Sailesh Krishna Rao, Climate Healers
Sailesh Rao is the Executive Director of the non-profit, Climate Healers. An electrical engineer by training with a Ph.D. from Stanford University, Sailesh’s technology career includes service with AT&T Bell Labs and Intel. Moved to action to address the global climate challenge, Sailesh founded Climate Healers (www.climatehealers.org) in 2007. The goal of Climate Healers is to reforest one-sixth of the ice-free land area of the earth to neutralize human carbon dioxide emissions temporarily. Among its projects, Climate Healers partners with NGOs, tribal villages, and school clubs to help low-income areas in India use solar rather than wood-burning stoves. Sailesh was selected as a Karmaveer Puraskaar Noble Laureate, an award presented by iCONGO (Indian Confederation of NGOs) whose primary mission is to encourage citizen action for social justice. Sailesh is the author of “Carbon Dharma: The Occupation of Butterflies.”
Caryn Hartglass: Hello everybody I’m Caryn Hartglass and you’re listening to It’s All About Food. How are you today? I’m good thanks for asking. Oh good news the weather the weather I always like to talk about the weather because here in New York City it pretty much determines everything and last week when it was cold and wet it was quite oppressive I was even feeling the pressure and it was this pressure, do you feel that pressure. Personally I think we’ve had a little release and everything is a lovely, light and lovely and I’ve opened up the terrace on my apartment, and I’m able to eat outdoors and that makes things so much lovelier and when it is all about food it’s just ideal to have healthy fresh beautiful organic plant foods and eat them beautifully presented outdoors and that’s what we like to do here at responsible eating and living headquarters and I like to share that with you and give you ideas of it other people can have fun with their nutritious delicious food too. But there is so much more about food and that what we are going to talk about in the next hour. Some of it good some of it bleak and let’s make the best of it shall we? Okay let’s bring on my very first guest, I’ve got Sailesh Rao he is the executive director of the non-profit climate healers an electrical engineer by training with a PhD from Stanford University Sailesh technology career includes service with AT&T labs and INTEL moved to action to address the global climate change challenge Sailesh founded Climate Healers in 2007, let’s welcome to It’s All About Food, Sailesh.
Sailesh Rao: Hello Caryn.
Caryn Hartglass: How are you?
Sailesh Rao: I’m doing great, how are you?
Caryn Hartglass: Good. We need to heal the climate how are we going to do that?
Sailesh Rao: You’re doing a great job of it already.
Caryn Hartglass: Well thank you but we need so many people. It’s so easy to get stressed because I want to do so many things and there’s only so many hours in the day. I want to hear what you are doing because it’s going to inspire us.
Sailesh Rao: Well the two main things that we have to do is go to a plant based diet.
Caryn Hartglass: Right on.
Sailesh Rao: And shop less.
Caryn Hartglass: What’s the second one?
Sailesh Rao: Shop less, don’t consume so much because basically our consumption we have been convinced it’ll cause us happiness but in reality that’s not true.
Caryn Hartglass: So you are telling me when president George Bush after the 9/11 event told us to go out and shop that wasn’t a good idea.
Sailesh Rao: No it wasn’t a good idea for the climate.
Caryn Hartglass: I don’t think it was good for anything. Well how do we do that? Let’s just talk about shopping less for a minute and then I want to get to my favorite subject food. How do we shop less? We live in a capitalistic society it’s all about growing the economy and we’re all supposed to be consuming and buying.
Sailesh Rao: Right and we’ve been told that that’s the way to increase our happiness and unfortunately shopping is about creating demand for products and every product leaves behind a whole bunch of waste. There is a documentary called Story of Stuff that goes into how much waste we produce for everything we buy and that’s causing the world to be destroyed, it’s in the process. So how do we shop less? You know I have a great story of how my parents use to do that. They always had a monthly shopping day so every Monday of the month they would just make a list of what they wanted to buy and then at the end of the month they would go and buy just what was on the list and more often than not they would cross out some of the items on the list when you really don’t need it. So that’s being very conscious of what you’re shopping and that’s what I do actually. I do it once year not once a month.
Caryn Hartglass: You shop once a year?
