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Sustainability Videos & Lecture Series

From The Dusty Soil: What a Village in India Taught Me About the Global Village

February 21, 2008 | Jeff Biggers discussed Mitraniketan, a legendary village revitalization project in Kerala that turned one of the most deforested, overpopulated and depressed villages in India into a model of sustainable living and ecological restoration.


This presentation is brought to you by Arizona State University's Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and a generous investment by Julie Ann Wrigley.


Charles Redman:

What we're trying to do is reach across all ranges of inquiry that relate to sustainability and bring in some people who have made contributions or have unique perspectives. And Jeff fits this bill. And we were talking a little bit about how he fits it. And he's declaimed being a scientist. And I declaim the need to be a scientist, that to make the world sustainable, we're going to have to look at it in all different ways and communicate those understandings and questions to people in a variety of forms.

And Jeff comes to us as a writer and a journalist. And I was going to say a creative writer and a journalist. But then I got worried whether journalists should be creative writers or not. And so he can speak to that or not as he wants. But I look forward to hearing his perspective on community development and on his own experiences around the world. Jeff.

Jeff Biggers:

Thanks, Chuck. You know, I am not a scientist. And I do not have a terminal degree but a terminal curiosity, as I tell my wife, who has a terminal degree. Howdy. Hi.

See? Five minutes was the right thing. There you go. You guys have to sit in front. It's close.

No problem. I have spoken at about 30-plus universities in the past couple of years and in about 25 states and all sorts of conferences and whatnot. I was at the writer’s conference here yesterday.

And typically, I talk about coal because that's my next book. I'm looking at the cultural and human costs of coal. But it's really depressing. It's really a downer.

And it's about strip mining and indigenous people and death and legal slavery in the backyard of Abraham Lincoln and death and more strip mining and my grandfather, who got crushed in a mine, and black lung, and death. And I'm very happy not to talk about coal today. But there's a problem. These lights. These lights.

Every time I turn on a light switch, I lose my homestead-- 200-year-old homestead. And we shouldn't talk about that in Phoenix at the Global Institute of Sustainability, should we? Because

APS today-- it's a glorious day. APS announced that they're creating a solar plant in Gila Bend, home of the Space Age Restaurant. [CHUCKLING]

And so I shouldn't be talking about coal in the midst of our Sonoran Desert, where we have the sun, should I? Aw man, we just lost my homestead again-- strip mined. Because you see, these lights, they go out in these wires. And these wires go down. And your bills go to APS that you pay every day.

And APS goes to the Cholla Power Plant. And the Cholla Power Plant gets on this coal train. And it goes across New Mexico or Mexican. And the Mexican-American miners have gone on for 200 years getting the coal.

And it goes on that coal train across the Great Plains. And they all voted for Barack Obama. And it keeps going across the plains into the Midwest. And it crosses the Mississippi River, through my Southern Illinois, where my family comes from-- the coalfields.

And they keep going. These lights keep going. Your lights keep going.

The coal train goes all the way through the Cumberlands, down across the Bluegrass, into the Cumberland Mountains, goes over the Cumberland Gap. And your coal from APS-- your lights today, right now-- go to Black Mountain, Virginia. APS has bought coal from Black Mountain, Virginia, where I have been.

Black Mountain, Virginia-- there's a family called the Davidson family. And they were sleeping one night. And they heard a rumble-- not the rapture of God. It was a rumble of a strip mine, what we call mountaintop removal, where we don't even bother to strip mine like the old days or put people underground, but where we drop explosives, blow up the mountain, push it into the valley.

And we have destroyed 1,000 miles of waterways in Appalachia. We have destroyed 470 mountains-- destroyed them. They're gone. They don't exist anymore-- blown up.

And all these communities-- if you go to Logan County, if you go near Black Mountain, people can't drink their water because of your lights. And the Davidson family woke up in the middle of the night because a strip mine above them from your coal came down. And a boulder shook for 649 feet, smashed through their window, and killed their 3-year-old son.

And yet every presidential candidate today, including Barack and Hillary and John McCain, believe in coal, believe in what's happening with APS, believe in mountaintop removal. And scientists want to tell us that we can have clean coal to generate our energy. And there's cap and storage and cap and trade.

And it's true, perhaps we can have no emissions. But please, do not let anyone ever tell you when you turn on your lights again here in Arizona-- Phoenix-- that there's such a thing as clean coal. Just remember the Davidson family, that 104,000 Americans and immigrants have died in our mines. 250,000 Americans have died of black lung and thousands of people from accidents.

We had an accident last week in Eastern Kentucky-- a pregnant woman killed because a coal truck crashed into her. There's no such thing as clean coal. That's why I don't talk about coal. Isn't it a downer?

You all are looking very tense now. But you know, we say in literature, one of my great heroes is the Czech writer Milan Kundera, that said the struggle of writing for people like me-- I'm a storyteller, and I'm very intimidated by wearing a microphone because I generally make everything up-- is that it's the struggle between memory and oblivion. And part of sustainability is for us to capture memory and not obliterate it when we talk about planning for the future. And therefore, you have to begin with the dead if you're going to talk about the living. You have to look at history and make that part of our issues of sustainability.

