From Environmentalism's Future to the Politics of Bread: TreeHugger Talks With Resurgence Editor Satish Kumar

© Resurgence

The modern environmental environmental movement is roughly 50 years old now. Satish Kumar, a former Jain monk who walked thousands of miles from India, through Europe and on to America in the name of nuclear disarmament, and long-time editor of Resurgence magazine (one of the consistently finest environmental publications out there) has been there through all of that time.

TreeHugger recently sat down with Kumar to discuss what has changed over that time, what people can do now to set a green example, and where the movement is heading as well as where he'd like to see it head.

TREEHUGGER: Looking backwards and forwards, where do you think the environmental movement is heading?

SATISH KUMAR: When Resurgence started in 1966 the discussion of the environment was a very minority interest. Since then the awareness of the importance of global climate change, our dependence on fossil fuels, the situation of peak oil, has become much greater. During this time people have become much more aware of renewable energy.

I'm optimistic that in the next 40 years we'll see a big change in consciousness. People are going to realize that there's much more to life than consumerism, more and more egotistical fulfillment. I'm optimistic that people will turn to a lifestyle that is elegant and simple, where you can live well within the means of the Earth, using the resources of nature and the abundance of nature in a kind of gentle and non-aggressive way, finding fulfillment through arts, music, poetry, paintings, dance, working in the garden, enjoying and celebrating nature, walking in nature. All of that is going to come.

TREEHUGGER: You've said that, in today's food economy, baking bread is political act. Can you explain that a bit?

SATISH KUMAR: Baking bread is a political act because you are saying that mass-produced bread, which is a kind of symbol of the global economy, is make-believe bread. It's illusory bread, not real bread. You are eating something that is essential for life, but has no freshness, no involvement, no engagement. You have not touched it with your hands.

So when you are baking bread, you are making a political statement that you are going to slow down, not think about money. Instead you are going to think about living.

Everybody is calling to me to go look at the computer, telling me emails are important, surfing on the internet is important. I'm going to say I'm not going to do those things; I'm going to see the dough rise, knead it, put it in the oven, and wait for the bread to come out. That kind of slowing down, in this age of speed, in this age of fast lane, is a great political statement.

If we can slow down and we can say no to this speedy technological lifestyle, I think we will change the world, we will protect nature, we will conserve nature, we will celebrate nature, we will celebrate life. We will celebrate handiwork. Because now hands are too often used just for keyboards or mobile phones or computers.

If we touch earth, we say the hands are dirty, but dirt is not dirty. Without earth, without dirt, without soil, there is no food, there is no bread. Therefore touching the earth and getting your hands dirty in the earth, and kneading the dough, that is a great political statement. It is a protest against fast culture.

TREEHUGGER: You've mentioned speed as being a curse of Western civilization, but at this point speed has spread across the world. You go to India, Southeast Asia, China there's the same fascination with speed. How do we convince these rising powers, upon whom the future of the environment really depends, to take a different route?

SATISH KUMAR: The pace of industrialized civilization, materialism, has been set by the Western countries.

When, after the Second World War, President Truman stood up and said the world is divided into two parts, the developed world and the under-developed world, the developed world is defined by industrialization, urbanization, high technology and the under-developed world is the world of agriculture, people living by crafts, handiwork, living in villages.

In this way we created propaganda, a brainwashing. All our education is brainwashing children in India, in China, in South Africa, in Brazil. They are brainwashing them to think that if you live by the land, if you live by the sun, if you live by water, if you live by nature, you are backwards, you are under-developed. If you live by fossil fuel, if you live by cars and airplanes and computers, then you are advanced and developed.

This brainwashing has come from the United States, from Europe, from Japan. This is now spreading, like a cancer, to China, to India, to Africa, to South America.

If you want to change this, to say that you don't want this industrial mindset, you want to respect nature, you want to have a dignity in growing food, then we have change that in the United States, in Europe.

You can't ask China not to do what we are doing. How do you change China's economy, and India's economy, unless you change the US economy? Our work is not in China or India; our work is Japan, in America, and in Europe. This is why I am from India, living here, producing Resurgence magazine, to change our consciousness and mindset.

We want to say you have to give dignity to work, to growing food. In England now you can have 2000 acres and not make a living. But if you work in a bank you get millions of pounds. If you work on the land you get a hundred pounds a day. If you work in a bank you get ten thousand pounds a day. Why is growing food, working on the land, so lowly paid, but working in a bank is so highly paid? Our values have to change. This has to change in America, in Europe, before we can expect this to change in India, in China, in Africa.

TREEHUGGER: How do you think we get past the utilitarian outlook that much of the modern environmental movement has taken? For example, emphasizing the financial value of ecosystem services rather than the inherent worth of, say, a forest.

SATISH KUMAR: By putting value of nature and natural services, ecosystem services, we are putting money above nature. We are measuring nature in terms of money. So your value and priorities become money, saying we have to protect nature because it has monetary value. That is, in a way, degradation, a step backwards.

I would not like to have that kind of consciousness. I want to see nature as seen as beyond monetary value. Ecosystems are life systems. You cannot put monetary value of life systems. How can you put a money value on something like air? How many millions? But if you don't have air you will die. Without water you cannot live; without soil you cannot live. Nature is essential for our existence and our survival.

