Interview of Bittu Sahgal ― Resistance Radio

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Hi, I’m Derrick Jensen and this is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guest today is Bittu Sahgal. He’s the founder of Sanctuary Nature Foundation, editor of Sanctuary Asia, India’s first and largest circulating wildlife and ecology magazine, and founder and editor of Sanctuary Cub, India’s oldest and only wildlife magazine for children. He’s been closely involved with Project Tiger since its inception in the 1970’s and has spent over four decades writing about conservation issues in books, magazines and newspapers in both English and regional languages. He’s also produced 30 wildlife documentaries and led national and international environmental campaigns across media platforms including social media.

He created Kids for Tigers, a conservation program for school children that’s reached over a million children and has run continuously for almost two decades. He has served on a range of governmental and non-governmental organization boards and committees over the last 30 years, including the National Board for Wildlife, Government of India; the IUCN, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature; the Wild Foundation, USA; and the Export Appraisal Committee for Infrastructure, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India. He works with policy makers, social workers, economists and scientists at the tri-junction of biodiversity, climate change and economics, speaking at national and international platforms in support of wilderness conservation while continuing to spearhead the work of the Sanctuary Nature Foundation.

So first off, thank you for your work, and second, thank you for being on the program.

BS: I’m delighted, Derrick. Very happy to be speaking with you.

DJ: Well thank you. My first question was going to be “Can you tell me about tigers?” But I was thinking, as I was reading more and more of your work today, that I want to ask you about tigers and I also want to ask you about a quote of yours, which is in English; “A war against nature is futile.” So you can take one of those, the other one, or both at the same time.

BS: I think we’ll start with the first one, “The war against nature is futile.” What we believe here in India is that nature is a god to be worshipped. So whether it’s a flowing river, whether it’s the snows of the Himalayas, whether it’s the wind just rustling through the leaves of a tree – there isn’t a single river you can go to in India at whose source there isn’t a temple of worship. That temple might not be a fancy one. It could be an assemblage of rocks. That’s what we used to be, maybe a thousand years ago, maybe two thousand years ago, certainly before the Abrahamic religions. We worshipped nature. We lived by its rules.

Now I’m not suggesting we should go back and live in caves. But what has happened now is that it appears we’ve become the gods we’ve invented. We imagine that we are now the gods, that we created everything around us, like, yesterday. That, in fact, is the equivalent of asking a monkey to hammer away at your keyboard and edit Shakespeare. We just don’t know how nature works. You can take all the Nobel laureates in the world, distill all their wisdom and put it into one single brain, and that brain would not be able to decipher one square meter of a rain forest, or for that matter a coral reef, and the interactions.

And it is these magical systems that we have decided to declare war on, in the process of trying to extract more productivity out of them. That’s a World Bank phrase. “Rain forests are not productive enough, so cut them down and put tropical pine up!” You know?

So this is just one example, but we’re going this way across the world. And when I say that a war against nature is futile, it’s to say that we’re, you know, like the mouse that roared. We are puny, we are tiny, we are inexperienced, we are new. And we’re very, very dangerous. That’s why I suggest to kids – actually, my audience, the average age of my audience normally is 12 years. Still, some of the adults of my generation don’t get it, even though the kids get it straight away. They say that there’s no point in fighting nature. That’s the bottom line.

DJ: And even if one could win a war against nature, which one can’t, then that would mean that one has defeated nature, but since nature is the source of all life, then that would mean that one has destroyed one’s own habitat. It seems remarkably stupid to me.

BS: (laughing) You’re being very polite, but the fact is yes. Frankly, because my constituency is 12-year-olds, average, I have no right to psychologically burden them with problems that my generation has created. But I also have no right to tell them any lies, so they must know what the truth is. So the truth really is: nature really is self-repairing, like a cut on your hand repairs itself. And so we go up to these children and we explain to them that look, the best thing you can possibly do is to flow with nature’s tide. If you don’t flow with nature’s tide; lots of creatures have tried to do that in the past, and they’ve vanished. We guys are so new. We’re the new kids on the block. And it’s better that we get a little more experienced, trust nature a little more, stop putting out that much carbon into the atmosphere, stop poisoning our aquifers, stop wiping out biodiversity, and actually it’s a fantastic life. We could just sit back in this Garden of Eden and feed on fallen fruit, or plant fruit. Just don’t destroy the tree.

DJ: I was interviewing somebody a few days ago who was talking about how there are so many things that this culture has done that have had consequences that were either not foreseen or were ignored before they happened. He was specifically talking about how agriculture affected people’s teeth, and affected their jaws and affected their health. And from there we jumped to people creating plastics that aren’t biodegradable and then they get surprised when they end up polluting everywhere. Or they put in dams that disallow fish passage and then are somehow surprised when the fish who need to go past them can’t get past them. And so it seems there are a lot of attempts to manage or to change things in nature where, like you said, it’s so much more complex than we could ever understand, and yet we run in sort of willy-nilly changing things, and then are somehow surprised when they all fall apart.

BS: Absolutely, Derrick. The greatest mystery to me is the fact that we have eyes but we cannot see, and sometimes I think that the people who are doing most of the damage, they can see, but they just…we have a saying in India that is the equivalent of saying that you can wake Rip Van Winkle, but if a guy’s pretending to sleep, how can you wake him up? Right now we have, it’s not just America, it’s not just India, it’s across the world. We’re in the grip of a disease. It’s essentially the belief that we can continue to consume and continue to dispose and suffer no consequences.

Now when we speak to pre-primary children; five six seven years; they understand. But when you speak to people who are running coal mines or who want to get pipelines across the Arctic, they sort of pretend they don’t understand. “Really? Is that really going to cause a problem? Just a little bit of oil?” Or when my country, India, is about to borrow billions of dollars to build dams under the Himalayas when the Himalayan glaciers have melted, when we ask them “Would you build a thermal plant without coal? Would you build an aluminum smelter without bauxite? Why would you build dams underneath melted glaciers or melting glaciers?”

“Oh really? Is it that the dams won’t work?” So we’re in the clutches of people who are looking short-term, and nature lives long-term. It’s sometimes so obvious that I feel almost like “Why am I saying this all over again?” I’ve been saying it for 40 years.

DJ: I completely hear you. A lot of times people ask me how I sort of woke up to environmentalism. I want to tell you a very quick story of how I recognized the system doesn’t work, and then I want to ask you about your sort of similar, where it came from, your similar understanding.

For me, when I was about seven, they put in a neighborhood right next to where I lived. And before that, it had been meadows, and there were cottonwood trees and anthills and grasshoppers and meadowlarks and garter snakes. And even when I was seven years old, when they put the neighborhood in, I recognized; “Okay, so if they keep doing this, where are the meadowlarks and the cottonwood trees going to live?” And so I understood that that didn’t work, and I didn’t have this language when I was a kid, but when I was seven I understood that you can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet. I understood this can’t go on forever.

And so for me that was a hugely important moment. What would be your similar perceptions, especially when you were young?

BS: I was born in a place called Shimla. It’s what they call a hill station. It was the summer capital of the British. And I loved playing cricket, and you hit the ball over the fence and you wouldn’t even look for it, because it was so thick down there. You were not allowed to go down there, you know? And I went back a few years later and I found that the slopes were brown. What was forest was now a vertical slum. And I never even knew that I was in love with that place. But I found myself weeping uncontrollably, and I discovered I was in love. And then I discovered how futile it is to try and talk to people who think that they have invented the world themselves. When you say “Look, those trees are the ones that catch the rain. Those pine needles are the ones that feed the aquifers. Those aquifers are the ones that feed the waters that feed the city.” It’s so simple. A ten-year-old understands it, but when you go to a forty-year-old the guy pretends he doesn’t, because he’s looking for the real estate money.

So for me, truly, it was a process of osmosis. I grew up in love with nature but I never knew it until I was about 18 years old. I’ve been in love ever since. I think I will be in love until the day I die. How do I put it? Since I speak to children, and since I’ve said I don’t have the right to depress them, I don’t have the right to turn them catatonic with fear, I do say to them “Look, nature will repair itself.” And I do explain to them that I have personally lived a funeral every day of my life, because either a forest or a tiger, or a shark or a coral or a river or a lake or a species has vanished. But you guys, you kids are going to live a beautiful life, because all the crap that we’ve forced into your life, you’re going to fix it. That river will come back because you work with nature. Even the atmosphere, the carbon we’re spewing up over there, all you’ve got to do is to restore ecosystems, the cheapest most fantastic way to bring carbon back down.

And that actually, Derrick, brings us to the tiger. Why do we talk about the tiger at all? We use the tiger as a metaphor, the way you might use the stars and stripes to represent America. It’s just a metaphor. It’s a metaphor for all of nature. When we talk to kids, we tell them the tiger, it looks like a tiger but it’s actually a polar bear. It’s a giraffe. It’s a lion in the Masai Mara. It’s a grizzly. And it’s also the termite that grows in the forest. It’s a tick on the back of its own self. We use these symbols to say protect ecosystems, protect nature, because that is where all life came from. That is where all inspiration came from. Our music, our art, our dance, our philosophies, our religions, our thinking, our happiness. Everything came from there. If you ruin the source of your inspiration, what wealth do you have left?

DJ: None.

BS: None. None. But it’s not all that dismal, you know. I had the good fortune of meeting the Dalai Lama once, about 15-18 years ago, at a meeting that started late and I was speaking to the same audience. And it wasn’t a very happy conversation. He was talking about how Tibet’s forests had been extirpated and how they were being turned into furniture that was being exported to Europe and America, and I was talking about tiger bones and tiger trade, and I was mentioning to him that in fact now some of the Buddhist monks are actually the ones that are going out and carrying this. They are the couriers for this.

So what the Dalai Lama said to me at the end of this whole thing, the meeting that was called together; I get a tap on my shoulder and I’m told that “Look, it is your duty to be happy every day of your life. If you’re not happy, you’re not going to be able to do any good.” And the key thing is that, look at us, we’re speaking, we’re using the Internet. I live a life that’s relatively comfortable. The point is that you cannot therefore abuse the gift of life by turning into a morose, bitter human being. You’ve still got to celebrate every day that exists. And that’s what nature does for you. That’s what we tell the children. You have the right to be happy. If you’re not happy, you’re not going to be able to do a thing for anybody else and people will shun you.

“The world is coming to an end!” If I go out over there and start screaming this out to ten-year-olds, apart from psychologically damaging them, I think they’ll walk out of the classroom. I think that also holds good for adults. That holds good for all of us. There’s so much to be grateful for. I have no idea at all why people don’t celebrate the sound of a bee humming through a meadow, or anything, you know? People who don’t understand. They gather all this money. And I don’t know, maybe it’s the clink of money. I don’t know what it is. It doesn’t even clink anymore, it’s all cryptocurrency.

DJ: I think, for me at least, there’s not a split between understanding how incredibly destructive this culture is and still being happy personally. Because there’s this idea that if we acknowledge how destructive this culture is, how bad things are, then that means we have to walk around being unhappy all the time. But I think we’re complex enough beings that we can hold in our hearts the understanding that this culture is incredibly destructive, and at the same time, that life is really wonderful and good.

BS: You’re so bang on right. It is true. The fact is that the human mind is a very complex organ. And we have been given this exalted position where we have the power to either destroy or the power to save. I do believe that a new generation is being born with a greater understanding.

When you introduced me, you said that we work at the tri-junction of biodiversity, economics and climate change. But the fact of the matter is that this tri-junction, the interactivity of this tri-junction is not fully understood. If you look at my country India, what they’re basically saying is “Let us get as rich as America and then we’ll protect the environment.” That is plain stupid, because the economy isn’t the foundation on which the ecological harmony we see around us is based. It’s the other way around. All economies, irrespective of where they are, are built on a stable ecological base. Now we’re shaking that base. We’re taking the corals away. We’re taking the snows away. And we’re compressing the time. If the snows were to melt in four million years or three million years or even fifty thousand years, species have a chance to adapt. But you do it in 150 years, 200 years? That’s not even a blink. But the guys in control – Derrick, I don’t know how you deal with this, but I have to say that I look at somebody who looks like a perfectly decent human being, but he’s like, he’s got his hands on the wheel because he’s the minister or the chief minister or whatever it is, or the president, and he’s disconnected the brakes, he’s disconnected the rear view mirror. And he’s hurtling down this highway and there’s a precipice and I’m saying “Look! You can’t do that!” But there’s no more brake and there’s no more rear view mirror, and he says “Why do you want to slow my progress? Why do you want to look backward? Look forward.” This is the way we’re going now, the way my generation is going, and I sometimes oscillate between exhilaration at what remains and despair at what I see going.

