Utopia and climate civil disobedience


Way forward towards restoring the planet


Utopian yearning in times of apocalyptic despair

In a world floundering with the impact of the climate crisis, wars, hunger, malnutrition, and multiple injustices, there are many who throw up their hands in despair. But hope and conviction are the other ends of the spectrum, and clearly, if we are to live our lives meaningfully, it makes complete sense to strengthen these values in individuals and communities. Hope and conviction have to do with envisioning a creative utopia that is firmly grounded in reality.

Only a special kind of imagination can conjure up a utopia. A good many people are pulled down by their day-to-day problems, their humdrum lives, and their cynicism. Many may not even be aware that their lives have turned mechanical and predictable, lacking in imagination and creativity. On the other hand, although utopia may appear daunting and unattainable, an ideal can actually help one to take practical and realistic steps toward a better future for humanity and the biosphere. It suggests a refusal to accept reality as it is and a willingness to believe that another world is possible.  The School of Life, an undertaking by a group of people to help individuals and communities learn, heal and grow, believes that “it is by formulating visions of the future that we more clearly start to define what might be wrong with what we have and start to set the wheels of change in motion”.

Needless to say, such utopian visions are already present in many of our alternative movements, whether they are concerned with women’s issues, solidarity economics, human rights, anti-nuclear efforts, or environmental actions.

To believe in utopia is to be political!

To some utopia is only present in the mind of a deluded and confused person, one who has lost all touch with reality. But we must not forget that great political thinkers like Mahatma Gandhi and Karl Marx, who had their feet firmly planted on the ground, were utopians. Gandhi spoke about Ramrajya (the kingdom of Ram) and Marx envisioned a classless society free of oppression. Countless political movements sprang up around the world inspired by Gandhi and Marx, although the means to reach their utopias were radically different.

Clearly, there is a spiritual dimension to utopia, whether acknowledged or not. In Gandhi’s case, it was openly acknowledged. In the case of Marx an intrinsic spiritual dimension underlies his thinking, even if this is rejected by some Marxists. Marx himself stated in Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right that “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions" (Tucker 1972, 54). This is a recognition of the compassionate role of religion in times of great difficulties and distress. Clearly, Marx’s criticism was less about religion and more about its co-option by vested interests.

Karl Marx
Tomb of Karl Marx

The classless society would emerge post-history, when the state would wither away, and when all oppressive pressures would vanish. All that was expected was “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” (Fernbach 2010, 347). This definitely sounds like the Christian understanding of utopia as seen in the Bible (Romans 14.17), where ‘The Kingdom of God’ is a place of righteousness, peace, and joy. Without a doubt ‘Classless Society’ has deep spiritual underpinnings. The radical Christian thinker Jose Miranda (1980), who advocated ‘Christian communism’, states that there is not only compatibility between Marxism and Christianity but that Marx’s entire thought was not only humanist but also a form of Christian humanism.

There are parallels between the Christian understanding of the Kingdom of God and the Gandhian notion of Ramrajya. Gandhi stated:

“By RAMARAJYA I do not mean Hindu Raj. I mean by ‘Ramarajya’ Divine Raj, the Kingdom of God. For me, Rama and Rahim are one and the same deity. I acknowledge no other God but the one God of truth and righteousness.

Whether Rama of my imagination ever lived or not on this earth, the ancient ideal of Ramarajya is undoubtedly one of true democracy in which the meanest citizen could be sure of swift justice without an elaborate and costly procedure. Even the dog is described by the poet to have received justice under Ramarajya.”

(Young India 1929, 305)

The vision of Ramrajya and a classless society may have some commonalities since both are utopian. However, the means to achieve the ends are fundamentally different, with Gandhi unconditionally accepting ahimsa, or nonviolence, as the means, and Marxists seeing the class struggle, and the possible use of violence, as the way forward.

Central figure is a yidam, a meditation deity. The 25 seated figures represent the 25 kings of Shambhala.

In the Buddhist context ‘Shambala’ is the equivalent of utopia. Shambala is a mythical Buddhist kingdom located between the Himalayas and the Gobi Desert. According to the myth, the 25th Kalki king would defeat all the dark and evil forces to usher in a period of happiness and peace. Everybody in Shambala is enlightened. A complete paradise for all its citizens, Shambala is also a symbol of perfection. Scholar of Asian history and culture Dr. Kallie Szczepanski (2019) says that the name also signifies “a place of tranquillity”.

As Prof. Kishore Govinda (2019) indicates, the Constitution of India also has utopian undertones. The vision of the Indian Constitution is to usher in an era of justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity for all of its citizens within the context of a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic. The Directive Principles of the Constitution echo the ancient Indian wisdom of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, the whole world is a family.

