The new visiting professor who walked the world

Satish Kumar, Dartmoor

Satish Kumar, Dartmoor - Credit: Archant

Satish Kumar has walked thousands of miles around the globe to spread a Gandhian message of non-violence and reverence for nature. Now he is sharing his vision with Suffolk students. Sheena Grant reports

Satish Kumar, during a ceremony to be receive an honorary degree from UCS, where he is a visiting pr

Satish Kumar, during a ceremony to be receive an honorary degree from UCS, where he is a visiting professor of sustainable development - Credit: Archant

It’s more than half a century since an idealistic young man set off on an 8,000-mile walk, an act of peaceful protest in support of 89-year-old English philosopher Bertrand Russell.

Satish Kumar

Satish Kumar - Credit: Archant

Russell had been jailed for civil disobedience as part of the campaign against the spread of nuclear weapons and it took Satish Kumar and a companion two-and-a-half years to complete their walk to the four corners of the nuclear world - Washington, London, Paris and Moscow.

They carryied no passports or money but simply relied on the kindness of strangers to get by.

Satish had left the family home in his native India more than ten years earlier, at the age of just nine, to become a wandering Jain monk, following a path of non-violence and respect for nature. However, by the time of his global odyessy, he had left to become a student of Vinoba Bhave, Gandhi’s spiritual successor.

He says his ideals were forged not just by his Jain beliefs and the teachings of Gandhi but even earlier, by his mother.

“She was very close to nature and a very spiritual person,” he says. “She had a small holding and loved growing food, natural living and walking. That was her emphasis. From the womb of my mother I learned to love and respect nature and celebrate and be humble to nature.”

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It’s a long time since Satish, now 77, began that peace walk, but the fires of his deeply held ideals still burn as brightly as ever, as does his love of walking and his belief in its health-giving and transformative powers.

In fact, he’s never stopped walking, clocking up 2,000 miles around Britain in 1986 and in 1997 going on foot to the sacred mount Kailash in Tibet. “You should never trust a thought that didn’t come by walking,” he says, quoting German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

“Every day I walk, even now. It is good for my physical health - I am still full of energy - and good for my mental health. Being in nature is good for you. By being in nature when you walk you rejuvenate - there is a resurgence of energy.

“To walk is to slow down. If we all did this the bill for the NHS could be halved.”

Three months ago, Satish was awarded an honorary degree by University Campus Suffolk (UCS) and he’s looking forward to returning to the county this year in his role as visiting professor of sustainable development, a three-year appointment that will see him sharing his vision with students on a masters programme in sustainable business, as well as other courses.

It’s something he’s renowned for doing, as editor of the magazine Resurgence, a post he has held since he settled in Britain 40 years ago, and as a co-founder, programme director and now visiting fellow at the Schumacher College, in Devon, which runs courses on sustainable living.

His message is the same as it’s always been: we cannot master or control nature. We have to live in harmony with it and this needs to be at the heart of the world’s political and social debate.

In the decades since his global pilgrimmage for peace, little has changed for the better.

But despite the UK’s recent rush to embrace shale gas extraction through fracking and a new generation of nuclear power stations (including a third plant at Sizewell) - both of which he opposes - not to mention unceasing wars and habitat destruction around the planet he still sees cause for optimism. “The younger generation are realising that they have to inherit the future and the Earth is in a mess,” he says. “Therefore they have to make sure that their future and the future of their children is more sustainable and in a good state.

“I have optimism for the younger generation. This is why I was delighted to become visiting professor and why I go around speaking in schools.

“What University Campus Suffolk is trying to do, which is very encouraging, is to bring issues of sustainability much more into focus.

“This is hugely important at the moment when there is so much suffering from disturbed climate and climate change - we need to think about what we are doing to our atmosphere and biosphere.

“We forget that human beings are dependent on the natural environment. We think we can control nature through technology, which is a misguided notion. We cannot conquer nature through technology or science. We have to learn to live in harmony with it.”

That is not to say that he thinks we should reject all technologies. We should just learn to distinguish between those that are “malign” and those that are “benign”.

“There are two kinds of technology,” he says. “Fracking and nuclear is technology which is creating problems for the Earth but there are other technologies, such as those which are based on solar energy, where we can benefit. These are benign technologies, which are working in harmony with nature. We cannot retreat from technology all together, just the malign ones. We should always be questioning: what is benign and what is malign? Is it going to protect nature and people or does it damage?

“After the Fukushima (nuclear disaster in Japan) many people realised you can never know what nature will bring. It’s an example for us to learn and some countries, such as Germany, are moving from nuclear as a result of that. We have to learn to live within the limits of nature.”

His own questioning goes further, to the very basis on which society is based, the supposed ‘realism’ of the western world’s political elite and the notion that prosperity should be measured by the capitalist ideals of unending economic growth.

“Politicians pay lip service to environmental concerns,” he says. “When they say things like ‘vote blue to go green’, that is lip service. What we need is action.

“For instance, I would say the purpose of education should be not to get a well paid job and gain high living standards but to learn to live in harmony with nature.”

He believes that any meaningful change in society’s priorities will have to come from “grass roots pressure” rather than from politicians themselves.

“Western countries have set the example. They have said that development and nuclear energy and industry is the highest ideal. They have promoted this idea of development so China and India are now taking it up. We have to say we made a mistake. The well-being of the planet should come first because our own well-being is bound to it. Instead of economic growth you have to think about growth in terms of human health and well-being.

“The emphasis now is more about consumption. But more is not always better. Quality of life is more important than quantity of possessions.

“We think finance is the only capital but the true capital is nature and we need to look after it. In a sense we are living on borrowed time as far as the health of our resources is concerned but there is time to turn from borrowing to saving and changing your ways.”

He may have left the monk’s life behind many years ago but Satish admits he still lives the “internal life” of his past.

“A monk’s life is a life of pilgrimmage and peace,” he says. “I see my life as a constant pilgrimmage.

“Being a monk is about living a simple, frugal, elegant and humble life so we don’t take more than we need. That internal life continues with me even though I am no longer a monk.”