Satish Kumar


Made Thought in conversation with Satish Kumar

A former monk and long-term peace and environment activist, Satish Kumar has set the global agenda for change for over 50 years.

He is the founder and Director of Programmes for Schumacher College, an international centre for ecological studies. Satish has campaigned for land reform in India, and works tirelessly to turn Gandhi's vision of a renewed and peaceful world into reality. He insists that reverence for nature should be at the heart of every political and social debate.

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Interview extracted from a 1h 52m face-to-face conversation with Ben Parker, Made Thought co-founder, and Sian Sutherland, Made Thought sustainability advisor.

(From left) Satish Kumar, Sian Sutherland and Ben Parker

Satish reminds us the prospect of a beautiful future is not beyond us. He is clear we must search deeper within ourselves, looking beyond what we think makes us happy, recognising how little we actually need. He believes by reconnecting our head and heart, we can learn to live in complete harmony, rather than in battle with Nature. The peace activist suggests our overconsumption has weighed us down physically and spiritually. By stripping back the layers of what we think we need, and what really sustains us, he claims, we can and will be free. Satish explains how the time for unified action to tackle the existential threats to the environment is quite simply now.

The time is now.

BEN PARKER - [BP] We thought it would be wonderful to talk to you about time, because it seems we have finite time.

SATISH KUMAR - [SK] There is an old saying that when the time has come, that time gives the power to the idea. The idea is always there. From Buddha to Jesus Christ, to Mahatma Gandhi, to Nelson Mandela, you can take all of these ideas of living well, and living simply, and living in harmony with Nature. All of these ideas are eternal, like compassion and being kind to Nature, but sometimes they are not hitting the right time. Now I feel the time has come, and this is the time to illustrate, illuminate, enlighten and highlight this aspect of humanity's relationship with the natural world.

This has become crucial because, until now, all of these things have been looking at Nature as a kind of slave. Nature is our slave and nature should serve humanity. This philosophy has been the dominant in our culture and this has come out of separation from Nature. Nature is out there, somewhere else, and humans are separate. That way we can rule and control over Nature. So, the time has come for the end of the separation of nature and humans. If we say we are an integral part of nature, therefore we cannot exploit Nature and we cannot damage Nature, because if we damage Nature, we damage ourselves.

This old story of the last 300 years has been the story of separation and disconnection. The new story, which these young children are talking about, which we adults have to grasp, is that we are not separate. Global warming will affect us, polluted water will affect us and polluted soil will affect us. Because we are soil, and we are air, fire and water. Our body is made of all the four elements of which the trees and animals and everything else is made. We cannot separate ourselves.

We need to shift to connection and unity, from separation, which is causing all of the crises we see. Plastic is a symptom of the separation, global warming is a symptom of the separation, resources depleting is a symptom, population explosion is a symptom. All of the problems that we now witness are the symptoms of this basic notion that we are somehow separate. When you talk about time, the time has come, and time is challenging us and saying wake up.

Satish Kumar Peace Walk

In 1962, Satish Kumar and his friend E.P. Menon embarked on an 8,000-mile peace pilgrimage from India to Washington, from the grave of Mahatma Gandhi to the grave of John F Kennedy.

A key for change.

[SK] The headline of global warming and climate change helps us to focus, because you need some sort of key to enter into a room. The room is big: environmental sustainability, environmental integrity and environmental harmony; all of these are big ideas that are difficult to grasp. To handle these abstract ideas you need a key. Climate change is the key to open the environmental hall. When you open the hall, you see many places where things are going wrong, and one of them is the plastic problem.

SIAN SUTHERLAND - [SS] For me, plastic is the ring to the key, because it is the thing that leads you to the key that leads you to the door. Plastic is so visible in a way we cannot deny it.

[BP] For me, plastic can be so wonderful when in the right hands, but the time equation for it is totally inappropriate. It's this short-termism of everything.

[SS] People feel that time is running out, but I say time is coming. I’m more of an optimist because I want action, and action cannot happen without some optimism or without some hope that we change and put things right.

Reconnecting mind and body.

[BP] At some point in the last so years we seem to have separated body and mind when it comes to how we perceive ourselves, but yet we intuitively know the two are connected. We just need to look at how medicine has divided them into two.

[SK] Now the thinking is that we are 'mind’, but we are not just mind. We are mind. We are body. We are heart. The heart's function is to unite. The heart feels compassion, and love, and generosity, and relationship, and hospitality, and caring. It feels all of these qualities. Caring for the Earth, caring for the oceans, compassion for the Earth, compassion for Nature, compassion for oceans, forgiveness from the Earth. Solutions are in the body, in the form of action. If I think that I am hungry, then l have to put food in my body. I must light the fire and prepare the food and make the bread, make the soup, and make the vegetables. Then I can eat.