In December of 2004, I got on the plane to go back to India. I actually got the plane from Phoenix. I'd been visiting my folks here two days after the tsunami hit India.

I got an email. I was checking in the airport of LA. And it said, Jeff, six more bodies have washed ashore.

And my plane, of course, was rerouted. I was supposed to land in Sri Lanka, but, of course, the devastation-- I couldn't. And we had to go around in different places until I could arrive at the very southern bottom tip of India, down here, of Kerala, this sort of California-type state, or like Chile, that goes along the coast of the Arabian Sea. It comes out here at the Indian Ocean. And they were very lucky. They only had 1,000 people killed by the tsunami, compared, of course, what happened inland, of Tamil Nadu and the Bay of Bengal, of course, and those areas.

As I was coming in on the plane to Trivandrum, you could see, literally, the devastation along the coast of Tamil Nadu. And you couldn't think of a more hopeless place on Earth in that moment, a place-- there would be no renewal, no restoration. And the media captured, of course, this man from the Nicobar Islands, who had a bow and arrow, who was shooting at a helicopter bringing in aid. And that was the media's impression of these islanders off India.

And at the same time, there was this book just about ready to hit every bookstore in America that gave a different impression of India-- that the world is flat, that suddenly we have this great boom in India of technology, that they're taking your jobs, that Thomas Friedman told us, it's all level playing ground. India has measured up now-- the great boom of India-- that now our economies are going to be equal because the great technology boom. The same time that we're looking at this devastation, this strange sort of dichotomy-- this paradox between the media's hang-up of a man shooting a bow and arrow. And then suddenly this obsession now we have with India of being this high-tech nation, and that's it. We always go from sort of the maharajahs of Vanity Fair to the other extreme now, over here, of high tech.

And we land. And I'm sitting next to this young man from India, who works in the technology industry in the States. And he's one of Thomas Friedman's zippies.

Thomas Friedman told us some very important things. He said that this is going to change the way we have a future in the world, of course, is the technology coming out of India. He had this revelation when he was on the golf course in Bangalore, using his 9 iron.

He saw a billboard for Pizza Hut, and it hit him that the world is flat, that it's a level playing ground. He told his daughters, I used to say, my mother said, eat because people are starving in India. And now I tell my daughters, eat because they're starving [INAUDIBLE]. Going to come and take your jobs in the United States. And I'm sure they even crossed the Salt River and taking your jobs here at the Global Institute of Sustainability.

That somehow, there's this invasion of Indian zippies coming, with their high-tech prowess. All of our outsourcing-- you can't make a call now that it goes straight to India. And someone with an Indian accent says, hi, this is Stacy. Can I help you? That this is the future, in this time of devastation of the tsunami.

If you go through The World Is Flat-- and I'm assuming a lot of you have read that book because it's really probably one of the most influential texts that our young people are reading today-- you finally get to page 460. It's a long book, sort of a Tolstoyian novel. And you get to 460. And he says, oh, there's a little footnote here. The world is not flat, by the way.

What I'm referring to is 0.02% of the Indian population, that if we talk about all the manufacturing, import, export, complete, combined, with high-tech and anything else we can associate it with, we're talking about 2% of the Indian economy, that at our best estimates, 42 million Indians are online today. Wow-- 42 million Indians are online today. What about the other 960 Indians?

And Thomas Friedman said, what we need to do-- and his most moving time in India was to go to Kerala, to a school for poor kids, where this amazing social entrepreneur in Kerala, who's a wonderful man-- and I forget his name-- who created this school to teach American English and American-style curriculum to get the kids out of the village, because that's the gutter of India, and to get them to the cities, that that is the goal of The World Is Flat. And I bring up Thomas Friedman, not because he's a dear friend of mine. Isn't this great? They're just overflowing. They're coming in from all over.

You could pull some of those chairs around here. There's plenty of room on this side. And there's a couple more chairs up here.

It's OK. It's like the dramatic pause in the presentation.


Hey, brother cameraman, I'm sorry. I'm, like, moving around. Is that OK, or is it just a lost cause?

Camera director: Move all you want.

Jeff Biggers:

All right. Get paid a little extra. But I bring up Thomas Friedman for something that's very important.

It's very dangerous, what's going on right now in terms of our look at sustainability, in terms of what we view-- the idea that the glittering urban reality is the only future for sustainable living in some of these countries I find is an incredibly dangerous road that I'm going to address. Thomas Friedman doesn't tell us a lot, even though he tells us the world is not flat. And it's a wishful thinking.

He doesn't tell us that 1.2 billion people in the world are living on $1 a day. And 2 billion other people are living on $2 a day. He doesn't tell us that in India, 35% of the children are malnourished, a statistic that rivals sub-Sahara Africa, that 1 in 11 children in India-- and it's even worse in the cities-- are suffering from infant mortality, that 1 in 5 out of the children in the urban areas die under the age of 5 from infant mortality.

He doesn't tell us that this shift to the global slums-- what the United Nations called the silent tsunami-- has completely altered the geographic map today, that for the first time ever in our existence, we have more people now living in the cities than the rural areas, not in India but in the world, and that 1 billion people are living in slums. The Institute for Sustainable Future in Mumbai did a remarkable study, saying, what does it mean to live in a slum of Mumbai-- Bombay, we call it-- Mumbai, where 80% of the sewage goes straight into the sea or the water sources, where there's substandard housing for the majority of the people? What does it mean when there's not drinkable water for the majority of the people and living off the grid and the impact of energy? And I won't even bring up India and coal. What does this mean?

The Institute for Sustainable Future in Bombay said, we have to come with the grips with the question, how do we create human settlements that can function as self-sustaining habitats? And can we do that in the cities? The key word, of course, is human habitats-- human. How do we put the humanity back into our equation of sustainability, not just as environmentalists but people looking at the human reality?

My friend-- my zippie friend here, sitting on the airplane with me-- was going home. He was tired of living in the States. He had created a software program that made CDs and DVDs. He said, I want to get back to my village. I've just decided I want to get back to my village.

And there's an incredible trend now of Indians and Indian-Americans getting back to their ancestral villages. He said, Thomas Friedman tells us that 250,000 jobs are being outsourced. But he didn't tell us that in that same period, 150,000 farmers have committed suicide in India, thanks largely to companies like Monsanto, who sell genetically modified seed, who sell with Bollywood actors incredibly expensive fertilizer, who sell and create people in credible debt to farmers, who then, because of global warming and whatnot, have a dry season and can't pay their debts and then drink the fertilizer or chemical and commit suicide-- 150,000 suicides in India during this same period of 250,000 jobs of outsourcing.

He said, this is the kind of question I want to struggle with in my village. And I said, you know what? That's why I'm going to India.

I'm going to Kerala, that bottom tip, where I went in 1993. I've traveled the world obsessively for 20 years, looking at communities that function in Latin America, South America, throughout Europe, Eastern Europe, in the Mediterranean, throughout the Americas, South Pacific. And it was one little strange community in Kerala that I've taken with me everywhere.

I said, it's just at the very bottom tip. And you go to Trivandrum. And you go up, and you zigzag up-- all the way up, 25 kilometers. It's very close to Trivandrum. And you go all the way from the foothills of the Western Ghats. You're not quite in the Ghats yet, but you're in the foothills.

And there you come to a village. And if you look down, it's not very far away. You can go all the way to the Mountain of Agastya. And for those of you who are from India, and I start butchering Indian words, please forgive me.

And from this amazing mountain, on the border of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, 6,000 feet-- it's the Prometheus overseer who came from the north, who came down this great deity on Agastya to teach the people how to balance the cosmos and live in harmony with the land, sort of like a tenured professor at the Global Institute for Sustainability.

Are you shaking your head on that one? Let's not even go there? I said, and you look--


The disadvantage of being this close.

All right, I won't look at you anymore. I said, if you look down, you see this just sea of green. It's amazing.

It's Kerala. National Geographic called it-- it was ranked number seven of Paradises on Earth. That's why we have direct flights around the world into Kerala. I'll never forget. Two days after the tsunami, huge thing on the website-- you can still come to our beaches. We're not dead yet.

Tourism is the industry-- ecotourism. We've all been there to see the elephants, go down the canoes. You drink a coconut, go to the wildlife parks that have been ethnically cleansed of the tribal people. But we won't talk about that.

I said, if you look down from Agastya, the mountain there, you'll see this village near Veliyanad. Thomas Friedman would love it-- my buddy, Tom Friedman. It was the first village panchayat in all of India to be computerized. It is also the one place during the time of tsunami that I think there is hope for renewal and restoration. And I told my zippie friend, this is why.

Imagine 50 years ago-- 1955-- this same area completely deforested, completely strip mined by the graphic mines-- graphite mines-- I don't even know what that is-- by massive logging companies. In 1955, in this little area called Veliyanad, one of the most overpopulated places on the planet. 80% of the people living in the Veliyanad area-- landless peasants in the lowest caste. Don't say untouchables-- the lowest of the lowest caste.

And, of course, Henry Maine, who wrote his 19th-century thing looking at the village there in India wouldn't apply here, because these are people who've been dragged in to work into the mines and work into the lumber areas and then were left there in these untouchable colonies. And there's a few upper caste who own some land. But it's just desperation-- sheer, deforested desperation. Suicides, children-- amazing misery and disease.

And there's one man from there who has just returned from the United States. He went to the United States in 1953. He'd been funded by the Quakers. He had gone to Europe. And his idea was to travel the world to look for all the best ideas and to come back to his village.

And in 1953-- do you remember 1953? Yeah, great year-- first color TV comes into America. Hugh Hefner starts Playboy magazine, Fahrenheit 451, the great Ray Bradbury novel, of course, that Michael Moore stole the title from.

McCarthy's on a roll. He's clearing them out in Washington, all those Reds. Everybody's on that post-war boom, driving big old Cadillacs, buying a refrigerator for the first time.

You remembering this? And this Indian is completely turned off by it. It's not why he came for his untouchable village.

And he goes into Appalachia, to a little school. This is the Global Institute for Sustainability of Appalachia, founded in 1932 by hillbillies, to look about a very radical idea. We live in the most destroyed and devastated and deforested area, with no sustainable economy. How can we come together as a community and decide our future in connection with the land and our economy, in 1932 at the Highlander Folk School?

