For more than 50 years, Satish Kumar has been a prominent figure in the environmental movement. Last month, he and the Dartington-based educational institution he founded, Schumacher College, were awarded the RSA bicentenary medal and commended by the judges for “trailblazing ecological learning” and “quietly setting the global agenda”. He calls for more unity, compassion and long-term thinking in the green movement to address the nature and climate crises.

Born in India, you became a Jain monk at nine years old, made an 8,000-mile (13,000km) peace pilgrimage at 26, and later settled in Devon where you edited Resurgence magazine. Can you explain your intellectual journey from anti-nuclear campaigner to environmental activist?

I think we must be at peace with nature. But the way we are destroying rainforests, the way we treat animals in factory farms, and the way we degrade the soil are acts of war. After walking around the world for two and a half years, I realised that peace between people and peace with nature go together.

Right now, I feel the movement is not sufficiently united. There are many organisations – Extinction Rebellion, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, WWF, the Green party, Dark Mountain and so on – each focused on separate aspects and trying to build up their own memberships. We need to come together quickly because the climate and nature situation is catastrophic.

We would have more impact as one united front, like the independence movement in India under Mahatma Gandhi, or the anti-segregation movement in the United States under Martin Luther King.

Hasn’t there also been progress?

Yes. Fifty years ago, when Resurgence was advocating renewable energy, people said we were native idealistic fools in cloud cuckoo land. At that time, there was not one windmill or solar panel. Today, the UK gets more than 35% of its energy from renewables.

The Green party needs to be more successful; one MP is not enough. But the environmental movement has changed the awareness of people and governments. Many scientists are now addressing global warming, but this is a symptom not a cause.

The cause of climate change is the blind pursuit of economic growth. I want to challenge that. We need to shift from economic growth to the growth of human wellbeing and planetary wellbeing. We should not be pessimists. Pessimists can be journalists but not activists. To be an activist you need to be an optimist. I want us to remain actively hopeful.

Is there an alternative to economic growth? What is your experience with Gross National Happiness?

I was an adviser to the Gross National Happiness centre in Bhutan. I think Bhutan is pioneering something very important. One of the smallest countries in the world is teaching us that economic growth should be in the service of human and natural wellbeing rather than humans in service of the economy. That idea is spreading. There have been wellbeing summits in Paris and Bilbao, but it is not enough. Mainstream governments have not woken up to this idea.

Rishi Sunak [the UK prime minister] is still asleep and thinking economic growth can save country, but the saviour has to be wellbeing. We had economic growth for 40 or 50 years. But have the benefits reached the majority of people? Has it helped the environment? No.

Schumacher College in Dartington, Devon, teaches students to see nature not as an inanimate machine, but as a living organism.

The environmental movement has been white and middle class for a long time. Do you see more inclusivity in the newer climate justice movement?

Social justice and environmental justice are two sides of the same coin. As an Indian non-white involved in the green movement and Schumacher College, I am a symbol of inclusivity and there are more women than before and people from other ethnic groups. But there is a long way to go. I don’t think we have done enough to bring social justice into the environment movement. We need to make it more inclusive and broad based.

Should it also be more radical?

I am a Gandhian. I would say to Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion that they should act out of love and compassion not out of anger and anxiety. Without love and compassion you will quickly feel burnt out. We must feel that we love even those in the oil industry because climate change is also hurting them and their children. I am all in favour of protest, but as a Gandhian, I feel we should take suffering upon ourselves. Don’t cause inconvenience and suffering on others. Non-violent action is not to make opponents suffer but to show we are willing to suffer. Mahatma Gandhi said: “I go to prison like a groom to a bridal chamber.” That is my position.

I would like the environment movement in Britain to learn from the Gandhian movement so it is more positive. Not just no, no, no. But also yes, yes, yes.

Your focus is on education. Is that a quick enough response to urgent crises?

We need to work both in the long term and short term. In the short term, we need to reduce fossil fuels to close to zero and replace them with renewables within five years. We can’t wait until 2050. Our house is on fire. In the long term, we need ecological education and nature-centred universities.

Most of problems of the world today – global warming, biodiversity loss, plastic waste, wars and pollution – are created by leaders from universities like Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale. Why are highly educated people behaving so irrationally? It is because they are educated to think nature is only a resource, a means to and end, and that this end is economic growth. They treat people the same way – as a human resource to be used for economic growth. If we continue educating people this way, then no matter how many Cops the United Nations has, we won’t solve any problems. We need to change our worldview. We need to educate a new generation that nature is not just a resource for the economy, nature is life itself.

Second, we need education to remind us that humans and nature are not separate. At the moment we think of nature as something else – forests, mountains, birds and so on. But humans are nature.

Third, education should teach us to see nature, not as an inanimate machine, but as a living organism. James Lovelock called this Gaia – a self maintaining, self-correcting organism.

Fourth, the economy of nature is cyclical. But today we have a linear industrial economy – use it and throw it away. That is why we have oceans full of plastic, rivers full of sewage and an atmosphere full of greenhouse gases.

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How do you put these ideas in to practice at Schumacher College?

Our first teacher was James Lovelock, who taught the first Gaia course in February 1991. Schumacher College is the first to take Gaia as a serious science.

The UK education system treats young people as if they have no body, no heart, no hands, only a brain. In fact only half a brain. Most teaching aims at the left side of the brain – science, technology, management, bureaucracy, extraction. Our education system hardly addresses the right side – creativity and intuition.

Ecological education is about putting things in practice. All our students participate in gardening, cooking and making things. They are taught respect for nature and each other.

How is the school organised?

We have about 100 students in any one year. Short courses last one or two weeks. Long courses take from six months to two years. We teach regenerative economics, regenerative education and regenerative agriculture, with an MA accredited by Plymouth University. In future, we would like to become independent.

How about younger age groups?

We are campaigning for nature-centred education in primary and secondary schools alongside history, geography, maths. We would like it to be part of O-levels [GCSEs]. I would like to see every school in Britain have a garden in the same way they all have sports fields. If you can’t experience nature, you can’t understand nature. But people hardly touch the soil these days.

Schools need a place to touch the soil, plant seeds, see how fruits and vegetables ripen, how they are harvested and how they are cooked. Students learn by doing. Not just by data from a computer screen.

Schumacher College is based in Dartington, which has a reputation for new age thinking. Has that helped or hindered you?

There were some new age things, but that is not the whole story. Dartington has been an incubator of many good new ideas, some of which have gone mainstream. For example, the idea for the Open University came from Michael Young, who was a product of Dartington School and served as a Dartington trustee.

Dartington is also known as a hothouse of environmental thinking. Is that still the case?

Yes, many of the pioneers of the green movement – Maurice Ash, John Lane, Michael Young – were based here. The Schumacher lectures were also supported by Dartington. Some have attracted audiences of 500 to 700 people with pioneering environmental speakers such as Jonathon Porritt, Caroline Lucas, James Lovelock, Vandana Shiva, Ben Goldsmith, Amory Lovins.

What do you say to those who say you are too idealistic?

It’s time to give idealism a chance – renewable energy, nature-centre education, organic farming. Realists say they are practical, but they are bringing havoc. We inherited such a beautiful world. Our creative ancestors passed on art, religion and culture. But what are today’s realists leaving for future generations? Climate change, nature extinction, war in Ukraine, war in Gaza and other catastrophes.

The time for realists is over. I am very happy to be idealistic.

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