The Nancho Consultations

Satish Kumar
Nancho Lite Sri Satish

Nancho consults Satish Kumar


NANCHO ADVISORY: Leading symbol and spokesman of Schumacher's "Small is Beautiful" movement, Satish Kumar has literally walked the New Age talk further than any man alive. At the age of nine, Satish renounced the world to become a wandering Jain monk. At eighteen, he joined Vinoba Bhave's campaign for land reform, working to turn Gandhi's vision into reality. In the late sixties, he and a Gandhian friend set out on an 8,000 mile pilgrimage for peace, walking penniless from India to Europe and then across America. Since 1973 he has lived in Britain, where he founded the Small School in Devon, serves as program director of Schumacher College, and co-edits "Resurgence" with his wife, June Mitchel. His biography, No Destination is an exhilarating account of an extraordinary life.

- Verbatim Excerpts -

Nancho: All right, it's been over 20 years since "Small is Beautiful", 'appropriate technology,' 'human-scale,' etc. all hit the intellectual scene. And at the time these ideas were greeted with enormous interest and popularity. How have they developed over the last 20 years as a political reality?

Satish Kumar: At the thinking level, "Small is Beautiful" now has become a very popular phrase. And many people, particularly in the environmental movement, and the decentralist movement in the United States, in Europe and also in some less industrialized countries like India, the idea is still very popular. But in practice, there is not much happening. The forces of globalization are making things bigger and bigger and bigger, and more amalgamation, more mergers, more companies getting bigger and bigger and more multinational. That trend is like a strong tornado forcing us in the other direction. So, I would say, the story is not very optimistic or very hopeful on a practical level, but there is a ferment on the ideas level in the surge of 'green' thinking and the ideas of creating a new society where there is local governing and small scale schools, hospitals, business, industry, more 'hands on' work rather than just computers and information technology and service-oriented jobs. So, those sort of ideas are becoming more and more popular, at least on an intellectual level..

So, how can that be catalyzed into concrete political activity or social change?

SK: If you take England, in the last 15 years, something like 6 percent of the urban population has moved out of the big cities and moved to the country. The population of London has actually gone down in the last 15 years. So, there is a trickle of people looking for an alternative lifestyle, people who ask "What is it all about?" A small but significant number are moving out and going back to live in the country; maybe acquiring a small holding or a garden or getting into some sort of work which is more creatively building work. A lot of educated people who would be working in big business or industry or in the city in finance or insurance, or those kinds of industries, are becoming builders and cabinetmakers and potters. So, although it is still a small trickle, that trend is there. And when this industrial ship sinks, these little lifeboats will, I think, become handy. (laughter)

But besides these lifestyle transformations, you see on the macro level a very large level of unrest. I mean, in almost every country where they allow elections, people are basically throwing out the ruling parties or the political elites, no matter whether it's on the right or the left. People are somehow either disgusted or fed up or just desperate, it seems, to try something new. So, they are constantly shifting chairs in the government, thinking that this will make the change they are looking. So, there is obviously some hunger here for a new answer.

SK: No doubt about that. The hunger is there and people are finding a kind of vacuum, a sense of meaningless, a sense of hopelessness. Why are they doing what they are doing? That kind of hunger is there. But I don't think people are ready yet to embrace a different way of governing and a different way of living in a way that they were in India with the coming of the Congress Party and Mahatma Gandhi and others. At the time of independence, Indians were much more united to embrace a new political system and even a new economic system, but unfortunately they never really appeared.

Now, in Germany there is a more quantitative difference as well as a qualitative difference. Quantitative difference in the sense that now there is a 'Red/Green' coalition - even though the Greens are trying to be more pragmatic and are only small partners, and therefore cannot assert their influence as much as one would wish. But the fact that they are there, and they can raise their voice, and they can put their argument on the table and raise the issues which are concerning people, that is quite a big step forward. So, I think the difference of government in Germany is much more interesting and hopeful, both at a quantitative and qualitative level, than say, for example, in England where the Chancellor of Exchequer, Gordon Brown, is totally wedded to economic growth principles and so is Tony Blair. Although they have proposed some good and interesting changes, for example, creating a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland ruling itself, becoming more autonomous.

