We have to change the culture.
Not just the government. I don’t want business as usual.
I want better. I want a way of life that makes both
the people and the planet happier.
– Colin Beaven
Before leaving Bija Vidyapeeth, I finished reading Colin Beavan’s book, No Impact Man (2009). I was deeply impressed by Beavan’s sincere effort and struggle to live more lightly on our planet. As he progressed through his year-long experiment, Beavan researched the environmental consequences of various aspects of our modern, urban lifestyle – everything from waste management to paper production to electricity use. At times, he expressed feeling discouraged by the thought that any effort at change by one person seems so futile in the face of the immensity and complexity of the environmental and social crises facing us.
However, in the end, and this impressed me the most, Beavan eventually determined simply to be the kind of person who will try to change rather than do nothing at all. “I’d rather be the kind of nut who tries something than the kind of nut who, knowing what could happen in the world, doesn’t,” writes Beavan.
I still am searching for my own way into the kind of trying to make a difference that Beavan speaks about. Definitely, I have made some small changes in my personal life in recent years. For example, I enjoy starting each day with a cup of hot tea. Several years ago, I purchased an electric pot in which to heat the water for my tea. Some time ago, I began filling the pot each morning with enough water not only for my cup of tea, but also to pour into the sink basin to use for washing up. This at least prevents the alternative, which is to let the water from the faucet run on and on for several minutes, while I wait for the hot water to come from the heater in the basement to my second-floor bathroom. It’s something we used to take for granted, but, like so many people, I am now more conscious of water use than I once was. Here in India, many people bathe with a single bucket of water – often cold at that.
This past week, I have been in the southwest of India, in the state of Kerala, sent here by my university to teach a study abroad course on leadership for some of our students, as well as those of our partnering institution. Among my traveling companions while in India are several books by Indian authors. (I’m up to nine books in my stash now, including those I acquired at Bija Vidyapeeth!)
After finishing Beavan’s book, I moved onto one I found in Chicago before I made the trip here. It is called Spirituality in Management: Means or End? It is written by S.K. Chakraborty and DeBonshu Chakraborty, two former professors of management in India, and was published in 2008. Their question is the same as mine: “What is the real significance of spirituality in human affairs?” (p. 225). They suggest that our present Western culture, dominated by so-called “secular” attitudes and perceptions, dismisses as “primitive” the wisdom of sages and seers of every ancient philosophy and religious tradition. They argue, however, that these sages and seers offer useful wisdom for our age because they drew their insights from years of living in complete harmony with the natural world around them. They write:
Contrary to the presumptious belief that the ancient mind was primitive and animistic, the ultimate, all-time Truths were all realized in the ancient ashrams and tapovans. The very conditions and environment the modern city-centric mind has been creating is making these saving Truths incomprehensible to itself….Modernity is selling technical progress while buying existential poverty. (p. 8)
Since the early 1990’s, I have held the opinion that it is the loss of our understanding of the significance of spirituality in individual human and societal development that has led us, privately and collectively, to lives bordering on despair. Furthermore, the question of the role of spirituality in human affairs is connected to another thought that kept passing through my mind as I listened to the lectures by Satish Kumar and Vandana Shiva during the course on “Gandhi and Globalisation” at Bija Vidyapeeth. Whether we were discussing biodiversity or water privatization or consumerism, I kept finding myself thinking over and over: “This is fundamentally about defining what it means to be human.”
In his book, You Are Therefore I Am, Satish Kumar (2010) critiques the Western perspective that to be a successful human means to accumulate more and more stuff. He notes that prior to industrialization, many people lived content and meaningful lives without houses full of rooms, and rooms full of possessions. Kumar writes:
For millennia there have been peoples all over the world who lived in great simplicity without ever considering themselves “poor,” “undeveloped,” or “uncivilized.” My own family in Rajasthan lived without the trappings and trivia of what is considered to be rich and advanced, and yet we never thought of ourselves as “poor.” We were who were – human “Beings,” not human “Havings.” (p. 104)
Kumar also shares a marvelous image of the sun’s ability to just “be,” which he received from Vinoba Bhave, a Gandhian he met in 1957. Satish shares this recollection of the meditation on the sun which Vinoba shared with him:
The sun would say, “Light is my nature. For me, to be is to shine.”….The sun is in the perfect state of being rather than doing. The sun does not have light; it is light. The sun does not do good; it is good.