The challenge of civil disobedience to combat the climate crisis

Never before in human history have we faced such a dire crisis, where human beings and much of our biodiversity are threatened with extinction: The sixth extinction. Clearly, there are distressing signs in this direction. But all is not lost. We humans can rise to the challenge, change our lifestyles and patterns of production, pressure our governments, and where necessary, mobilise mass civil disobedience and non-cooperation movements of an entirely non-violent nature.


Seven sins
Plaque at the Mahatma Gandhi memorial


We can commit ourselves wholeheartedly to a utopia that will foster paradigms of development that are not dependent on fossil fuels. This may entail working towards the Gandhian and Christian ideal of Kingdom of God, the Buddhist Shambala, and the Marxist notion of a classless society.

As we write there are agonising pictures emerging out of Somalia showing starving people and emaciated children who are not even able to walk. Drought is wreaking havoc in Somalia, leading to mass migration and deaths. The people have lost everything and say there is nothing to go back to. Meanwhile, Pakistan has yet to recover from the massive flooding where a record 33 million people were displaced by 10 feet of water from excessive rainfall. Earlier, about six million people were displaced in Bangladesh and eastern India due to heavy rains.

In April this year temperatures in the Antarctic went up by 40 degree Celsius, from -70 C to -30 C. Scientists warn if these temperatures continue to repeat, glaciers like the Thwaites may melt, unleashing unprecedented sea level rise. It is even possible that all coastal cities may go underwater by 2050.

No part of the planet has been spared; with raging wildfires in California, a record of 40 C temperature in parts of Britain, and hundreds of people dying in Spain due to extreme heat. India is expecting a 10 per cent shortfall in food production due to intense rains and drought in different parts of the country. The government has already banned the export of broken rice and imposed a 20 per cent duty on rice exports.

The consequences of climate change now include:

  • intense droughts
  • water scarcity
  • severe fires
  • rising sea levels
  • flooding
  • melting polar ice
  • catastrophic storms
  • declining biodiversity

Despite several Conference of Parties (COP) meetings, high on rhetoric and pledges, governments are slow to act; or do not act at all. A great injustice is occurring all over the world today, and the vulnerable and poor communities are at the receiving end. It is the rich countries that are historically responsible for the carbon emissions resulting in climate change, although the poor countries are most affected by it.

Our model of development, almost wholly dependent on fossil fuels, is responsible for the global warming that is spurring climate change. Many decades ago, Mahatma Gandhi outlined a model that was based on local needs and local production, which would have dramatically reduced dependence on fossil fuels. But Nehru, India’s first prime minister, did not take Gandhi’s economic (and ecological) ideas seriously and went full steam for a state-controlled capitalist economy. Other approaches to development were available, but we in India, and elsewhere in the world, opted for a model of development, which has now provoked climate change.

Talk shops, i.e. insincere talk of reform, and the stalling manoeuvres of governments have only made the situation worse. Undoubtedly a great injustice is occurring, and there are enough reasons to believe that policies, laws and lawful recourse to changing them are not working.

Doloresz Katanich  reports that on 8 June 2022, the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres said, “Last year, global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions grew by 6 per cent when they should be falling. Let me be blunt: Most national climate pledges are simply not good enough."  In October, he warned that we are in “a life-or-death struggle” for survival as climate chaos gallops ahead. The world’s 20 richest countries were guilty of allowing the planet to overheat.

It would not be farfetched to say that the “third world war” has already begun. Climate change is the enemy, and its human face is difficult to identify, because all of us, in small or big ways, are responsible. But some, like business and political leaders who have vested interests and refuse to act, are more responsible.

It is a state of affairs that requires urgent non-violent civil disobedience and non-cooperation on a mass scale, all over the world, to pressure governments to immediately take measures to prevent temperatures from rising more than 1.5 C over pre-industrial levels (as agreed by world leaders at the Paris Climate Summit).

The utopia of non-violent civil disobedience

Carl Cohen (1971, 111) described non-violent civil disobedience (NYCD) as:

“…an act of protest, deliberately unlawful, conscientiously and publicly performed. It may have as its object the laws or policies of some governmental body, or those of some private corporate body whose decisions have serious public consequences; but in either case the disobedient protest is almost invariably non-violent in character”.

There are several types of NVCD. For example, NVCD can occur when a citizen disobeys a law that he or she believes to be immoral, or when a citizen disobeys a law because he or she believes that a moral right of someone has been denied, or when a person believes that morally wrong public policies or laws need to be changed (Kress & Anderson,1989). Of course, NVCD, if it has to become a movement, requires hundreds and thousands of people to participate.

Satyagraha (truth force) as a method of mass non-violent civil disobedience

Martin Luther King’s civil disobedience movement was inspired by Gandhi’s notion of Satyagraha. King stated:

“Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale. The intellectual and moral satisfaction that I failed to gain from the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill, the revolutionary methods of Marx and Lenin, the social contract theory of Hobbes, the 'back to nature' optimism of Rousseau, and the superman philosophy of Nietzsche, I found in the non-violent resistance philosophy of Gandhi.”

