What could be more fun than materialism? Renunciation, said Gandhi. But can we believe him?
I am, perhaps like most Americans, guruphobic. Bhagwans, swamis, saffron-robed saints of every sort leave me cold. I can find out the truth for myself, dammit—isn’t that the point of having a library card? And so it was a novel experience for me to sit in an ashram in a fog-swept corner of Marin County, California, talking with a man named Eknath Easwaran, whose followers sat by the dozens watching our interview, nodding at each of his statements, beaming at him. I felt a long way from the little Methodist church that serves as home page for my ill-defined faith.
And yet it was a thrill. Partly because I’d read most of Easwaran’s calm and wise books over the years, and even tried to follow his commonsense advice on how to meditate. But even more because, as a young man, Easwaran had visited Gandhi at his ashram in central India, had walked with him in the late-afternoon heat, and in certain ways had his life changed. I would come no closer to Gandhi than this.
“I have gone for walks with him, and none of us could keep his pace,” Easwaran told me. “He walks like the sandpiper on the beach. The wave can never catch him.” That lightness marks every picture of Gandhi. He is skin and bones, wearing almost nothing, usually smiling with amusement. He looks, literally, as if he might blow away. Certainly he was the frailest-looking leader of recent times, and certainly he was among the toughest. “The first time I went to see Gandhiji, I joined a small group waiting outside his cottage, where a meeting had been taking place the whole day,” said Easwaran. “I expected someone very irascible, and then the door opened and there came out a teenager in his 60s, looking as though he had been spending the whole time playing bingo. That really struck a deep chord in me.”
That lightness, of course, did not come from playing; it came from the hard work of renunciation. Gandhi gave up the passion for sex, for money and possessions, for distraction, for comfort. He renounced, at root, the right to put himself first, choosing instead to live for others.
An American journalist once asked him, “Can you tell me the secret of your life in three words?”
“Yes,” chuckled Gandhi. “Renounce and enjoy.”
VERY FEW LARGE QUESTIONS survived the gory politics of the 20th century. Fascism has no intellectual defenders (though of course, in its many forms, it has innumerable ammunition-toting practitioners); the various Marxist creeds have dried up and blown away. Some form of liberal capitalism, pushed by a global marketing machine, holds sway in most places, though tattered by the regular collapse of emerging economies. The giant figures of the last century are still giants, but they are stable and fixed in our minds: Hitler, the archetype of pure evil; Lenin, that of ideological fixation; and FDR, an icon of triumphant pragmatism.
Of that century’s household names, only Gandhi’s, I think, remains in flux. What is his legacy? Nonviolence? In a sense, yes, though even his native India seems to have utterly repudiated his example by firing off nuclear weapons. I think he must be measured more by his idea that a deep moral sense might provide an alternative to politics as usually practiced. His advocacy for moral perfectibility—for a radical, renouncing humility—seems to have been even more completely rebuffed by history. Since his time, we have grown to embrace consumption as the one true creed.
Yet his example remains intriguingly full of possibility—perhaps we haven’t followed his ideas far enough to see if they really do run into a dead end, or whether they might open whole new passages. He is the one great figure that has not yet been balanced in the checkbook, the one big loose end. And that idea of renunciation—un-American as it sounds—lies near the center of it all.
Since Gandhi seems increasingly a romantic figure, we need to remember that for many years this sandpiper was near the heart of the world’s affairs. He not only drove the British from India, he also began the attack on the logic of apartheid in South Africa and on the legitimacy of colonialism the world around. Within India he launched the (still unfinished) battle for the full civil rights of the most oppressed, the Hindu untouchables. Even after his death, though Nehru and his dynasty paid only lip service to the Mahatma’s ideas as they strove to Westernize the subcontinent, others kept the faith. Vinoba Bhave led the gramdan movement, walking the length and breadth of the country trying to persuade whole villages to own their land in common. He met with real success, as did another Gandhi lieutenant, Jaya Prakash Narayan, who led the opposition to Indira Gandhi (no relation) and her autocratic rule. The Chipko, or tree-hugging movement of northern India, the farmworker protests of California’s Central Valley, the civil rights movement launched by Martin Luther King Jr. —all owed explicit debts to Gandhi’s ideas, strategies, and examples. Sit-ins, “going limp,” boycotts: These were tactics inspired by the Indian satyagrahis. In South Africa, where Gandhi began his work, his influence lingered through the anti-apartheid fights; in the Middle East, teams of Mennonite Christians intercede between Jews and Arabs in tense towns like Hebron; Witness for Peace volunteers have traveled to Central America to shine some outside light on dark places. “One tends to find the events and people who make up the as-yet-untold narrative of nonviolence tucked away in apparently unrelated corners,” writes Gandhian scholar Michael Nagler. “You must somehow run across these events and people and hold their story together with the glue of your own insight.”
But if one is being honest, one must say this: A Gandhian style of politics does not remotely come close to controlling any corner of the earth. It is principally a method of the fringes, of the protesters, and even there it competes with the various time-honored techniques of violence and scapegoating. What dominates the planet’s politics, of course, is money, and the pursuit of a global consumer culture with an ideology all its own. Instead of the debate that raged through most of modernity—to change people in order to create a benign system (Gandhi’s view) or change systems to allow the good in people to flourish (the Marxist idea)—we’ve come of age under a new idea so powerful it has blown those other two away.
