Rev. Sara Joleno Wolcott and Ramasubramanian have been working together since 2014 when they first met in Chennai during the former's work and travels in India. Rev. Sara started the Sequoia Samanvaya in the US in 2018 and since then they have jointly toured and lectures and facilitated change processes together in Germany, USA, Canada and Ecuador. In January 2021, Sequoia Samanvaya brought out its first online journal the Grove and as part of it, the following conversational essay was jointly published by both of them. The complete version with several visuals is available here.
A conversation between Sara Jolena Wolcott and Ramasubramanian, aka Rambling Ram
SJ: Ram, you’ve been working with and thinking about institutions for most of your adult life. You started in corporate, and then switched to working for the social sector. As you did that, you began to study the indigenous/local institutions in your area of Tamil Nadu, India, which have been in existence for centuries if not millennia. You studied the history of non-colonized, local institutions with one of the great decolonial historians, and recovered previously dismembered histories about local level governance, trade associations, farming practices and craft. You were raised in Hindu/Buddhist spiritual lineages, which carry their own, often decentralized, knowledge systems. And you’ve been consistently setting up new institutions that other people subsequently manage and develop, giving you a lot of opportunities to experiment. And perhaps most importantly, you continuously go into the field and learn from the women there. Recently, I’ve watched you come towards greater clarification about the patterns you see working in long-standing, non-colonial institutions. This is exciting, and I am looking forward to thinking and practicing alongside you as you articulate these understandings for a wider audience. Certainly, these questions are of great interest to our community.
Let’s start with something simple.
Why are institutions so important?
R: People have a basic tendency to get organized.
People organize their basic needs, including their need for community and community norms. Really, everything is an institution: families, marriages, kinship.
Are friendships institutions?
Friendships are different…. Kinships are more institutions.
You’ve been categorizing the way we think about institutions in two broad ways: Systemic and Environment. What do you mean by “systemic institutions”?
By Systemic Institutions, I mean any institution that has emerged from a reductionist framework which has tried to not comprehend the meaning of life itself. Systemic INstitutions are those which are bound. Life itself is unbound.
In Systemic Institutions, you need to compartmentalize to understand the thing itself. But then you lose out on the complexity. Most current organizations, especially corporate organizations, miss out on the complexity. THey miss out on life itself. They never establish these linkages with the rest of life. They lose out on the sensitivity, and eventually destroy, everything else except that which matters for their own business.
The system of knowledge precedes and delimites the definition of the institution. For example, take the small bearings that fit into one part of a car. Most of the industries that have been created will narrow the output to the barring itself. That enables focus and specialization. But they lose out and when they make a plan they think they will manufacture it for the foreseeable future. But the reason for the automobile is for transportation. The reason for transportation, often, is not because traveling is fun, but because they are forced to travel for many reasons, such as to go to work. When they are forced to travel, the manufacture of the automobile is no longer to facilitate conscious human movement, it is to facilitate forced movement. So when the the bulk of your output is to enable a forced movement, instead of a conscious one, you are actually bringing down the human situation. It is reducing all of humanity to be imprisoned from its potential. There is no point in kidding yourself on this. There are many vision statements of industries. But are people using your product from force or form choice? That is what I mean by the industry and founders and leaders loose track. Too much of what I’m calling “Systems Thinking” will enable you to measure the industrial output but it will not enable you to focus on all of humanity, and what is really happening, how people’s movements are changing, and what people really need to move - or to not move, if that is their actual choice.
We both have friends in the automotive industry, and I doubt they would agree with you that people’s movements in cars are forced. What do you mean by that? That there is force at work here?
This whole notion that you need to work for a living is new. Maybe some people in some societies had to work for a living. But this is different. Most people are made to feel that they need to spend their time on earning money to care for your family. Your whole purpose of education is to be qualified, eligible to earn a living. The first question when you meet people is not what you think or sing or how many trees you know or what you grow, the question is, ‘what do you do’? I still remember when I met a banker from an old town of merchants, and as a young person he had left a town and gone out and joined a bank and after a decade and a half he returned to his native town. His parents had passed away. He was now the head of a national bank. He was posted there. He came in the midst of an academic year with his children, and he had to figure out how to put his children in the school. He met the school authorities who directed him to the board of trustees of the school.
He introduced himself as the manager of the bank. The elderly man said, aren’t you the son of so-and-so from this son, the grandson of so-and-so. Yes. Your parents and grandparents meant a lot to this community, to this place. In this town, get used to talking about what family you come from first. What you do for a living is less important. Your family means a lot to us. It taught him a lesson: in many traditional societies, your location in society is far more valuable than what you do.
There are pluses and minuses to that - that’s part of why people move out of traditional societies as well. They are defined by their families in ways that they don’t want to be.
Yes, true, but that’s not really what I’m trying to say. What I'm trying to get at here is that the purpose of life is not work. To live should not be the burden.
