In the island nation of Japan lived a legendary farmer by the name of Masanobu Fukuoka, who shocked scientists and researchers by following a method of farming that was lost to modern wisdom. Fukuoka believed that modern farming went against nature, and he slowly gave conventional practices up, going to the extent of not even plowing the land. Fukuoka believed that earthworms and other organisms in the soil were great tillers of the land. With no pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers, his approach to farming was about getting out of the way and letting nature do its magic. And, wonder of wonders, Fukuoka’s yields were among the highest in Japan, without working half as much as other farmers. While his neighboring farms would often be hit by crop diseases, his farms would be protected by the many organisms in their own ecosystem that could exist because of his non-violent approach to farming.

The timeless idea of non-violent farming is seeing a resurgence in India and Sri Lanka, thanks to the efforts of the Gandhian organization, Sarvodaya. From a Sarvodaya volunteer, I heard the story of a mango farmer, Bharat Bhushan Tyagi, from Bulandsher, who would not harvest his mangoes. Instead, he’d have nets under his trees, and let nature decide when the mangoes were to be served. This farmer’s mangoes, according to the volunteer, were the best he’d ever had in his life, and would also fetch the highest price in the market. While these stories make us want to experiment relaxing our egos and letting nature do its magic, a much bigger lesson in social welfare lies hidden in Fukuoka’s and Sarvodaya’s interest in non-violent and natural farming.

What if our society is the field in which we grow. We give the label “weed” to plants we don’t like, and “pests” to animals we don’t want in our farm. In society, this would be the big greedy corporations that sell harmful products and slowly suck our vitality. In order to curb them, we come up with herbicides and pesticides, in the form of regulations and taxes. But, what happens when we spray poison in our gardens and farms? The poison also gets into the “useful” plants that we end up consuming, and ultimately into us. Similarly, when we create endless regulation and taxes, we not only deter the greedy, we also deter those who want to do good.

Consider the following example.

There’s a neighborhood where the street alley is rather dark. A young lady who lives there considers it rather inconvenient to return home in the dark every day. She talks to her neighbors about this, and everyone criticizes the local administration, the landlord and others, but no one steps up to do anything. One night, when returning home, she trips and falls in the darkness and sprains her ankle. She decides that she’s had it with this problem. The next morning, she hobbles up to the nearby electrician shop and hires someone there to come and install a light. She is not worried about how her neighbors will benefit from the light without paying for it (only economists worry about such things under the label of “free riders”). She needs the light for herself. And her action benefits her neighborhood and they too get the light. The history of human development has been more or less like this – when an individual could not take the pain anymore and decided to get a light to dispel the darkness for their own self and in the process ended up benefiting their society.

Now, consider a more realistic picture of our times. A utility company has a monopoly on setting up lights, and they do so only when bribed. In order to make sure that people don’t have other options, they make it illegal for individuals to install lights on their own. Under the garb of public safety, installers must be licensed by the state. The license conditions would be as complicated and expensive as possible, thanks to the hand-in-glove relationship between the monopolist and the government. If our brave lady has not given up by now, she is a real survivor who must make great personal sacrifice to solve a simple problem. And if she does give up, then we, her neighbors would hear the sad tale and nod our heads in agreement and clamor for regulation to control the monopolists. If someone hears us, more regulation gets passed, leading to more poison in the ground that makes it more difficult for the weed, AND more difficult for good plants to grow. In other words, we slap ourselves hard in the face by feeding more poison to our environment, instead of asking for more freedom to level the playing field.  We have chosen poison-driven farming, and forgotten that life-affirming farming is possible.

