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A woman sitting in a chair at Hawa Mahal (Palace of Wind) in Jaipur, India. Photo by Eliana Rothwell (2016 Fall Semester Photo Contest Finalist).

Gandhi at the Spinning Wheel

During our time in the lovely village of Sarmoli, we lived in local homestays and during the day learned and worked just up the hill at an amazing nonprofit, Himal Prakriti. On one wall of the organization’s sunlit, wood-and-stone gathering space hung an image of Gandhi. In the image, Gandhi is engaging in his daily hour of thread-spinning on a charkha, a portable spinning wheel. I thought nothing of it, as I’d seen the same portrait and similarly composed ones many times before. But every one of those times, I had failed to grasp the image’s core symbolic power – I had never paid attention to what Gandhi is doing with his hands.

Throughout our month-long “Orientation” in Uttarakhand, a large portion of the places we visited, the people we spoke with, the readings and films we shared together, and the discussions we had as a group tied into an unofficial theme of environmental issues and sustainability. We learned about the urgency of saving and protecting our planet’s seeds from our awesome instructor Greg, who lives on a self-sustainable seed-saving farm in northern Thailand, and learned about the entities and systems that have enabled 94% (and counting) of our world’s seed biodiversity to be permanently destroyed (i.e. multinational chemical companies monopolizing the seed market while pouring obscene amounts of money into lobbying and getting allies in all three branches of the American government – yes, even the judicial branch!) by watching the brilliant recent film SEEDS: The Untold Story. At the Center for the Contemplation of Nature, we learned with Ajay Ji about the history of India’s policies surrounding forestry and natural resource ownership, as well as about, of course, how to contemplate nature. At various points we also explored different indigenous worldviews and how they related to the land and wealth and production. With Malikah, Ram, Theo, and Zanskar at Himal Prakriti in Sarmoli, we learned about how the local mountain ecology was already beginning to be warped by climate change, the false promise of hydroelectric power, and the recent Indian policy of somewhat decentralizing regulation over land and resources by giving more power to local elected bodies to protect (or destroy) their local ecology. Throughout these conversations, I would often have strong visceral reactions, driven by my passion for these issues and my belief that climate change is the single most important and urgent problem for humanity to tackle. I was at various points intensely frustrated, angry, devastated – but also sometimes hopeful, curious to do more research, and grateful for all the incredible and brilliant people that are already devoting their lives to preventing apocalyptic environmental catastrophe.
However, nothing stirred a stronger reaction in me than watching The Story of Stuff, a short, 20-minute animated documentary from 2007, in our group’s gathering and learning space at Himal Prakriti. Annie Leonard, the narrator of the film, defined the five stages of the materials economy: extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal, and explained why this is a system in crisis: “it is a linear system and we live on a finite planet, and you can not run a linear system on a finite planet indefinitely”. She then went on to explore how the American government not only allowed, but encouraged this linear system of consumerism, first as an economy-booster post-WWII, and then at the behest of the corporations which had begun to eclipse “the people” as the most important drivers of policy. Everything from the way the true cost of things isn’t internalized in the price tag, to planned obsolescence, to how our current materials and methods of disposal aren’t conducive for transforming this linear system into the closed-loop cycle it must become, was touched upon. This felt like the most complete look at the issue that I’d ever come across – and it was utterly depressing. Emotions flooded me: grief, burning rage, and a terrible sense of helplessness. This film was created a decade ago, and the situation has only gotten worse; we’re running out of time! In the subsequent discussion, I (somewhat explosively) voiced my frustrations, and my feeling that I couldn’t do anything about it. Someone suggested that I did have the power to act, I could decide to live a self-sustainable, low-consumption, environmentally conscious life. But I couldn’t fully listen, I dismissed this as being too nearsighted: “OK, I’m ready. I’ll live a sustainable life. Done. Now what?” I wanted a big picture solution; I wanted a massive round of Teddy Roosevelt-esque trust-busting; I wanted a new economic system that would incentivize self-sustainability and would penalize trashing the environment and excessive consumption; I wanted a single comprehensive solution – and I was extremely frustrated that I had not yet found one.
And then Greg answered. “In any great social movement, there is no single policy solution. There will have to be a massive shift in the mindset of millions of people, and they will all need to decide to change the way they consume and live. But that change in mindset starts with individuals.” And gesturing to the portrait on the wall of India’s great spiritual and social leader, he said, “It all starts with Gandhi at the spinning wheel”.

The charkha has become perhaps the single most potent and encapsulating symbol of the values, philosophy, and social changes Gandhi and his followers fought for over the decades. On the most basic level, the charkha was what enabled Gandhians to create their own clothes and to thus begin to engage in an economic boycott of the British – one powerful form of the direct nonviolence they practiced in their fight against their colonizers. But beyond any “temporary” politically-driven boycott, the Gandhian glorification of the charkha represented a recognition of the eternal dignity and core importance of manual labor and localized industries, and above all, of being self-sustainable. This symbolism, however, is only relevant because of the revolution in mindset that it wrought across an entire subcontinent, and then across many parts of the world – as the result of one man’s actions.
In order to turn our current broken, linear system of consumption and environmental destruction into a sustainable cycle of living, we must have a revolution in mindset even greater in scale and scope. And all such shifts can begin with a single individual, with one pair of hands. Let’s start spinning.