Those changes are very good but on the level of globalization, economic growth, environmental policies, there is only a very small shift if any at all - although John Prescott, who is the deputy prime minister, is perhaps closer to ecological and environmental and more human-scale thinking. The influence of Schumacher is more at the level of respect. There is a great respect for him, "Ahhh...he was a great idealist, but impractical," people would say in politics, idealistic, but impractical. "We just can't go back to small, human-scale things." We are trapped! This is a kind of global trap and we are caught in this global economy and nobody seems to know a way out. Neither do people, politicians especially, seem to have wisdom or courage. Everybody is almost turned into slaves of this global economy.

In the last American election, though, strangely a lot of the right-wing candidates, those furthest to the right in fact, got a lot of mileage out of this fear and loathing of big corporations from normal, working class people. How do you look at the corporate influence upon society over the last fifty years and how do you see it playing out in the future?

SK: The effect is very powerful and very strong at the level of thinking again. Also in Europe, in France, for example, there is a very strong feeling that all this 'Americanization' or 'globalization', whatever you want to call it, is destroying their local the effect on cheese-making, on wine-making, on films, on literature, on all sorts of things which they valued as their local culture and sense of local place and local food and local way of life. All that they cherished is now under great and severe threat. So in Europe as well as in America there is a tremendous groundswell of disgust with this kind of dictatorship of money and finance and international shifting of dollars and yen and pounds and so on.

So, that feeling of despair is strong but our brains are conditioned by the media, particularly the advertising industry. Something like 6 billion pounds in English money are spent every week on brainwashing people's minds and thinking, and conditioning them to think that unless you have this and you have that, not only will you not be comfortable but the national economy cannot survive. So, it is almost your patriotic duty to produce more even if you don't need to produce, and consume more even if you don't need to consume, and spend and throw away more even if you don't need to spend and throw away more. Because unless you do it, people will go unemployed and if there is no construction industry, people will be unemployed.

So, it is like a trap. We are literally in a trap. And that trap is being perpetuated because a few people at the top get this boosting of their ego, their sensation of pride, their sense of bigness..."Ah, we are in power. We are able to control it all." I don't know the way out. I think we have to go through this hell for a little while longer. And I don't myself see an immediate answer. But ultimately this materialistic storm, tornado, flood, whatever you want to call it, will have to go. You can't kill the human spirit; human spirit is strong. And like I said, in France, in Germany, in England, people are thirsty because the human spirit is being crushed under this global economic system.

That sort of aborts my next question. I was going to ask you for the most hopeful transitional scenarios that you had heard of, but I gather that there are not that many on the horizon right now. There is one other approach to these things, and this is my favorite area, because I am sort of biologically trained, but the idea is that these huge organizations are a new life form on the planet and they have essentially hijacked human evolution to their own ends and adapted the social/educational/media environment to their needs rather than to human needs. If you look at these corporations as a new collective life form - not going back to the ants and termites perhaps, but as something truly other - on the one hand, quite sophisticated in terms of their internal wiring, but on the other, quite primitive in terms of their appetites and what they are capable of appreciating. And then if we can cast ourselves as sort of the immune system of the planet - I mean, the immune cells are always a radical minority in the body, and in the body politic also - and then if we can find where these huge bodies can be attacked, where they can be brought to ground as living beings, as opposed to legal, statutory entities. Since they are in control of all the laws and statutes at the moment, we don't have much in the way of weapons in that arena. Anyway, have you ever heard of anybody talk about corporate bodies like that?

SK: Yes, I have. For example, Maturana in Chile. You know Maturana? Francisco Varela and Umberto Maturana, these two people wrote a book called "Tree of Knowledge" and Fritjof Capra talks about it a lot in his new book, "Web of Life." Maturana is a biologist in the University of Santiago in Chile, and he talks about the biology of love. And the counterpoint to this hijacking of human evolution by globalization of industry and finance and so on, he says it can only be overcome if we have a new sense, a new understanding of our biological existence. And I think it will be good for you to have a little look at Maturana's thesis about the biology of love.

And I would say there is a kind of biological and spiritual confluence here which David Bohm talked about as implicate order in which a sense of reverence - the same reverence that Albert Schweitzer and others talked about - informs us so that our environmental and our social policies are not based on a merely utilitarian approach. So the protection of the environment is not just good because the environment is useful for humans, and therefore we have to look after it because humans need it. But here deep ecology also comes in - the environment has intrinsic value, it has a sacred value - the earth is sacred, the water is sacred, the air is sacred, the mountains and forests are sacred. And there is a kind of implicate order which we have to respect and that order is not made just for human use and human benefit, but for its own fulfillment and that is a kind of evolutionary fulfillment.

