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In conversation with Satish Kumar

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Satish Kumar’s current position as editor in chief of Resurgence & Ecologist magazine feels like the natural culmination of a lifetime of big-hearted ethical and environmental activism. He recently took the time to speak to Spotlight about global systems of religion, economics and culture, and how they speak to the current ecological crises, as well as his belief in the power of education to bring about meaningful change in global environmental practice.

Russell Warfield, sustainability communications assistant, NUS

After being born in India and becoming a Jain monk at the age of nine, Satish became best known for the 8,000-mile walk he undertook in 1962, visiting the leaders of the four nuclear states in an attempt to encourage disarmament.

Having abandoned formal religious convictions as a young man, Satish nevertheless remains guided by Eastern spiritual values, while combining these beliefs with a love and respect for Western culture.

His unique perspective puts a particularly spirited voice at the forefront of the green movement – warm, energetic and ceaselessly optimistic, conveying idealistic philosophies as approachable as they are far-seeing.

It’s honouring (but perhaps not surprising) that Satish contacted NUS, looking for ways to work more closely with students. “If you look at the existing adult world,” he explains, “they seem to be single-mindedly following the old paradigm of more economic growth and more money and more industry and more roads and more airports and more highways and more buildings and so on and so on – just one single-minded pursuit.

“Many, many business people – like banks, industry and government – are all coming to the young people with the idea that [they should] get a good degree, get good marks, get this, get that, and then we’ll give you a job and get back into the economy. And so I think it is also important at this juncture to bring the new paradigm thinking in front of the young people, that you have a choice here, you don’t have to just prepare yourself to work in a bank, or work in an industry, or work in consumer restriction of culture.”

Bring back hand skills

Of course, it’s good enough to imagine a world in which emerging graduates are able to think beyond the narrowing parameters of the knowledge economy, or beyond jobs which contribute to ecological devastation rather than reverse it. But it’s also essential that the economy is in a position to actually make this desire a reality for young people who wish to earn a living, as well as be catalysts of positive change.

Satish sees it as the duty of society and education to reinvest social value into hand skills and vocational trades, using these not only to create a greater number of jobs for young people, but also to diversify means of employment in many positive ways.

“We need to bring back hand skills,” he explains, “so that our economy can be more local, and people get more satisfaction from making something. There’s much more joy when you have made some beautiful chair or built a beautiful house by hand rather than assembled prefabricated windows and doors and breeze blocks and so on, but building a house with bricks, with stone, with wood, using your hands, using your brain, using your body, that will bring much more job satisfaction.

“It has its own intrinsic value. It has economic value, it has health value, it has satisfaction and joy and creativity value. I want even the most intelligent, the most academically advanced students in Oxford, Cambridge and Bristol, Exeter and Edinburgh – big, big universities – to give equal importance to handiwork. That’s my vision for a good education.”

Just as Satish believes we need to fundamentally reimagine our education and employment structures to successfully navigate the sustainability issues which we currently face, so he believes in radical reformation of our attitudes towards nature itself, putting aside what he sees as a widely held human-centric view of the world.

A spiritual approach

Unlike the great proportion of those who identify themselves as greens who would also identify themselves as secular or humanist, Satish sees the link between spirituality and environmentalism as inseparable, while acknowledging the division in the movement which stems from this debate.

“I base my environmental movement and my ecology and green thinking in a profound respect and love of nature and love of the Earth because I believe that nature is living, and it has intrinsic value. Like human rights, I believe in nature rights, because like human life, nature has intrinsic value, and the moment we can recognise the integrity and intrinsic value of nature you are a spiritual person.

“Nature is not there just for our use – that’s a more materialistic, utilitarian, scientific approach. My world view is more spirit-centred: nature is a living spirit. So the tree has spirit and soil has life, and so we have to respect soil for its own sake and not only value how useful it is for humans. 

“That is a spiritual approach, and I can base a large part of the movement – at least 50 per cent I would say – who would agree with me that the spirituality and environment go hand-in-hand together, they are inseparable. But there are 50 per cent in environmental movements who are very techno-fixing and very utilitarian.”

Resistant to fixed and fundamentalist conceptions of religion, which he recognises as being antithetical to good environmentalism, Satish is always quick to also highlight the potential dangers in the arrogance of secular thinking which remains human-centric and guilty of speciesism.  

