Gandhian Environmentalism and Clean Energy

Though last year I had the great honor of receiving the Gandhi peace award (an American prize that in the past had gone to Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King), I’d never visited the Gandhi museum until this weekend. In Delhi for the DirtE talks on cleaning up energy supplies, I took an afternoon to tour that great shrine, and it reminded me of the part of Gandhi’s legacy often ignored in the West.

Everyone knows about his courageous leadership of the great civil disobedience campaigns that helped crack colonialism: the salt march, for instance. That’s the kind of work I’ve engaged in, organizing mass arrests outside the White House to protest the Obama administration’s weak climate change policies.

But the museum reminded me that Gandhiji probably spent more of his life working on the swadeshi program, on self-reliance for Indians. As he put it in one of the documents on display, a “wholesale swadeshi mentality” involved “a determination to find all the necessaries of life in India, and that too through the labour and intellect of the villagers.” The great example, of course, was khadi, which was more than cloth. It was a different way of looking at the world. As he wrote, “khadi mentality means the decentralization of the production and distribution of the necessaries of life.”

One of the necessaries of modern life—right up there with food and clothing—is energy. And India remains energy poor, with power cuts in cities and too many villages still without electricity. One way to solve this problem, of course, is to burn huge amounts of coal to produce power. But that creates its own set of problems. For one thing, the air pollution now hanging over India—worse than I remember in any of my previous visits—is making it harder to grow food. A study last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that dirty air may be cutting yields of grain and rice by as much as half.

And burning more coal also worsens the rapid global warming that threatens the poorest people of the world above all. There is a straight line between burning coal and the disasters in Kashmir or Uttarahkand, between burning coal and the devastation of coastal cyclones, between burning coal and the increase of drought.

Happily, there is another way, one that respects the Gandhian ideal. Of all the blessings that India can provide for itself, few are more widespread and easily available than sunshine. And now that we have the technology to tap that sunshine with solar panels, a kind of swadeshi energy revolution is within reach. Solar power is increasingly cheap (a tender offer earlier this month in Andhra Pradesh for a large power station found that it was cheaper even than a new coal-fired plant) but it’s especially appropriate for villages and city neighborhoods without reliable access to power now. There, solar micro-grids can be life-transforming. Look at the village of Dharnai in Bihar where a Greenpeace-sponsored installation brought light and power to 450 households and 50 businesses. Instead of spending hundreds of rupees on kerosene, residents were able to meet their electric needs for as little as 75 rupees a month. And they were doing it with their own power and ingenuity, not depending on distant supplies of filthy coal.

This could be happening across India, and indeed the new government has pledged to install millions of solar panels. But they could go much further, and use new solar technology to avoid building more fossil-fuel plants and further polluting both the local air and the global atmosphere. India has the capacity here to be a leader, the real pioneer in leapfrogging past fossil fuel.

One of the insights that Gandhi had about his swadeshi movement was that it would ultimately benefit other countries as well, prompting them to look to their own resources as well. That’s true in this case too. The biggest and worst contributors to global warming have been my country and the Europeans. India, no matter how much coal it burns, will never catch up to our destructive capacity. But as India emerges, it is beginning to cause trouble for other, weaker nations. Last month in Australia, residents of 12 Pacific Island nations that may disappear this century as sea level rises used traditional canoes to try and blockade the largest coal port in the world. Their bravery was so reminiscent of the satyagraha struggles in India of the last century. But where the coal ships they were blocking bound? India. And which nation’s multinational corporations are leading the drive to build the largest coal mines on earth in the Australian hinterlands? India.

An overheating world desperately needs India to play the same constructive role in the 21st century as it did in the 20th. I think that if Gandhi were alive today the solar panel would be as important an icon for him as the spinning wheel was then. I think he’d be as eager for khadi electrons as he was for khadi cloth. I think he’d be leading the planet back from the brink of climate change by reminding us that we could solve so many of our troubles close to home.

Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books on the environment, and the recipient this year from the Swedish Parliament of the Right Livelihood Award, the so-called “alternative Nobel.”