Conducted Interviews

Sailesh Rao, Founder of Climate Healers, December 2016
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Sailesh Rao (right) and his adorable granddaughter (left).

SRod: I understand you are the Founder and Executive Director of an organization known as Climate Healers. Please tell us a bit about Climate Healers’s principles and goals.

SRao: Climate Healers was founded with the goal of healing the Earth’s climate as opposed to maintaining it precariously in an advanced state of disrepair. We contend that the current mainstream discourse on climate change and the environment is fundamentally flawed. Let me illustrate with an analogy.

Imagine that you are feeling sick and you go to a doctor with a persistent mild fever. The doctor examines you and diagnoses that the coconut-sized lump by the side of your head is causing your fever. Then he says that the best he can do is to limit your fever to 2 degrees Celsius. Would you then plead with him to limit your fever to 1.5 degrees Celsius? Or would you ask him about the lump? When you ask him about the lump, suppose the doctor says, “Oh, that lump will grow! I will make sure that it doubles in size as quickly as possible!”

Wouldn’t you run away from such a doctor?

But that’s exactly how our world leaders are dealing with climate change and the unsustainable growth of the human enterprise on our planet. They are planning to double the size of the human economy while trying to hold global warming temperature increase to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, even though the economy is already estimated to be 60% larger than what the planet can sustainably support!

This is sheer foolishness. And yet, we put up with this charade only because we are ensconced in a growth-oriented socioeconomic system, with consumption as its organizing value and competition as its organizing principle. At Climate Healers, we recognize that it is impossible to achieve our goal of healing the Earth’s climate within such a system. Hence we propose to implement a new socioeconomic system oriented towards human creativity with compassion as its organizing value and collaboration as its organizing principle. This new system will be based on our core guiding principle that compassion for all creation is infinitely sustainable.

SRod: How did the idea of Climate Healers first come about? What inspired you to develop such an organization, and what, if any, experiences guided you in doing so?

SRao: I am a systems specialist by training and I spent the first twenty years of my career working on the hardware infrastructure of the Internet. During that time, I helped develop the Gigabit Ethernet on Copper standard in 1999, which became very popular and which is still ubiquitous in Internet data centers worldwide. Therefore, in the conventional sense, I had tasted “success”. But by 2005, I was becoming increasingly disillusioned with my career “success” as it didn’t translate into life satisfaction. I was also becoming disillusioned with the Internet world as it had changed from a low profile, collegial undertaking to a highly competitive, lucrative enterprise. At that time, I happened to watch Al Gore’s global warming presentation on TV and it changed my life. I abandoned my technical career and started working on the environmental crises full time. From my perspective, harmonizing our human socioeconomic system with the ecological systems on the planet is the most challenging systems problem that I have ever encountered in my life.

My systems training and experience helped me to understand that the mainstream framing of climate change, biodiversity loss, desertification and other environmental crises was fundamentally flawed. Hence Climate Healers was born in 2007.

SRod: One of Climate Healers’s ongoing projects is the deployment of solar energy for cooking in rural communities to reduce impact on forests around the world. Would you elaborate on the importance of solar energy for cooking, and how spreading its use protects forests?

SRao: It is through harnessing energy that humans have been able to spread to every part of the Earth. But energy does work for human purposes only when it dissipates from a concentrated form to a more diffuse form. Throughout the world, rural communities currently use wood as the concentrated form of solar energy that can be burnt for cooking and to provide warmth in cold climates. However, human population has grown so much and the forest cover of the planet has shrunk so much, that our current use of 1.6 Giga tons of wood annually for cooking and heating is unsustainable. Worldwide, the use of wood for cooking has now become the second largest source of deforestation, next only to livestock production.

An alternate means of concentrating solar energy is through the use of mirrors and lenses as opposed to photosynthesis. That concentrated solar energy can be stored in molten salts and then dissipated for cooking, heating and other human use as needed. This technology has the potential to be a lot cheaper than using photovoltaic panels and electric batteries to store and dissipate solar energy for human use. However, in either case, harnessing solar energy directly for human use is a lot more efficient than relying on photosynthesis for that purpose.

Just as in the use of wood for cooking, in almost every aspect of the global economy today, our current practices are tremendously inefficient. In the Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update, Donella Meadows and her colleagues estimate that over 99% of human activities today are wasteful and unnecessary. If we were to redesign our systems to cut out such waste, we can provide a good standard of living for all of humanity, while simultaneously becoming environmentally sustainable.

SRod: I’m always curious as to how people first come to veganism, as both the introduction to it and the process of becoming it vary widely. Would you like to share with us a bit about how you first learned of veganism, and when it became a lifelong commitment for you?

