The ‘Slow’ Power of Environmental Communication
An interview with Satish Kumar who focuses on the importance of information, education, and ecological activism: “We need to build a culture of regeneration”.
By Manlio Masucci, Navdanya International
Here is an activist who has inspired generations of environmentalists, who founded ecological magazines such as The Ecologist and Resurgence, as well as educational institutes in the UK such as Schumacher College. Satish Kumar represents a point of reference for international environmental movements. However, this story is far from over considering that, even in his eighties, Satish still appears tireless and ready to continue his pilgrimages. Journeys that throughout his life have led him to meet many major world leaders.
His latest book, Pilgrimage for Peace – the long walk from India to Washington, tells of his legendary two and a half year long journey – on foot and with no money – from India to the United States. We met him during one of his trips, in the heart of Tuscia where he was on his way to Rome for a meeting with Pope Francis. It was a unique opportunity to talk with Kumar about the history of the environmental movement, the threat of greenwashing, the new generations of activists, and the role of information and education in the age of social media and online learning.
Satish Kumar, the first question I would like to ask you concerns the concept of ecology. Today there is a lot of talk about this, but political choices are not always truly ecological, indeed they often look more like greenwashing operations. Perhaps we should better explain what ecology is and why it is so important?
Indeed, there are several concepts of ecology and it can get confusing. I identify at least three: ecology can be superficial, deep, and reverential. In superficial ecology, nature must be protected because it is useful to us because we need food, oxygen, fruit, and vegetables. In short, we must conserve nature for our own use and consumption. This conception is superficial because nature is still considered a resource for our well-being and our economy.
Deep ecology says that we must not conserve nature just because it is useful to us but because it has value in itself. We do not protect nature because it has a value only in relation to ourselves but for its profound value. Our relationship with nature is one of mutuality and reciprocity. We receive and offer back. Deep ecology goes even further by saying that there is no separation between human beings and nature. We ourselves are nature. Therefore the separation between human beings and nature makes no sense. Western culture has artificially separated human beings from nature in order to dominate, control and exploit it. Within deep ecology, nature and human beings are one and the same.
Reverential ecology underlines another aspect: nature is not inanimate, but has a soul that is sacred. Nature has a spirit, it has consciousness, it has memory. It is for this sacredness that nature, as well as being protected, must be revered. It is a kind of animism that recognizes the divine aspects of nature. From this point of view, nature is not only inseparable from human beings but also divine and itself becomes a religion. Nature is sacred just as human life is sacred.
What are the demands of deep and reverential ecology?
Both deep ecology and reverential ecology call for the rights of nature. In fact, since nature is not separated from human beings, it is the bearer of the same rights. Nature also has those rights that we call human rights. Rivers, lakes, seas, land, forests have rights, and ecocide is a crime against nature and the whole of humanity. Unfortunately, we live in an era in which human beings have produced an impact on almost the entirety of the environment. There are now few places in the world that have not experienced human interventions. Deep and reverential ecology asks not only to stop this exploitation but to restore the natural balance by returning the lands that were seized back to nature and allowing spontaneous vegetation to develop that can rebalance the altered ecosystems. It is about promoting a process of land regeneration.
What stage are we at right now? Can we say that the path of restitution and rebalancing has already begun?
There are already some farms in England that have decided to return part of their land to nature by encouraging the growth of forests close to their cropland. In this way, biodiversity is protected and other species, not just humans, are safeguarded. From my observatory in England, I can see how more and more farmers realize how important it is to protect the environment. In Sussex, 2,000 hectares have recently been returned to nature. In Somerset too, 500 hectares have recently been returned to nature. The interesting thing is that this restitution process can in itself compensate for the economic losses resulting from the missed harvests. The tourism sector, in particular, is benefiting from this process, but also the concept of the ‘food forest’, a forest where food is made to grow spontaneously, is spreading.
What is important to understand is that the race for land grabbing and intensive cultivation has produced a surplus of production that is not needed. Agribusiness does not produce food for nutrition, but to speculate. We should not be surprised that more than 30% of the world’s food production is thrown into the garbage. To make a profit, the industry is generating a large amount of greenhouse gas emissions while the number of food increases and the quality decreases. We need to decrease production and limit ourselves to producing quality food to feed people. The reason why we have, on the one hand, an increasing number of malnourished people and, on the other hand, such a large waste of food is because the aim of the industry is to make profits and not to feed the world population. The time has come to change the production method starting from the reduction of our impact on planet Earth.
We are carrying out this interview in the heart of Tuscia, an area at the centre of numerous controversies relating to the expansion of hazelnut monoculture. Did you get an idea of the extent of the problem by visiting this area?
This is a clear example of the issue we have just talked about. Multinationals are interested in investing in this area not to feed people but to make profits. A vast empire that relies on intensive hazelnut cultivation to produce consumer goods that are not essential, and not nutritious. The earth is not merely a container for planting monocultures but a living soil with biodiversity. This business model is not compatible with biodiversity. And all this to achieve what goal? To make more money. There is a lot of talk about reducing our impact on the earth and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It is then from the model of agriculture that we must start again. The earth cannot be used to make profits because of the impacts on the whole planet and its inhabitants. The earth must be used responsibly and to produce what is really needed in order to feed people. Agriculture must be based on real needs, not on the greed of multinationals. Italians should rebel against this use of their territory.
