Earth Pilgrim by Satish Kumar
We can probably say with certainty that the dinosaurs never saw what was coming. They were getting on with their lives; eating, mating, raising young and repelling rivals. Then, one day, a meteorite slammed into what is now Mexico and it was all over for them.
By contrast, human beings first heard warnings about climate change forty years ago. Scientists were creating computer models of the climate that pointed towards disaster. They tried to sound the alarm, but no one was really listening. Now the window of opportunity for averting catastrophe is pretty much closed and still the emissions of carbon dioxide increase. The dinosaurs succumbed to the fifth great extinction event. Human beings are busily creating the sixth and taking the living world with them.
How can we be so stupid?
This is a question that vexes me. If we are the rational, intelligent creatures that modernity claims, surely we would have dealt with this threat to our existence years ago? Maybe we aren’t the pinnacle of creation that we claim to be, maybe we aren’t even rational at all? Maybe we are just good at making things and we have no idea whether those things will help us or destroy us. After all, we have both eradicated polio and armed ourselves with nuclear weapons.
As I read about the climate crisis, I become convinced that the crisis is not a blip, a speedbump on the road to the bright future promised by modernity. Rather, the climate crisis is us. Especially, it is the wages of the greed, arrogance and short-sidedness of those who have wielded the greatest power in the world. The way we respond to the crisis cannot be more of what caused it in the first place. Buying electric cars instead of petrol versions, buying fewer clothes, flying a bit less: none of this will save us. Rather, we have to change who we are as human beings. We need to fall out of love with being consumers and fall in love with being human.
This is what Earth Pilgrim is all about.
A pilgrim is not a tourist. A pilgrim undertakes a journey of exploration, acting in faith. The pilgrimage must include elements of the unknown for those are the challenges that allow the pilgrim to grow in faith and spirit. Kumar certainly walks the walk. In the 1960s, he and a friend started walking from Gandhi's grave in India and ended up at JFK’s grave in Washington DC. They visited Moscow, Paris, London and New York. They took no money and relied on the hospitality of strangers. They called on the governments of all the nuclear powers to live peacefully with their neighbours.
Their pilgrimage was an act of love, devotion and faith. We may not be able to undertake an 8000-mile journey like this, but if we apply these principles to whatever we do, we can live the life of the pilgrim. This means moving gently through life, serving, reflecting and being a whole person, in touch with every aspect of life. This is so different to a life lived as a consumer, where the individual is little more than a conduit for money.
Earth Pilgrim is not written specifically as a response to the climate crisis. But it makes excellent reading for anyone grappling with the personal transition required to come to terms with the crisis. In order to respond honestly to the crisis, we do have to change our outlook to avoid contributing any further to the damage. A crisis of this magnitude demands a deep response from us. We need to be fully functioning human beings, full of compassion, love and a sense of justice. We need to connect with the fullness of being human and that is what the life of a pilgrim helps us do.
The book is presented as a series of conversations. Kumar talks freely and openly about education, community, good and evil, death, faith, mind and soul. It’s the experience of a man who has lived long and learned much along the way. Although Kumar’s roots are in the Jain faith, he is open to the practice of all sincere believers. That is one of the most heartening aspects of the book; the breaking down of cultural divides with a recognition that different paths have the same motivation and are equally valid.
We cannot respond to great crises with the same mindset that caused those crises. Kumar takes us on a spiritual journey that directs us to a new wholeness, a life lived in the light rather than the dark places of greed, distrust and selfishness.