Saturday, October 3, 2009

The No Salt Man: Gandhi Ji's birthday and the limits of "blogging for change"

Today I'm going to celebrate Gandhi Jayanti by writing about blogs in which people chronicle their attempts to "go green" for a year. If the connection between Gandhi Ji's birthday and environmental blogs is not clear, hang in there for a moment; I think it will make sense in the end.

"Going Green" blogs are a subset of a literary genre that is common these days: literature or films that demonstrate something profound through the story of a personal quest or journey. This personal journey genre has given us books like Marrying Anita and Eat, Pray, Love; it is also responsible for many documentaries, including King Corn and Fast Food Nation, both of which are worth seeing if you can find them.

Probably the most famous of the "going green" bloggers is the"
No Impact Man." He's a self-described "guilty liberal" from New York who went all out to reduce is carbon footprint for a year: no motor-powered transit; only local food; no garbage, etc. (Before you nominate him for some big humanitarian award, it is only fair to point out that the trailer of his film shows he continued to live in a very nice flat, and he had motivation that went beyond his politics:contracts for a book and a documentary film, both of which are just now releasing in the US).

There have been several "copy cat" projects. My favorite is by a woman who decided to give up garbage entirely; her blog experiment lasted all of 18 days in August 2006; she hasn't posted since. One can only presume her book contract fell through.

The young American couple at the
Green Garbage Project is much more serious. They are trying to produce no non-recyclable garbage for a year. They do make exceptions: trash generated at work or trash resulting from gifts they receive; kitty litter; and medical products are all "allowed." Their cat doesn't like bio-degradable kitty litter, and they write at length about the dangers of cat poop and why it needs to go in the garbage (see Week 5, for example), though this clearly causes them angst. In fact, this couple writes at length about a lot of things: the description of their project and it's ground rules alone runs nearly 2,000 words.

I'm not denying the sincerity of these efforts, and I'm not saying they have no value. They function on two levels: as experiments which seek to discover how we can live more sustainably on this planet; and as reminders that SHOULD live more sustainably on this planet. The No Impact Man continues to generate a lot of press (he's on a book tour, don't forget); even The Green Garbage Project has managed to get it's share of news. Hats off to them: personal journey politics--or blogging for change--can do good things.

Still I don't want to go overboard with feel-good praise for these undertakings, because I think they are, by nature, fundamentally limited. And I could write an essay about that--but a friend told me today that someone else already did that, though he couldn't remember exactly who it was.

So instead of an essay, let's do something more fun. Let's imagine for a moment what history might have looked like if leaders of some of the world's great social movements had taken to
blogging instead of organizing.

Case Study I: Harriet Tubman: USA, Pre-Civil War
Instead of risking her life to lead groups of escaped slaves to freedom on the "Underground Railroad," imagine Tubman instead goes on a personal journey of discovery.
Blog: The Cotton-Free Project!
By line: How we gave up slave-picked cotton for a whole year by wearing
leather, wool, and furs.
Rules: We will wear no slave-picked cotton for one year in order to show how it is possible to "live slave-free" and to raise awareness about the great injustice in our land. We will post about our struggles and experiences every week on our blog, along with tips and links to resources for a cotton-free living! Leather shirts may be hot during the summer months, but we will not be moved as we sweat for freedom!

Case Study II: Bhagat Singh, India, 1929
Instead of throwing leaflets and harmless (but symbolic) bombs in the Central Legislative Assembly, Singh avoids martyrdom by taking his struggle to the internet instead.
Blog: Inquilab Zindabad!
By line: "It takes a loud blog to make the deaf hear!"
Rules: This is a direct-action-oriented blog. In addition to revolutionary manifestos, we will post the pictures of police who commit acts of brutality in order to shame them! As soon as our blog has enough "followers," we will flood the in-boxes of the Central Legislative Assembly email system, making it impossible for them to conduct business as usual; if all goes well, we may even crash their servers!

Case Study III: Mahatma Gandhi, India, 1930
Instead of organizing the Salt March and the subsequent campaign that resulted in millions of acts of civil disobedience, over 80,000 arrests, and world-wide media attention, imagine Gandhi and his colleagues take a more "personal approach."
Blog: The No Salt Man
Team members: Sarojini Naidu, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan
By line: We will pay (almost) no salt tax for one entire year!
Rules: We will eat no namkeen nor will we cook with salt in our own homes! We
will blog about our efforts to go salt-free, while still enjoying life to it's fullest. Check for weekly updates and salt-free recipes. To be safe, we will undergo regular medical check-ups; also, as suggested by our doctor, we will eat a small amount of organic sea salt bought from a coastal cooperative. Of course we can't control everything, so we may eat salt when dining at the homes of friends, but we will ask them to please respect our efforts to lead a salt-free life for the year.