TREEHUGGER: The latest issue of Resurgence is dedicated to animal welfare and animal rights, integrating these concerns more firmly into environmentalism. I've been to conferences where the antagonism between vegans, vegetarians and those people who do eat meat but are equally highly critical of industrial agriculture is pretty high. How do we reconcile these positions?

SATISH KUMAR: We have presented a more ideal case, saying everybody can live without killing animals, without meat. But this, I would say is an idealistic case. The practical case would be to treat animals with respect and care. Animals should be free-range, freely roaming, living a good, happy life. When people do eat meat, reduce the amount of meat.

At the moment red meat, and meat altogether for breakfast, for lunch, for dinner, huge quantities, seven days a week, this is too much.

We can create organic, free-range, compassionate farming, we can reduce the amount of meat eaten (from every day to maybe 2-3 times a week), and we can increase the amount of vegetables, fruits and grains we eat (grown organically, and locally, not imported from far away).

I am a vegetarian. I have never eaten meat in my whole life. I'm 75 years old. I've made a more idealistic case in this issue of the magazine, but in the long run I'd say if you moderate the amount of meat you eat, if it is local, organic, and free-range then you are making a step in the right direction.

TREEHUGGER: Let's talk about nuclear weapons, nuclear power: Both were at the forefront of environmental issues in previous decades. While nuclear power is still a highly contentious issue, nuclear weapons have faded as a top concern of environmentalists. Why do you think this is?

SATISH KUMAR: Fifty years ago I made a peace pilgrimage from New Delhi to Moscow, Paris, London, and Washington DC. At that time these were the four nuclear capitals. I went by walking, 8000 miles, without any money. I was deeply committed, passionately involved and engaged in the anti-nuclear movement. Now we have India, Pakistan, Israel with nuclear weapons. North Korea is also joining. There are suspicions about other countries as well. This is not a very happy state of affairs.

These weapons are completely useless, because if you use them they not only kill your enemies, meaning the soldiers of the other side, they kill men, women, children, workers, farmers, lakes, trees, insects, animals, everything is destroyed. So are these weapons ever used, by anybody in their sane mind?

They are just weapons of prestige, of ego, of national ego saying "I have nuclear weapons."

Nuclear weapons are completely useless but still we are making them, spending money on them, while our fellow human beings in the millions in Africa, even in the United States, are hungry. We have soup kitchens, we have homeless people, we have no jobs for people—even in the rich countries. Is this civilization?

Mahatma Gandhi once was asked, "What do you think of Western civilization?" He replied, "I think that would be a good idea." I think if we want to call ourselves civilized, nuclear weapons are not a sign of civilization.

If you go for nuclear power it's the same thing. The difference between nuclear power and nuclear weapons is as far as from making bread into a sandwich. Once you have nuclear energy and nuclear power, you know how to use uranium. You can turn it into nuclear weapons.

To make nuclear energy we have to go mine uranium, from indigenous lands of the American Indians, of aboriginal people in Australia, in South America. What right do we have to go to these indigenous lands and take their uranium to create nuclear weapons and nuclear power stations, which are so lethal that the waste cannot be dealt with for thousands of years? When uranium runs out, what are you going to do? If there's any accident, like in Fukushima, what are you going to do? What if there's an earthquake in California, and there's one nuclear power station destroyed? The radiation will spread.

Nuclear power, nuclear weapons are completely uncivilized and insane. They are unnecessary. We have been given so much energy by the sun, everyday, to every home, every field, every garden. Every rooftop should be a small power generating station. Every roof should have a solar photovoltaic system. In the same way, every roof can also be a water harvesting place. If we can live by the sun, the wind, and the water, and human energy (using our hands, making things with our hands), and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, on nuclear power, increase our dependence on renewable energy, on human energy, humanity will be safer, more secure, and happier.

TREEHUGGER: Rio+20 is in two months. If you had to prioritize the environmental issues facing us, how would you do that?

SATISH KUMAR: First of all, I would like to see a new consciousness, a new understanding, really penetrating throughout the world. It started at Rio twenty years ago, but still we haven't achieved it: Balancing of the environment and social justice, with development and elimination of poverty. A kind of ecological, sustainable, resilient development, by which we establish social justice.

That is the great transition we have to make, away from our modern obsession with economic growth, the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer—thinking that environment gets in the way of the economy, thinking that the environment is the servant of the economy. We have to change that consciousness so that the economy is the servant of the environment, so that economy is wholly owned subsidiary of the environment. That's what I'd like to see from Rio+20.

Environmental justice and social justice are two arms of one body. We cannot do with one without the other.

Satish Kumar has been editor of Resurgence since 1973, making him the UK's longest-serving editor of the same magazine.

He is the author of numerous books, including You Are, Therefore I Am: A Declaration of Dependence, The Buddha and the Terrorist, and his autobiography No Destination.

For more info on the magazine visit Resurgence.org. It's now available bi-monthly in print, a digital edition, as well as an iPad edition.

Tags: Agriculture | Consumerism | Environmental Justice | Nuclear Power | Rio+20 | Vegetarian