So, you can develop a new mindset so that we look at concern for the environment, not like most environmentalists in the past have done, with a kind of utilitarian environmentalism. Shift from that utilitarian environmentalism to a more reverential environmentalism. So that David Bohm's work on implicate order and Maturana's work on the biology of love and Arne Naess's work on deep ecology and James Lovelock's work on Gaia, all fit together as one whole, interrelated, and take us into a new world view almost you can say, a new perspective where humans play a role, but not a dominating role. This is what Schumacher College is trying to promote - bringing all these strands of science and economics and social policy together. This perspective includes "soil, soul and society" as I say it - these three dimensions. So, the soil becomes the symbol of the natural order and soul becomes the symbol of the spiritual order and society becomes the symbol of economic and political order. So, if those three strands could be seen together then we have a more holistic vision, in a way a Schumacherian vision. Not that sort of fragmentary approach that 'you work on the environment' and 'you work on some political decentralist governance' and 'you work on some kind of new economic system', where we're all separate, separate, going into different compartments and we don't come together. That is the way of working of the old paradigm where you reduce, reduce, reduce and become reductionist and just become expert in your own small field of action and you do not see the interrelationship between the all and everything.

So, I would say, on the intellectual level the situation is much more hopeful and all change begins in the mind. The thought process has to begin first. Unless our consciousness changes, our perception changes, our mind and way of thinking changes, our action will not change. So, the situation there is very hopeful and new ideas and new thinking and a new world view - all very cohesive are developing. And we have to have patience because this industrial globalization has come into being over the last 300 years. You cannot turn around this juggernaut quickly, you cannot turn it around overnight. It will take another 40 or 50 years or something like that to come back to some sort of sensible and more balanced middle way, so that the environment and human well-being are central.

But change, when it starts to happen, it comes very quickly. I mean, look what happened with the Berlin Wall and the Communism in Russia and the whole Soviet Empire - they collapsed very quickly when the situation was ripe. And in the same way, apartheid collapsed when the situation was ripe. So when enough thinking and enough people agree on it, and the critical mass is there, I think change will be very swift, very quick.

But we have to hold our faith. We need to hold our enthusiasm and commitment and dedication because this is for us, the small number of people who are engaged in this work, this is the right thing to do and therefore whatever the result, we will continue to speak and work and act and live in this way until we die in the faith that in the end you can't kill the human spirit.

Beautifully said. When you're spreading this message, who do you see as the key constituencies - both for change and the people who need it most?

SK: It will be a convergence of different constituencies. There cannot be one. People like Paul Hawkins, Jonathan Porritt in England, in Sweden, Carl Henrique Robert of "The Natural Step" - they are working in the business constituency and they feel that unless you change business people's thinking no change can really be effective because they are going to put change in practice. So, that is a very important area.

Then the Green Party in Germany and other countries, and Bob Brown - I was just in Australia and he's a senator there, a green senator - and Ralph Nader and people like that are working. So there are different groups, different levels working in the political field because that is where the administration and governance will come in. And then the scientific field. I mentioned to you Capra and Bohm and Lovelock and all those people who are working in the scientific field.

So, a real change will come when these fields converge. Unless that convergence happens we will not see real change and that convergence is not yet happening enough. We are still working in different fields. So, using platforms like "Resurgence" and Schumacher College, my thrust and my effort is to try to bring that convergence among people working in business, working in politics, working in scientific and technological fields - like intermediate technology and renewable energy and the Center for Alternative Technology and various other similar fields in England and in America. But convergence is the key word. We need to bring convergence. We cannot hope or expect any one constituency to be the engine and driving force. It requires a convergence.

So when business, politics and scientific and intellectual and academic thinking - these three come together, this will be the confluence, what in India we call Trivaney Sanghum, a confluence of three forces. In Alahabad in India, where our first Prime Minister Nehru used to live, there is a confluence of three rivers - Ganges, Jamuna and the third one is a hidden river called Saraswati. I always believe that there is a natural convergence principle. When these interests converge, we will see a tremendous explosion of consciousness, an explosion of action and an explosion of practice.

Beyond these three constituencies...I mean, you're pretty much talking about, if not ruling elites, at least very influential elites throughout First World society now. But what about the common people? Is there any way to cast this in a vocabulary that they can understand?

