How Greta Thunberg is echoing Mahatma Gandhi's views on environment

To say that reduction of plastic will require radical change in our lifestyle and culture is to ensure that no one will listen.

 |  4-minute read |   26-09-2019
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Mahatma Gandhi's 150th birth anniversary coincides with many loud resolutions. One is about the banning of single-use plastic bags.

That is great news, even though many people are rightly sceptical whether it will actually happen.

The ban on plastic bags has been in place in many cities and towns, but they continue to be around. Every now and then, one hears about strict enforcement. Then, a week later, 'normalcy' returns.

plastic-690_092619104032.jpgRepeated bans on plastic bags have been proven ineffective. (Photo: Reuters)

The short spells of full-fledged ban are not long enough to induce people into bringing their own bags to the sabzi mandi. That habit apparently died so long ago that nobody remembers it. Reviving it will require a few months of inconvenience.

'Smart' fallacy

Let us see whether the coming birth anniversary of Gandhi will inaugurate a period of tolerance for such an inconvenience. If that does not happen, plastic bags will remain a matter of worry.

More worrisome is the entry of single-use magic markers as part of the smart class movement.

You need these fat markers to write on smart boards. Once the ink it contains is finished, the marker itself has to be thrown out. What had started as a trickle among neophyte city schools, has now become state policy in many regions such as Delhi. No one has considered how big a problem these markers are going to be. The smart class movement is in its incipient phase.

Private schools are vying with each other to smarten up their classrooms as fast as they can, charging the extra costs from parents in many cases. Now, state governments have also joined the movement. So, within a short while, we can expect millions of classrooms turning smart. They will chuck the conventional blackboard and chalk, and turn to smart board with magic markers.

Apparently, plastic is far more deeply entrenched in our lives than we realise or agree to acknowledge. Its use in carry bags is relatively easy to avoid, compared to thousands of other uses. The reason is its crucial role in making everyday life more convenient.

Gandhian approach

To imagine an alternative is hard, and not just because of the expense it might involve. Convenience is at the heart of what late John Kenneth Galbraith had called The Culture of Contentment. In this 1992 book, he took a harsh view of the comfort zone in which the politically dominant in the G-7 countries lived, ignoring the growing poverty in their own societies. When an interviewer of The Guardian asked him why he offers so little hope of change, his answer was crisp: I prefer truth over hope.

Now that is a politically incorrect position to take in today's environment. We are supposed to show determination to reduce our dependence on plastic.

What it will actually mean to reduce the use of plastic in our life is seldom discussed. To say that reduction of plastic will require radical change in our lifestyle and culture is to ensure that no one will listen.

Yet, that is what Gandhi would have wanted. As a social thinker and leader, he insisted on taking a holistic view. Piecemeal solutions are just not compatible with his way. He saw collective life as a chain; every problem was linked to others. Sanitation, for example, was a concern for him, but his approach to it differed radically from our contemporary approach.

gandhi-690_092619104149.jpgMahatma Gandhi would have wanted a radical change in our lifestyle and culture to stop the use of plastic. (Photo: File)

Consuming the Earth

We see public sanitation as a matter of disposal. Gandhi would have questioned this approach by arguing that collection of garbage from our residential localities and disposal at a faraway place cannot make the earth any cleaner. Instead, this approach makes garbage invisible and thereby ignores ever-increasing consumption. From Gandhi's perspective, real sanitation would mean reducing consumption. Recycling is a part of his approach, but only a part. The real emphasis is on consuming less.

In the context of plastic, Gandhi's approach calls for a deep review of the prevailing lifestyle and its relation to concepts like standard of living and economic growth. When Greta Thunberg was expressing her anger at the United Nations over universal commitment to increase in economic growth, she was essentially taking or endorsing Gandhi's view. Although she is being heard, it seems rather unlikely that national leaders will agree to take her view. They represent popular conceptions of standard of life. They interpret their success in terms of competition among nations to grow faster by speeding up the production cycle. Higher speed of this cycle is predicted on consumption. If plastic is what people love to consume, it hardly matters to them that it pollutes the earth and the oceans, speeding up climate change.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Also read: It will not burn. It will not melt: What’s your alternative to plastic?


Krishna Kumar Krishna Kumar

Author is former director of NCERT.

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