We are all connected

Satish’s Eastern philosophies of spirituality also lead him to the belief that there should be no dividing line drawn between the individual and society – that we are all related both to one another and to nature, and that what is in the best interest of society is of the interest of the individual and vice versa. Indeed, the very title of one of his books is the Descartes-defying ‘You Are, Therefore I Am’.

Of course, this comes into contention with another deeply embedded Western construct: the rise of global free-market capitalism over the last 30 years; the lean towards widespread privatisation; the depletion of the commons; and the famous Thatcherite proclamation that there is no such thing as society. Satish sees these current economic models as being wholly incompatible with environmentalism.

“We are all related, we are all connected, we are dependent on each other and we are dependent on the Earth’s resources,” he says.  “Therefore, this division between self and society has to come to an end, and we say ‘my interest and the interest of the society and the interest of the environment are one and the same thing; there’s no separation’.

“And so in the business world, where you compete with each other and you take over the companies and remove them from the market so that you have a complete control of the market, that kind of economic system is completely anathema to the sustainable future of humanity.

Behavioural change

“The world economy is bringing social injustice, perpetuating poverty, perpetuating exploitation of people. In spite of all this wealth in the world, in spite of so much food in the world, in spite of so much technology in the world, a quarter of the human population goes to bed hungry. That is the result of this economic system, and it’s not lack of food that means people are hungry, it’s the economics: people are prepared to burn the food or destroy the food or sell the food as commodity, not give the food.

“So this division between self, society and nature has brought social injustice, environmental injustice, exploitation, inequality, and therefore environmental justice and social justice are two arms of one body, we cannot separate them.”

Satish is such an admirer of economist E.F. Schumacher that he helped to found a college in Dartington named after him around 20 years ago, at which he remains a visiting fellow. Schumacher’s seminal work Small Is Beautiful helped inform Satish’s belief in localisation and small-scale economies which he also saw Gandhi endorse for villages across India.

Devolved economies born of handiwork redeveloped during formal education is the reconfigured socio-economic fabric which Satish sees as being the solution to our social and environmental problems. “What you are good at producing locally, make locally,” he insists. “And what you cannot produce locally, that 10 or 20 per cent of the economy will be icing on the cake. At the moment our globalisation is the icing and there is no cake, there is no local economy, so we are living without cake and just icing, icing, icing. Just icing is not good for your health.”

At this point it becomes hard not to wonder if Satish is speaking more idealistically than practically – he has, after all, found quarrel with the status quo of Western spirituality, education and economics and has come to the conclusion that all three need to be radically reconfigured in order to dissipate the threat of environmental disaster. This is no small task, especially for a staunch advocate of non-violence, but Satish’s optimistic belief in individuals’ behavioural changes having the ability to empower the movement from the bottom upwards is ceaseless.

Study for the joy of learning

“Practical steps have to begin from individuals – we have to be the change we want to see in the world, as Mahatma Ghandi said. I cannot expect the world to change but not I. So I and the world, like self and society are connected, I and the world are connected, so if I want to change the world, I start with myself. 

“And then I should radiate or flow, sign my change to society, into the community and communicate it. Like a river that begins to trickle, and then a tributary comes, and then another tributary comes, and the river becomes bigger and bigger, and it becomes a flood and it reaches the sea. So in the same way we start with ourselves and then join other people, more people join, more people join. This is how the anti-apartheid movement grew.”

With so much of the work of NUS-led programmes like Green Impact and Student Switch Off being based on the belief in the ability of behavioural change to radiate through a community and through a lifetime, it’s encouraging to hear such an eminent environmental thinker speaking in the same terms.

Satish’s environmentalism seeks to avoid what he calls the ‘doom and gloom’ approach favoured by some within the movement, and claims not to be motivated by fear but by love – a love of others, and of Earth. As we reached the end of our conversation, Satish was eager to get one last piece of advice across to students: a message steeped in the man’s boundless sense of wide-eyed wonder, energy and optimism.

“One thing I want to advise to all your readers and all students is not to study for jobs, but study for the joy and pleasure of knowledge and learning. Be a creative, imaginative human being, living a good life in harmony with nature, in harmony with yourself, in harmony with the society.

“Enjoy your life and the abundance of nature, abundance of sunshine, abundance of soil-giving food, abundance of friendship, abundance of creativity, imagination, art, music, painting, building houses, growing food. Whatever you want to do, do it with joy.”

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