By Chandan Mulherkar
“If my body really needed broccoli and red capsicum, they would be growing right here in this soil (in India) already! You think Nature is stupid?”
I remember these words well. Narsanna Koppula – my permaculture guru – was cautioning us about exotic varieties of plants, as I sat listening up on the branch of a Pongam tree.
It was a late afternoon in September 2014, at Bhoomi College where I was attending a month long course on a variety of eco friendly farming practices – the most comprehensive one in a series of courses in my journey of exploration.
I had quit my teaching job in March that year, to go travel and learn about how to create an alternative lifestyle that is truly fulfilling. After working in the industry and in teaching for three years, my only takeaway was some financial savings and bad health. This is one of the unspoken truths in our diseased corporate culture – one that is kept delicately hidden from fresh graduates lest they question it. The only way out is to take a break from it all. That’s what I did.
My journey began with a workshop titled “Deep Ecology” hosted by Mark at the Dharmalaya Institute. Unlike the popular shallow environmental outlook where people want to quickly solve problems by ‘conscious consumerism’ and ‘green energy’ without investigating the root causes, Deep Ecology focuses on finding our place in nature first. This was invaluable in helping me develop a wide perspective of the issues of our time – a process I recommend to anyone on a similar journey.
Having witnessed nature building in action at Dharmalaya, I immediately signed up for a course on solar passive design at Student’s Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL), taught by Saurabh Phadke, Sonam Wangchuk and Robert Celaire. It was an unforgettable time. Sonam’s pioneering work continues to be a daily inspiration.
As my journey went from recalibrating away from conventional city life, where I was raised to understand the larger context of our shared crises, I felt the need to develop skills. The few skills we are taught in formal education help us to somehow survive in the bubble of the made-up human economy with the help of financial assets. This fictitious economy however rests upon the real natural world, which we are never taught how to build and conserve. This search for real life skills is what brought me to Bhoomi.
I looked through many places to learn such skills, but none had the satisfactorily holistic experience that I needed.
There are many camps in the farming world – organic farming, zero budget farming, etc. and usually courses are designed around only one. The Bhoomi course that my friend Pipson pointed me to was different. From biodynamic farming to applied permaculture, from urban farming to healthy cooking – we discovered all such techniques around the subject of human nutrition from the soil to the plate, and back to the soil (we used compost toilets!).
We visited farms around Bangalore where all of this was being practised and saw for ourselves the effectiveness of the techniques. This was powerful, since a lot of mainstream media propound the myth that we need chemical farming for sufficiency. Meeting the humble heroes in the farming movement such as Kavita Kuruganti, Narayana Reddy, Narsanna sir and others was an unexpected privilege.
The next logical step of course would be practise. But I had no farm, not even a terrace to grow plants on. For many months I struggled with finding an anchoring point, as my finances dwindled – I had promised myself not to take up a conventional job. Family came to the rescue. I stayed at home while looking for opportunities to implement my newfound skills. Much criticism, ridicule and humiliation followed. I experienced firsthand that taking a pause to find your calling is looked upon as pretty much the lowest possible thing that a young middle class man can do in our society. Still I kept at it – volunteering at organic farms, learning how to make a greenhouse and how to design solar power systems.
By early 2015, I was both financially and emotionally bankrupt when I came upon a group of people that seemed to get it. My friend Sneha connected me to this small social enterprise working on sustainability education whose website instantly caught my attention – the Academy for Earth Sustainability. It has been two years since I joined and the adventure continues to this day!
Some wise person once said that, “it is better to dig a ditch with friends than to build a skyscraper with a bunch of sociopaths.”
It is the people that make all the difference and I discovered this in a positive light for the first time, at AES. The vibe here was entirely different than my old conventional jobs. It was a for-profit company yet nobody was trying to get rich from it. Holidays, vacations and time off are not impediments in efficiency but essential and welcome parts of life. Motivation comes from a desire to create positive change; and encouragement from the company of passionate lovable people. Sukriti’s dedication, Caitlin’s attention to detail and Amol’s calm response to stress have been great personal and professional learning points, besides so many others.
AES was created in 2014, in response to the need for effective education and skill building around sustainable living, eco-leadership, environmental entrepreneurship and social responsibility. By the time I joined, the team had been working with several orphanages, helping them grow their own food, recycle their trash, and build a sense of confidence in the children. Today, Sukriti and I strive to develop such skills and instil empathy in school students from all walks of life who are otherwise too sheltered and disengaged from our collective impact on the world.
Across schools, we innovate different ways to transform apathy into action – to help communities create their own solutions to the sustainability challenges they face.
We have tried to do this in a variety of ways; and we keep trying and learning. Today, innovation is needed in the communication of ideas more than anywhere else. For instance, it is easy to say that more than 3,000 litres of water go into producing each kilo of sugar. The fact itself sounds vague and unrelatable. But when you play a game where people carry 30 litres of water for even a short distance, the experience is entirely different. In this simple act, a city dweller instantly empathises with their rural counterpart who doesn’t have the privilege of running water. A sense of connection is felt, deeper conversations and reflection is sparked – opening the door to curiosity, questions, knowledge and informed action.
Truly holistic education in this field of sustainability is rare, and one of the reasons for that is the multidisciplinary and holistic nature of the subject. Fortunately, the wide range of training and experience I went through has given me an excellent foundation to tackle this – something I couldn’t find in any post graduate course out there.
Sustainability education is still in its early stages in India and the world. On one hand we as a species urgently need to move to a lifestyle involving fewer needs. On the other, we are too used to our present lifestyles such that a dialogue on change is not even possible at times.
There is a pressing need to establish and strengthen centres of excellence in the sustainability education and research space, and I am thrilled to be working with some of them. Young people who realize the folly of our flawed systems find it difficult to proceed, since conventional education offers no avenues to pursue the kind of deep questioning we need to be doing right now.
Where should these people look for answers? The cultural erosion of the recent past has left us with few true elders, be they pristine ecosystems or wise old grandmothers. So who do they (we) turn to? As the sense of wonder is systematically snuffed out of our school children and the places of wonder are unapologetically ravaged in the fires of industry; we risk losing our most precious natural resource – our capacity for awe. What we are enthralled by, we can respect; and what we can respect, we can learn from. Hence the need for community, for resilient sources of wonder and knowledge – deep and slow in the making – that may one day restore our critically endangered curiosity.