It is easy for us to comprehend that the sun’s nature is light, but what is our nature as humans? Is it, as former U.S. president, George W. Bush, seemed to suggest after 9/11, to shop? And does our 21st Century, Western, industrialized culture also force us to define ourselves as human “doings,” rather than human “beings”? I ask this because, among the other things I mentioned, another really impressive thing about Colin Beaven’s experiment with “no impact,” is that reducing his family’s carbon footprint didn’t just contribute to saving the planet, it re-humanized his whole family.
It started with walking to work and using the stairs instead of an elevator, which gave Beavan a different sense of his own body (and also caused him to note for the first time the irony that people in New York take taxis to and from the gym). From there, it moved to getting rid of the television, and instead spending long quiet evenings in conversation with his wife, Michelle, and daughter, Isabella. Here’s a small glimpse into life for the re-humanized Beavan family:
Michelle says that having no electricity in the apartment is like a nonstop vacation. Every summer night we search for things to do outside – play in the fountain with Isabella’s friends in Washington Square Park, make a trip to the river. Then we come home in the dark, put Isabella to bed, and sit up, talking in quiet tones by candlelight.
We go, one night, to the community garden with a jar because fireflies are in season. We catch the tiny lightning flashes, Isabella stares at them through the glass of the jar, we let them go. “Daddy, this is so much fun,” she tells me. We stay in the park till after dark, since there is no point going home to an unlit apartment, and we listen to a group of Japanese music students play Bach.
We are asleep most nights by ten. People keep telling us how good we look. (p. 188)
Sounds a bit like Kumar’s “undeveloped” life as a child in Rajasthan, doesn’t it? Kumar mentions in his book that it was U.S. President Harry Truman who, speaking at the United Nations after the second world war, first redefined the world in terms of “developed” and “undeveloped.” Essentially, Truman created a new conceptual framework in which urbanized, industrialized societies of the planet are defined as “developed,” and all agriculturally-based societies as “undeveloped.” Along with Truman’s demarcation, all indigenous ways of life and the knowledge and wisdom within them regarding how to live in harmony with the ecological balance of Nature were tossed aside in favor of industrialized economies based on the unsustainable extraction of “natural resources.”
In our day, it has become clear that this way of understanding “development” is problematic. The hard reality is that Earth doesn’t have the carrying capacity for every nation to achieve the level of industrialization now experienced by the so-called “First World.” At the same time, I am beginning to suspect that as humans, we don’t either. Industrialization has us all stressed out if not burnt out, or feeling isolated and unfulfilled, if not severely depressed (and that’s not to mention our other related escalating health issues).
Living more simple lives close to the rest of the natural world around them, the ancient seers and sages saw that every aspect of Nature has its contribution to make to the whole in the ongoing cycle of Life, and without being other than what it truly is. As S.K. Chakraborty and DeBonshu Chakraborty (2008) write:
The common principle on which all the works of the rishis rests is their direct vision. They thus discerned that there is an inherent law of being for each work-agent. They called this the principle of swadharma….Thus, the Sun gives light and heat; the tree gives fruit, flower or shade; the flower gives beauty and fragrance – all following their respective intrinsic laws of being. (p. 65)
The problem for humans comes in, these rishis also discerned, with the fact that unlike other work-agents of Nature, humans possess “the faculty of choice.” As humans, we are born with the capacity to choose to live and work in harmony with the rest of Nature, or not.
For at least the past several hundred years, we in the “developed” parts of the world have opted to put ourselves on a trajectory that is leading us personally and collectively ever more quickly toward the brink of disaster. Changing course will require us to dramatically re-think what it means to be human, to be of the planet, interdependent with everything else that helps to support our human being. I am convinced that the ancient spiritual traditions can help us with that effort, and my commitment to searching out those answers continues to be a part of my own effort to join Colin and his family in trying to make a difference that matters.
Beavan, C. (2009). No impact man: The adventures of a guilty liberal who attempts to save the planet, and the discoveries he makes about himself and our way of life in the process. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Chakraborty, S.K. and Chakraborty, D. (2008). Spirituality in Management: Means or End? New York, NY: Oxford University.
Kumar, S. (2006) You are therefore I am: A declaration of dependence. New Delhi, India: Viveka Foundation.