Empathic Urbanite

social business for urban development

Satish Kumar on becoming an Empathic Urbanite

What better way to launch this new blog than with an interview with a living legend. Dr Satish Kumar is the Editor of Resurgence Magazine, the artistic and spiritual voice of the green movement and a founder of the Schumacher College, one of the world’s leading institutions for ecological learning.

My choice of questions for Satish are led by my motivation to create a social care business which becomes the benchmark for sustainable private health care services. Though I have two other directors (my sisters) and a Care Manager, this is an aspiration solely held by me – I am humbly planning to create the John Lewis of the care sector. So it turns out that it’s my job to promote the principles of sustainability and social business to my sisters, to our workers and to our customers. Why should they care? How do these principles benefit them? And do I have the capability to pull it off?

Jobeda with Satish Kumar at the Schumacher Conference 2011

This is why Satish Kumar is such a good person to start my journey with. Alongside being an advocate, activist and campaigner, Satish is a philosophical and spiritual person (he used to be a Jain monk). Inspired by Bertrand Russell and Mahatma Ghandi, Satish has been quietly influencing and shifting the zeitgeist, on a global level, for over half a century. During his early 20s, he walked 8,000 miles from India to America to deliver peace tea to political leaders in Moscow, Paris, London and Washington.

I explained my problem to Satish, that I was working with the urban poor in East London and needed to understand how I could possibly make sustainable principles, especially love for our planet, relevant to my workers and my customers, both groups who were amongst the most deprived in Britain.

Satish: “Everyone is dependent on food, water and sunshine. We depend on fruit trees more than we depend on banks. You can help give the urban poor this perspective, by growing fruit trees and sharing the fruit. Coming from an economic angle is important when educating the poor – we pay for water, but water is free – why not encourage them to harvest water so they can understand what part of the system they are really dependent on? You don’t have to educate people about climate change to involve them in the sustainability movement and yes, climate change is not relevant to most people, so don’t try to impose an understanding on them. Making small cultural and economical changes also has ecological benefits.”

How can a small business, especially a micro business like ours, promote ecological and social principles?

Satish: “As a small business, you don’t have a responsibility to promote sustainability. Allow your business to get on with its business and if you really want to help people, create a Charitable Trust. It’s important that it’s not-for-profit and then, as well as your business contributing, you can also raise money from other sources. A Trust is a better way to promote the principles you think are important.”

How can we as urbanites improve our urban ecology and celebrate nature? There seems to be very little scope in densely populated places like inner-city London.

Satish: “Find some space, any space, where you can be in touch with the soil. Whether it’s a garden or a roof terrace or a window box. You will be working mainly with women, many of whom will have already have familiarity with working with earth  – let them touch soil and remember what it means to be a part of nature.”

I absolutely loved this idea, especially as so many of our constituents live in high rises and our office is literally in a park. The park and the building we are in are both owned by the local Council, so perhaps we really could facilitate some kind interaction with the ‘earth’.

My final question was a request for personal advice. How do I get on with that annoying group of people I’ve branded the ‘cocktail conservationists’? Satish understood this concept immediately without my having to explain it. The cocktail conservationists are people who purport to be activists and campaigners, and sometimes commentators and influencers in the sustainability sector, but their lifestyles are utterly mainstream. They drink cocktails in plush bars, they wear clothes made by children, they eat strawberries in the winter, they jet around the world to consult on sustainability and they just love to have all the latest gadgets. Basically people who have made zero adjustment to their lives to combat social and ecological degeneration. Such people hold us back because they just don’t get it, but sadly in London, I am surrounded by them. They create mission slide, they take us down the wrong routes and my last business suffered from a whole host of stakeholders wanting to appropriate it for uses that had nothing to do with its core social values. That’s why this time I decided to simply start a family business completely independent of what I saw as the hypocritical pinings of the sustainability ‘tribe’. Satish explained that though I’d found a good title for them, cocktail conservationists have been around since conservationists have been around. My response to them is a problem for me and handicapping me rather than creating a change in them.

Satish: “Be a good example. Ignore the actions of other people that frustrate you. You can help them by acting as you believe. Through seeing your actions, these people will change. They are part of your world and whether you like them or not, they can still help you. Find a way to express love for them and they will stop being a problem.”

Love?! I think I have a long way to go to becoming the Empathic Urbanite: I’m firmly in the wear-my-heart-on-my-sleeve camp. This will be very difficult for me, but Satish has dealt with people like that for 50 years and look at the influence he has now. Also, I know that nothing positive can ever come out of negative feelings. To become an Empathic Urbanite, it appears that I am going to have to swallow some bitter pills. I have accepted it as my challenge for 2012 to embrace the cocktail conservationists. I will need help and I guess this blog is part of seeking that help.

Thanks to Satish Kumar for all his wonderful insights and advice. I must admit that some of it needs much more thought (do I really want a separate Charitable Trust?) and some it is simply inspirational. I do hope I can go back to him in a year’s time with fruit from our communal fruit tree club.

You can read more about Satish on the Resurgence website here.  And there is a really wonderful Guardian interview with him here.

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