With a cream-coloured blanket around his shoulders and sandals on his feet, Satish Kumar is making a cup of tea. The former monk and lifelong environmentalist is bustling around the kitchen of Schumacher College in south Devon, the school of ecology and sustainability he founded, offering me a homemade ginger biscuit before we head up to the library.
We are here to talk about his new book, Elegant Simplicity, which is a culmination of Kumar’s thinking over the years, published at a time of mounting environmental, social and personal crises.
“The reason we have a climate crisis is because we are all over consuming,” he explains. “We are churning natural resources into gadgets, houses, roads, aeroplanes, airports, clothes and shoes: the huge amount of things we are producing.
“In the name of economy and consumerism, we are polluting, wasting, and creating greenhouse gases. And so, the answer to climate change is elegant simplicity: living frugally, simply, and having things that you really use and not just accumulate and waste.
“For me, elegant simplicity is a prerequisite for sustainability. And sustainability is a prerequisite to mitigating climate change.”
The premise of the book – essentially how to live a happy and low-impact life, and encourage others to do the same – may sound like it fits neatly within the booming self-help genre. The crucial difference being that this isn’t your usual life coach.
Born in India, at the age of nine Kumar left his home to join the Jain monks, an austere monastic group that requires complete renouncement of material possessions, money, shoes, and transport other than walking.
He spent almost a decade with the Jains, before leaving them to follow Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings and a life of spiritual activism, and embarking on the journey that would change his life: walking 8,000 miles across the world to try and meet the leaders of each nuclear nation and ask them to disarm.
“I got through eight pairs of shoes, lots of blisters, knee pain, going up to 10-11,000 feet of high mountains, then down, then up: lots of pain. And hunger,” he says, eyes smiling as he recalls the walk of over five decades ago that is still “as fresh as yesterday.”
Two encounters stand out in his memory from that formative journey: one, a Georgian woman working in a tea factory, who gave him packets of ‘peace tea’ to be given to the world leaders if he managed to meet them.
“She said, ‘tell them, if you ever have a bad thought about pressing the nuclear button, please stop for a moment and have a fresh cup of tea, it’s a cup of peace and of love’. That was the most inspiring and enduring memory of my entire journey.”
The other meeting was perhaps more prestigious, though no less memorable. “One of the most wonderful people I’ve met, who has left a strong and lasting impression, was Martin Luther King,” says Kumar. “That was a most memorable meeting. He was a kind of dynamo of energy. And he had a kind of aura, a presence around him.
“I wrote to him and I said ‘I’ve heard your great speech. You have a great dream, and I have a small dream, and my dream is to meet you. I was with him for half an hour, but it went like five minutes. Every word he was speaking was full of meaning, and sincere, and authentic.
“He said: ‘for me, non-violence is not only a technique of protest and demonstration to change the law, it is also a way of life. You have to be peaceful and non-violent in every moment, it’s a way of life.’ And that was very impressive.”
It’s typical of Kumar’s conversation that he makes the connection between a cup of tea and a civil rights leader: the small and seemingly insignificant, and the large-scale and transformative. One minute he is extolling the virtues of gardening (weeding a garden is simultaneously weeding the mind of anxiety and stress, he says), the next he says all British citizens should have access to land to grow food in a radical reimagining of land redistribution.
These jumps between small and large are central to his view of sustainability and how it is intrinsically tied to personal choices. It’s an interesting idea at a time when the latest lifestyle hacks, from reusable coffee cups to paper straws, can seem to pale into insignificance next to apocalyptic climate warnings, fires in the arctic, global floods and threats to food security.
In the book, Kumar challenges this notion and says that, in fact, the details of daily life are intimately tied to a transformative move to a society that is more in touch with nature, where food comes from, and the idea of finite resources.
“I think big and small complement,” he says. “The first step is to be the change that you want to see in the world. Because of your living example, you have power to communicate. Then you can speak about it, because you live it, and you are not speaking empty words. So, be the change, communicate the change, organise the change.”
For a lifelong environmentalist at a time of environmental collapse, Kumar also seems unfailingly optimistic. “The thing is…like the tide, when the tide is beginning to turn, it’s slow,” he says. “Whereas towards the end, when the tide is turning, water comes to the shore very fast.
“In the same way, movement building takes a long time. But suddenly, with a big awareness, like the Berlin Wall coming down, or Nelson Mandela being freed, or India becoming independent overnight, a tipping point comes when people realise this system cannot be sustained and we must change.
“And then human beings are very talented and very resourceful, and they can come up with good ideas and solutions that are just right. And so, I’m hopeful.”
It’s perhaps not an easy conclusion to come to, but the benefits of this attitude are visible – at 83, Kumar has more energy than some activists a quarter of his age.
Asked whether he would ever retire (he still teaches at Schumacher College, holds the role of editor emeritus at Resurgence magazine, writes, and speaks), he chuckles, and says “you don’t retire from life”.
So does the zen-like author of Elegant Simplicity, who seems to unite buoyant mental wellbeing with environmental activism, ever feel stressed?
“I try not to,” he says. “I have a mantra, which I always try to remember, and that is ‘let go’. Don’t hold onto things, don’t hold onto ideas, grudges, complaints or criticism. Don’t hold onto anything that has offended you – just let go.”.
Then there’s his formula for life: live 75 per cent of your time in the present moment, spend 10 per cent dwelling on the past, and 15 per cent planning for the future. “Of course you need a bit of planning for the future, but the majority of things happen now,” he says. “This moment I can speak, this moment I can write, I can grow food, I can make love, I can appreciate somebody, I can walk. I cannot love somebody yesterday.”
I wonder how that fits alongside worrying about the future from an environmental perspective, but he has an easy answer: “I can act now to do something about the future. The future is there, but I can act now to reduce consumption, waste, pollution. I’m reducing my flying, car journeys, food miles – I can do something now to address climate change.”
Like any other opposer to traditional capitalism, Kumar has been called idealistic in the past, and his response has become one of his most-quoted lines: “What have the realists achieved? Wars? Poverty? Climate change? The realists have ruled the world for far too long…let us give the idealists a chance.”
It’s a simple idea, but then, that’s the whole point.