Thinking must lead to action; mind and body cannot be separated. Mind should lead to the body, and the body must come to action. At the moment action is lost. That’s a separation, so the body has to come back to its rightful place if we want a new age of revolution. Mind has a place, but it has to be put in its place and not be allowed to dominate. Body and heart are equally as important.

Suspending judgement.

[SS] Can you talk about heart in the same way that you explain the physicality of us needing to do more with our bodies? Do you feel the same way about our heart?

[SK] Doing more with your heart is about relationship, and relationship has to go beyond judgement, because judgement is mental, beyond criticism because criticism is mental, without complaining because complaining is mental. All of these things destroy our relationship. Relationship comes from heart, appreciation and love come from heart, respect comes from heart. If you allow your heart to suspend your judgement, and you accept the other as they truly are, then when you participate in the relationship and in participation, you transform. The moment that you suspend your judgement and your analytical mind, you will see good where there is good. You will see good everywhere.

[BP] It takes time to use your heart, and to understand that we live in a world that's instant. How do we start to change this, or is this naturally happening? Are people starting to disconnect more from their digital selves?

[SS] Well, the pendulum has swung here and naturally it will swing back.

[SK] Time has come for the pendulum to swing back, and this is what young people are doing. They're saying that things are speedy and fast. We have so much economical growth, and yet people are pressured and stressed and worried. They feel lack of success and lack of fulfilment and they think, I'm not good enough and I have not achieved enough. My mother used to say that when God made time, he made plenty of it because time is infinite and eternal. There is no shortage of time. The idea that we don't have time, and we have to rush, means we are focusing on quantities, and producing more quantity. Quantity cannot satisfy you, only quality can satisfy you. Nobody is paying enough attention to quality. Some attention is being paid to luxury, to posh and to first class for people to pay more. But this is not quality. Simplicity, elegance and grace. We have glamour but not grace, so we need to shift from quantity to quality, and from glamour to grace. And the time has come for that.

[SS] There's a brilliant line in the film Minimalism which is all about overconsumption. I'll never forget this line which was: ‘We will never have enough of something we don’t need’. We are filling a hole with more, but it's never enough because that's not what the hole is about. What is this hole and how can we fill it? Is it about a reconnection with nature?

[SK] Minimalism will maximise our happiness. And maximalism will minimise our satisfaction, fulfilment, joy and celebration. Because for satisfaction and celebration we need to be happy.

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An instrument for profit.

[SS] Which fundamentally goes against everything our business world is built on, because it’s all about ‘more’.

[SK] Because the business world is not interested in nature, it’s only worried about profit and money. Classic economics has it right. Classic economics as land, labour and capital. At the moment, the business world uses Nature and humans as a resource to make a profit. Humans have become an instrument of making profit. Profit for people is classic economics, but modern economics is people for profit. I say, if you are working, give them freedom to make mistakes and implement that into something. If they make a mistake, it is only your idea that they made a mistake. Who am I to say that what you're saying is not good enough? Earth, air, fire, water are the physical elements of what we are made of, but imagination is the fifth element.

[BP] Is imagination the enemy of industry? We were looking at the dictionary definition of what a consumer is. Everything is targeted to consume, consume, consume, so looking at that definition of consumer, it's from the 15th century and it's Greek, and it means to squander and to waste. I was looking at the opposite word, 'citizen', which is about a sense of membership and belonging.

[SK] 'Citizen' is a good word, and 'maker' is another word which means we are empowered. When you are a consumer, you have no power but when you are a maker, you have power of mind and body, and you can make and create. At the moment, our society is disempowered. They say, ‘I can't do anything, I only want a salary. Whatever you want me to do, I'll do it as long as I can pay the bills. Large numbers of people in our society do things that they don’t like doing. When you build a house; when you plant a tree; when you campaign for something in Trafalgar Square and stand with your body; when you put your body with your mind, that's complete. At the moment we are just running our engine at a quarter.

[BP] It's no coincidence the word 'motion' is in emotion'. Emotion must drive action.

[SK] Businesses lack emotion. It's like they actively drive it out because it is considered weak. It's not weak. Emotion is heart, and heart is driven out of business. It is all thinking, mind, technique, all of that. Humans, nature, imagination, all of that is driven out. Just profit and money. Profit is good only if it serves the Earth. Money is a good invention if it is used properly. Like a knife is a good invention if it has a handle. The heart is that handle to the knife of the mind.

[BP] Are there businesses that are adopting that good mindset? There seems to be businesses, like Patagonia, that are driven by strong characters who have heart.