As a communication expert, don’t you have the impression that there is a different perception of these issues by people living in cities and those living in rural areas?
Many people living in cities, far from the agricultural areas, are led to think that we need to produce more and more food and that agrochemicals are essential to ensure this abundance. This need to increase production is propaganda fueled by the industry itself that profits from the sales. A propaganda based on people’s fear. People need to understand not only that there is enough food for everyone but that industrially produced food is less nutritious and less healthy. This intensive production system, based on agrochemicals, is not only harmful to people’s health, but also to the health of the soil. However, this confusion is not people’s fault, because it’s the industry that fuels billion-dollar communication campaigns. It is therefore important to inform and communicate more, to reach more people to explain how the economy of nature works, explaining the concepts of mutuality and reciprocity. Nature is not a machine but a living organism that must be understood.
The counterpoint to what you have said is that in Italy there is talk of introducing new techniques of genetic manipulation, effectively a new generation of GMOs.
We must understand nature, not manipulate it. Nature is our teacher, it is not an inert object to be manipulated. GMOs and New Breeding Techniques (NBTs) do not respect the integrity of nature because they have been developed with particular interests in mind. These manipulations and this patent race do not arise from real needs but, once again, from a business model that is only focused on profit. Nature is sacred, abundant, and generous. There is no need to genetically modify plant organisms other than to acquire ownership of the modified varieties themselves and profit from them. We do not need genetically modified organisms. To think otherwise is stupidity.
You have founded magazines that are considered to be milestones of the international ecological movement. How do you see the future of ecological magazines within this historic moment where online communications seem to have taken over?
I think it will be a bright future. I believe in slow communication, as in, slow communication that goes deep. I don’t believe in superficiality, as in fast communication. I advise everyone to read things slowly, to appreciate them, to digest them, to reflect, and thus imprint them in their memory. Don’t get fascinated by the whirlwind of fast communication. Slowness is beautiful. I don’t think Dante could have posted his Divine Comedy on Facebook or Instagram! I would like to appeal to social media enthusiasts: regain your time, use it to deepen your reading. Don’t think you’re in a hurry because something else might be more interesting than what you are reading at that moment. Savour what you read as if it were a delicious dish to be enjoyed slowly. Information can be fast but knowledge is slow. The reason we read ecological magazines is not just to be informed but to gain knowledge and thus increase our wisdom.
You are also the founder of an important educational institute. What is the role of education today?
I founded Schumacher College in 1991, and this year we are celebrating its 30th anniversary. We started this college because the hegemonic education system is all about finding a job and creating personal wealth. This system sees students not in their entirety as human beings but as mere brains. And even in this case, it does not consider the entirety of the human brain but only half of it. The left hemisphere of our brain is the rational, logical, calculating, practical one, while the right side is more intuitive, creative, spiritual, poetic, holistic. According to the current educational system, students have no heart, arms, legs, but only a part of the left brain. This approach is functional to achieve only one goal: to get a job and earn money. It is a self-centered upbringing.
Our college instead wants to follow an Ecocentric education model. We consider our students in their entirety. We speak to both hemispheres of the brain and to their hearts to teach compassion, friendship, love, generosity, and respect. These are values that must be taught, learned, and put into practice. We educate the hands and the body because it is important to know how to grow and cook. Our students learn from nature without presuming to learn what nature is. Nature is our teacher. In this way, our college becomes a community experience where each student is also involved in the work activities of the school. The Schumacher model aims to train people to become better, and who can make the world a better place by not just thinking about their own interests.
The current dominant educational model is obsolete, it was designed for the last century when the phenomenon of urbanisation was underway. At the time there was a need to empty the countryside to fill cities and factories. We now know that this system is no longer sustainable and that the industrial mentality is driving the world to collapse. Education is part of this problem. The same people who come out of the most prestigious universities and who are in positions of power today are leading us to economic and environmental catastrophe. The Schumacher college is not just a school but seeks to embody an example and demonstrate that another, more responsible type of education is possible. This is the kind of education that is needed in our new century. We prepare our students for the future.
Speaking of the future, what do you think of the new ecological movements that have sprung up in recent years?
First I want to emphasise that activism must be done with passion, with love, without anger or fear. I don’t like seeing angry and frustrated activists, but instead happy activists! Don’t expect the results to come tomorrow because it takes patience to reach the great milestones. However, I think we can be optimistic for the future. The generation of Greta and the ‘Fridays for Future’ movement gives me hope because it is developing new ideas for living in harmony with nature. I am also a supporter of the Extinction Rebellion. Protest is essential and I must congratulate them for all the work they do, but it is also important to protect the beauty of the landscapes, local cultures, small farmers, and indigenous peoples. Therefore protection must also be part of the protest. The third aspect that must characterise environmental activism is that of building alternatives: agroecology, permaculture, organic farming. Producing organic food with regenerative methods is possible, but for this to happen, we need to build a culture of regeneration.
Translation kindly provided by James Graham
The original article was first published in Italian in the magazine Terra Nuova of December 2021