The appeal of laissez-faire capitalism, as it spread around the world until it vanquished even the Soviets, was simple: You need neither a change in structures nor a change in human nature. Instead, the bad side of human nature—the greed, competitiveness, and materialism—could be counted on to magically produce enough wealth that many people could actually enjoy the easy life that the utopians and commissars could only promise. That is the revolutionary idea of our time, and it has cast into a sepia shadow both Gandhi and Lenin. We distrust moralizing as thoroughly as we distrust government; in a cynical age, our ultimate trust is in the notion that trust is unnecessary, that we should each simply advance our own cause.
And it should be said that this approach has yielded more fruit than the others—certainly more than the horror show that was communism, probably more than all the good works inspired by Gandhi. With all the more-necessary-than-ever caveats about gross inequality the market has created, it is nonetheless true that global capitalism has lifted living standards, lengthened lives, improved nutrition, broadened education. It may have ended forever the argument between the moralist and the revolutionary, replacing them both with the logic of the cash register and the trading floor.
Or maybe not. The “problem” that unrestrained global capitalism seems to solve with such power is how to make things grow: making economies larger, making harvests bigger, producing more stuff. By and large, demand really has created supply, and it may well have done it much better than the Gandhian method, which would be sharing—and wanting less. But what if the problem of the 21st century presents itself in a different form? Newspapers are full of crises: the worst drought in 30 years across the mid-Atlantic, the highest summer temperatures on record across Russia, the second straight year of wild floods along the Yangtze. These problems—and a thousand more—can plausibly be laid to growth, and to global warming in particular. Our fossil fuels raise the atmospheric temperature, and since warm air holds more water than cold air, we see increases in evaporation and precipitation, drought and deluge. Scientists report that 1998 was the warmest year in recorded history; that spring now comes a week earlier across the Northern Hemisphere; that even the salinity of the oceans is changing as melting glaciers pour freshwater into the sea. Our growth now alters every physical system on the planet’s surface, and those above it as well.
In December 1997, the world’s nations met in Kyoto, Japan, to talk about climatic change. They began with a few hard facts, physical and political: First, there is only so much atmosphere in which to dump the by-products of our growth. Second, the planet’s population is expected to grow by 50 percent in the next 50 years, to 9 or 10 billion. And most of those people will be poor, and will want to live better.
So the debate, for all its technicalities, is pretty clear. Rich countries, and therefore rich people, need to use far less fossil fuel, thereby costing themselves some money. And they will have to transfer money and technology to poor countries, to help them build alternative energy systems. If we don’t—well, China and India have enough cheap coal in their mines to boost the atmosphere’s carbon content by half in the next century.
Many other environmental problems—from deforestation to the depletion of fisheries—come down to the same basic point. If you have to take care of more people, and if endless growth is becoming less desirable, then the problem might become how to share.
Here’s an image I’ve had in my head for a long time: A long line of white-robed saints, gurus, and cranks stretches back down through the ages, at least to the Buddha. Jesus is there, and St. Francis, and Thoreau, and Gandhi—all the people we’ve theoretically revered and mostly ignored. They are asking us to change, and to do it for spiritual or moral reasons. To make our lives more perfect. We ignore them because change is too hard and because we like being human, especially those of us on top.
The line is joined by another line of men and women in white lab coats. Scientists, physicists, ecologists. This rank is much shorter; it stretches back just a decade or two. They, too, are asking us to change, but for practical reasons: higher temperatures, ultraviolet levels, species extinction. Forget aesthetics—they’d like us to live more simply because the amount of carbon in each cubic liter of atmosphere is growing much too fast.
I HAVE TRIED, sporadically, to meditate following the advice in Easwaran’s simple and lovely book Meditation. In it he urges novices not to go beyond half an hour, for fear they may “plunge deeply inward” to a world of emotion and psychology they are not yet prepared to handle. For me this has never been a problem. I may be the planet’s worst meditator, unable to calm my mind for more than a few seconds before some thought, commentary, plan, slogan, or accolade pops up on my screen. My mind chatters on even as I’m trying to repeat slowly the inspirational passages that Easwaran recommends in his writings, fragments from all the world’s scriptures and many of its gurus. One of the most encouraging of those passages—included in Easwaran’s book God Makes the Rivers to Flow—is from Gandhi himself:
I know the path: it is straight and narrow
It is like the edge of a sword.
I rejoice to walk on it.
I weep when I slip.
God’s word is: “He who strives never perishes.”
I have implicit faith in that promise.
Though, therefore, from my weakness I fail a thousand times,
I shall not lose faith.
What does it mean to walk that straight and narrow edge? If it means following the ascetic disciplines that marked Gandhi’s life, then the kind of politics I have been calling Gandhian is not politics at all, but an almost athletic endeavor that will be confined to the monasteries and ashrams. As George Orwell pointed out in his ambivalent elegy for Gandhi, “Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints,” especially if sainthood involves giving up sex with your spouse or, after St. Francis, grinding ashes into your food so it will taste worse. But are there disciplines—real disciplines—that might be adopted by enough people in this time and this place to make some kind of actual difference in the affairs of the world? In the temperature of the planet?