Satyagraha or “truth force or soul force” means steadfastly holding on to truth. Conflicts can only be resolved through non-violent action. “An eye for an eye” will only hurt all the parties concerned. Soul force, rather than conventional violence, is the way forward. The means are more important than the end. As far as possible satyagraha attempts to win over the opponent through persuasion (it was clear to Gandhi that an opponent was not an enemy). If this does not work, then self-suffering (like hunger strikes or imprisonment) can be resorted to. Finally, if all else fails, non-cooperation or civil disobedience is the solution. All these steps entail non-violent behaviour in speech and action.

Thomas Varkey (2014, 171-179) states that:

“Non-cooperation, civil disobedience and fasting are some of the major non-violent means employed by satyagraha movements. Non-cooperation includes actions such as strike, walk-out, hartal (voluntary closing of shops and businesses) and resignation of offices and titles. Non-cooperation is a refusal to follow a requirement, which fundamentally violates truth and is against mass conscience. Civil disobedience is a non-observance of certain specific laws, which are dehumanising, and against one’s conscience. Civil disobedience includes activities such as non-payment of taxes, jail-going campaign, etc.”

Gandhi was also clear that human efforts could not be dogmatic since only ‘relative truth’ was available to us. Therefore, it was not wrong to seek honourable compromise whenever appropriate. Since the opponent was not seen as an enemy, ongoing dialogue would always be possible.

If we are to save the planet from the destructive greed of the present development paradigm that has led to the climate crisis, non-violent civil disobedience may be the only way out. Time is fast running out.

Non-violent protests are regularly taking place all over the western world and there is a great need for similar protests in so-called emerging economies and less-developed countries. The Extinction Rebellion is a global network that firmly believes that non-violent, disruptive civil disobedience can be the only approach to prevent global catastrophe. Other approaches like petitioning, lobbying, voting and protest have not worked to unsettle the vested interests who want to keep the present system going.

A large number of scientists are also protesting. The organisation, Scientist Rebellion, has a letter signed by more than 200 scientists that states that current efforts at decarbonisation are grossly inadequate. The statement adds:

A just transition to a sustainable system requires the wealth from the 1 per cent to be used for the common benefit. The most effective means of achieving systemic change in modern history is through non-violent civil resistance. We call on academics, scientists and the public to join us in civil disobedience to demand emergency decarbonisation and degrowth, facilitated by wealth redistribution.”

Pope Francis hosted an interfaith climate meeting just before the COP 26 event in Glasgow in early November 2021. Representatives from diverse faiths like Buddhism, Christian denominations, Confucianism, Hinduism, Jainism, Judaism, Shi’a and Sunni Islam, Sikhism, Taoism, and Zoroastrianism participated. Here is an excerpt from the appeal that was issued:

“We pray that our human family may unite to save our common home before it is too late. Future generations will never forgive us if we squander this precious opportunity. We have inherited a garden: We must not leave a desert to our children,”


                                                         The document adds,

“Scientists have warned us that there might be only one decade left to restore the planet.”

It is fitting that we end with an appeal from a plurality of interfaith leaders. All faith traditions are at once utopic and grounded in earthly compassion. Although faith leaders have not yet insisted on non-violent civil disobedience there are signs that this may not be too far away. Already, Buddhist leaders are courting arrest in UK around climate issues.

To repeat, another world is certainly possible. Non-violent civil disobedience and non-cooperation, small or big, is the way forward. Utopic values and convictions, both spiritual and secular, will propel us in this direction.



Cohen, Carl. 1971. Civil disobedience: conscience, tactics & the law. Columbia University Press.

Govinda, Kishor, 2019. On constitution day: We the people and the constitution of India.

Katanich, Doloresz. 2022. UN Secretary-General says the climate crisis is placing half of humanity in 'the danger zone'. EuroNews website (accessed on 21.11.22).

Kress, Ken, Anderson, Scott. 1989. Dworkin in transition. Am J Comp Law 37:337–351.

Marx, Karl. 1972. A Contribution to the critique of Hegel’s philosophy of righ, in The Marx-Engels Reader (Ed. Robert C Tucker, 2nd edition). Norton and Company. (First published in 1843).

Marx, Karl. 2010Critique of the Gotha Program, in Marx: The first international and after (Ed. David Fernbach). Verso. (First published in 1875).

Miranda, José. 1980. Marx against the Marxists: The Christian humanism of Karl Marx. Mary knoll: Orbis.

Szczepanski, Kallie. 2019. What is Shambala?

Varkey, Thomas. 2014. The myth and meaning of the Gandhian concept of satyagraha. Sophia University Junior College Division Faculty Journal.


Disclaimer: This article was prepared with the support of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung India. The views and analysis contained in the publication are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung/and the author's affiliated institution.

Pluralities, Faith, Social Action