And he was riveted by these ideas of folk school, and sustainable agriculture, and a self-sufficient economy. And in 1955, there was this black woman sitting next to him, named Rosa Parks, who had come up herself from Montgomery, and was trained, and then four months later, would go back to Montgomery, begin the Civil Rights movement. And he was fascinated by these kind of communities.

He went to Yellow Springs, Ohio, an amazing community in the Midwest I'll tell you about a little bit later. And he got on his plane, and he came all the way back to his village, to this devastation in 1955. The first thing everybody told him was, you're educated. You've gone to the elite universities. You've gone to America. You've been in Europe.

Go away. Go to the cities. What are you doing here?

The American Embassy came and offered him money to create a rural institute, which was in fad at that point, sort of a community college before universities that they were trying to do and everybody afterwards in the 48th Commission were trying to put together. They said, here's all this money. But get out of this place.

Go down to the beach in Kovalam. That will attract the Americans. He said, no. His father was deeply in debt, like most people. And he said, if we can do sustainable living, it has to be in the most desolate and disconsolate place that I can imagine, which is where I grew up in this community.

So for you all who are taking notes, here is point number one. Gandhi has not left the building. And for all of you who are too young to know the Elvis Presley joke on that, you're too young to know that.

Gandhi, of course, this naked Indian who sort of is like the Martin Luther King figure. Martin Luther King had one dream, and that was it. And now we've strip mined Martin Luther King to be this kind of very quaint, cutesy, Black History Month figure, not realizing that Martin Luther King was about so many other things.

Gandhi, of course-- we had this wonderful, cute, little naked man who was about peace and peace. And then he got shot by a bunch of Hindu fundamentalists. And he just always with that charkha, trying to get everybody into the drudgery of poverty and sleeping with girls and trying to talk about his celibacy. Who was this Gandhi character?

For Viswanathan-- that was this man's name, Viswan-- Gandhi had one meaning to him, the village republic, that you have to live in a manageably small unit. And it has to be in a village to be democratic. Now Gandhi was not some kind of romantic pie in the sky.

He was someone who had created basic education. He had done all these other development programs. He moved into the worst part of Gujarat and the other areas to say, we have to go to the worst areas to live in a self-sustaining way.

And, of course, we've extrapolated that from the far, saying, I'm not going to live like that. I'm not going to live in volunteer poverty. But we miss a very important component of what Gandhi said was not the volunteer poverty, was that we have to create a self-reliance of our villages, that we can sustain ourselves, because it's not that we're being idealistic about the village, romantic about the village. What we're saying is we cannot sustain huge cities.

Gandhi wrote this amazing document, saying that if all the Indians go to the cities, 50 years in the future we will have abominations outside of our control, that he was being realistic-- dead realistic. We can't have mega-slums, megacities, and, of course, very, amazingly foreseeing of what we had.

Now, for some of you who are thinking I'm a typical romantic, naive American about villages, I love to have my devil's advocate. And it's not Tom Friedman. We'll let him go.

Do you know who Arundhati Roy is? Yea, nay?

Audience members: Yes. Yes.

Jeff Biggers:

OK, this provocative, iconoclast. She wrote one of the most amazing novels ever that won the Booker Prize. She's from Kerala. She grew up two hours from Mitraniketan.

She's about this big. And she is feisty. And she is brilliant.

And in 2003, she came to Riverside Church, where Martin Luther King was. And she said, America, you are not a great nation and devastated us with this kind of speech of our role in imperialism. And when India became a nuclear nation, she declared herself a republic of one, that she was seceding from India because she refused to be part of a nuclear future. And if she was here today, she would, of course, push me aside and say, listen, you long, lanky hillbilly.

She wrote, "All those sanctimonious politicians, they tell us, India lives in its villages. That's all we hear. And it is always more of the same bullshit.

"India does not live in its villages. India dies in its villages. India is trapped in its villages. And its villages only serve as vassal colonies, to be fed into the cauldron of the cities."

How do I talk to Arundhati Roy, who is from Kerala, about a phenomenon less than two hours from where she is? And for that reason, I need to go back and talk about Viswanathan, and Mitraniketan, who created a village I think even Arundhati Roy would want to visit. He came to his village.

His father owned one acre of land-- dry land. You have wetlands, which are the valleys-- the paddies, where you'd have rice and whatnot, everything covered by coconut trees. Kerala, of course, means the land the coconuts.

And then you had all these hills, very much like Appalachia or in the Piedmont. His dad owned one acre of land that completely had nothing on it. He couldn't grow anything on it, had been completely deforested. There was not anything but a single cashew tree and his hut.

And he began with the idea is, number two, we have to call the soil back to life. That's the first thing I have to do. And so Viswanathan went down to Trivandrum. And there he met with scientists and academics like yourselves and said, teach me on how I have to deal with my soil.

And these academics, of course, are just desperate to get out of their offices, like I'm sure all of you are. And they left out. And they came.

And there was no road to Vellanad, except for a very windy way. And he had to get them in. And it would take days to get up there, even though it's just a very few kilometers.

And they began to show him on how to do contour bunding and terracing and whatnot, and soil management, and revitalization, and planting trees. And the villagers all around him said, you're nuts. People are starving, and you're planting trees-- teak and mahogany. These things will take years for your investment.

And Viswanathan just started planting trees. And the only people that would help him were about 3 feet tall, these 5-year-olds and 6-year-olds and 7-year-olds. Only children would come to help him because everybody else thought he was nuts.

He had turned down arranged marriages with wealthy women in Trivandrum. He had turned down an academic job at Trivandrum. He had turned down a government job back in New Delhi to plant his trees.

And then with the children, they started to plant cassava in a different way. Cassava, of course, is tapioca. It came from Brazil and then made the Middle Passage, with slaves from Portugal, and was introduced into Portugal. And Portugal, of course, brought it over to India when they made the colonies down there in Kerala. And cassava became a staple for the people in Kerala.

And he started planting in a different way. Instead of zillions of plants in a row, but making natural fertilizer and organic fertilizer. And everybody laughed. And Viswanathan would show the children that when you had the monsoon rains that if you did not have proper soil, everything would be washed away from erosion.

And because they had terraced and done the contour bunding because they had set up irrigation palms and water palms, and because they had done these different ways of setting up their cassava and leafy vegetables and beginning to diversify his garden, they were the only people who successfully farmed that first year. And farmers began to watch.

Now 1957-- '56, '57-- is a very important year in India. But mostly, it's very, very important in Kerala. Here we are at the bottom tip.

And Nehru can't stand what's going on in Kerala. And there's all these goddamned communists down there. He called them a bunch of intellectual anarchists. And he dissolved the government because the communists took over.

And then they had open elections again, and the communists won. And the communists came in. And they said, Viswanathan, you've been in America. You must be with the CIA.

And they attacked him. You come with the communists, or we'll burn you down. And he said, I'm not political-- no politics, no government.

And then the Catholic Church, because of the huge role of Christians and the Syrian Church and also the Catholicism, came to him and said, you must be a communist. Otherwise, why would you be working with the poor people? He came from the lowest caste. And they threatened to burn him down.

But the Communist Party came into Kerala and began to institutionalize land reform, and education reform, and women's rights. And then they lost power. But their ideas stayed there.

And then they gained power. Then they lost power. Then they gained power. And they lost power. And I've lost track. It's sort of like the Italian government. They've fell and dropped about 61 times in the past 50 years. But the idea changed Kerala completely. And Kerala became a very different state than the rest of the country. But still, you had this man out there planting his trees.

Chapter two-- it takes not a village to raise a child. It takes a child to raise a village. Because everybody thought Viswanathan was a nut, he started to work with the children.

And under that one cashew tree, he would give lessons in music and art and languages and whatnot. And then he noticed the kids would be coming in and that there was extreme severity of the relationship-- that they hated school, that there were 80 kids in a classroom, that they were beaten with corporal punishment, that their parents would beat them, that there was this incredible violence going on in the household. And so Viswanathan offered to create the first preschool-- a Montessori preschool-- to take the children from the parents during the day, and then an after-school program to work on their homework, at the same time have them beginning to work in gardening and the forestry program.

And it was like a wolf in sheep's clothing. He wanted to get to the parents through the children. And there, they began to talk about integrated agriculture begins with what we eat.

And so he would start serving the kids from the garden leafy vegetables. And where do we get our vitamin A, and where do we get our vitamin D? And these chickens now make eggs. And we don't sell the eggs, but we eat them.

And where are we going to get our vitamin Cs? And why are women who are pregnant not eating papaya because of certain ancient reasons? And suddenly, we looked at the diet. And the kids would go home and say, I'm not eating unless I have green vegetables, and vitamin A, and vitamin D, and vitamin B.

And then he began with a health care plan. And one of the worst problems, of course, was worms. And that's why you still have this terrific infant mortality of worms and whatnot of the sewage system.

And the government, of course, and all government programs came and dumped these slabs to make latrines. And nobody used them. They used the slab for the latrine to wash their clothes instead.

And so with the children, they were called kakoos in Malayalam. And he became the Kakoo Man. And everybody had to use the latrine.

And then they had volunteer parties to go to each house, because the kid would tell his mom and dad, I refuse to pee or poop unless I have a proper latrine so it doesn't go into our drinking water, it doesn't go into our garden we're beginning to plant. And the volunteer parties began to build latrines and then start building other waterworks areas and water management.

And the children just went step by step with every policy, until the school went from the first Montessori preschool-- and did you all know that Montessori, of course, had to flee to India during World War II? Montessori lived in India for six years. And her ideas went throughout India. There were more Montessori preschools in India than all of Europe at one point.

It went on from a preschool, to a kindergarten, a first grade, to today you have a university or a college. But very important ideas-- number one-- I'm sorry I'm having to use my notes here. I'm the son of a preacher, if you haven't figured it out by now. And you're not supposed to use the notes, you know. The gospel's just supposed to flow out of you, sort of like a channel from Gandhi, dear Gandhi.

Number one aspect of these schools-- think about this. This was the 1950s in India-- with the lowest of the lowest caste, on the borderlands of the tribal, the Adivasi people, who started coming in, and the only people that would deal with them would be Viswanathan-- is that the first principle is the schools had to be open air, that you cannot teach within four walls-- beautiful schools outdoors. The second principle is you had to incorporate ecology into the curriculum, that our science, and math, and literature, and language had to go through the ecology of planting in the garden and training in the area.

Number three was that all children had to work, not for the drudgery of labor, at your charkha, spitting out your little [? kathi, ?] that you could wear it, but to learn to be self-sufficient. It's a funny thing that should work, no? Not that you're going to a tech school, a vocation school, like we shipped off the Native Americans from Phoenix to at the Phoenix Indian School-- go learn and become a blacksmith. But you're doing all types of works. It was to shatter the caste discrimination.

But more importantly, it was trying to teach people just to function. About two months ago, I was in North Carolina speaking at a university. And a professor told me-- he said, it's amazing what happened. The car broke down. I was with a group of football players, and our van broke down on the way to a game.

And there were nine football players-- big guys, macho guys, lot of tattoos. And not one knew how to change a tire. Everybody in here know how to change a tire?

And then he thought, well, OK. So the professor gets out and changes the tire, shows them, that's a hubcap. And that's how it works.

And then he said, raise your hand if you've ever changed your oil. Raise your hand if you've ever changed your own oil. All right.

And then raise your hand if you know where the spark plugs are in your car. And oh, wow, man, you guys are ahead of the game. You should move to North Carolina. And I think that's what Viswanathan was trying to do is that just the basics of society-- kids need to know how in the sense of self-sustainability.

Number four was there had to be arts and culture in all the programs to shatter these boundaries, and that he was bringing in international languages, and songs, and arts, both from sculpture and the visual arts to literature and, of course, the amazing heritage that you had in Kerala, with Kathakali and so many other-- the dancing, and storytelling, and whatnot. And the fifth part was that they had to find a role in society by the time they graduated from school. He said, we are not creating scholars in our college. We are creating great citizens.

He got this idea from the Danish folk schools. And this is why I went to India in the first place. Appalachia was inspired by Denmark, because in the 19th century, Denmark found itself liberated for the first time in the mid-19th century.

But they had lost their language. They had lost their traditions. They had no economy.

Denmark has absolutely no natural resources. LEGOs, of course, import the wood and then make their LEGOs. I think their only natural resource is beer. And I don't even know where they get their amber grain.

And the Danes had this incredible theologian, who said, you not only have to learn your language, but you have to learn your role in society. What is the role of the fisherman? What is the role of the farmer?

What's the role of the housewife? What's the role of the young person? What's the role of the city dweller, the plumber? What is your contribution?

And this all seems very romantic. But we have Denmark today for what it is because of these folks schools. It's the only mass education system we've had for adults that has effectively altered a nation's destiny. And the end result is they created LEGOs.

And so he took this idea back, of course, and that the kids had to start learning some sort of not profession but role in society that would be part of a bigger look, that I'm not training you to become a potter, or a craftsman, or a basket maker, or a farmer. I'm not training you to become a teacher, or a mechanic, or a vocational school. I'm training you to have some sort of way to be part of the society.

The sixth point of his schools in sustainability-- it has to be beautiful. Beauty-- think about it. How often do we talk about beauty in sustainability?

And that's the thing that gets you first about Kerala is when you go there, you go, man alive, it's beautiful here. It's why National Geographic picked it as a paradise because it's gorgeous. And so the Mitraniketan school shaped themselves on beauty.

And, of course, the idea came from Rabindranath Tagore. Viswanathan had been this lower caste. And he'd been an activist with Gandhi. And when Gandhi was assassinated, he didn't know what to do.

And he was a troublemaker in the village and had been beaten severely. And his father was worried he was going to be killed. And so they made a deal with the uncle.

And they borrowed a tremendous amount of money, and they shipped him off to the one place that Viswanathan, as a young man, was willing to go. And that was Santiniketan. That was Tagore's university he had created outside of Calcutta, the great elite institution.

I daresay it's the first global institute on sustainability, looking at East and West. It's where Nehru sent his daughter Indira Gandhi. It's where all the elite of India went in the early period after independence.

And Tagore said, this university is my tangible poem. He said, the children hunger for the epic. And we just give them facts.

And so the idea of creating this university was this amazing place where you would have ideas. But Tagore became fed up with his universities. He said, they're all a bunch of lotus-eaters-- elitist. They are going back to the power structure.

If you don't realize that Santiniketan was built in a completely destroyed and deforested area itself. And so he went down the road 7 miles to this mosquito-infested swamp and created Sriniketan as a rural institute and development looking at village life. And one of the first things he did in 1928 was create the Festival of the Trees and the amazing poems.

And, of course, Tagore was this incredible icon, with the idea of beauty and the glory of trees. And Tagore, of course, has been written off as this kind of flowery, beaded, this kind of a guru with his super long beard and his white robes. And he was gorgeous, and all the women were in love with him.

And he won the Nobel Laureate in 1930-- '13, excuse me. And everybody thought he was the great mystic. And they didn't realize that Tagore's great value in India was as an educator-- the only man on this planet who wrote two national anthems, for Bangladesh and India, who had his own music form, who had his own painting form, who wrote scores of novels and collections of stories and whatnot.

But he said, what is most important to me was that little rural institute to see how we can live in beauty in our villages. And Viswanathan took this back to Mitraniketan. As you can see, I'm obviously on a tourist junket with Mitraniketan to try to get you guys to go there.

The next part of Mitraniketan was born in Yellow Springs, Ohio. I love globalization. I am a total mongrel.

I don't even speak English to my children because I was very smart. I married a foreigner from a beautiful country to get really good vacations out of it. I married someone from Italy. And I believe in adapting, and adopting, and taking as much as we can from countries around the world.

Gandhi was that way. Gandhi was not a close-minded provincialist. He said we should keep the doors open to all cultures. But we should just not be knocked off our feet by them, that we should accept everything.

When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in South Africa, he said four words-- thank God and thank Gandhi, looking at this incredible role that Indians had had in South Africa. And Viswanathan began to do something in India, which had its roots in the Midwest of Yellow Springs, Ohio. The idea is that you, in part of sustainability, have to have functioning small economies that are self-reliant, that are plugged into a national economy. We call them cottage industries. But somehow, that has become a dirty word of arts and crafts and whatnot.

But the true idea came from a man named Arthur Morgan. This extraordinary man who dropped out of high school because of health care traveled out west, came back, and started working as a surveyor. And there in Dayton, Ohio, where there was flooding, he was the one who came after the massive floods and put the town back together.

But he started putting schools together for workers who worked on the dams. And then eventually, he was hired by Roosevelt to be head of the TVA, because his idea was we have to have TVA, not create huge dams that displace people that Arundhati Roy had been fighting in India. But we have to create communities around these dams that are sustainable, that can continue to live there. And we still have an amazing imprint of Arthur Morgan.

Of course, Roosevelt fired Arthur Morgan because he was a socialist. And he went back to Yellow Springs, to Antioch College. And Antioch College, of course, had become the great school under Horace Mann there in Yellow Springs, and then it collapsed. And when Arthur Morgan took it back up again, it was the idea that you went to school for one semester and worked for one semester. And he turned Antioch, of course, into what it is today-- one of the great symbols of education-- avant-garde education.

But the idea is we have to live in this tiny little Midwestern village. And we have to have industries that work. And so he brought engineers and scientists to create ideas.

And Viswanathan stayed with Morgan. And he went back to Kerala with these same kind of ideas and began to start his cottage industries ideas. And so he went into rural technology.

And the idea was you should invent. You should adapt. You should adopt. You should look at whatever you see, and then we find funding by working.

The idea is not to be against technology but to incorporate technology with indigenous ideas. And they created a rural technology center that became the focal point for the weaving industry, that went from cotton to having the first industry ever of silk in Kerala. And in the matter of a very few years, it became one of the most important metalworks industries, one of the most important areas in terms of pottery, became very important in many other industries, in fact, that he created 60 cooperatives based on these small industries.

The most important to him, though, was the construction industry-- architecture, something I would never even think about. And there was this man named Laurie Baker, this Quaker from Britain, who had come in as a soldier to India and then just stayed because he loved it, and who said, we need to create building sustainable architecture that matches what's happening in India. And so Viswanathan begged him to come down to Kerala. And there, Laurie Baker became very famous as the mud architect.

And he started using these mud bricks, that everything in the community has to be built from the resources of the community. His rule was you cannot get anything outside. And these huge concrete buildings were starting to rise in Kerala and be deteriorating and look awful-- these closed walls. And so he started designing these homes based on these traditional pagoda and many other Keralan architecture, where you have these incredible drafts and breezes, and these vaulted ceilings, and areas where the heat would come in and out.

He used materials that would breathe. And he had these muds, that everything was built by the Mitraniketan people. And they were gorgeous.

For the roofs, he used palm fronds. And everybody said, we used those forever, and they would fall apart. And therefore, they sat down, and they started creating their own cashew oil that they painted over, that allowed them to last more than five years and then up to 10 years. The idea is we can invent things using our traditional areas. And so the construction energy took off from Mitraniketan all through Vellanad, this kind of housing-- beautiful housing, once again, all built for a fraction of the cost of all these other industries that they created.

The last part I want to talk about is the most important, and that is the issue of how they feed themselves and agriculture. From day one, the first thing of calling back the soil and bringing back the native forest was for two reasons. One is because Viswanathan's grandfather had been ayurvedic natural medicine, who used-- a doctor. He used the natural herbs, and he wanted those back.

But the other reason was to begin a sustainable, integrated agriculture that virtually everybody in Kerala and many part of the Green Revolution that eventually hit India in the '60s and '70s were going towards cash crops, or single crops in the agriculture. And you had a boom-and-bust cycle in many areas, that people were growing things that they couldn't eat in order to sell it and have money. And then when you had a bad season, people had nothing.

And so what they started to do was this pattern of these farm science centers called KVKs, where they'd develop integrated management, where they would show people that you have parts of your land-- the very little bit of land everybody had-- to grow food that you would eat, food that you would sell, and rice and tapioca, and then cash crops-- things like vanilla and whatnot or other industries that they'd come up with. And this became a very important part. The idea was it's not just organic integrated agriculture, but it's part of the integrated community, that there had to be a diversity. He used this a weapon to get people to discuss about integrating their communities.