Like the "Celestine Prophecy" - do you know this phenomenon in America, this book? (No, no.) You should pick it up sometime just because it has been read by so many people. It is a sort of semi-Christian, semi-mystical tract about this manuscript that was discovered in Peru. And it has these individual insights that have to do with how the human mind works and how we marshal our attention or compete for the attention of others, and the kinds of habits and appetites we develop that end up ruling and limiting us. And it's all cast in a very strange sort of cloak and dagger novelistic form. But tens of millions copies of this book have been sold and it's very badly written. But the ideas are somehow captivating. I mean, it went right down to people who don't ordinarily read books.

And again, there's the Buchanan constituency in America. So, how do you approach ordinary people that have this sense of "dis-ease" with the way things are going? That seems to be the question. For political change you obviously do need all of the elites collaborating and you do need a common vocabulary and you do need the outlines of a common agenda. But you also need the votes, you also need the power on the ground. How can it be presented for their understanding?

SK: Yes, one way of presenting it is to show that a simpler life simply feels better, and this is important, because the old system of economics and government and global power and so on have persuaded the public that what we are presenting to you - our way of producing and consuming and running the economy - will bring you comfort, will bring you the good life, will bring a high living standard. And that is so seductive to common people because there is a kind of in-built desire for comfort. Now we - the people who have an environmental agenda - need to present a case that the 'green' and decentralist and simpler way of life is more joyful, and that the industrial way of life has destroyed the joyfulness. And it is true. The industrial system has destroyed joy and beauty. People are under stress, under pressure - all the time rushing, rushing, rushing - no time to celebrate, to enjoy, to sit and stare at these autumn colors and write a poem and 'be'.

We have to present the case for a different way of living and being in a positive way. Our environmental and decentralist movement is too much obsessed with negativism. We are always trying to say how globalization is bad, how multinational corporations are bad, industry is bad, automation is bad, government is bad - everything is bad, bad, bad. And then we say, "oh, it is not going to work much longer; there'll be a collapse; there'll be doom and gloom." Magazines like the "Ecologist" have always made the limits to growth seem even more narrow to preach the message of negative results and doom and gloom. For common people, we need to deliver the message in a positive way - that a better way of living is a simpler living; a joyful way of living is a simpler way of living. Simplicity is not misery, not poverty, not hunger, not deprivation, not homelessness. That is not what the new world and "green vision" is. A green vision is more equitable, but simpler and more sharing - where there is joy, there is a place for celebration, there is a place for beauty, there is a place for relationships. And those values, I think, need to be brought forth more powerfully so that people can really imagine them...

Otherwise common people are not going to listen to our intellectual theories and doom and gloom because the thing that we have to realize is that we are fighting tremendously strong forces. The entire military is behind the power of globalization; the full governmental power of every single nation in the world is behind it. The entire system of education and universities are the pillars of the industrial society and they are working there, researching, studying, analyzing, defining everything. The entire media system and the advertising world - the newspapers, the radio, the television, the entire media system is behind this global corporate power. Now, against that vast united system - and you can almost say that in a subtle way the capitalist system is almost fascist in its unity - here we are, a few people with good intentions, but no tools, no convergence, very little organization, very little solidarity, very little working together. Just a few intellectuals. I mean, "Resurgence" with its 10,000 (subscribers), what is that faced with Murdoch's press and so on?

So, our food is faith but we need to organize ourselves better and work together better and present our whole movement in a much more positive convergent way - that's why I talked about convergence - and take this message to common people in a more positive way rather than just preach the doom and gloom. We must create schools, colleges, universities where people can be taught not only ideas but skills. That's what Gandhi's educational ideas were based on - skills. That is education and this industrial mode of production - slavery, almost, is based on de-skilling society. So, we need to bring back skills.

And how are you going to do it? In every town and every county, we need alternative schools. That was a positive, constructive program of Gandhi - create new schools where children learn skills. And that's why we started "The Small School" in my village, Hartland. I started it so that the children can be taught how to cook, how to garden, how to build, how to make a chair. "Make" rather than "have." We are a "having" society. We want to move from being a "having" society to a "making" society, where you can make a chair if you want to, because if you make it with your own hand or in cooperation with others, then you will value it, it will last longer, it will be more beautiful. A hundred-year-old chair will be more valuable because it gains antique value. But when you are a "having" society you just go and have this, have that, have that over there, have today, use tomorrow, throw it away the day after tomorrow.