Can we really do life-affirming farming in the social field? We live as though we are not a part of nature, and get shocked when we fall sick or die, as though it should not be happening to us. This is what India’s ancients called “Maya,” or the contradiction in our minds that makes us behave like lunatics. Every plant and animal is bound by nature, and responds to it. In nonviolent farming, the emphasis is on respecting life, even those of insects and weeds who we think will harm us, for the perspective of life is much larger. It is the destiny of all living things to be eaten, including ourselves. When we die, if we are buried, the insects get us, and if we are cremated, then the plants (on land or water) get us.  If this is how nature is, then we should not be troubled by the fact that some organisms eat others to survive. Indeed, nonviolent farming asks us to accept the life of the weeds and insects and let them have what they need. Fukuoka’s success and similar stories from Sarvodaya’s active volunteers point to mounting evidence that life-affirming farming works, and works well. In India, this was the original method of farming until the so-called “green revolution” tossed them out in favor of poison-driven farming. A counter-revolution is now underway with farmers all over India moving back to their original life-affirming methods (see NPR’s report: In India, Bucking The ‘Revolution’ by Going Organic). The time has come for us to extend the principles behind life-affirming farming to the social field.

How should we do life-affirming farming in the social field? First, we have to abandon our restless mindset that requires instant gratification. Fukuoka’s experiment took years and as many farmers can testify, turning a conventionally-farmed land into a nonviolent organic one can take time. When the fruits come, they usually surprise everyone in their beauty and expression. Second, although the fruits are an inevitable result of the following of a set of universal life-affirming principles, our eyes must stay focused on the principles, for we only control our actions, not our outcomes. Third, and most important, we must clarify our understanding of these principles, which can be intuited from an organic farmer’s wisdom. To my surprise, after some reflection, I have found these principles to have been elegantly captured by India’s ancients through a set of positive affirmations in Sanskrit, which goes as follows:

We WILL protect each other
We WILL nourish each other
We WILL act with great heroism
We WILL undertake invigorating studies
We WILL NOT throw poison at each other

We will proceed to examine each affirmation in light of our discussion so far.

We WILL protect each other
An important aspect of the farmer’s attitude is respecting life, even the life of those creatures that we might think are harmful to us. Who would have guessed that the scary earthworm that we’d rather kill with chemicals can be the heroic land tiller who saves much time for the human farmer by just going about its daily life burrowing holes in the earth. We can protect not just those we like but also those we don’t know how to deal with, through a variety of methods. One of the most powerful methods is to do no harm, which we will touch upon later. Another is by direct nourishment, which we will discuss in the next affirmation. The heart of this affirmation is to adopt the mindset of the protector, for that is what the farmer really is – a protector of life.

Translated to the social field, this means we would need to protect those who are selfless and those who appear to be selfish. For, upon some reflection, we realize that even the most seemingly selfish persons affect the society they walk in. If they are personally happy, the society around them receive that happiness. If they spend money on what we might consider frivolous things, that money goes to the generation of employment and nourishing someone else. So, in the deepest scheme of things, it is impossible for someone to be really selfish, even if they tried really hard. Moreover, if we examine those who seem to be insanely wealthy, we find that even the richest person on the planet, after a point, realizes that wealth spent on others gives much more satisfaction than wealth that is hoarded. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, who are number one and two respectively on the Forbes list of the “World’s Richest People,” have given incredible portions of their wealth away for human welfare.

We WILL nourish each other
In Zaheerabad, Medak district of Andhra Pradesh, the web magazine India Together profiled Chandramma and Narsamma, two women farmers who have understood this principle well. They plant a combination of thirteen crops that have been carefully selected. The principle is to nourish the plant and nourish the land. For instance, the jowar crop reduces the fertility of the soil as it absorbs nutrition. The lentil crop gives fertility to the soil as it has nitrogen-fixing properties. This combination allows the farmers to farm without needing rainfall and irrigation! Moreover, in between these two crops, they also plant the sunflower crop, which attracts insects, thereby sparing the other plants and not requiring insecticides. In other words, they have chosen to nourish the insects as well. Not surprisingly, they call their selection of crops “Satyam Pantalu” or “Crops of Truth.” In the social field, we must accept that all humans have a need for self-preservation, just as the insects on the farm. Can we find a way in which those we consider “pests” can survive too? Can we stop looking at groups of people as “pests” and recognize the sanctity of life in all?

