making regarding the specific conditions under which human beings were able to eat, drink, produce their own food and clothing, eliminate their waste, engage in sexual/reproductive relations, and otherwise engage with the world of material/natural resources. It is this commitment to self-rule and self-reliance understood as access to and autonomy over material resources that explains Gandhi’s preoccupation with everyday, mundane aspects of material life, such as bodily functions, reproductive relations, dietary habits, waste disposal, and sexuality (Gandhi 1993; Parekh 2003; Rudolph and Rudolph 1967; Alter 2000; Mehta 1993). One could not contemplate questions of power, politics, justice, or equity without also thinking carefully about—and struggling with—bodily, material existence, and how one went about fulfilling material needs and desires. Gandhi insisted that human existence depended ineluctably on the socio-economic structures that produce and reproduce the conditions of our everyday lives; in other words, that everyday materiality mattered. Thus, he reinstated the material conditions of the production and reproduction of human life at the center of principled discussions about ideals in political life. In so doing, he anticipated the contemporary insistence of “new materialist” thinkers on recognizing the crucial political import of embodied humans in a material world and centering the fulfillment of everyday corporeal needs and material sustenance as the locus of a moral politics (Coole and Frost 2010).

For a comparative perspective, it is worth contrasting Gandhi’s view to that of his contemporary and fellow nationalist Rabindranath Tagore, for whom the human interaction with the natural world was an abiding concern, appearing with regularity across his vast corpus of essays, books, plays, and poetry. Yet, Tagore’s approach to nature is far closer to the philosophical commitments of the Hindu tradition in which nature is seen a manifestation of the divine. Tagore’s evocative writings are filled with a longing for mystical union with the divine, often represented as nature, which evokes the same awe and wonder as the divine itself. Nature is never entirely inanimate, for it represents the vastness of cosmic creation itself. While Tagore does not ignore the crucial role of (p. 48) human–nature interaction in material sustenance, the dominant emphasis in his writings is on the deification or sacralization of nature, and its contemplation as a kind of spiritual practice (Tagore 1928, 1931, 1986, 1996).

Environmental thinkers and practitioners in contemporary India have been inspired far more by Gandhi’s pragmatic, human-centered, and justice-oriented view of nature, rather than by Tagore’s mystical, Vedic vision (Peritore 1993). Political debates surrounding the environment in India tend to pertain primarily to just living arrangements for daily life. Just as questions of truth, justice, and power for Gandhi required an engagement with the conditions under which humans could use material resources, environmental discourses in India keep their claims and demands interwoven with questions of access to and control over the conditions of everyday material sustenance. Their main concern, Ramachandra Guha reminds us, is about “the use of the environment and who should benefit from it,” linking environmental demands to those of social justice, equity, and economic and political redistribution (Guha 1989, 1999).

Perhaps the most well-known such discourse is that of food security and food sovereignty, spearheaded by the activist and political philosopher Vandana Shiva. In her prolific and wide-ranging writings, Shiva cites Gandhian notions of self-sufficiency and self-reliance as inspiration for a uniquely Indian discourse about food sovereignty and food democracy (Shiva 1991, 2000, 2005, 2008). Shiva critiques the global industrial food production system for denying food producers in non-Western countries control over the production of food and over their own agricultural operations. She focuses on the pressure exerted by global, most often Western, political and economic formations on traditional forms of agriculture and other livelihoods to conform to a global system of production, often at disastrous cost to indigenous modes of production and ways of life. She is best known for criticizing the pressure applied by global agricultural firms such as Monsanto in compelling Indian farmers to use their seeds, along with the destruction that monocultures, industrial inputs, and other Western methods of farming have wrought on Indian agriculture. With the corporatization of agriculture, Western inputs such as seeds and agrochemicals are forced on Indian farmers, high costs push up production costs, while trade liberalization pushes down crop prices. The result is that farmers are often left facing crippling debt; since 1997, more than 250,000 farmers have committed suicide in India (Shiva 2008: 38–9). Shiva and others “consciously reject a narrative of progress that privileges centralization of knowledge and power and increases reliance on expensive technologies. The narrative of contemporary agriculture . . . emphasizes productivity, that is, high yields (an arbitrary standard), as the sole measure of value, and progress in the form of improved seeds and inputs such as fertilizers that are priced beyond the range of most farmers” (Sanford 2013).

