Livia Albeck-Ripka on Satish Kumar
During the Cold War, when the world was tense with mistrust, Satish Kumar walked nearly 13,000 kilometres, with no money, through the four nuclear capitals of the world. It was 1962.
The previous year, an 89-year-old Betrand Russel was jailed in Brixton Prison for demonstrating against the bomb. Inspired by Russell and determined to convince the leaders of Moscow, Paris, London and Washington to disarm, Satish and his friend EP Menon crossed enemy lines from India into Pakistan on a journey that would take 30 months. The 26-year-olds left with two gifts from their mentor and disciple of Gandhi, Vinoba Bhave: One, to walk penniless as an act of trust. Two, to go as vegetarians; in peace with every living being on earth.
It wasn’t Satish’s first odyssey. At nine, he left his mother’s home to join the wandering Jain monks. He remained with them until he read Gandhi, and began to believe more could be achieved through engagement with global problems, rather than by detachment. That year, at 18, he ran away to become a student of Bhave’s, where he learnt non-violence as a means to peace and land reform.
Now 77, Satish has been a quiet revolutionary for more than 50 years—slowly shifting the social and ecological agenda. In 1982, he set up the Small School, which pioneered a “human-scale approach” to education with small classes and responsive teaching. Eight years later he founded Schumacher College, which offers transformative and holistic education in sustainable living. At 50 he embarked on a second trek, this time for 3000km through Britain—again carrying no money to prove his unwavering faith in humanity. As the editor of Resurgence & Ecologist, he is also the longest-serving editor of a magazine in the UK.
Despite his many achievements, Satish is used to being considered “unrealistic.” Richard Dawkins went so far as to call him a “slave to superstition” and an “enemy of reason.” Perhaps it’s because he believes in holism: the idea that trees possess “tree-ness” and rocks posses “rock-ness” and that they are as deserving of respect as we are. Perhaps it’s because this non-anthropocentric world view is so at odds with an economical model of unlimited growth. Perhaps it’s because he believes in trust.
When we meet on the cusp of spring in Melbourne, Satish tells me, “I am old, but you are young.” He smiles with the wisdom of someone who knows that when spirituality and science come together, we will demolish the current structures in the name of a kind, considered, idyllic society. Realism, to Satish, is an outdated concept. The vast challenges we face now require unreasonable minds.