I spoke this morning at Agua Fria High School, on the west side, way out on Buckeye-- 90% Mexican. Yesterday, I spoke at the writer’s conference-- 100% European. And the segregation was wild, to go from two different talks and two different groups.

And in Kerala, it was the same situation of how do you get the caste-- he didn't want to create just an untouchable village, just a tribal village, and send people back to the tribal areas. The idea is how do you-- Christian, 20%; Muslim, 20%; in Kerala as part of the real society, and the various concepts of Hindu? How do you get all sorts of people together, living in the same village?

And the idea was to teach it to farmers by teaching integrated agriculture, that just as you have a diverse crop, you have to have a diverse community and live together. Once again, looking at the larger picture of sustainability with human beings. And is anybody else sweating as if we were in India in here?


There is nothing like an experience of being in Kerala before the monsoon. You're ready to pop. And when it does pop, you go out, and you dance.

And I'm getting hot, and I've talked a lot. And so I'm going to end with a story. Kerala is an amazing place. And Mitraniketan, obviously, I think a lot about.

I lived for a year with the Rarámuri in the Sierra Madre of Mexico, in Copper Canyon-- the cave dwellers. My wife is a linguist. That's why we lived. We had a log cabin-- no running water, electricity. I worked as a lumberjack in the fields.

12 years, a drought in Mexico, the worst drought ever in Mexican history when we were there. Starvation-- government programs coming in, every single one a failure. And as we stood out waiting for the rain to come of corn we had planted, that I had planted, there was this sense of desperation.

And this old cow came walking through. And a woman came up and said, I have no money to buy milk for my child. And I looked at this raggedy beast, who was not even a cow but a ghost of a cow-- the apparition of a cow and said, I've got to tell you a story about some other Indians from India, that in the '50s, Viswanathan had his kids coming. And there was severe malnutrition, of the extended bellies of kids who were not getting enough.

And he inquired about the milk. And very little milk amongst these people. Very few could even afford cattle.

And they said, but our cattle breed-- and our cow breed-- not cattle. The cows can't even produce more than a liter, they're so weak, these beasts we have. And so Viswanathan went and met with scientists and then came back and wanted to learn about artificial insemination. And he had no money. Viswanathan has never taken a penny of government aid.

And so he heard that there was a French Trappist monk in the northern part of Wayanad, of Kerala, who had two Jersey bulls. And he went up there. And he said, we need your bull. We need to bring him down and use him for artificial insemination, to help raise the breeds.

And the Trappist said, sorry, I've already promised it to somebody else. And Viswanathan didn't leave. He just sat there for two days.

And they talked about French literature and philosophy. They talked about development. He talked about what he needed.

And finally, he let him take the bull. And the bull they called David. And he brought back David to the community-- this enormous bull.

And the farmers came. And no one said, he's not touching our cow. What's he going to do to them?

And so Viswanathan had to get his own cow. And everybody was there, waiting for the consummation of the marriage. And it happens.

And they eventually have a cow. And it comes out in one piece, not like an elephant. And everybody is convinced.

And they start this whole series of artificial insemination, something that Gandhi had done in the '20s. And within about six years, they had gone from 1 liter to 15 liters per cow. There was so much milk in the Vellanad area that they had to start sending it out. They created 13, and then it went to 30 different cooperatives. And then today, you have 60 different farm extension centers with the milk.

This was the success story that he always wanted to talk about-- David the bull. But when I came back on my last trip, he said, we have a problem. The bulls are too big.

They eat too much. We don't have enough land for the grass. God forbid we start feeding them chemicals.

And he said, we went into the forest with the people we've been working and training and sending out. And the tribal people found Damon. Damon was this tiny dwarf bull they claimed had come from the ancient tribes.

You've seen these old drawings and sculptures-- that he had come down. He was wild in the forest. And they crossed him with a Jersey cow and started experimenting with their own breeds. And they created their own Mitraniketan cow that produced 10 liters of milk but ate the natural grasses, not the grasses that they had to start growing, who didn't have foot in hoof mouth-- mouth hoof foot disease-- whatever that is.

And it was the tribal people who finally, like in many of the things, had to teach Mitraniketan to come back to the forest. And he wanted this point to me to be really well made, that with The World Is Flat, the technology is wonderful. But it was with these ancient traditions, and recognizing the role of forest people who hadn't been run out of the forest yet, working with technology is where sustainability was going to be met, because not all the ideas are with technology but were with these people. And that was a very big impact on him.

Mitraniketan is not off the grid. That's one of their major problems is they're on the grid. And coal is becoming a huge industry now in India.

Mitraniketan has failed, and that's part of Mitraniketan is to fail, fail, fail, fail. It's a laboratory. They try to fail everything to make it better.

It's not a model. It's more of a parable. And that's why I deliver it as a story.

I don't want you all to trump off to Mitraniketan tomorrow. I think you should anyway, and go to the beaches in Kovalam. But Mitraniketan is a parable that a small little village 50 years ago, that had been written off, that everybody said should pack up and leave, didn't leave, and stayed to teach someone like Tom Friedman that the answer may not be coming from the West. But they already have the ideas that have been circulating the globe for years.

You all, thanks so much. You've been a really good audience. Appreciate your time.


This presentation is brought to you by Arizona State University's Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability for educational and noncommercial use only.