The term that Shiva often employs is beej swaraj or “seed sovereignty,” making explicit the linkage between contemporary Indian discourses of food production and Gandhi’s ideals of self-reliance and democracy in everyday food production. Rather than being subject to fluctuating prices of foreign food controlled by foreign corporations, Shiva calls for a concept of food security that rejuvenates local farms in order to develop independence from the global economy (Shiva 2008: 39). Most importantly, these critiques (p. 49) are by no means simply theoretical; countless local communities of neo-Gandhians in India practice ideals of self-reliance through alternative—that is, traditional or non-Western—agriculture in their daily lives, staunchly insisting on self-reliance and sovereignty as it pertains to food production and access (Klenk 2010; Sanford 2013). In so doing, most of these communities employ the very same conceptual framework of self-rule, self-reliance, and self-sufficiency that Gandhi first articulated during the nationalist movement against empire.

Shiva, along with other Gandhian environmentalists such as Medha Patkar, also links environmental claims to those of social justice more broadly. These discourses highlight the importance of access to natural resources and opportunities to engage in traditional livelihoods as matters in which environmental and socio-economic justice are irreducibly intertwined. They point out that the forced reliance on the external inputs and foreign technologies of global capital removes natural resources from the traditional control of indigenous communities (Shiva 2008). For peasants, tribals, and other indigenous peoples in developing countries, the land and resources that global capital industrial regimes seek to appropriate have long performed life-support and livelihood functions. These communities rely on natural resources for needs such as nutrition, health care, energy, housing, and so forth. The shift toward global, industrial, capitalist modes of production causes dispossession of farmers and tribals, as biodiversity is transformed from a renewable to a non-renewable resource through modern technology (Shiva 1991: 52). As societies which were traditionally based on renewable resources have been pushed into fossil fuel dependence, we see the large-scale displacement and dispossession of women, peasants, tribals, and indigenous communities (Shiva 1989, 2008: 30). By appropriating natural resources, destroying biodiversity, and causing fossil-fuel dependence, the global industrial model of development threatens the life-support systems and livelihoods of millions of non-urbanized people outside the developed West. Patkar’s work with the Narmada Bachao Andolan has also brought to the fore the issue of the displacement and dispossession of indigenous peoples and livelihoods as a result of the construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam on the river Narmada (Roy 1999; D’Souza 2002). Initially funded by the World Bank which later withdrew its support, plans to build the dam inspired one of India’s largest and most wide-ranging environmental coalitions, consisting of tribal people, farmers, environmentalists and human rights activists, all collaborating to protest the environmental and livelihood impact of the project through hunger strikes, protest marches, and other forms of Gandhian nonviolent activism.