But in the balance, my wife still tells me I’m a happy guy. She says “I don’t know how you do it, but you’re schizophrenic.”

DJ: I think that what you’re describing is something that is felt by every still sentient non-zombified being on the planet, including nonhumans. This tremendous despair combined with the exhilaration, the extraordinary beauty of being alive.

I read a novel about a year ago that had an extraordinary point. The main story was sort of a love story. It was set in the 19th century in the United States in the southeast. It went from around 1820 to 1900 in North Carolina. The main story was this love story that I didn’t find very interesting. But the story that really moved me in this was the main character was so in love with the land. And between 1820 and 1900; in 1820 western North Carolina still had; although the buffalo were gone, there were still wolves and there were still mountain lions. And by 1900 the forests were gone, and he ended up, at the end of the novel he was living right next to a railroad train that would bring tourists west every day, and lumber east. And there was this beautiful line near the end. The guy’s like 90 years old at the end. And he’s saying, you know, it is all expected that in our lifetimes we will lose our parents. And we will lose our uncles and aunts, and we will lose our friends and we will lose – this is what happens to every being who’s ever been alive, is that every day we take a step closer to the end of the line where we ourselves die. And that’s expected, and everybody who’s ever lived has gone through that.

But what they haven’t gone through is the loss of their habitat. In a normal forest, a human being who lived from zero to eighty would experience trees falling down and new trees growing up, and would maybe experience drought or flood, but they would never experience, for the most part, the destruction of the entire – of growing up in a forest and then going back five years later and the place where they played as a child is now completely cut down. And that is something that I don’t think we are evolutionarily adapted to. That’s something that I think is unfathomable.

BS: Derrick, I say the same story, I say exactly what you’ve said, to children when they’re six years old, and I tell them “Wouldn’t you like to live in a magic house where the doors are made of chocolate and the windowpanes are lollipops and you open the tap and you get lemonade, and every stone is a sweet and it’s all good for you, and you go to sleep and everything you ate is back again?” I say “Well, that’s what happens with the monkeys. They live on a tree, it’s their home, they eat it and it comes back magically. If somebody were to destroy your magic home, would you be happy?” And the kids say “Uncle Bittu, no no no, we wouldn’t be happy.” I say “Well, the monkey’s unhappy as well when you go down and hack down his forest or you pollute the water.” I say “How would the whale feel when you start pouring pure poison down over it where it’s going to be living?”

The kids get it, Derrick. Somehow or the other, there’s this one other – I haven’t learned to deal with one thing, actually. Over the last 40 years I have always, always told children, reassured them that Homo sapiens doesn’t have the technology to destroy life on earth. I have always, in simple language, explained this to them, and I’ve explained this to ministers. But now when we’re fiddling around with the chemistry of the atmosphere – if we fiddle with the chemistry of the atmosphere, what separates us from Venus or Mars or Uranus or Pluto or whatever? The only thing that’s keeping Earth Earth is a living biosphere is that thin veil, that very very fragile thin veil of atmosphere. And we’re fiddling around with that. We’re taking billion year old sunshine that we call coal, oil and gas and we’re tinkering with the atmosphere to the point where who knows what happens? The methane locked up in the Arctic, all that begins to escape and we don’t know what the tipping points are.

Everything sounds like a damned cliche, you know? But the truth is I don’t know what to tell kids now, because I do believe now that human beings have found a way now to destroy life on earth. It’s called assassinating the atmosphere. That’s why I’m looking at the tri-junction of biodiversity, economics and climate change, because climate change is a spoiler for both biodiversity and the economics that keeps billions of people alive right now because that’s the medium of exchange.

So the solutions are simple. We can go around and talk of plastics. We have alternatives but they’re more expensive. We elect people who promise us something next week, next month, next year, and forget about the fact that when we have kids we are talking about 100 years from today, 60 years from today. They don’t have either a sense of history nor a sense of future. So there is a touch of despair there, because if we don’t rein in the guys who have determined that the only way to move forward and make money is to destroy the atmosphere, then I think the tubeworms in the Marianas Trench might go, and then what do I tell the kids?

