In conversation with her friend, the pioneering environmental activist Satish Kumar, Vogue Arabia’s Sustainability Editor-at-Large Livia Firth ponders whether this moment of crisis is one of opportunity for the planet
Summer is here and, for me, it is always the best time to get in touch with nature and reflect about the opportunities we have to properly connect – with people and the planet. One of my favorite sources of inspiration to talk about the importance of living and designing a new, more sustainable way of life for the future (and almost like my comfort blanket) is peace and environmental activist Satish Kumar. “I felt that from childhood I had a calling,” I remember him telling me last year as he recounted his extraordinary life experience. “I had a calling for something which combined the inner and the outer.”
Beginning his journey in a Jain monastery in India aged nine, Kumar’s wisdom is rooted in spirituality. Perhaps one of the most monumental stories from his life so far is his peace walk from Delhi to the nuclear capitals of the world – Moscow, Paris, London, and Washington – during the cold war years of 1962-1964. As he traveled in protest against the use and creation of nuclear weapons, bringing peace tea to the Kremlin and White House as he went, he carried with him one important message: We must make peace with nature.
Now, almost 60 years later, it is this same deep-rooted desire to preserve the natural world and respect for every human, plant, and animal that forms my source of inspiration. He is the first person I turned to last year, when the global pandemic hit, to understand how we could use the opportunity of “shock” to redesign systems for a better world. From the idea of simplicity as sustainability to the need for a resurgence of indigenous voices in the climate conversation, we both agreed on the need for new systems when emerging from crisis.
The simplicity of the message, going back to the teachings in his latest book, Elegant Simplicity, is profound. We get too wrapped up in what sustainability means and what we do, and yet it’s so simple. It goes back to being soil, to considering nature as a partner, not something that we use up. “Unfortunately, at this moment we seem to think that civilization, industrialization, and urbanization is progress and being close to the land, close to nature, being indigenous, and living a simple life is backward,” he told me. “This is our mindset, which I think needs to be challenged. We should see indigenous cultures as our teachers, and we should learn from their wisdom, which upholds that the sky is our father and the Earth is our mother, and all the animals and birds and living things are brothers and sisters. As a modern society, we have lost that sense of humility and we convey arrogance in our culture. We think we are developed, we are further ahead, we are better than those indigenous, ‘uneducated’ people. I think we need humility. Without humility, there’s no humanity.”
He felt our humbleness slowly coming back, though. “We need this resurgence, of indigenous values, of ecological values, holistic values. Indigenous culture and wisdom have that spirituality, and they feel in their heart the unity of life. They feel compassion. Gratitude and humility are important parts of that resurgence.”
Now that the world has had a shock, I wonder whether this is the moment when we have a huge opportunity to rethink, see the light through this darkness, and come out on the other side a little bit wiser? “Every crisis is an opportunity, and the coronavirus disaster we are facing at this moment is, in a way, a wake-up call,” he recently pondered. “The way we have been living on this planet and the way we have been wasting and polluting… We need to learn from this emergency. We need to redesign our system with wisdom, which will be in harmony with nature, and avoid all the pollution, waste, and profit-making greed. It needs to be about going back to the true essential quality of life. We need to go through it with courage, patience, and optimism, and find a new way of being, a new way of designing our society, our economy, our whole structure. I think this crisis is an opportunity for us to change.”
It would be easy to dismiss Kumar as an idealist or as being unrealistic, and he often laughs about it. As he has said many times before, “Look at what realists have done for us. They have led us to war and climate change, poverty on an unimaginable scale, and wholescale ecological destruction. Half of humanity goes to bed hungry because of all the realistic leaders in the world. Realism is an outdated, overplayed, and wholly exaggerated concept.” Happy summer, everyone.
Originally published in the July/August 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia