‘Save Soil’ won’t save us.

Photo: Bloomberg/Getty

For nearly three decades, self-proclaimed “godman,” mystic and yogi, Jaggi Vasudev, known to his followers as Sadhguru, has been talking about the alarming threat of Soil Extinction. Today, the Save Soil campaign that Sadhguru has championed under his spirituality non-profit Isha Foundation is quickly garnering international support from politicians, celebrities, sustainability influencers, transnational corporations and international authorities — forming one of the largest campaigns for climate change worldwide.

As you’re reading this, Sadhguru is on a spiritual motorcycle journey from the United Kingdom to India, covering over 30,000 km, to meet citizens, leaders and experts across 25 nations and “take his message” to 3.5 billion people — 60% of the world’s electorate. On the surface, his campaign appears to be dedicated to bringing attention to “revitalising” global soil health. In reality, however, it has all the elements of a manipulative PR campaign — dissociated from all aspects of social justice and science — that fails to address any of the real causes of soil degradation.

Today, movements that talk about regenerative agriculture like Save Soil dominate the environmental discourse, sitting at the epicentre of the cultural appropriation of Indigenous environmentalism and Eastern spirituality. The sheer popularity of these movements is especially dangerous considering that they may be many people’s first interaction with environmental issues — erasing legacies of oppression and setting the wrong tone for true regeneration.

The Save Soil campaign has managed to spark conversation around soil health amongst millions of people, begging a few important questions: First, why are environmental movements with a singular focus like soil health, water management, carbon footprint and so on gaining so much importance today? Second, why is the world listening to a controversial “godman” (with a questionable history of commitment to environmentalism) over peasants and Indigenous communities who have been warning us of soil degradation since time immemorial? Third, why does the movement focus specifically on soil?

ENVIRONMENTALISM IS TRENDING

In recent years, we have witnessed society’s economic and political elite joining the bandwagon of environmentalism and displaying an increasing concern for the ongoing climate crisis. While these groups have accumulated their vast wealth through exploitation and displacement of marginalised communities, they dominate the environmentalist movement today. Their efforts to combat the crisis have mainly been a mix of performative activism, greenwashing and disaster capitalism. The environmental movements of modern capitalism are primarily driven by profit-hungry corporations or individuals with no understanding nor concern for the environment or the communities that rely on it.

Most popular environmental movements today possess certain underlying characteristics of what we like to refer to as shallow regeneration. Although these can appear as genuine attempts at regeneration, they are in fact designed and co-opted by capitalism to greenwash existing exploitative systems. At their core, these movements are all overwhelmingly apolitical and do not address the legacies of exploitation and colonisation that have deteriorated the environment. Moreover, they are centred around the participation of elite groups, unconcerned with the transfer of resources back to the communities who have dedicated lifetimes to protecting the environment and developing regenerative practices.

These movements also categorically separate the fight for environmentalism from social justice, land redistribution and cultural preservation. They tend to intensely focus on a few symptomatic issues like soil or carbon or water, ignoring larger systemic inequalities or their interconnectedness. What this does is draw focus away from necessary systemic shifts, like the need to define rights or redistribute land. In this manner, these problems are misrepresented as unintentional circumstances for which we are all equally responsible. The Save Soil movement for example, reduces the problem to just soil, which is profoundly different from movements advocating for land back. This is because the moment we focus on land, we are forced to ask ourselves some fundamental questions: Who owns the land? Who is native to the land? Why is land divided unequally? Why are there so many landless people in the world?

In short, shallow regeneration is unfit to bring about any meaningful change to the system, because its internal principles are in constant contradiction. It attempts to regenerate the environment while preserving the oppressive power structures that are responsible for destroying it in the first place. But we have to choose: we can either retain oppressive power structures or regenerate the environment. We cannot have both. To truly reverse the harm, we have to build strong local support systems led by the communities that have developed deep regenerative practices over hundreds of years. Any attempt at regeneration that does not reimagine the distribution of power is shallow.

The Save Soil movement is a classic case of shallow regeneration; championed by an oppressor-caste Indian “godman” who has built his entire empire on the economic and social profits from fraudulent campaigns that have profoundly harmed the environment and Indigenous communities.