SRao: Dr. Will Tuttle introduced me to veganism in 2006 during one of his lectures about the “World Peace Diet”. However, I didn’t embrace veganism immediately as I rationalized that my lacto-vegetarianism was close enough to veganism. I had convinced myself that we weren’t really hurting the cow when we extract milk from her because the traditional practice in India is to only take the surplus milk after the calf had been fed. Besides, from an environmental standpoint, wasn’t lacto-vegetarianism calculated to be almost as good as veganism?

In 2008, during a trip to the village of Karech near the Kumbalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary in the Udaipur district of Rajasthan, India, I saw the true impact of my lacto-vegetarianism first-hand and I immediately turned vegan. I had asked the villagers to show me their protected land and when I took the photograph of the fence between the protected and unprotected lands that adorns the cover of my first book, Carbon Dharma: The Occupation of Butterflies. I felt a wave of shame wash over me as my environmental rationalizations fell apart in front of my eyes. I resolved to go vegan right away.

In that photograph, the land is lush green with lots of trees on the right of the fence, while to the left, it is almost barren with a few old cows grazing on the sparse greenery off camera. In India, people drink a lot of milk but they don’t eat too much beef, with the result that cows live out their natural lifespan of 20-25 years. Consequently, India has a bovine population of over 320 million, more than thrice that of the United States with 90 million, but on one-third the land area of the US! I realized that the “low impact” of lacto-vegetarianism in environmental calculations was due to an accounting convention that assigned the majority of the environmental impact to hamburger consumers. If all such hamburger consumers were lacto-vegetarians instead, we would likely have already destroyed all the forests of the world by now!

About a week after I turned vegan, I felt a huge sense of guilt lift off my shoulders as I realized that I could stick to my resolve. About a year later, I watched a village woman milk her cow and I understood why I had been carrying all that guilt on my shoulders. The woman released the calf and let him drink from the mother’s udder for 30 seconds before she started pulling him away. But the calf was too strong for her. She then called her husband over and they both pulled the calf away from the mother and tied him in front of her. The calf was now bleating, obviously in distress, and the mother cow began licking her child. Then the woman milked the cow completely, extracting about 2 gallons from the cow. When she was done, the woman released the calf and let him suck again at the udder in order to send a message to the mother’s body that she doesn’t have enough milk for her child and needs to produce more the next time. This is how Nature regulates the feedback loop between a mammal mother and her newborn child.

Then I recalled a conversation between my grandmother and my grandfather from when I was 6 years old. At that time, our parents used to send all the children to our grandparents’ place in the village for summer vacation. And evidently, our grandparents were still using the traditional practice of milking the cow after the calf had been fed. One evening, I overheard my grandmother complain to my grandfather that this particular calf was “drinking too much and not leaving enough milk for the children.” Then my grandfather told my grandmother not to let him drink to his fill but to pull him away after 10 minutes. As a child, I knew then that something wrong was going on, but I filed it away in the back of my mind and forgot about it.

Or did I? I’m now certain that was the primary reason for the guilt that I had been harboring all along, which I could finally overcome when I became committed to Veganism.

SRod: As a vegan environmentalist, have you at times during your career found yourself in conflict with non-vegan environmentalists? How have these experiences influenced your approach to working with non-vegan individuals and organizations?

SRao: Since non-vegan environmentalists are in the majority, I have been speaking out on the vegan imperative to my colleagues more often than not. Many scientific studies have concluded that the whole world will be primarily vegan by 2050 due to resource crunches arising from the growth in human population in a rapidly degrading biosphere marinating in a changing climate. But scientific predictions in the environmental arena have also been notoriously conservative. Therefore, I believe that this vegan transformation will occur much sooner. Since the question is not whether, but when veganism will become the normative ideal in the future, it is far better to achieve that ideal sooner out of love, to promote healing and abundance, rather than later out of fear, to avoid starvation and extinction. Hence, I feel compelled to promote veganism now at every opportunity.

In 1926, Mahatma Gandhi wrote in the context of the Khadi movement,

“I’m a salesman of Swaraj. I’m a devotee of Khadi. I consider it my duty to use every honest means at my disposal to make people wear Khadi.”

In the Khadi movement, the people of India destroyed the largest industry in the world at that time, the British textile industry, by simply changing their clothes from British clothes to cotton “Khadi” clothes, made locally in India. The success of the Khadi movement led to the independence of India from British colonial tyranny.

I see the Vegan movement as the exact 21st century equivalent of the Khadi movement. Animal agriculture is the largest industry in the world today in terms of environmental impact. By changing what we eat, we can free ourselves globally from systemic tyranny. To paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi,

“I’m a salesman of Ahimsa. I’m a devotee of Veganism. I consider it my duty to use every honest means at my disposal to make people go vegan.”