When I say forced, I mean that those who drive to work often, especially here in Chennai, hate driving to work. They might enjoy the weekend drive. But they have a car because they have to go to work. If you are part of producing something that is part of forcing humanity to being unconscious, then your net contribution to humanity is low. If you say, well, I am only manufacturing this small part of the system, then you are reducing yourself to a small manager making something that it isn’t helpful for. WHat if you said, what if people don’t have to travel for work, and there were that many less people on the road, what might be possible? How many car leaders are talking about reducing the production of car? To make cars requires mining. Even if we have green fuel, we still have the challenge that Earth cannot continue producing cars. We’ve pushed these ideas aside as if they are non-negotiable, focusing only on the fuel. The responsibility then becomes on the user of the car, not on the producer of the car. The consumer is supposed to reduce the use of the car. That won’t do. That means you are externalizing it. We cannot go on externalizing. This comes from what I’m referring to as a Systemic Thinking in which the boundary of the system is closed.
Most people hear ‘systemic thinking’ or ‘systemic institutions’ and they think of a networked approach, or a ‘whole systems’ approach. But what I hear you saying in “Systems Institutions” is that these all have boundaries around them - some boundaries are bigger than others - which prevent them from thinking for the whole of humanity and Earth.
So what do you mean by Environmental Institutions? Do you mean biomimicry?
No. biomimicry is more about mimicking the existing ecological systems, borrowing concepts from the environment and creating products - sometimes also working with institutions. I followed the fungal network - mycelium network - for a long time and it is a beautiful metaphor and of course fungi themselves are beautiful. To some extent, yes, we need to think about that. But I’m not talking about modeling institutions from the environment. What I’m talking about environmental institutions comes from studying people who have sustained themselves. The purpose of the environmental institutions is existence itself. But we overemphasize on the doing, and less and less on the being. When you overemphasize the doing, such as producing a car, rather than being in a particular place and thinking about these particular people and what they need for their movement, then you are no longer a car manufacturer. You are a facilitator of movement, and you are thinking about the purpose of movement. Are they forced to move? Or for fun? Or both? Are you looking at goats or humans or both? To be, to be in relationship with everyone around, to be sensitive … that thing of to be is not emphasized in the modern institutions set. The vision statement is always about being the best car manufacturer in the world. But are you really understanding movement? Being is where we need to shift.
So for you an Environmental Institutions is one that enhances our capacity to be with ourselves and one another - with all species.
You are coming to this from studying people, not just studying the environment. From studying people’s institutions, as you call them. And there is a lot of connection between peoples institutions that you are seeing and the natural environment.
When people are not “educated”, interesting things happen.
Let me give you an example. I have studied both dairy farms created by village folks themselves and dairy farms run by NGOs with ‘qualifying’ degrees from Universities. In the ones that the people run, they model their institutional structure largely on making better the dairy farmer and the cattle both. Whereas in the NGO, in the systemic thinking, it is more to align the entire dairy farming activity with other systems that exist already. Banks, service technology providers, markets. To align them to that. They view the cattle and the farmer as part of a supply chain. Instead, they align their focus on the far away consumer. In the village, if someone dies, it is very important. The farmer might not work that day. This is a huge compromise to the local. The point I’m trying to make is that there is a thought process in which people are reduced and fitted into large systems and their life and their choices are made immaterial, or, if at all, a liability to the systems.
Bereavement is part of our nature as animals, as species. We wail and mourn - we experience grief. If you make the adherence to the systems far more important than to be yourself as part of this animal kingdom, then you reduce humanity to a machine. More and more people say machines are more efficient than machines. Perhaps they are, but that is not the point. Efficiency is not the goal. To be someplace - to be part of the grief and the joy and the happiness, the music and the dance of that place - is critical.
Can we say that there is so much overlap between an environmental instititon and the environment itself, in how it works, not because you are seeking to mimic the environment per se but because, intrinsically, humans are part of the environment? For us to be - to exist - is to be “environmental”?
So what are the main attributes of an Environmental Institution?
The first attribute of an Environmental Institute is that it is dynamic.
It is not static, which is what I was taught about how institutions function. Every entity is dynamic, ever changing, ever growing, every tree has a seasonal change and each season is different.
Legacy Matters - As part of its dynamism, we see that the present arises from the past. Legacy is what we are inheriting from the past. Legacy of the past is ever-present with us. The dynamic present emerges from a dynamic past.
Legacy do sit within the attributes of environment whereas they have to be implanted into the Systemic approach in an Institution. Legacy has either a material or a value attribute in a System, whereas in an Environment a legacy is part of the very definition of the Environment.
