Livia Firth in Conversation with Satish Kumar: “Every Crisis is an Opportunity”

To mark the start of Eco-Age’s new series, ‘The Best is Yet to Come,’ co-founder and creative director Livia Firth meets peace and environmental activist Satish Kumar to talk about the importance of designing a new, more sustainable way of life for the future. 

“I felt that from childhood I had a calling,” remembers Satish Kumar, as he recounts his extraordinary life experience. “I had a calling for something which combined the inner and the outer.”

After beginning his journey in a Jain monastery aged nine, Kumar’s wisdom is rooted in spirituality. While his strict belief in non-violence began during the years he practiced as a monk, time spent at Mahatma Ghandi’s ashram in India further nurtured a seed that had already been planted, teaching him a profound respect for the natural world. 

Perhaps one of the most monumental stories from Kumar’s life so far is his walk from Delhi to Moscow, Paris, London and Washington in the Cold War years of 1962-64. As he travelled in protest of the use and creation of nuclear weapons, bringing peace tea to the Kremlin and Whitehouse as he went, he carried with him one call important message: ‘We have to make peace with nature.’ 

Now, almost 50 years later, it is this deep-rooted desire to preserve the natural world and respect for every human, plant and animal that has brought him together with Eco-Age co-founder Livia Firth. When the pair meet at the Treehouse Hotel in London, it is to discuss one topic that sits at the very hearts of both of their, albeit different, worlds of work: redesigning systems in favour of a better world. From the idea of simplicity as sustainability to the need for a resurgence of indigenous voices in the climate conversation, the duo’s timely conversation reflects the need for new systems when emerging from crisis. 

Listen to the full conversation between Livia Firth and Satish Kumar as they discuss the values and ideals that should be essential to a truly sustainable way of living. 

“We met in the autumn last year, at a Flourishing Diversity event, where all these representatives from different indigenous populations came together as one, to listen,” Firth reminisces. “And the simplicity of the message, going back to the teachings in your book ‘Elegant Simplicity’ was really profound to me. We get too wrapped up in what sustainability means and what we do, and yet it’s so simple. It goes back to being soil, to consider nature as a partner, not something that we use up.” 

“What you are saying is absolutely right and I totally agree with you,” Kumar nods. “Unfortunately, at this moment we seem to think that civilisation, industrialisation, urbanisation is progress. And being close to the land, close to nature, being indigenous and living a simple life is backward. This is our mindset, which I think needs to be challenged. We should see indigenous cultures as our teachers, and we should learn from their wisdom, which upholds that the sky is our father and the Earth is our mother, and all the animals and birds and living things are brothers and sisters. This unity and generosity of spirit and generosity of mind and big heartedness is like the mind of god for me.”

“As a Western society, a modern society, an industrialised, urbanised, civilisation, we have lost that sense of humility and we convey arrogance in our culture,” he continues. “We are developed, we are further ahead, we are better than those indigenous, uneducated people. I think we need humility. And without humility, there’s no humanity.” 

But it is coming back. We need this resurgence, of indigenous values, of ecological values, holistic values; indigenous culture and wisdom has that spirituality, and they feel in their heart the unity of life. They feel compassion in their hearts. This gratitude and humility is an important part of that resurgence.” 

When the pair come together, it’s just a few days before the coronavirus pandemic begins to sweep across the UK, and naturally it’s the topic of conversation on everybody’s minds. Yet alongside the fear and anxiety surrounding the situation, there is a pervading sense of speculation as to how the way of life we have become accustomed to could begin to change in its wake.  

“What’s happening today with the coronavirus is interesting,” begins Firth, “because it’s so easy to get wrapped into the anxiety and the worry. This is a very serious situation that we are facing. But we needed a shock didn’t we? The system needed a shock. Do you think that this moment will give us an opportunity to rethink, see the light through this darkness and come out on the other side a little bit wiser?” 

“Yes, I think it is an opportunity,” ponders Kumar. “I think it’s in Chinese language where the word crisis also means opportunity. So every crisis is an opportunity, and the coronavirus crisis we are facing at this moment is, in a way, a wake-up call. The way we had been living on this planet and the way we have been wasting and polluting, and we need to learn from this crisis.”

“We need to redesign our system with wisdom,” he continues, “which will be in harmony with nature, and avoid all the pollution, waste and profit-making greed that we have. It needs to be about going back to the true essential quality of life […] We need to go through it with courage, with patience, with optimism, and find a new way of being, a new way of designing our society, our economy, our whole structure. I think this crisis is an opportunity for us to change.”

Imagining a new future is no easy feat, and what this could look like is just one of the questions opened up to indigenous representatives, lateral thinkers, spiritual workers as part of our ‘The Best is Yet to Come’ series. It comes down to thinking beyond our everyday institutions and dreaming up something different. But breaking down the paradigms doesn’t come without its difficulties: “You mention in the book that some people call you an idealist,” Firth laughs. “Sometimes that happens to me too. I love the point that you make in your book: ‘Look at what the realists have done!’

Absolutely true,” agrees Kumar, expanding on the idea: “You could say the Buddha was an idealist, Jesus Christ was an idealist, Mother Teresa was an idealist, Martin Luther King was an idealist. Whereas the realists, who are in the government or business – what have they achieved? All the wonderful things that we value are achieved by the idealists, not the realists. So many problems we have today are all managed, governed, organised and overseen by so-called realists. What have they achieved?”

Yet perhaps even more than his idealism, it’s Kumar’s unwavering optimism for the future that shines through, especially in times of uncertainty. When asked how he maintains his positive outlook, his answer is simple: “I’m optimistic that people are capable of changing.”

“I live in hope. I live in optimism. Because if you want to be an activist, you have to have that optimism that yes, my actions will bring some result and I will be able to change the world. Humanity is on a journey, and we are going towards something. Now we have to decide, what is our ideal, what is our goal, where do we want to go? If we can have a new vision, then I think we can make that journey. I became an activist, you can say, as a Ghandian, aged 18. Now I’m 83 and I’m still an activist. And optimist. And I want to remain an activist and work for a better society until the last breath of my life.” 


Find out why we launched ‘The Best is Yet to Come,’ from Eco-Age co-founder Livia Firth

Discover more about Satish Kumar’s Listening Session with indigenous voices for Flourishing Diversity

Read Jeanne de Kroon’s diary from her experience with the Huni Kuin people in the Amazon.