SRod: In an interview for REAL (Responsible Eating and Living), you said that aside from adopting a plant-based diet, another important way in which people can contribute to environmental protection is to shop less. Would you elaborate on how consumerism, in your view, threatens the planet?

SRao: It is consumerism that distinguishes plant-based dieting from ethical Veganism or what Dr. Will Tuttle refers to as “Deep Veganism.” Veganism is a way of living where we seek to never deliberately hurt an innocent animal unnecessarily, whereas plant-based dieting can be practiced independent of Veganism. Over time, vegans discover that every act of consumption hurts some innocent animal somewhere. Therefore, as a natural progression, veganism leads to minimalism, which is antithetical to consumerism, the backbone of the current socioeconomic system. Without consumerism, there would be no economic growth and the entire socioeconomic Ponzi scheme would collapse. Hence the widespread “Cowspiracy” among the establishment in the current system towards veganism! However, economic growth is now threatening the planet since our current global economy is already 60% larger than what the planet can support. Even if the whole world went on a plant-based diet, a sufficient growth in consumerism can still destroy the planet. Therefore, if we are serious about healing the Earth’s climate, we have no choice but to fix the socioeconomic system, which requires taking on consumerism and promoting veganism, not just plant-based dieting.

SRod: How has your training as an electrical engineer influenced Climate Healers’s work? Are there any recent (past twenty years) technological developments from which environmental organizations such as yours have benefitted?

SRao: I was trained as an electrical engineer, though mainly as a systems specialist. This has been very useful for my work at Climate Healers since we are primarily dealing with systems issues with regard to the environment. During my undergraduate days, I worked on nonlinear phase transitions in electronic circuits, which showed me how massive changes can be accomplished with small perturbations in a short period of time. And during my technical career, I observed how the internet went from being an academic curiosity to an indispensable part of our daily lives within a decade showing how nonlinear phase transitions can easily occur in human behavioral systems as well.

There are three recent technological developments that are key for the Vegan metamorphosis that will benefit all environmental organizations: the Internet, public key cryptography and the block-chain technology. With these three technologies, we can create a new socioeconomic system that structurally guarantees our rights to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness so that we can focus our energies on our true responsibilities as the caretakers (Khaleefahs) of all Life on Earth.

SRod: In your book, Carbon Dharma: The Occupation of Butterflies, you suggest that humans are currently in the “caterpillar” or juvenile phase of our existence, and in order to progress onto the “butterfly” phase— to reach our full potential and maturity— we must undo as much of the damage we have wrought as possible. How optimistic are you presently that we, as a species, will make it to the latter phase? Why?

SRao: I’m convinced that the Vegan metamorphosis is right around the corner and will be largely accomplished within the next decade or so. Vaclav Havel said it perfectly,
“For the real question is whether the brighter future is really always so distant. What if, on the contrary, it has been here for a long time already, and only our own blindness and weakness has prevented us from seeing it around us and within us, and kept us from developing it?”

Are all those who are frightened of the impacts of climate change aware that if the whole world goes vegan, we can sequester more carbon in recovering native forests than what has been added to the atmosphere by human activities since 1750? In fact, all the ingredients required for the Vegan metamorphosis have been developed and we just have to put it together. I’m confident that this will happen because Nature is far more intelligent on the whole than we give credit. In fact, as a systems specialist, I’m in absolute awe of the systems design that is a native ecosystem. Therefore, I reject the mainstream narrative that humans are an aberration of Nature and I contend that we belong in Nature exactly as we are. Indeed, I suspect that we are being led by the nose to do what is necessary for the wellbeing of all Life on Earth.

SRod: I was very pleased that the Rig Veda played such a strong role in your book, as it is one of my favorites, and you have now inspired me to pick it up again after not having done so for several years. Will you tell us a bit about how the Rig Veda supports your thesis?

SRao: It is not just the Rig Veda but all the great scriptures of the world have inspired me on this journey.

During one of my talks at the American School in Marrakesh, Morocco, I asked the students,
“How many of you are Vegan?”
Only one student raised his hand. Then I asked them,
“How many of you would deliberately hurt an innocent animal unnecessarily?”
There was not a single raised hand in response. At that point, I said to them,
“Well, by definition, all of you are Vegan! This is because, as the Bible says, you are all made in the image of God. You have pure compassion at your very core. But who you are and what you do are not in alignment, which means that you are suffering.”