Right outside Gandhi’s ashram in Wardha, Maharashtra, is a little shop called Goras Bhandaar, which has taken upon itself to buy organic milk in an ethical manner, much higher than the prevailing market rate, provided the milk is chemical-free and unadulterated. The milk farmers, who were hitherto squeezed by the market and would try to game it by adding water or torturing the cow with harmful chemicals like oxytocin, now started selling their best organic milk to this shop. The shop runs out of milk within an hour as patrons storm it to get the most delicious milk they can find in the market. One needs very little marketing beyond the product itself when it is so life-affirming. Here, instead of looking at milk farmers as cheats, Goras Bhandar acknowledged the milk farmer’s need to survive, and created a powerful life-affirming alternative, not only helping the farmer but also the consumers of milk.

We WILL act with great heroism
Organic farmers are great heroes not so much because of hard work and fortitude but mainly because of their unwavering conviction in life. This conviction spurs them on to find solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems in the most life-affirming way possible. And when their solution works, their heroism finds its full expression in their humility and surrender to nature. Fukuoka gives all his credit to Mother Nature, and those who have interacted with organic farmers will probably have heard a similar refrain. In the social field, great heroism is needed to tackle cynicism, pessimism and countless attempts at poisonous regulation. Such heroism can only spring from a deep conviction in life. What does such heroism look like?

Michael Strong and John Mackey call this heroism “conscious capitalism” in their inspiring book, “Be the Solution,” which touches on the successful Whole Foods business chain that creates a market for healthy living products. We might also use the terms “social capitalism,” “capital socialism,” or even “social entrepreneurship,” as a mixture of the best of socialism (caring for society) and capitalism (respecting individual freedom). Of course, Mahatma Gandhi was the quintessential “social entrepreneur” coining the slogan, “Be the Change,” and reviving the local economy by marketing khadi (anything made with one’s own hands). My wife once bought a towel made by prisoners in the Rajamundhry Central Jail under a Khadi program that we were visiting and it is the best towel we have in our home. I often wonder what would happen if the tools of marketing that are available to our unconscious capitalists are also utilized by the conscious ones, as Gandhiji would have done.

We WILL undertake invigorating studies
The word “invigorate” means “to give life and energy to.” An invigorating study is one that gives us the deepest insights on life and energy. The organic farmer engages in such a study by becoming a student of life. Through a great heart, the intellect is fired up to shine its light on the mysteries of nature, which reveal themselves to a concentrated mind. That our awakened farmers are often illiterate is a great contrast to how illiterate we who know how to read letters have become about life itself. Indeed, by examining the stories of Fukuoka, Tyagi, Narsamma or Chandramma, we will probably find keen students of nature, who were scientific in the deepest sense of the term, by constantly observing and learning from nature.

In the social field, we must start by recognizing that it is we who give life and energy to ideas and make them a reality. Therefore, at a personal level, we must become students of ourselves and understand what makes us come alive and how we can get out of our own way. Then we will know what we can contribute to society and how we can grow further. At a social level, we find ourselves in the grip of two opposing forces. The Keynesian economists (who often think of themselves as capitalists) are obsessed with the gross domestic product or the national economic engine, and subscribe to coercion (through government policies) when the so-called social growth is threatened. On the other hand, Marxian economists (who often think of themselves as socialists) oppose such growth which they view as exploitation, and are obsessed with protecting the masses from it. They too, like the Keynesian economists, rely on coercion (through government policies again) when their goals are threatened. They are really two sides of the same coin. One will recommend coercion to keep “change” going, and the other will recommend coercion to keep “change” from happening. Neither is a student of life, for if they were, they would both realize the futility of their efforts and renounce coercion. We do not have to coerce the plants and animals to grow, much as we’d like to think otherwise – they do so of their own volition. An invigorating study of society must affirm the sanctity and vigor of all life, not just a preferred few. That is the standard by which we must judge our economic and other social theories. When applied, this standard will help us discover voluntary social systems that support personal growth by respecting both external and internal nature.