[SK] Do you know our neighbour here [Guy Singh-Watson at Riverford)? He has a very strong environmental concern, although his idea of plastic is very different. He wants to us plastic properly, rather than discard it, but he has made his company worker owned. He has given up his ownership and shared it with the workers. Being organic and looking after the land and so on. Nothing is perfect, but I think he is a step in the right direction. That is a simple example.

Apollo08 earthrise

Taken aboard Apollo 8 by Bill Anders, this iconic picture shows Earth peeking out from beyond the lunar surface as the first crewed spacecraft circumnavigated the Moon, with astronauts Anders, Frank Borman, and Jim Lovell aboard.

Elegant simplicity.

[BP] I'm trying to find a link, with everything we have discussed, to humans relationship with ‘time’. How the speed of mass production has accelerated everything beyond belief, and how consumption is a constant stream of short-term thinking. How do we change, value even, time.How do we recreate a healthier relationship with time, and with our future?

When NASA took the first entire picture of carth as seen from space in 1966, they wouldn't release them to the public. Stewart Brand (co-creator of The Whole Earth catalogue, 1968) petitioned NASA to publish them. He knew the power of seeing. To visualise a small blue home within an infinite sea of blackness, and how a simple visual could change our perception forever.

[SK] He was a pioneer in these ideas. I think we need to continue that, and the time is more pertinent to reframe it, and make it accessible in a language to make sure people get it. There is a lot of academic words and work, and instead we need elegant simplicity.

[SS] It behoves industry and big business who don't want it to happen, to make it very complicated.

[SK] There is a bubble of inaction. The big guys are frozen because they know too much and they need to clear their minds. They can’t see because it’s too hard. How do we make it simple? Vulnerability is not a weakness. Our body is vulnerable, our heart is vulnerable. Meekness is not a weakness. We need to cultivate qualities of love, empathy and passion to keep that balanceand look after that vulnerability. What we need to bring into the conversation when we are talking about sustainability is what is the driving force for this thinking? The driving force could be fear, or love, of Nature. Fear, from my point of view, is not the most powerful driver. If we do something out of fear, it has a short life. If we live with a love for Nature, even if we have less civilisation and material goods, so what? It’s good to have less.

What they fear is that the production and oil companies will disappear. So what? They’ve had their time. Big companies come and go. What we need is to be driven and inspired for love of the environment, love for people and love for ourselves. We need to love ourselves. We don't see the intrinsic value of Nature, so we destroy it, but we need to see that intrinsic value through love.

With your action [A Plastic Planet], you do your best, and that has its own reward. You've accomplished so much. My focus, too, is not on what I've achieved, it's on the action itself.

That action will, of course, have impact, but what is right should be done.

Simple complexity.

[BP] Design has a future-facing aspect built into it. To envision, to imagine, to project. This reminds me of a conversation we recently had with Evan Sharp (Pinterest co-founder]. Pinterest is a tool for inspiration, and inspiration is all about possibility. And inspiration is a deep human need. Evan argues that a lot of social media is a very inward spiral - about just seeing others, which can make you feel anxious. What Pinterest does with inspiration is that it allows you to see yourself in an outward spiral. It allows you to envision yourself in the future, and then take action from it. He is also beautifully obsessed with Lego. Why? He sees Lego as the ultimate play tool for children, because there is no right or wrong. If my son is building a Lego aeroplane and I think it looks like a table, who am I to judge?

[SK] When you stop judging, your mind stops and your heart becomes active.

[BP] I believe Evan sees Pinterest in the same way. A safe space for you to create a vision of what you might want to become, which then becomes an empowering and actionable vision. Many new technologies are allowing us to do this imagining.

[SK] There's also a difference between something complicated and something complex. Complexity can be comfortably put together with simplicity, because our bodies are complex, but also very simple. Einstein said: 'Any fool can make things complicated; it takes a genius to make things simple.’ Making things simple is kind of imaginative, like great poetry, and it's very accessible.

[BP] It's bringing it all back to a very human view, isn't it? That's the lesson about simplicity. For example, if my nine-year-old daughter or 80-year-old mother can't understand concepts like the upcoming circular economy, then we've failed. We have to keep things simple.

[SK] When I meditate, I make a simple posture and bring my thumb and index together to become a mandala. This mandala is the sun, the moon, the earth and ourselves, and we are all connected as the thumb and index are. They are a part of the same hand, but they are separate, and when we bring them together, they are connected. Then, because of this connection, without the sun there are no trees, without the trees there is no food. This small visual symbol helps explain and remind us of this eternal connection.

[BP] That's a powerful visual metaphor. We must remember the power of simple visuals to help us all understand.