I’m 70 years old, Derrick. My daytime job is just to try and see that my idiot generation is slowed down enough so that they are replaced by smarter people.

DJ: Thank you for your honesty and I completely agree with you that, you know, when you were saying before that the earth is self-healing, like there’s a cut on your hand, I completely agree with that. At the same time, if you cut off someone’s hand entirely then it doesn’t grow back.

BS: It doesn’t grow back.

DJ: You know, honestly, I don’t know if I’ve ever said this on a radio program. I don’t even know if I’ve said this in a book. But I think about it a lot. One of the reasons I take the positions I do on the environment is because I’m fundamentally a conservative person, by which I don’t mean politically conservative. I just mean I think that if – where I live, the Tolowa Indians lived here for at least 12,500 years, if you do carbon dating. They lived here a long, long time. Europeans arrived less than 200 years ago – there’s a very large river here just south of me called the Klamath. It’s the second biggest river in the United States on the west coast, after the Columbia. So it’s a big river. And it was, even as late as the 1930’s, described as “black and roiling with salmon.” Literally the entire river would be full of fish. And this is after this culture had been here 100 years. And last year, or the year before, was the first year that the Indians who live on the Klamath couldn’t do their salmon ceremonies because there weren’t enough fish.

My point is that one of the reasons that I – I care about the salmon, every species, every being has a right to live for itself. And salmon exist for more than to just feed humans, of course. But having said that, I just think it’s really silly, it’s ridiculous, to take a fish that you might eat in the future and wipe it out. That’s what I mean by conservative. It’s ridiculous to take this huge forest, this huge, like you said, the lollipop tree with the monkeys, to take that and get rid of it for no good reason.

BS: Again, these things that jump into your head, the golden goose and things like this, you know? But it’s like this, Derrick. I can see a kindred soul in you. All I think is that in India where we’re right now debating, irrespective of which political patronage is enjoyed by which politically inclined corporate guy. Who profits and who pays? Right now that debate is only “Which human being profits and which human being pays?” And the moment you talk in terms of the fact that when you do this, you’re going to lose amphibians. If you do this, you’re going to lose the bees. If you do this, you’re going to lose the fish that keep the rivers clean. The turtles, the crocodiles.

All these things were, by the way, worshipped as gods in India. I guess you’d call me an atheist. I’d be closer to a pantheist. But I don’t, somehow, understand where people get the notion that they will get a happier, more fulfilled, richer life by filling money into a bank vault that they will never see. In fact, they’ll have 15 guards around to ensure that nobody gets to see.

But here we are, in a situation where we have science on our side. We can do carbon dating. And the most successful species on Earth are the ones that have actually lived in stasis. It’s inconceivable, incomprehensible to me that anybody could think in terms of GDP growth, even at .001% infinitely, on a finite planet. How does it work? The math doesn’t work. What’s wrong with their calculators? Or is it that the gray cells in their – they’re deluded. The guys who are in charge of our planet today, because we elected them, are deluded. They imagine that they could continue to consume. And it’s not just the resources that are exhausting, are exhausted. It’s the space to dump your waste. There’s no more space to put carbon. There are no more landfills available. And the stuff we dump into our landfills, it goes into the oceans. I don’t even want to be petulant and angry and – it’s such a wasteful emotion. But there we are. You can’t see something so stupid being done and not react.

But at the same time, I come back to what we originally said. It’s our duty to be happy, Derrick. Yours, mine, everybody who’s listening in on this program. You’ve got to go out and be happy, every day. If you’re not happy, if you don’t find that happiness, then you’ll be part of the problem. You won’t be part of the solution. As I say this; this morning I was reading a small report that came to me that said that Punjab, Haryana, and western UP; this used to be called the breadbasket. There was a man called Borlaug who, with a man called Swaminathan decided that he’s going to have high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice and this and that and the other, but they involve pesticides, they involve chemical fertilizers. And now pediatricians are telling mothers in Punjab “Feed your child with breast milk for just six weeks. After that, it becomes negative to the child because your body burden of persistent organic pollutants enters that child through breast milk, and that’s going to damage the child.” Either it will be some kind of cancer, or if it’s a female, maybe she won’t be reproductive. If it’s a male his sperm counts will probably die out.

