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Satish Kumar

Spiritual Leadership & the Environmental Movement


Satish Kumar: No one gave a better, more succinct and precise description of the cultural therapy for our time than Thomas Berry, when he said that the Universe is not a collection of objects, it’s a communion of subjects. In one sentence he summarized the cultural therapy of our world.  It is what we need to understand—not only intellectually, but in our spirit, our soul, our emotions, our psyche. Deep, deep down in our being we have to understand that we are related. We are all connected.  And this relationship, this connection, is sacred. We are part of the Sacred Universe.

This is why the word communion, which is a spiritual term, is very important here. We are in communion, we are in communication, we are in relationship.  That has to be the touchstone of our green movement, green philosophy, green science, holistic science. Without that foundation, no matter how much progress we make, it’s all hollow. If we build our science, religion, education, legal system and all other social infrastructure on this deep philosophical and firm foundation, that we are all in relationship, in communion, then I think humanity has both a cultural therapy and a cultural future.

Ecobuddhism: We witnessed the failure of Copenhagen. Now scientists and others talk about the implications of a so-called post-Copenhagen consensus. How do you see the spiritual dimension of that?

SK: First of all, I am not surprised with the failure of Copenhagen. Those who were expecting solutions to come from the top, from government leaders, were expecting something unachievable. True solutions will not come from the White House, 10 Downing Street or any headquarters of government, parliament, business or media.  True transformation will come from the grassroots, from the bottom up, from the people themselves. When the environmental or green movement pins its hopes on change of government policy and action, they are pinning it on something that cannot be achieved. Whenever any great transformation has happened, it is not from government but from the bottom up. The civil rights movement in the USA happened when people at the grassroots level rose and demanded change.  The anti-apartheid movement in South Africa was a people’s movement that put pressure on government and brought about change. In Eastern Europe and Russia, transformation came about because the people’s movement there was very strong. There are many such examples.

The green and environmental movement has to go to the people. The movement cannot simply be based on words, empirical evidence, facts and figures, arguments, logic and science. All those are helpful, but they are not enough. It has to come from the heart and soul of the people: it has to be a kind of spiritual awakening.  If you take the examples of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Gorbachev, Nelson Mandela--all these great leaders--they have been spiritual leaders. Where are those spiritual leaders in the environmental movement? In the green movement? Where are they? Maybe there are a few small examples like the Dalai Lama, but he is so busy with his Tibetan communities and their struggles with China that he cannot really spearhead the environmental movement. He is a great supporter and we honour and we appreciate him, but the environmental movement lacks spiritual leadership, and without it, the movement will not make any breakthrough.

We need to create a new understanding that human beings can live well without harming the Earth. We can have an enjoyable, comfortable, good life without needing more and more material possessions. That need distracts and burdens us. What we really need is a spiritual awakening, imagination, creativity, cooperative relationship with our fellow human beings--our community, family, village, neighbourhood.  We have to work hard to enhance, nurture, nourish and improve our human relationships and our relationship with the natural world. If these relationships break down, we might acquire lots of houses, televisions, smart phones, multiple internet access, air travel and material possessions, but they will fail to make us happy. They do not improve the quality of our life.

EB: Thomas Berry wonderfully described the Sacred Universe as a process and a practice we can access. Then, of course, there is also the "dark side" of our situation. As Derek Jensen said, “I don’t know about you, but every time I go to a green conference I leave disappointed, because nobody ever mentions psychopathology.” The primary institution of our age, the corporation, is functionally psychopathic, as was extensively discussed in Bakan’s book The Corporation, the Pathological Pursuit of Profit & Power.

SK:  Yes, there is a psychopathology of the business world—and also of the political world. Politicians often have a pathological relationship to power. Economy, money and finance dominate our historical time, and that is pathological. Obsessed as we are with “the economy”, it's actually merely about  finance. Economy means management of the household. And the household that counts now is the Earth household, the planetary household.

Economists and governments are not really interested in good management of the planet Earth, but in making more and more and more money. Their notion of growth is financial growth, and that is a pathological misunderstanding of the real economy. We are suffering from a combination of pathology and ignorance. That said, we also need to determine the causes and the way out of pathology and ignorance. That would be more of a Buddhist approach. We understand that where there is dukkha,  there is a cause for dukkha—our craving, greed, anger, fear, insecurity. If I understand Jensen correctly, he analyzes the pathology rather than suggests a way out of it. I would suggest we take the next step.

What is the cause of this consumerism, materialism, obsession with finance and economic growth?  We have to understand the reason and find the way out. Can we combine right livelihood, right view and right understanding? Can we go for right livelihood rather than mere “employment”?  If employment is the frame, whether or not there is any need for more houses and cars, we have to keep producing and selling them to “keep people in employment”. Employees need to have sufficient money and be persuaded to keep buying what they are producing. It's a vicious circle.

I believe we need to establish right livelihood rather than employment or jobs. Right livelihood understands that our basic needs are not physical alone, but relational, emotional and spiritual.  If those are not met, we will be neither happy nor satisfied. How do we meet our emotional and spiritual needs? That is the question environmentalists have to ask.

EB: Nowadays the individual awakens spiritually in a very different context than in the Bronze Age India when the Buddha was allive. He or she awakens to a context of comprehensive manipulation that employs the skill-set that came down from Freudian psychology. It was immediately re-orchestrated by Freud’s nephew Bernays, the first guru of the public relations industry. The manipulative arts of PR and mass advertising have been perfected over decades by generations of corporate psychologists.

SK: That is all the case. Meanwhile, we have understood the work of ecologists like Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson and The Limits to Growth. What we are trying to do with the establishment of Schumacher College and Resurgence magazine is to find a way out of this psychopathology that PR and corporate advertising have perpetuated over the last century. We wish to find something holistic and spiritual rather than partial. I feel the environmental movement has to change direction towards a more spiritual mode. Through Resurgence and Schumacher we are trying to sow seeds of this new holistic, spiritual, relational type of understanding.

Unless we create an awakening of the sleeping holistic consciousness, all other efforts will be in vain. They will not bring any result or fruit. The spiritual awakening that brings fulfillment, joy and the meaning of life is not found externally in material possessions. Corporations, governments, or indeed anybody else at all, cannot bestow on us the gift of personal fulfillment or meaning in life. It’s our own effort. We take responsibility for ourselves and then help each other through mutuality, communion and cooperation at the grassroots level.

Based on that understanding of awakening I believe we can build a movement like the civil rights movement, the anti-apartheid movement, the Indian independence movement, the liberation movement in Eastern Europe, the peace movement, the women’s liberation movement. These have succeeded in bringing about a few major changes in the world. That is that kind of movement we have to build, based on the inner world, because the outer and inner landscape are connected. You cannot just go out and change the world without changing yourself within. The moment you start to change from inside, you also move outward with empathy. They are deeply inter-related.

Satish Kumar undertook an 8,000-mile peace pilgrimage, walking from India to America without money. In 1973 he settled in England as editor of Resurgence magazine. In his fiftieth year he undertook another pilgrimage, walking 2,000 miles to the holy places of Britain. He lectures & runs workshops on reverential ecology, holistic education & voluntary simplicity. 


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