As with so many other problems of this modern world, the crisis of climate change begs the question: What would Gandhi do?
A coalition of environmentalists and other activists think Mahatma Gandhi's notion of satyagraha--nonviolent resistance (literally "truth force")--has powerful relevance to the struggle to save the planet. Last year, Al Gore cited Gandhi in a speech to the Sierra Club, calling for a morally courageous stance:
We ought to have a mass movement around a carbon freeze; it's scalable from the individual level to the company, community, state, and national level. Gandhi used the word Satyagraha or "truth force." In American politics, there have been soaring moments throughout our history when the truth has swept aside entrenched power. In the darkest hours of our Civil War, Abraham Lincoln said, "We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country." We need once again to disenthrall ourselves.
Gore also apparently drew upon Gandhi in using the phrase "An Inconvenient Truth." That's according to Pavan Sukhdev, an environmentalist from India who also serves as Managing Director in the Global Markets division of Deutsche Bank AG, based in London. He was recently commissioned by the G8+5 to spearhead their new report on environmental degradation and deforestation.
In this SAJAforum Q&A, Sukhdev answers questions surrounding his involvement as a member of the Garrison Institute ahead of its recent event, the Satyagraha Public Forum. The event, that took place on April 13th in New York City, gathered people like Gandhi biographer Rajmohan Gandhi and world famous composer Philip Glass to talk about climate change (Glass' opera "Satyagraha" is currently being performed at the Metropolitan Opera). They were joined by Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne, founder of Sri Lanka's Sarvodaya movement, and Billy Parish, founder of the Climate Campaign.
SAJAforum spoke to Sukhdev for his thoughts on India’s role in climate change, the importance of satyagraha and his relationship with Al Gore.
What can an event on climate change and satyagraha hope to accomplish?
Garrison's weekend program is a very novel initiative driven by a powerful idea. It picks up on the lineage of civil disobedience, from Henry David Thoreau to Mahatma Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr. It also sees and dwells on the spiritual dimension of this challenge to human society.
How do the concepts of satyagraha and civil disobedience, once used to refer to direct oppressor-oppressed relationships, now relate to climate change? How does the re-appropriation of such terminology help to better address the struggle for climate change?
Struggle and truth: these are the heart of "Satyagraha." The challenge for our generation is to figure out how to apply this powerful idea and its methodology of peaceful struggle not to an oppressor without, but to an oppressor within. Who are the oppressed? Our children--they should inherit the Earth but might instead inherit a living hell. Who are the oppressors? It is us and our own triple-whammy of old-world habits: over-consumption, careless materials/energy use, and an addiction to fossil fuels. [Although] these are all habits [that] can each be changed by conscious choice it needs the determined power of truth, or satyagraha, for each of us to address them. Understanding truth comes first, then meditation and deep thought and, finally, solutions.
Can you tell me about your interactions with Al Gore and his involvement in this project. Why did Al Gore name his film "An Inconvenient Truth"?
I was invited by Vice President Al Gore to train with him for the India launch of his program, The Climate Partnership in New Delhi last month. I was also one of their two "local" speakers on the subject. Al Gore was deeply inspired by Gandhi's satyagraha movement and said that was also an inspiration for the name of his movie, “An Inconvenient Truth.”
The first word of satyagraha is "satya", truth, and Gore, like Gandhi, believes that it’s important to keep stating what is the truth, so that right action follows. I am committed to supporting Al Gore and his team in broadcasting the message in India.
Where does India fit into the struggle for climate change and environmental betterment?
India is one-sixth of humanity and so it has to be part of any global solution! The U.S. is the largest emitter [of green house gases], but by only a whisker, and China has nearly overtaken it. These three nations must embrace any global solution or else we all fail.
What steps does India need to take in order to better address it's rising levels of air pollution, green house gas emissions and water pollution? Why are current measures to improve the environment so ineffective, in terms of producing results?
India's total emissions are 2 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent per annum, as against 12 gigatons for the USA. Per capita though, the average American causes 22 times as much green house gas emissions as the average Indian.
For greenhouse gas emissions, India must curb deforestation and forest degradation, which comprise 20 percent of its emissions and devise clean energy solutions at all levels – grid and rural. India's total greenhouse gas emissions from fossil-fuels energy use is 60 percent, the rest is 21 percent deforestation, 17 percent agriculture, 2 percent waste management.
India's environmental laws are excellent, probably the best in the world. The right to a clean environment is a constitutional right. There is an Environment Protection Act, Coastal Zone Rules, Environmental Impact Assessment Rules, a Forest Conservation Act, a Wildlife Act, etc. However, their enforcement is very weak, and to strengthen that needs more activism, better corporate governance and less corruption in government. These are enormous challenges and progress is slow.
Given the recent examples of TATA's $2,500 car for the masses and rampant real estate expansion, how realistic is it for a country with a burgeoning middle class, an expanding economy and record population growth to make climate change its priority?
In all other respects, "rich" India considers itself a global success story, and treats itself no differently than rest of the developed world. So, why should it not also worry about climate change? According to HSBC's client survey statistics, over 60 percent of their interviewed clientele in India considered climate change a top priority, as against 20 to 25 percent in the U.S. and UK.
Traditional Indian culture is environment-friendly but it is being undermined by rapid urbanization and GDP growth. Nevertheless, over seven hundred million people in India (over twice the population of the USA) still live on fewer than 2 dollars a day. How much less would we have them consume?! This, the "poor " India, cannot eat less or use less energy else they will die. They need more lighting--not less--to educate their children. They need more water for their farms to survive, not less. The real problem is the new "rich" India that is aping the consumption-driven, fossil-fuel-drunk, green house gas emitting materialism of the West. One way they can avoid these new habits is to rediscover Gandhi. Corporate India needs to innovate its leadership [skills] in a new world of risks and opportunities driven by climate change. As for the government of India, it is clear that they want only to focus on adaptation (cure) and not on mitigation (prevention).
Feedback? Let us know what you think about Pavan Sukhdev's responses, and Gandhi's place in the climate change debate.