Of course, many among you will no doubt remind me that there were no computers back then so
there could have been no such blogs! That is, of course, true, but it misses the real point. That point is that a mass movement for environmental sanity and justice does not exist now! And until it does,
I'm afraid things won't change very fast. Most world leaders, including the current President of the United States, are aware of the problem; they just aren't going to do much about it, because even relatively modest environmental proposals encounter stiff opposition from people who are not afraid to distort the truth. (Also, as we have established elsewhere in the dhaba, Americans use a lot of electricity on stupid stuff, and many of them just want to keep doing it!)

So, what to do? Of course, if I really answered that question properly, it would sound like a
12 point programme for action, and I recently promised you wouldn't find those here. (If you really won't be happy without a 12 point programme for action, you can find one here and another here; they should do just fine, though they have nothing to do with the environment.)

So instead, I'll give a short answer, in paragraph form; and there won't be 12 points, in any case.

At the
reen Light Dhaba, we do not believe that sustainable and just societies can be grown on genetically modified trees. What's more--and this may be controversial--we don't even believe they can be grown on organic trees! Actually, upon careful consideration, we have concluded that growing such a society will require the active involvement of a great many human beings. That's why we support the efforts of people to make a difference in the world, and we think you should also. So get involved in a neighborhood association, a political party, or an organization that is working to influence the upcoming climate change talks in Copenhagen. There are plenty out there, and we've even got a few links on the sidebar to help you on your way.

Of course we think human beings who are thoughtful and educated are going to be better able to grow a sustainable society than human beings who only watch TV and drink
Kingfisher (bottle or can, doesn't matter!) So learn, teach, agitate. Read some of those blogs I poked fun at today. Comment here at the dhaba! Tell us when you think we're wrong; we like controversy, if you haven't figured that out.

Finally, if you have children, teach them well. They will be the ones who have to clean up this mess after we are gone. Of course we need scientists. But enrolling your child for the Science Olympiad is not enough!

Teach them also about India's freedom struggle. It is one of this country's greatest achievements, and it has inspired and informed many struggles around the world in the years since 1947, including the American Civil Rights Movement.

If you aren't sure where to start, whatever you do, don't rely on the CBSE syllabus. Try instead Subhadra
Sen Gupta's excellent book for 12+ readers, Saffron White & Green (Puffin Books, 2008). It would make a great Happy Birthday Gandhi Ji present for your child. Sen Gupta tells "the amazing story of India's Independence" from 1857 to 1947 as it should be told: by a story teller who cares about history. Her book shows Gandhi and the other major movement leaders as admirable, but complex characters who were both principled and pragmatic. And it never forgets the central role played by the millions of ordinary Indians who "amazed the world by winning freedom with moral courage, patience and faith in non-violence."

Is that connection clear by now? Happy Birthday Gandhi Ji! You were so much more than a No Salt Man!


  1. You're right. Grassroots action is necessary and not just online ones. However, a substantial online campaign tends to produce mass movements on the ground. Like in Iran and China where social networks first spread the word and then enough people came out on the streets.

    Like in India when the "Pink chaddi campaign" was initiated remember? Some loony wanted to prevent girls from dancing and the whole thing initially started online and then when sufficient movement was made, people came to the streets. What online campaigns do is they give people who normally would never come to the street to add their voice as well by commenting, encouraging, analyzing etc.

    But I get your point. It can be a trap as well as so many "online petitions" have showed. But sometimes they do work. I remember the online furor about Amazon deleting "1984" from users books - Amazon had to bend to many examples

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  2. Hey Bhagwad, great to see you. I'm sure not against on-line organizing; I think the Pink Chaddi people a great example of how that can really work wonders. And hey, this dhaba looks a lot like a blog, so who am I to complain? One more thing: I think introspection and reflection are two of the most important acts a human being can undertake. Really, that's kind of what makes us...human. All I'm saying is that introspection is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for building a movement to change the world. And that's kind of what we need to do. Change the world, I mean.

  3. I once tried to go blog free for a month and tweet about it. But I was unsuccessful. No book contract, no groundswell of support for my cause. Then I tried going twitter-free and blogged about that, but no luck, either. The people I gave a solemn oath to protect and serve felt vulnerable and on edge.

    Thanks for reminding me that direct action is the only way I can fight crime and achieve justice!