So, we are a "having" society and Gandhi and Schumacher wanted a "making" society. You make only what you can make. There are only 24 hours in a day. You can't make too much. And making is not only an economic activity, it is an aesthetic activity, it is a creative activity. It requires your imagination. It is a spiritual activity - it requires your heart, your love. If you have to have love in what you are making like a potter, like a chairmaker, like a basketmaker. When you are building a beautiful building. it is an aesthetic experience, a spiritual experience, a creative and imaginative experience, also it is utilitarian, because then you have a house at the end to live in. It is a whole process and it brings satisfaction. You build and then can say, "I've done it. I can live in it. And I can repair it a bit more." There's a sense of satisfaction.

Industrial, corporate society is a society and a vision of dissatisfaction. Whatever you have is never enough; you should have more, you should have more, something different. "Throw it away. We have a new product for you. There's a new model." There's a new something always. So, this is a society of obsolescence, a society of perpetual dissatisfaction and discontentment.

So, how can we present this vision? And this is not a challenge against the global corporate industrial society, it's a challenge to ourselves. Are we prepared, are we ready to create a new world? We are not, I think. The environmental movement is desperate, fragmented, not working together, not pulling together. If we are so disorganized, how do you expect to fight the giant which I described to you?

There's always the sex, drugs and rock and roll. (laughter) I mean, that's one theory, that's one experience of the "60s - that the political ideas and the revolutionary spirit and the spiritual aspirations arose out of a great empirical experience of what the body was capable of - and sort of aligning yourself with the pleasure principle, which is a great ally evolutionarily, you know. Because once you have those kinds of experiences, the synthetic ones that are offered to you by the "market" are inherently less satisfying, because they are disposable. But once you feel things at the cellular level, whether it is the music or whether it is the eroticism or whether it is the, the expansion of consciousness through drugs or meditation, then you are aware of another level that you may spend some time trying to get back to through the market and trying to buy the new "alpha wave trainer" or the new computerized system that is going to link you to this kind of mindset.

But the level of dissatisfaction turns you away from the market. You end up going back looking for the original high because that was authentic for you. And that's what bothers me about a lot of the progressive political activity in the States. It's still pretty puritanical, you know. And I think the body itself is getting hungry and resentful. Not only do we have dissatisfaction as a holistic being, I think the body itself, our animal, has gotten really shortchanged. Not only in globalization but in the whole idea of modernity.

We did an interview with some Japanese office workers a while back about craft in Japan and the loss of their great craft traditions, and they said, only half joking, that the major function of the hand in Japanese society today is to keep your watch from falling off. So, the re-valorization of the body, that must be part of it...

SK: Revaluing body is essential. At the moment, in our current way of living, our body has been shortchanged, as you say. We have turned the body into a utilitarian object and an instrument of production whereas the body in Gandhian and Schumacherian vision is a temple. It is a home for the spirit, a home for the imagination. In the tantric tradition as well, if you go very far back in time, it's only through our senses that we evolve. You have read David Abrams' book, "The Spell of the Sensuous." It's a wonderful book, I would say perhaps the best book of 1999 - "The Spell of the Sensuous" and in it Abrams talks about these ideas and the body. Now, you can only experience joy through the body, you can only experience love through the body, you can only experience generosity through the body, relationships through the body. I mean, this table is a body, this apple is a body. One body experiencing an other body. This home is a body, a tree is a body, my body and the tree body, my body and the fire body, the water body. So, the body is the basic building block, if you want to call it, of the entire cosmic existence and we have turned every body - not only the tree body and the river body and the apple body - into a consumer item, a commodity. We have turned our human body into a commercialized object. That is the greatest tragedy of the industrial age. We have turned the human body which was a sacred temple, a home of imagination and creativity and experience, a source of sensual joy and pleasure into a commodity. I mean, sex has clearly been turned into a commodity - sex which is a deep spiritual experience between two humans and not just the experience of two humans because the physical joy of the relationship can lead to a much deeper wider, experience of the world. So, the degradation of body and the commodification of the body is the result of our modern mindset which sees everything as an object or instrument of profit and money and control.

You mentioned tantra a second ago. How does that come into it?

SK: Tantra? There are two sorts of spiritual disciplines in Indian tradition. One discipline is of mantra, which is discipline of the mind; and the second is discipline of tantra, that is the discipline of the body. So, tantra gives respect to the body and the body becomes the source, the original source of spiritual realization. So, you are returning to your body and not to your mind. You meditate on your body, appreciating and realizing what a miracle it is.

You mean in a sensuous, sensual way?

SK: Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely!

- Nancho Rep: W. David Kubiak -


See also
on the Birth of Resurgence &Schumacherian Education

Shareright (S) 1999 : Nancho Ijin Butai