Easwaran’s ashram has produced one book that reached a mass audience: Laurel’s Kitchen, a vegetarian volume that sits next to The Moosewood Cookbook on a million kitchen shelves. Eating lower on the food chain is a discipline of sorts—it means rearranging the logic you grew up with. And if large numbers of people practiced it, some of the pressure on the world’s farms and fields would ease; we’d be growing more grain for our bodies and less for our cows. For many people—as indeed for Gandhi—changing the way they eat is the first step in changing other patterns. Gandhi would have agreed with the ’60s credo that the personal is political, but he would have giggled at the notion that “liberation,” that “doing your own thing,” was the way out. Renunciation! It sounds so nasty, like some purgative to force down your throat, some syrup of ipecac for a consumer world. But it’s an idea that may slowly be starting to acquire a new valence.
It’s easy enough to sneer at the “voluntary simplicity” movement, the quietly spreading notion that we might want to reduce the quantity of getting and spending in our lives. In many of its manifestations, it’s not much more than the latest affectation from Northern California or Vermont, an excuse to acquire a whole new set of stuff (quilts!) or to feel holier than thou. Still, the spread of the simplicity idea is enormously interesting, precisely because it comes from the richest parts of the rich world.
The problem with protest politics has always been that it’s easier to organize the oppressed than the oppressors. The former have only to throw off their fear; the latter have to discard their habits. And yet it is not unheard of. I’ve spent time in the southern Indian province of Kerala, a state of 30 million people, where, in the 1930s, under Gandhi’s deep influence, many Brahmans began renouncing their privileges and giving up their lands. Not all, by any means, but not just a few either. The result has been a state with some of the most equal wealth distribution on earth, and a place where—despite an annual per capita income of $222—both the average life expectancy and the literacy rate approach our own.
So it is possible to imagine, at any rate, that what begins in Marin County might have some wider effect, that renunciation might spread. But only if it actually makes people happier than the alternative, the consumer culture we all grew up in. Renunciation seems like such a joyless word. But remember that Gandhi’s secret for living was “Renounce and enjoy!” Here is the secret reason that some people in the rich world have begun to get rid of some of their stuff, move to smaller homes, eat lower on the food chain, ride bikes, reduce their expenses, and scale back their careers: If you can simplify your life—and it requires a certain minimal affluence to do so—then you can have more fun than your neighbors.
This was not always so. For a long time in our lives, materialism was more fun. Why? Because we didn’t have much stuff. We lived on the farm or in the slum, we lived through the Depression, our material lives were pretty bleak. Each new thing added some comfort, some convenience. And in most of the world it still does—in those Keralite villages, a chair is still a luxury in most huts. But here, the middle and upper classes have reached a saturation point where new things no longer provide an added increment of pleasure.
What does come increasingly as a thrill, I think, are those things that money can’t buy. Time, chief of all. In their hugely popular book, Your Money or Your Life, Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez assert that “money is simply something you trade life energy for.” Their suggestion: Trade as little time as necessary to make your living, mostly by cutting back on expenses. Their followers, saving their pennies and buying bonds, retire years before the rest of us, to spend an extra hour at the breakfast table sipping herbal tea and then volunteering with a youth group or hiking or gardening or whatever it is that makes their lives whole. They “renounced” the boat, the big vacation home, the cruise, whatever it was. They enjoyed.
Say this notion kept spreading. Might it lead, even theoretically, to a new kind of politics? We are in a period of almost unbelievable affluence in the rich world. Not evenly shared, obviously, but unbelievable nonetheless. As the parents of the boomers pass away, something like $10 trillion will pour into the hands of their children. That money can be spent pursuing more of the same. The average home, which has doubled in size since World War II even as the number of its occupants has shrunk, can double again. Or it can be used to make the transition to a less hectic life, one in which we don’t work too many hours, don’t fit the rest of life in around the edges, don’t try (and increasingly fail) to meet our emotional needs with more buying.
Sooner or later we will face the problem of stasis. Having grown as large as we can both in numbers and in appetites, we will need a different idea to balance our economies, our politics, our individual lives. The thing that comes after growth is elusive. It’s as elusive for the left as for the right and the center, all of whom believed for most of the 20th century that “more” was the answer and differed mainly on the means.
The rest of the 20th century’s advice is used up, like bubble gum that’s lost its flavor. Some of that advice—Lenin’s, say—was pretty bad to begin with. Some was pretty good, though it seems now to be leading us into box canyons. But we’ve barely begun to chew over Gandhi’s advice. It may be too strong for us in the end. Yet if we’re going to keep our species’ impact on the planet in check, I’m not sure I can think of a politics other than Gandhi’s that offers much promise.
Bill McKibben lives and writes in upstate New York. From Mother Jones (Nov.-Dec. 1999). Subscriptions: $18/yr. (6 issues) from Box 334, Mt. Morris, IL 61054.