The Khadi Movement of the 21st Century

The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.” – Robert Swann.

The Arctic ice is melting much faster than most computer models have predicted. There are nonlinearities in the Earth’s climate system that are hard to model and most of them seem to be weighing in on the side of making things worse. The Northern jet stream has changed course – something the climate models never predicted – causing warm air to stagnate over the Arctic region and for weird weather to manifest in the Northern hemisphere. People are literally dying in front of our eyes due to climate change: a Himalayan tsunami caused by torrential rains in combination with glacier melts has resulted in over a thousand deaths in the Uttarakhand floods in India just last week.

Finally, President Obama gave a long overdue speech on climate change and vowed to take action. His oratory was great, as usual, but his goal of a 17% reduction in US emissions by 2020 over a 2005 baseline is truly an abdication of leadership. It is woefully inadequate and frankly, not very serious, as he’s continuing his “all of the above” energy strategy. It has been clear for a while that the leadership of the “Five Eyes” countries (US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) are planning for a sustainable degradation of the environment and global human population. It is no coincidence that four of these countries (US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) were the last four to sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and their legislatures promptly passed resolutions to the effect that the Declaration was non-binding. In other words, these nations are not really serious about these rights, either. As their formerly colonized people know too well, the UK has been no slouch when it comes to the oppression of indigenous peoples.

It is the indigenous peoples who have been at the forefront of resistance to the destruction of the Boreal forests of Canada for tar sands oil mining and the destruction of the Amazon for livestock production. In a brilliant article entitled, “Are we on the Verge of Total Self Destruction?,” Prof. Noam Chomsky of MIT wrote,

At one extreme, you have indigenous tribal societies trying to stem the race to disaster. At the other extreme, the richest, most powerful societies in world history, like the United States and Canada, are racing full-speed ahead to destroy the environment as quickly as possible.”  

And so the battle lines for global sustainability are drawn. Will the indigenous tribal societies and their supporters succeed or will the powers that be in the rich societies crush them, along with our collective future? As those who live in the richest, most powerful societies in world history, we have a choice to make: continue supporting the worldwide destruction of the environment through our consumer choices, or vote with our wallets to make a difference.

Let’s face it. We’re part of the most powerful Empire the world has ever seen, but it is a global Corporate Empire that depends on our consumption to fuel its destruction of the environment. We’ve met the enemy and it’s really us.

Of course, one standard response to my observation is that this is really a population problem. But according to the UN Human Development Report (HDR), 91% of the world’s consumption is done by the top one-third of humanity. Therefore, the required reduction in population is truly draconian to achieve sustainability, unless people in the rich countries constitute the bulk of the reduction.

Another response has been that this is really a global policy issue since, “You are not going to get a lot of people to take voluntary action at once,” as Frank Jotzo, an Australian climate scientist, was quoted as saying recently. But voluntary action is precisely what Mahatma Gandhi spearheaded in the early 20th century by just writing magazine articles and plain people-to-people persuasion, without the internet, without cell-phones and without social media. It is very instructive to study how he got hundreds of millions of people to take voluntary action at once.

The year was 1914. Gandhi, a middle-aged lawyer, dressed in a fine British suit and tie, embarked on a ship to travel from South Africa to India. He was an accidental activist, thrust into that role when he was thrown off the first-class compartment of a train in South Africa, for being colored. But now he was sailing out to join and possibly lead the Indian independence movement, to take on the mightiest Empire that the world had ever seen until that time.

After visiting the villages, towns and cities of India over the next three years, Gandhi announced his grand idea for taking on the British empire: Indians must change their clothes from British clothes manufactured in the mills of Manchester to simple, homespun “Khadi” clothes.

At first Gandhi’s plan was met with some ridicule in Indian intellectual circles as magazine articles from those times show. But he had the backing of a few key intellectuals, including Rabindranath Tagore, a poet Nobel Laureate, who saw the wisdom of concerted action to undermine the British textile industry and thus, the economic might of the British empire. And the Khadi movement was born, in 1918.

The British rulers ignored the Khadi movement, even as Gandhi waged a tireless campaign. “It is my duty to induce people, by every honest means, to wear Khadi,”  he wrote in the Navjivan magazine in 1925. And to the consternation of the British rulers, within a dozen years, by 1931, the Khadi movement had managed to bankrupt the textile mills of Manchester, paving the way for the eventual independence of India sixteen years later, in 1947.

Now, almost a century later, we are faced with an entity that is even mightier than the British empire of the early 20th century. Corporate executives and lobbyists have created a revolving door between corporations and governments and are pretty much running the show within our industrial culture. The Corporate Empire bestrides the globe and it is literally chewing up the environment in its relentless drive for natural resources to grow profits.

Gandhi was fighting for the independence of India. We are now fighting for our survival and for the survival of our children and grandchildren.

Gandhi inspired the people of India to make that one simple change, to take that voluntary step of changing their clothes. We need to inspire people in rich societies – specifically, all people who have access to the internet – to take that voluntary step of changing what we eat, to go vegan. The reasons are obvious. As George Weurthner points out, in the continental US alone, more than half the land, around 1 billion acres, is used for livestock production, while half the vegetables and fruits eaten in the US are grown on just 3 million acres of land in California. The arithmetic is very clear: a mass transition to Veganism in the rich societies would make a huge, positive impact on the environment!

Thus the Vegan movement, without a doubt, has the same potential for transformation in the 21st century as the Khadi Movement did in 20th century India. Just like the Khadi movement, it is simple to implement; it is simple to join; it is utterly empowering, and it is totally democratic. Is it any wonder that countries like Germany have seen an 800% increase in vegans in the last three years alone?

Our indigenous brothers and sisters will thank us today if we join the Vegan movement, for if enough of us do it, they can stay in their forest communities and continue to protect the environment. And our children and grandchildren will thank us later for saving the forests and the oceans, for saving the planet for them. Therefore, please practice and promote Local Organic Vegan Eating (LOVE)!

Meanwhile, “What good is it to save the planet, if humanity suffers?” said Rex Tillerson, the CEO of ExxonMobil!

Perhaps he really does suffer a lot when his fat wallet slims a bit!

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