I had their attention by now. Then, they were very receptive to the rest of my talk, which established that our true purpose, as a species, is to be the caretakers of all Life on Earth, the “Khaleefah” species, as the Holy Quran puts it. But the Rig Veda and the Hindu scriptures have been my main source of solace and support. I live by the oft-quoted summary of the Bhagavad Gita that everything always happens for the best. In the words of Khushi Pavaskar,

“If my mind is still enough, I can see the deeper meaning behind every situation. No matter how bad a problem may seem on the surface, if I remain positive, eventually I will see how everything has worked out for the best.”

SRod: I understand you have plans to develop an environmentally sustainable community in Colorado in 2018 called Sacred Lifeline. Would you tell us a bit about how this community will be organized, at least upon its inception, and in what ways citizens will be called upon to contribute to it?

SRao: The Sacred Lifeline project implements a new socioeconomic system oriented towards human creativity with compassion as its organizing value and collaboration as its organizing principle. It envisions a network of radically inclusive, sustainable, off-grid, zero-waste, all-faiths communities, modeling and exemplifying a compassionate, vegan lifestyle, in well-recognized sacred sites around the world. Half the community would be mentors/educators and permanent residents while the other half would be short-term visitors, or longer-term student interns working on sustainability projects and open-source technologies. The solution’s objective is to ensure human ecological footprint does not ever exceed half the Earth’s biological capacity, when adopted worldwide.

The project will be sited in sacred places around the world so that pilgrims would experience the new, open-source lifestyle and help spread it in their local communities. It envisions the majority of humans to become engaged in the restoration of ecosystems around the world as their primary occupational pursuit as opposed to meeting the ever-increasing demands of a voracious consumer society. The first Sacred Lifeline Center will be implemented in Crestone, CO, USA, which, thanks to the Manitou Foundation, is a sacred place not just for indigenous communities but also for all the faiths of the world. The second one will be implemented half way around the world in India, at one of the numerous sacred places there.

Transitioning from a socioeconomic system based on consumption to one based on compassion requires changing its centrally controlled debt-based currency mechanism to a distributed, ecologically sensitive mechanism. One such distributed currency system can be conceived in the form of “AhimsaCoin”. AhimsaCoin would be similar to the open-source BitCoin, but with authenticated members automatically receiving one AhimsaCoin every 50 minutes into their account during their lifetime. Each AhimsaCoin entitles the owner to the productivity of 1 m2 of the Earth’s surface for one year so that humanity’s global ecological footprint does not exceed half the Earth. AhimsaCoins would be retired as resources are extracted from the Earth, as if they were ecological credits through a “TrueCost” accounting. Private enterprises would raise capital by issuing stock and collecting a sufficient number of AhimsaCoins for their stated purpose. The ecologically constrained AhimsaCoin economy promotes human creativity versus endless economic growth. It also distributes power to the people equally, structurally ensuring the rights to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, so that we can all focus our energies on our responsibilities towards all Life on Earth as the caretaker species.

At each Sacred Lifeline Center, there will be an All-Faiths temple where daily prayers for the wellbeing of all Life on Earth will be conducted according to the various faith traditions of the world. These daily prayer sessions along with courses on meditation, yoga, vegan cooking and perennial polycultures will form the core activities at each center.

Citizens will be called upon to support the Sacred Lifeline project by

1) Going vegan,

2) Providing land for forest regeneration,

3) Joining in the daily prayers online,

4) Joining the community and

5) Replicating the communities in their local neighborhoods.

The goal is to transition from the current socioeconomic system to the new one as quickly as possible so that we transition from a system that destroys the planet to one that regenerates forests and restores the biodiversity of the planet.

SRod: There are currently a few examples of “ecovillages”— intentional communities focused on sustainable living— here in the US, such as Enota Mountain Retreat in Hiawassee, Georgia and Afterworld in Casper, Wyoming. How will your community in Sedona differ from these existing ones?

SRao: The Sacred Lifeline project will build upon the experiences of the existing intentional communities, but its main objective is to create the replicable open-source software and hardware infrastructure for the new socioeconomic system.

SRod: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today, Mr. Rao. Before we sign off, is there anything else you’d like to tell our readers about yourself, your work at Climate Healers, Sacred Lifeline or eco-friendly living in general?

SRao: When Gandhi first returned to India in 1915, he spent three years traveling the villages of India with the simple message, “Don’t be Afraid of the British.” He convinced the people of India that the British colonial power was truly their own, which they had voluntarily handed over to the British. Similarly, I want the people of the world to not be afraid for the future, knowing that all corporate power is truly their own, which they have voluntarily handed over to corporations through their purchasing decisions.

All content © Saryta Rodríguez, 2017

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