It is also worth noting that in resisting global appropriations of indigenous biological resources, these communities explicitly rely on combative and activist forms of Gandhian nonviolence. Despite his commitment to nonviolence, Gandhi repeatedly insisted that such nonviolence was not to be confused with passivity, instead articulating a nonviolence based on confrontational, warriorlike defiance in which the truth-seeker was duty-bound to confront injustice by breaking laws and disrupting the everyday workings of unjust political systems. Accepting the penalties and punitive consequences following from these disruptive, confrontational actions, and thus suffering in (p. 50) order to demonstrate the strength of one’s convictions, was the very pillar upon which the moral logic of his nonviolence was founded (Godrej 2006, 2012). Such suffering was often highly public and physically painful in nature, intended to draw attention to the willingness to sacrifice one’s physical wellbeing for the sake of the truth. In many of the above-described movements, Indian activists have conducted public, sacrificial acts of physically painful political disruption. Well-known examples are India’s Chipko Andolan (“Hug the Tree Movement”), and the Narmada Bachao Andolan (“Save the Narmada Valley Movement”). In these and countless other instances, environmental activists have acted to protect trees in the Himalayas or to demand justice for the citizens of the Narmada River Valley through nonviolent physical confrontations such as tree-hugging, sit-ins, protest marches, and hunger strikes (Mishra and Tripathi 1978). As such, these contemporary movements and discourses underscore Gandhi’s insight that matters of everyday material sustenance cannot be disentangled from questions of truth or justice, and that such truth-seeking must be accompanied by the willingness to actively disrupt political formations and organizations, while publicly paying the penalty for such disruption (Shiva 1998).1 More importantly, they marry ethical questions of human–nature relations with explicitly political questions of justice and equity, insisting that normative ideals culled from the metaphysical foundations of South Asian religions be put into practice in service of just political outcomes and everyday political arrangements.


In the same way that Gandhian ideals were deeply interwoven with questions of everyday practical existence and sustenance, environmental discourses in India cast their claims as questions of basic justice. In the above Indian discourses, rather than a mystical awe and wonder at a sacralized nature articulated by Tagore, we see a practical and everyday Gandhian concern with nature as the crucial pillar of basic sustenance. Much of what we see in contemporary Indian environmental thought and practice is motivated by Gandhian ideals of self-sufficiency and self-reliance, which combine to form a notion of justice that is intrinsically wedded to autonomy over daily sustenance.

In concluding, I offer the suggestion that this neo-Gandhian approach offers a more insightful model for conceptualizing the human–nature relationship than that offered by the scholarship I earlier characterized as “civilizational.” “Civilizational” approaches to environmental thought are not only forced to grapple with the problematic and essentialist characterizations of “West” and “non-West,” but may also layer such characterizations onto other equally problematic dichotomies such as anthropocentrism and biocentrism. Perhaps because it emerged so clearly in response to critiques of the Western tradition’s ostensibly anthropocentric philosophical foundations, what I call “civilizational” scholarship is bound up with casting the Other as the antithesis of such anthropocentrism, and, as such, may unwittingly lend itself to ultimately misleading (p. 51) dichotomies. In contrast, a Gandhian reconception of environmental issues as questions of truth, specifically cast in the language of access to resources and livelihoods, allows us to reject dichotomies such as anthropocentrism/biocentrism and humans/nature. On such a view, there is no contradiction between allowing the flourishing of human beings, and preserving nature. Nature is not something apart from humans, but rather a crucial entity with which the human struggle for justice is intimately connected.

It should be noted that a neo-Gandhian approach to nature, despite its emphasis on the use of natural resources by humans, should not ignore entirely the question of nonviolence toward nature. Deeply grounded in both the Hindu and Jain traditions, Gandhi was almost unconditionally wedded to ahimsa or nonviolence as the foundation of his political thinking. His staunch lifelong commitment to vegetarianism and his aversion to eating meat are often seen as a manifestation of this commitment to ahimsa. Indeed, it is precisely this concept of ahimsa that inspired “biocentric” deep ecologists such as Naess. Yet, Gandhi’s insistence on nonviolence at no point required an insistence on leaving nature pristine or untouched. Rather, the use of the natural environment in generating everyday material sustenance is, for Gandhi, a foundational condition of human existence.

