Satish Kumar and the Dancing Economy
Here is my Sunday Herald column on Satish Kumar, published today. Enjoy!
“If you are protecting the environment for the benefit of humankind, valuing the natural world in terms of nature’s usefulness to humans, that is a shallow ecology,” says Satish Kumar. “If you see intrinsic value in nature, and you say that a river has intrinsic value that cannot be measured in terms of its usefulness to humans, that is a deep ecology.
“But when you say that rivers and trees are sacred, and that we need to revere the earth, that is a reverential ecology. You receive the gifts of trees — like fruit, or wood, or oxygen — but you receive them with gratitude. And gratitude is the essential quality of reverential ecology.”
Satish Kumar knows about reverence. Since 1973 he has been the editor of Resurgence, the leading British environmental magazine, but he was born to a devout family in Rajastan, India, and became a Jain monk at the age of nine. At 27, influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and Bertrand Russell, he set out with a companion to walk to the capitals of the four then-existing nuclear powers — France, Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States — in a “pilgrimage for peace.”
The two began at Gandhi’s grave in Bangalore, and ended at John F. Kennedy’s grave in Washington. They had walked more than 8000 miles, carrying no money and depending on the goodwill of the people they encountered. They had met with the leaders of all four nuclear nations, and had given each one a packet of “peace tea,” which they had received from the women workers in a tea factory. Tell the leaders, said the women, that “when you think you need to press the button, stop for a minute and have a fresh cup of tea.”
Reverential ecology, Kumar says, represents “a reciprocal, mutual and respectful relationship with the entire natural world,” recognizing the interdependence of all living things. All species belong to our family. The wolf is our brother, the eagle our sister. We can take from nature what we need — but no more. And we must take it with humility and gratitude.
This philosophy resonates powerfully with aboriginal thought, giving thanks to the plants and animals for what they provide to us, and wasting none of the gifts that nature confers. It is a dramatic contrast to our current economic model, based on continuous obsolescence, which takes materials and energy from the earth, transforms them into products, uses them briefly, and then sends them to the landfill as indigestible garbage.
This economy, Kumar notes, is “linear,” but the life of the earth is cyclical. Things die, decompose, regroup and return. Everything recycles. We need a circular economy based on “elegant simplicity,” a “joyful economy.”
Joyful? Well, yes. Mass production, Kumar notes, requires mass consumption and mass wastage. Since our economy produces far more than we need, what motivates us to buy? Fear and insecurity. We’ve been sold the idea that accumulation makes us more secure. That’s another illusion. Beyond a certain modest level, possessions are simply a burden.
We need what Kumar calls “a dancing economy” that takes only what’s needed, and returns its wastes to the earth in usable forms. Soy inks on recycled paper, compostable auto bodies, aluminum that cycles through a hundred uses. An economy that does not starve a billion people while making another billion people obese. An economy that allows us to live “beautifully, but simply,” enjoying lovely hand-made clothing, furniture, housing, art, music and drama.
Can such a transition occur? Satish Kumar is certain it will. The onrushing, multi-faceted environmental crisis will force us to change — and the change may come very quickly. Who ever predicted the collapse of the British Empire, the Soviet Union, apartheid? In the 1960s, when Kumar visited Martin Luther King, he was thrown out of a segregated restaurant at gunpoint. But today there is a black man in the White House, and a national holiday named for Dr. King.
“The true superpower in the world is the power of people,” smiles Satish Kumar. “When people change, governments will follow.” He knows it’s so. He’s seen it happen.