A CLOSER LOOK AT SADHGURU AND ISHA FOUNDATION

With most of his followers belonging to elite society — including Indian celebrities such as Harbajan Singh, Sonu Nigam, and Shilpa Shetty; Hollywood celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Mathew McConaughey, and Trevor Noah; and global agencies such as the UN and World Food Program — Sadhguru has received massive international recognition and support for his efforts on saving soil. Save Soil and Sadhguru followers are predominantly oppressor-caste Indians and white people.

Sadhguru’s spirituality non-profit Isha Foundation Inc. is registered as a charitable trust, taking in millions in donations every year. An extensive investigation conducted by News Laundry has revealed that many of these “donations” are in fact involuntary illegal sales of Isha Foundation’s “free” products and services, masked as contributions to evade taxes.

In an interview with The Hindu, a state Finance minister described Sadhguru as a “publicity hound and charlatan” who is always “trying to find another angle to make more money.” Several of Isha Foundation’s campaigns have collected exorbitant amounts of money in donations without the approval of the state government and with major consequences to the environment. For example, the Cauvery Calling campaign — an initiative that aimed to plant 2.4 billion trees in the Cauvery river basin — followed an overly simplistic, monoculture approach that activists and scientists warned would result in “unforeseen social and ecological consequences, as planting trees in certain regions (grasslands and floodplains for instance) could result in drying up of streams and rivulets, and destruction of wildlife habitats.”

Furthermore, the entire structure of Isha Foundation’s 150-acre campus in Coimbatore, India, was constructed in blatant violation of laws and rights. Sitting at the heart of an elephant corridor encroaching Adivasi (Indigenous) land, the Isha Foundation headquarters illegally erected walls, electric fences and buildings — heightening human-animal conflict in the area. As a result of the illegal settlement, “elephants were forced to emerge from the forest between Semmedu and Narseepuram, trampling crops and attacking villagers,” MS Parthipan, a forest ranger, explained to News Laundry.

While local activists and Adivasis (Indigenous people) have been fighting Isha Foundation’s activities for years now, a corrupt state and judiciary have — time and time again — actively placed Sadhguru’s interests above the law. His political influence and net worth have increased considerably in the last decade with his ardent support of the Modi Government’s Hindu nationalist ideology — including his backing of the Islamaphobic Citizenship Amendment Act, the Indian occupation of Kashmir, the draconian farm bills, and the overall suppression of dissent.

SOIL IS POLITICAL

Sadhguru has captured massive fame and global attention, especially among the social elite through the appropriation of a powerful tool — spirituality. Spirituality focuses on values such as “oneness” that allow individuals to feel connected to the environment without confronting the generations of agricultural degradation tied to a history of colonialism, capitalism, and globalisation. The reality is that the condition of the soil today is inseparable from the historical violence perpetrated by the Minority World* through the displacement of communities, resource extraction, the Green Revolution, and industrialisation.

While the condition of our soil is by every means deliberate and political, the Save Soil movement prides itself on being apolitical, as we are all “spiritually connected to the environment.” The hyperfocus on soil has to do with its intrinsic spiritual qualities that allow it to serve as a symbol of our connectedness to the planet and to each other. Ultimately, this so-called spiritual connection also allows its historical context to be sidelined so everyone can participate in the movement without feeling implicated. The countries, corporations, and individuals who built their fortunes on exploiting communities and nature can absolve themselves of their crimes and elevate their brand image by showing the world they care.

In dismissing the relationship between environmentalism and social justice, movements like Save Soil only further alienate peasants, workers, and Indigenous communities. Its messaging does nothing but serve the delusions of grandeur of the godman and the conscience of elites, falling severely short of offering sustainable, community-led solutions that address the historical complexities impacting soil health. Rather than amplifying and supporting the Indigenous communities that preserve 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity, members of the movement choose to promote Sadhguru’s pseudoscience and participate in PR gimmicks such as the Save Soil song.

This is not to say that raising awareness about soil health isn’t of the utmost importance today. Many may very well support movements such as Save Soil out of genuine concern for the environment. While their intentions are respectable, it is so important to understand that we cannot even begin to address the damage to our environment without confronting the structural inequalities, history, and violence attached to it. We cannot reverse the harm to our environment by entrusting it to the same groups that devastated it. To truly understand the root causes of soil degradation and how we can nurture it back to health, we have to seek help from the communities that have been saving soil for hundreds of years. We require stronger local support systems led by peasant and Indigenous people, not a self-proclaimed godman looking to increase his global profile.

EndNote: This article was written in collaboration with Manpreet Kalra.

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