  4. Hey Hari,
    Thanks for a fantastic post. You seem to have spent a heck of a lot of time and effort on this one - it's hilarious, and makes a very, in fact EXTREMELY pertinent point about action. And as you rightly reply to Bhagwad, meaningful action can only come from introspection, reflection, and understanding. The dhaba seems to provide a space for that, like, sip some green tea, reflect, and jot down ideas that can lead to action.

  5. Thank you so much for your comments on my book. It is my protest against CBSE textbooks that ruin history for kids. Now I'm working on a bio of Bapu for the series Puffin Lives and I plan to include small boxes of weird information and your wonderful, thoughtful blog gave an idea. So look out for a box on Bapu the environmentalist!! And if there is anything you would like included will you write to me? You know what astonishes me is how Bapu has stayed with us in spite of sixty years of official neglect. So will you and your readers send me your thoughts about my favourite Baldy at

  6. @plastic: what would we do without you!

    @Sabitha: Thank you for your kind words. Though I'd like it to look effortless, this one did take some time! But I learned a lot writing it, which is always nice. Glad you are enjoying the dhaba.

    @ Subhadra: I'm so glad to see you here: I am a fan. I do think Gandhi as an environmentalist is a powerful idea. Parts of the whole Swadeshi movement look like they could be an environmentalist manifesto written yesterday! Then, the British Raj provided the motivation; now it is climate change. One thing that hit me in researching this post was the way movements for change learn from each other. Gandhi Ji learned from the Suffragette movement in the US, which learned from the Abolitionists; the American Civil Rights movement, in turn, borrowed from our freedom struggle. There are so many lessons for us today, if we take the time to look. I'll mail you if I think of anything new; perhaps readers can do the same! And do come back soon. I think we'll be running something on education this week or next.

  7. First time here. Good post.

    You might enjoy this....

    Re Ms Sengupta's point, the CBSE history books are actually way better than those used by other boards. And the idea of Gandhiji as environmentalist is nothing new, surely.. a concern for the environment is implicit in his ideas for village republics, self reliant economies , simple living ... celebrated activists like Arne Naess and Schumacher have cited him as a powerful influence on their work. Look forward to the Puffin series.

    BTW, Sarojini Naidu might have been terrific on Twitter:)

  8. @wordjunkie: nice to have you stop by. I'm not sure, to tell you the truth if it's the actual content being offered or the method in which it tends to be offered (as given knowledge to be committed to memory rather than ideas meant to be wrestled with, remade into some new thinking, etc.) I think ideas we learn by rote has little meaning if we do not somehow make them our own by engaging with them, transforming them, thinking about them. Too often, we ask our children to memorize things like the top 12 football stadiums in India that will have little meaning a week beyond the exam. I also object to the idea that "covering or teaching the syllabus" is the most important thing a teacher can do; what about teaching students? But I digress. Your point about Gandhi as an environmentalist is also good. It's not a new idea, I am sure. But perhaps it is an important idea. Perhaps not enough people have thought about it?

    I love the link. It is very, very funny...or frustrating, depending on your mood. I found it funny.

  9. Your blog is something I'm going to check regularly now. It is such a pleasant change from the usual navel gazing :-) Yes movements take from each other and I draw a line from Bapu to Martin Luther King to Mandela to Lech Walesa to Suu Kyi. Mandela called him a sacred warrior and that is one of my favourite descriptions of Bapu. And yes Swadeshi is all about environment and he was saying this in the first decade of the twentieth century when Indians were still learning to think independently and their world was tied to caste and religion. That is what made him so special. And eat less salt and oils, walk, become a vegetarian - sounds like a cardiologist of today. I'm really enjoying researching his life and have just now discovered stuff about the Salt March that made me laugh. It will be in the book and you'll be one of the first to see it. And Sarojini Naidu on twitter? OH YESSS! Imagine what she would have said about our netas after calling Bapu Mickey Mouse! I'm becoming a fan of your blog and I can tell ya I don't say that easily.

  10. @Subhadra: So glad we will be seeing you around in future. Eagerly awaiting next book. We'll do our best to keep things interesting over here. There is a lot to talk about!

  11. There is this famous comment about the architect Le Corbusier (and I paraphrase) ..he has had all your best ideas already. I've always thought that statement was just as applicable to Gandhiji with respect to sustainable development, self reliant economic development, reduce consumption ... all the concepts that environmentalists talk about today.

  12. glad we will be seeing you around in future. Eagerly awaiting next book. We'll do our best to keep things interesting over here
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