What are we doing when we start telling mothers not to breastfeed their children? I think that is an early warning sign that the world is coming to an end. But I can’t tell that to the kids. I’ve got to tell them that there’s a sense of hope.

DJ: An image that has been really important to me for decades is one I read in a book about the early days of AIDS crisis in San Francisco. There was an activist who was trying to get people to acknowledge the disease. There was a line he said that absolutely just blew me away, which was he said “Okay. You give me a number on how many people in this city have to die before you will call it an epidemic.” And then he just started counting. “Is it 50? Is it 100? 150? Give me a number. I don’t care what it is, but give me a number at which point you will talk about it.”

And I’ve thought about that ever since I read that book in the early 90’s. Give me a threshold at which you will acknowledge – not you personally, but at which we collectively will acknowledge that we have made some mistakes, and we need to turn back. And one of the thresholds that would be, I think, one that should shock people would be when breast milk is declared a carcinogen. If that doesn’t frighten people then all the talk in the world about poisoned whales or extirpated fish or amphibians – this is getting really intimate, and really close to home. And yet still we collectively would rather make more machines, make more productivity, make more – and by the way, also, you and I both know this, that productivity, increased productivity does not actually mean increased productivity. It means increased productivity in a way that serves the growth of the economic system, because a functioning forest is tremendously more productive of biomass than if you cut it down and convert it to eucalyptus forest, or eucalyptus fields or something.

BS: Absolutely.

DJ: It’s an extraordinary thing. In the Great Plains of the United States they raise a lot of cattle. The cattle raising there is very destructive, but what they’ve done – it’s not the fault of the herbivores, because prior to conquest there were 60 million bison who were happy and were making the grasslands, the prairies, what they were. And now there’s 40 million cattle, and they’re destroying it. It’s just this extraordinary thing.

I don’t know where I’m going, so you can just interrupt me and go wherever you want with any of this.

BS: No no no, I think you’ve got it right. It’s like this. Those buffalo there, they were the product of a system that allowed sunlight to turn into vegetation, to turn into calories that were eaten, and then the wolves would eat the buffalo and yes, there were always cycles of ups and downs. But you look now and it’s not just the cattle that are doing the grazing. It’s the fact that the land is being managed by human beings who are making sure there are no trees so you have pasture and when it’s finished, in the plains that you’re talking about, they’ll go to Brazil and they’ll build Interstate BR-364, and the World Bank will finance it, and then they’ll go start eating away into the rain forest. And you turn it into a Big Mac. I mean, how fantastic is that? Can you imagine? You can turn a rain forest into a Big Mac. That sounds like the future generation of human beings that inhabit this planet, if they’re still alive, are certainly not going to clap when they hear that.

But there’s more. You know, right now if you look at what’s going on in the world today – I’m a diver, okay? So I know that one of the most religious experiences is to go down, 20, 25, 35 meters down under, where you only hear the sound of your own breathing. Well, we’re polluting the oceans with plastic and that plastic is not just a question of choking, let’s say, or causing intestinal blocking in whales and dolphins and stuff like this. When it breaks down, it’s going into the plankton, for God’s sake. As it keeps breaking down, you can’t see it. But the zooplankton are dying because they’re taking this stuff in. And what happens at the end of the day? What happens? I mean, dead zones I can understand. It’s out of sight, out of mind. But this is what’s keeping us alive. But the guys on Wall Street or Dalal Street in Mumbai, they think that what’s keeping them alive is the stock market.

Neither you nor me, I think we’re both horrified at what we see, we celebrate what remains. I really don’t despair beyond a point, because the way I see it is nature is actually going to force people to not do the things that it can’t handle anymore. In India I see now that the oil, coal and gas guys are going downhill faster. Their stock values are falling, solar and wind is coming in. The air certainly isn’t getting cleaner because the people who run my country or yours don’t really understand. But I do see that nature will not give us any judgments. No “good girl” or “good boy” or “bad boy” or “bad girl.” It’ll just give consequences. And that’s why at this tri-junction of biodiversity, climate change and economics, I see climate change not as a disease but as a symptom of a disease. And the symptom of that disease is that we have fallen prey to searching for happiness by consuming more.

We have no time to stand and stare. Somebody told me the other day to look up at the sky. We were in a tiger sanctuary and you could see every single star in the sky. And we watch television every night instead. So that sense of wonder that Rachel Carson taught us all about, maybe we need to teach our children so they might be less distracted, more grateful, you know? And I’m wondering, as well.