In many traditional societies, when someone salutes an Elder in another clan, one starts the introduction by talking about the clan from which one comes, the ancestors till 2 generations before and then says his own name as someone who comes from that clan. Large legacies are often remembered by their names or (as in many tribal communities), the visible symbols worn. People can spot a person from a clan, tribe or family much before they actually spot the person by these marks. Not because these identities are ‘cool’ or ‘stylish’ as they sometime are made out to be today, but, because these identities mattered to those who knew how to identify them. In nature no one says, ‘this tree is known by this name and its parent was in another name and the grand-parent in another’, etc., instead people say that this forest has been always green and this tree must be several generations of forest. The forest is always a place of several trees, big and small, old and new. The composition changes, identity is collective and responsibility spread out. The introduction of the clan is not because the clan name is important as much the fact that the clan has been long standing in the society, it is acknowledging the entire society as a whole and its status as being part of that society. Being there and being part of the society is critical, new ones are integrated into this institutional design after an initial period of adjustment and they lose their identity in that of the forest eventually.
Equity is science that holds. I am trying to describe that which keeps things together. There is a way that things adjust and accommodate to one another that is not about competition. It is a critical attribute of an institution. If you have 8 people, and someone has a limitation, you have a choice: do you work with that person’s limitations or do you get a new person? Does the whole shape of your work change because of that limitation? If you do, then you grow organically. I’ve seen both happen. I’ve even seen people not helping others because they think they will be penalized for risking their own efficiency. That is obviously dangerous for humanity.
Be human. Stay human. We are capable of transcending our own imagination and our own space. Use that to manifest much much larger phenomenon. Too often our actual capacity as humans is numbed. Don’t try to become a machine. We should talk about human potential management, not human resource management.
Everything is sustained through the relationships and relationships define the entity itself. This can enrich humanity as a whole rather than those who are reducing humanity. Culture of co-existence is what an Environment builds, it doesn’t build any ‘output’ oriented ideas. This is why in a culture of co-existence in a village community, the local community institution does different types of vocations at different times, it doesn’t care what it does together as long it stays together. The purpose is to stay together much more than to do an enterprise together. This wisdom is never articulated, because the indigenous community is always profiled by someone non-indigenous for the purpose of ‘’study’’ not ‘’transform’’. Studying ‘subjects’ is truly Systemic and limited and has forever been influenced by the one who studies.
Culture building is the purpose of human intent driven Environment creation. Several components go towards the building of a Culture, the growth of several components together is best described as building a Culture rather than an Eco-‘System’. My problem with the term eco-system stems from the same fact that eco-system is defined as ‘happening’ or ‘doing’ by several elements in energy transfer or action basis while culture is more passively defined as something that exists.
The culture that impacts life around a place. If instead there was a way of enhancing the productivity through the improvement of the health of the soil, just about every aspect of health in all plants and animals in the environment will improve as well.
Education occurs through being together, storytelling, working alongside one another; sharing the work of sustaining the culture. Can every new-born be welcomed with joy, and in recognition of the legacy that she carries, receive the skills, knowledge, attitude and orientation based on the need to sustain the every-dynamic culture? Skills can arise from being part of the function; knowledge from legacy; attitudes from sharing, and orientation through culture.
Are you finding these in the new institutions you are witnessing and advising today?
Most organically grown institutions that I am witnessing in my work these days are building Environmental ‘models’. They are building cultures through and in relationships. Such cultures evolve into an environment when they communicate, relate and build into the larger culture of survival. The cosmos has survival as its core, so every element that tunes itself to the survival and sharing of all other elements receives and taps into a larger culture for its own survival.
Every culture that recognizes these elements inevitably builds a series of rituals that acknowledge its larger connection to the whole. In rituals of the ancient communities are predominantly the three broad components – purification of oneself to devoid oneself of any selfish goals, acknowledgement of the inter-dependence between the individual and the larger culture and gratitude or ablation through any form of sharing. Every living human culture has evolved these three components in its own way as the core of all rituals in a matrix of sanctity.
However, when the Systemic institutionalizing of the rituals took over, it replaced the 3 components above or rather interpreted the same in a different manner with Fear replacing Sanctity as the overarching value, deifying of a super power and bribing through elaborate sacrifices, replacing the earlier three components.
Instead of re-binding people into their freedom, such System based ritualistic “religion” ended-up creating people buying into fear as a pre-eminent psychic condition. The non-acknowledgement of the larger culture of survival is the failure of this approach.
I really appreciate you extending these conversations about ritual into economics and everyday life, and recognizing that the rituals are happening. What rituals would you like to see happening to help us shift into a more environmental approach?
That is another conversation! Let’s keep thinking together about this!
Ram (Ramasubramanian) is an advocate for safe food and sustainable societies based in Chennai, India. He has extensively worked with governments, academic circles, and grassroots organizations. He inspires, shapes and supports diverse ventures, especially those that enable rural recovery and self-reliance. He has worked with Sequoia Samanvaya in Germany, Ecuador and Canada.