Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Climate Healers: Learning from Gandhi

This article was updated by James O'Donovan in August, 2023.

Dr. Sailesh Rao of Climate Healers imagines a different future where our mission is to heal the Earth’s climate and to explore, what would happen to the Earth’s climate if the whole world goes vegan?

To do so, it turns out that we merely need to keep in mind three simple principles that we can learn from our children, e.g., from the Walt Disney movie, Cinderella: 

  1. Have courage, be kind and all will be well… 
  2. Just because it’s what’s done, doesn’t mean that it is what should be done… 
  3. Imagine the world as it should be, not as it is. 

Courage and loving kindness or Compassion is at the heart of all the faith traditions of the world. At the UN Climate Summit, COP-17, in Durban, South Africa, in 2011, a group of 40 interfaith leaders made a pledge to Ms. Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of UNFCCC. The pledge read, in part,  

“While Climate Change is a symptom, the fever that our Earth has contracted, the underlying disease is the disconnection from creation that plagues human societies throughout our Earth. We, the undersigned, pledge to heal this disconnection by promoting and exemplifying compassion for all creation in all our actions.” 

The pledge committed the Interfaith leaders to a personal transformation, but that does not, by itself, result in the social transformation that we desperately seek. For that, we need to take inspiration from one of the greatest social transformers of all time, Mahatma Gandhi.  

A century ago, in 1915,  Mahatma Gandhi landed in India to jump start the Indian Independence movement. Gandhi understood that effective social transformation can occur only when large numbers of people undergo personal transformation together, with discipline and persistence. The Khadi movement that Gandhi initiated in the early 20th century required each participant to wear only simple homespun Khadi clothes. But it created a personal and social transformation powerful enough to bring the mighty British empire to the negotiating table within just a dozen years of its initiation. 

What Gandhi asked the Indian people to do was sheer genius, because; 

  1. It was simple, 
  2. It was substantial, and 
  3. It was spiritually uplifting. 

It was simple – anyone could join the Khadi movement by simply changing their daily clothes. 


It was substantial because it was affirmed daily and it impacted the largest industry in England at that time, the textile industry. Within a dozen years of its initiation, the Khadi movement had bankrupted the textile mills of Manchester and brought the mighty British Empire to its knees. 

It was spiritually uplifting for the people of India because it healed their divisions as they united around a common cause that was larger than themselves. And it was also spiritually uplifting for the people of Great Britain for it began relieving them of their colonial pretensions. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau said, “Man is born free and everywhere he’s in chains. He who is a master of others is more a slave than they!” Therefore, our British ancestors were probably more enslaved than our Indian ancestors of that era.

One hundred years later, we are faced with a greater challenge in climate change and this time, it is not about changing our clothes, but changing what we eat: we need to stop consuming animal products of any kind. 

  1. It is simple to do – just stop eating fish, meat, eggs and dairy or wearing fur and leather. 
  2. It is substantial because it is affirmed daily and it impacts the most destructive industry with the largest footprint on Earth today.
  3. Finally, it is spiritually uplifting as it unites the whole world in a concerted act towards a common cause that is larger than ourselves.

Veganism, or more broadly, Ahimsa, the path of nonviolence, is one of the most powerful personal responses to climate change. Veganism is a lifestyle where we seek “to exclude all forms of exploitation and cruelty to animals for food, clothing or any purpose whatsoever.” Ahimsa, a concept that was introduced in the Vedas a few millennia ago, extends such consideration to all beings, not just animals. However, in the final analysis, Veganism and Ahimsa turn out to be equivalent. While Ahimsa or compassion for all creation is infinitely sustainable, sustained violence to any species is fundamentally unsustainable. Such violence will stop either when that species is destroyed or we are destroyed. Therefore, ten years ago, the UN Environment Program’s international panel on sustainable resource management concluded that, “a global shift towards a vegan diet is vital to save the world from hunger, fuel poverty and the worst impacts of climate change.”

Animal agriculture makes up over 80% of the agricultural land area (nearly 45% of the land area of the planet), while providing less than 20% of the calorie intake for human consumption.  When the whole world goes vegan, as it definitely should, most of this precious land resource can be reverted back to native ecosystems to sequester carbon and begin healing the Earth’s climate. And it can happen quickly if people embrace non-violence!

“This iconic photo shows what happens when you exclude cattle from an area of land in India. In India many female cows are not killed so they continue to forage for food unil they are 25 years old – undermining the ecosystem. Even a vegetarian food system where the animals are not being killed is unsustainable.” – (James O’Donovan)

Just as our early 20th century Indian ancestors changed what they wore to cast off the worst effects of colonialism within a dozen years, people the world over can change what we consume in the early 21st century to cast off the worst effects of climate change quickly. And just as the Khadi movement of the 20th century led to the end of British colonialism in India, the Ahimsa movement of the 21st century will lead to a civilizational transformation of our global human family as we realise our kinship with all species.

Imagine living in a world where all animals, birds and fishes are routinely treated as if they were members of our family. Because they are. Let’s not continue imagining our current world where animals are routinely enslaved, tortured and exploited by the billions each day. 

Imagine a world in which the forests are thriving and every year we measure how much land is being afforested, not deforested! Let’s not continue imagining our current world where we pat ourselves on the back when we destroy a little less forests this year than what we destroyed last year.

So what are we waiting for? 

Dr. Sailesh Rao was an executive producer of Cowspiracy. He is the author of two books on the compassionate solution to climate change called Carbon Dharma and Carbon Yoga.  You can watch a number of his talks on the Climate Healers youtube channel here or listen to a fascinating interview by Rich Roll here.


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