DJ: That reminds me of something that people have, over the years, for whatever reason, people have asked me if I meditate. And I always respond “No. I live in a forest.”

BS: (laughing) Are you sure you said that? Because I say that all the time.

DJ: Oh, do you?

BS: Yeah, I do that. I wake up much earlier than most people, and I like to see dark turn to light. I go to sleep to an orchestra of frogs, and even in an urban environment I wake up to bird song. And I have to pinch myself and say “What did I do to deserve all this?”

DJ: This is so much of it. The frogs where I live are declining, as they are in many places, and in the 20 years I’ve lived in this place, it’s gone from in the spring being so loud that you can’t have a human conversation outside at night, to being fairly quiet. And I was talking to a local elected representative from the county where I live. He lives not very far from where I do. And I said to him “Have you noticed the frogs aren’t nearly as loud as they used to be?” And he said “No, I didn’t!” And it really struck me that the only way you could not notice that is if you really were never outside at night.

BS: Absolutely. You know, Derrick, you mentioned Kids for Tigers. We have a million children and we tell them actually a one-line story that takes a whole year to tell. We tell them you can’t save the tiger unless you save its forest. When you save its forest, you’ve saved every creature in that forest, plant, animal, including the tick on the back of the tiger. In the process of doing that, our 50 Indian tiger reserves are feeding pure water into 600 Indian rivers. And then we have a ten minute lecture on a four-letter word called “shit.” And I keep telling them “Look, nothing in the forest goes to waste. When a tiger drops a piece of poop down on the ground, you’ve got butterflies, you’ve got beetles, you’ve got flies, you’ve got all kinds of insects who say “Mmmm, buffet, breakfast!” They turn everything back into something that creates a forest, or another tiger.

So in the process of doing this, what we tell them is that when an elephant takes fruit from here and dumps it down somewhere with the best fertilizer in the world, a new tree comes up, and then we get into a touch of chemistry and we say “Look, here’s what photosynthesis is. The plant can only take carbon from the atmosphere, so if we want to bring the carbon down and keep biodiversity going, restore ecosystems, it’s an economic way and the world goes on.” It takes us one year to tell this story.

And sometimes – I’m not religious. I’m nature-fearing. I’m not god-fearing. But there’s a beautiful little Indian saying; “When the bamboo goes, the sound of the flute goes with it.” And that, I think, is possibly the greatest loss we’ll find. We feel, our children will feel that if they don’t hear those sounds – We tell our children that silence isn’t the absence of sound. It’s the presence of natural sounds. You know, the bird song that you were talking about, or the crickets, or the orchestra of frogs, or whatever.

DJ: We have about six or seven minutes left. Normally, with six or seven minutes left, I ask the person, the interview subject what they want people to do. But it seems you’ve been saying that through the entire interview. Nonetheless, I’m going to ask it explicitly. What do you want people to do, both children – I want you to give multiple answers. I want you to say what you want children to do, what you want young adults to do, and what you want people of my, 57, or your 70 year old, what you want people of our age to do.

BS: Well, let’s put it like this. All three of them, the first thing I want them to do is not to feel despair, but to put their hands out and search for happiness in the way that they can, by following a very simple human rights principle, that your right to swing your fist ends at the point of my jaw. And so find your happiness without destroying the biosphere. So the first thing I would do, at different levels, is this. Specifically what we ask the children to do is remind adults that this is not your world. And if you’re doing it for us, don’t do it in our name, because we don’t necessarily want your five star hotels or your twelve lane highways or your nuclear reactors. What we want is bird song and clean water. The children have actually written hundreds of postcards to chief ministers, to prime ministers, to all manner of people, saying “look: if you want to give us a gift, give us a river in which we can swim, and then we can also drink the water. We don’t need your litmus tests and things like this.” We ask the children to remind adults that “we are smaller than you, but we’re going to be you.” That’s their job, and to enjoy what they do.