Such a non-dichotomous view of humans and nature has recently become more apparent in Western thinking about the environment. Perhaps because global capitalism has cast the flourishing of humans in terms of economic or technical progress and consumer access to goods, both of which require the excavation of natural resources, “humans versus nature” and “anthropocentrism versus biocentrism” have until recently been relatively common frameworks in thinking about environmental issues in the West. Indeed, there is still a significant pressure in Western discourse to cast environmental protection as coming at a cost or sacrifice to the pursuit of human consumption and pleasure as a whole, suggesting simplistically that humans and nature are in a zero-sum relationship (Beavan 2009; Leonard 2010). As Ramachandra Guha noted, the emphasis on the dichotomy between anthropocentrism and biocentrism, often accompanied by the preoccupation with the preservation of unspoilt wilderness, obfuscates the fact that it is not the human use of nature, but the overconsumption of material resources by some in the industrialized world that presents the gravest threat (Guha 1989: 273). In other words, it is not that we use nature at all to satisfy basic needs that constitutes the problem; rather, it is that we do not question the deeply inequitable use of nature by some, and the lack of opportunity this causes for others. Fortunately, recent environmental discourses and movements in the West have begun to offer more nuanced understandings of “nature” which see human beings as always already embedded within nature and drawing upon it for everyday sustenance. The dichotomous notion of leaving nature “apart” from humans in order to protect it from human intervention has begun to recede as a model for environmental thinking, with emphasis shifting instead toward the questions of who has greater access to these natural resources, and how such access could be more equitably distributed. Indeed, the discourses of “environmental justice,” which include questions of “environmental racism” and “food justice,” provide splendid examples of this. (p. 52)

For instance, “food justice” thinkers and activists are providing a challenge to industrial food systems by articulating questions of access to good and healthy food as questions of truth and justice intimately connected to power over material resources, while rejecting models of global industrial agriculture and capitalism as means for generating everyday sustenance (Alkon and Agyeman 2011; Guthman 2008; Gottlieb and Joshi 2013). In this emphasis on justice, the movement follows Gandhian concerns with self-sufficiency and self-reliance. Like Shiva and other neo-Gandhians, this discourse assumes that human life requires intervention within the natural world for the purpose of sustenance. Rather than positing human needs as dichotomously opposed to the protection of nature, these thinkers center the question of justice in how access to resources for such sustenance is structured, who controls such resources, who loses and who benefits from the existing patterns of access/distribution, and finally, what alternative patterns of access, production, and distribution might be more just. In so doing, they reflect the influence of a post-Gandhian discourse which seeks to highlight the configurations of power embedded in matters of everyday existence. They illustrate a neo-Gandhian approach to environmental questions, reminding us that as long as the struggle for human dignity remains tied to the struggle for access to resources, our conceptions of the human–nature relationship may need to remain equally yoked to questions of control over the fulfillment of basic material sustenance.

Finally, a Gandhian approach suggests that comparative theorizing which seeks resources for global environmental problems within the intellectual or metaphysical foundations of non-Western traditions need not adhere uncritically to dichotomies requiring others to be presented in stark contrast to the West. Neo-Gandhian environmental approaches may take inspiration from the metaphysical concepts and explicitly ethical ideals of the Vedic tradition, such as, for instance, satya (truth) and ahimsa (nonviolence), or use the indigenous ethical categories of swaraj (self-rule) and swadeshi (self-reliance) as Gandhi did. They may call upon such non-Western categories in order to inspire political action on questions of food sovereignty, food justice, fair wages and working conditions, just distribution of environmental outcomes, or any number of other contemporary problems of justice. In so doing, they need not cast adherents of the Indian tradition as gentle, holistic, “biocentric” Others who live in harmony with nature, or contrast them with acquisitive, mercantile, anthropocentric Western modes of being. They need not see these Others simply as wise repositories of environmental ethics and moral knowledge. Rather, they can combine the normative commitments that Gandhi acquired from the Indian tradition with his materialist and activist political sensibility, in order to envision a way of human “being” in relation to nature that is practical in its materialism (that is, acknowledges the necessity of using natural resources in order to fulfill material needs), as well as explicitly political in service of truth and justice (that is, engaged in questions of just political outcomes in the distribution of natural resources, using nonviolent activist methods). Such a neo-Gandhian approach may provide a promising avenue for the future of a “comparative” environmental political thought.


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                                                                                                                                            (1.) See also Vandana Shiva, “Fortnight of Action for Seed Freedom and Food Freedom,” posted at, Navdanya page on “Earth Democracy,” posted at