We WILL NOT throw poison at each other
This can be the hardest of all the principles to fathom, for we have become accustomed to throwing poison at those we don’t like. Refraining from generating poison is the most important duty we have toward life. However, even if we stop generating this poison right now, we shall find ourselves overwhelmed by the existing poison that was created in the past. We have all kinds of regulations meant to keep us safe from pests which in reality strangle our creativity, and what is life, if not our freedom to create? We can learn from the organic farmer to trust nature and agree to make ourselves vulnerable to “greedy capitalists” who might try to sell us terrible products. Instead of regulation, we must move toward withdrawing all restraints so life-affirming innovation can breathe, see the light of day and give people the opportunity to choose between the wholesome and the unwholesome. Organizations like Whole Foods in America and Goras Bhandaar in India have clearly demonstrated that when given the choice, there are enough people who will prefer to take that which has no poison, and will sustain those ventures that are beneficial to them.

Finally, our indictment of some groups as “pests” needs further scrutiny. The Buddhists say it is in the nature of the universe to constantly change. If this is true, then “pests” must also change. I found evidence of this in a recent visit to Pizza Hut, who we ended up patronizing on a hot hungry day in Hawaii, due to the non-availability of vegetarian options nearby. I did not consider Pizza Hut to be a source of healthy vegetarian food, and so I frowned when the suggestion was first made. However, I was pleasantly surprised to see that their menu had a whole-wheat organic pizza crust with an organic vegetarian topping. There is enough evidence in the world that we are influenced by what happens around us, and just as children get influenced by smartly marketed fast-food, fast-food chains are also influenced by messages in our society that are given out through our choice for healthy eating, primarily by patronizing competition that makes such alternatives possible. We have more energy to create and encourage life-affirming messages and alternatives when we expend less energy vilifying the bad alternative providers. Indeed, a positive life-affirming attitude can turn us into alchemists, bringing out the best in those we touch.

A Call for Action
Noted welfare economist Amartya Sen has made a clarion call for viewing “development” as “freedom,” and to move from an income-maximization perspective to a freedom-maximization perspective. However, the method for approaching such a freedom has been reliance on government (or the farmer) to impose social-justice programs (or fertilizers) in the hope that we may have a better society. This is a very non-organic approach and not in tune with nature. What if we build on Sen’s perspective and make a call for withdrawal of all fertilizers and insecticides (regulations, tax-support) for social-justice programs, and instead encourage their organic emergence and growth using the principles laid out above? An argument may be raised that we are calling for a hands-off “do nothing” approach. How then will be tackle important social-justice issues? Let us go back to the nonviolent organic farm to answer this question. By itself, the act of not using poison cannot explain the quantity and quality of yields that nonviolent farms produce. Something else is at work. When there is no poison in the field, that field attracts life. Birds drop seeds, bees cross-pollinate, earthworms come and till the land and there is great activity. It is just that the farmer has done none of it.

In our metaphor, the lawmakers would be the farmer, who can help by withdrawing all the poison in our field. Then we have the freedom to be the birds, bees and earthworms, doing our best to make a difference. The lawmakers cannot be viewed in isolation as the change-makers. By including all of society in the picture, we will find that we are a part of life and find our full expression in freedom, and it is in our nature to create, remove suffering and be of service, without needing any prompting from anyone.

So, in conclusion, we have two key messages here. As lawmakers, our motto is not “do nothing,” but “do nothing to restrain other people from doing good.” It is high time we recognize the failure of human intervention and accept the better system of non-intrusive organic development. And when we don’t have the lawmaker hat on, we must serve society in harmony with our own nature and the nature outside us, just like the hardworking earthworms, birds and bees. We must become keen students of nature, and recognize, trust and respect our own roles as creators of better worlds around us. Only then can we respect others as creators and help remove constraints from their paths, leading to a society of great freedom and inspiration.

— First published on the ServiceSpace blog, Jun 10, 2009