As far as the young adults are concerned, I would tell them that look: don’t go like sheep to the slaughter. Open your eyes. Have a look. You’ve got a beautiful world. There’s still enough germplasm to fix everything. It’s not all gone yet. So don’t despair. But if you sit silently by and watch while somebody burns your house down, you have no right to complain that it’s cold on the outside and you’re uncomfortable. So young adults, I’m talking about between the ages of 16 and let’s say 30. I think they’re the ones who are going to make a difference, they’re the ones that stopped the Viet Nam war, after all. It wasn’t my generation. It was the 16-year-olds.

I would also tell people from the ages of 16, 15, 17, 18, 20, 30, 40, 50 that it is not the bankers. It’s not the politicians. It’s not the bureaucrats. It’s not the corporate sector. These guys are never going to change the world. They were born, at this point, to exploit it. The ones who will change the world are the singers, the musicians, the thinkers, the dancers, the philosophers, the writers, the mothers. These are the guys who are going to change the world. So if my generation wants to do anything to make things better, and we come to my generation now, first – I mean – you’re a trustee. You don’t own the damned thing. It was handed over to you, hand it over to them, as best you can. And if enough of us, and it doesn’t have to be 100% of us, if 5% of us decided that what we’re going to do is share stories of the beauty, and what can be, with the young, then possibly more than planting seeds into the ground, we plant them into the minds of the young, the chances are that things will get better because the combination of a young, hopeful, non-cynical human being, the combination of that human being with nature’s continuing self-repairing capability is possibly the most powerful force on the planet.

That’s covered all our generations, but I have to say that when I see the results of the election that took place in the United States, I am filled with fear. Not with despair, but fear. I know we will win in the end, but sometimes I wonder what did we do to deserve four extra rocks in our backpack when we’re climbing a peak that we have to climb to hand over a flag to the next generation?

Consume less. It’s all true. Happiness is not having more. Happiness is finding joy in doing something that outlasts your life. I really don’t want to be remembered as a human being who did this and that and the other. I’d rather die, my last breath saying “Look, I have put this into play and it will outlast me and it will give my genes a better chance of living a more fulfilled life.” It sounds maudlin and cliched but if you really come down to it, hard science tells us that’s what every gene wants to do. And I don’t see myself as different from a tiger or an elephant or a fish or a snail. I think I’m just programmed. I’m one of the lucky ones that understood it. The others don’t, really. I don’t know.

DJ: That’s one of the things that kills me about the sort of dominant model of the way a lot of people think about evolution. That it consists of those who are the most exploitative. It seems to me that the way creatures survive in the long run is by improving their habitat. That’s how the world got to be so beautiful and fecund and rich in the first place, is by every creature making the world a better place by their life and by their death. And as you said, by their pooping. It seems to me the most important questions. For me, one of the most important questions is “Is the real world a better place because you were born and lived and died?”

BS: Yes. You know, in the process of doing what I do, I meet all kinds of people. I even meet the politicians sometimes. I do feel like I need a shower immediately after. But I meet them, and I meet people in industry, and I meet the oil, coal and gas guys. And I see how everybody takes even the most wonderful learnings, and twists them to fit their precise ambition. For instance, whether it was Hitler or whether it was anybody else, they took Darwin and twisted his words “survival of the fittest,” they took that to mean the strongest. But Darwin took such pains to explain that it’s not the strongest. It’s not even the most intelligent. It’s the most adaptable that will survive. And that’s where I feel that the most powerful amongst us human beings have got the wrong end of the stick. They think that their money or their power or their sure ability to control things is what’s going to cause them to survive. It’s not, irrespective of anything our energy industry, our – everything – transport – everything! You take Ola or whatever these aggregated cabs are. They’ve adapted to a need. And they’re actually pointing the way to a direction. If the industrial world does not adapt to nature, nature will shut it down. It will shut cities down. Those 70, 80, 120 floor structures. They will not be able to get water up there. So I think that at some point, as I said, nature won’t give you any judgments, only consequences, and I think that this whole business of – we need to live in stasis. And I’m now wandering, so I think I must be tapped out. It’s not the strongest, it’s not the most intelligent, it’s the most adaptable. And if human beings don’t adapt, then we’re going down.

DJ: Well thank you so much for all of your work. And thank you for being on the program. I would like to thank listeners for listening. My guest today has been Bittu Sahgal. This is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network.

Filed in Interviews by Derrick Jensen
No Responses — Written on July 15th — Filed in Interviews by Derrick Jensen

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