Sailesh Rao: That’s right. The day after my birthday.
Caryn Hartglass: Wow. Well we have to shop for food right?
Sailesh Rao: Oh yeah the basics, food and gas, things like that, but the additional shopping I only do once a year.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay so I think what you’re saying is we can shop for essential items but not the non-essential and probably the big gray area is what are the essential items because there are probably a lot of things that people think they cannot live without their flat screen TV in every room and a phone for every kid and cars for everybody, shop for new clothes, those are essentials. But if we did that wouldn’t that affect the economy which is already pretty unhealthy?
Sailesh Rao: That’s a good question you see the economy is really about jobs for people. It should be about satisfying all our needs whereas right now the economy is more about generating new wants from each one of us and then meeting those wants. So it’s really about satisfying the needs of corporations to sell products to us. So it’s been flipped around it’s no longer about meeting our needs in fact a lot of people who have needs are not having their needs met because they’re too poor to buy these things.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh well their needs aren’t being met for the things that are really important like healthy nutritious food, and medical care when they need it and warm coats if they live in a cold place. Yeah the essentials. And homes, there are more and more people that are losing their homes.
Sailesh Rao: Right
Caryn Hartglass: Right. So what are the climate healers doing to help us shop less?
Sailesh Rao: So we are looking at multiple ways of dealing with this but it’s really about enabling people to do it on their own. So we have to give them tools to have them do this on their own. So looking at it, you know, what kind of web-based software can be installed. So far we have been focusing more on generating gas and food issue because that I think it’s just as important if not more important than shopping less because to heal the climate you have to bring back the forest, you have to start sequestering carbon back on land where it stops being a greenhouse gas and instead is2 helping life regenerate. So as far as the shopping goes we haven’t really started anything formal but we are talking about it at the moment.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah I think it’s essential that we plant trees absolutely everywhere we possibly can and individuals can do that. One of the greatest stories of course was by Wangari Maathai who planted tens of thousands of trees in Kenya and won a novel peace prize after decades of being tormented by her government and her people. It’s a beautiful story but it’s just one example to show that we can heal the planet it’s just its going to take all of us to do positive things.
Right and I actually work with people in Rajasthan, India. I can tell you in a lot of places you really don’t have to plant any trees you just have to leave land alone and nature comes back, the forest comes back you know. So this village in India they did that, they set aside 250 acres of common land and they put a fence around it so that the livestock could not get in there and the forest came back within four years. It didnt take too long.
Caryn Hartglass: When did they start it?
Sailesh Rao: They started in 2002. I had this before and after picture from 2002 to 2006 and you can see this massive change that happened in four years so it was amazing. And of course it’s still there now.
Caryn Hartglass: I was in Rajasthan in 2006 I wish I had known about that little area I would have checked it out.
Sailesh Rao: Yeah it’s new, Jaipur.
Caryn Hartglass: I remember seeing many women and children going to the water that was there in order to get water to bring home and it was not clean.
Sailesh Rao: Right
Caryn Hartglass: And I saw a lot of things, a lot of it was good that I saw and some of it was just unbelievable because we have so much here in the United States and we take for granted a lot of it. But there was this one village I saw, they lived so simply, they had actually just gotten cell phones but they were pretty much living on the land, their shelters were very simple and they looked so happy.
Sailesh Rao: I took my son to this village in Rajasthan and he told me exactly the same thing. He said – when I was their age I was not as happy as these kids are because they are just spending their whole time outside climbing trees eating the fruits, they are having fun.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah. Well do you think this is possible, to change the culture dramatically and the time that we need to make a difference?
Sailesh Rao: I not only think it’s possible I am convinced that it is going to happen.
Caryn Hartglass: And when is that going to happen?
Sailesh Rao: It has to happen within the next 15 years.
Caryn Hartglass: 15?
Sailesh Rao: Yes and it is going to happen in the next 15 years.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh good, I’m very glad to hear that. I talk about this a bit on my show, back in March I was invited to speak to 250 cattle producers in Nevada at a bull sell and there was a panel on climate change there and I was the lone vegan invited to speak and I learned a lot there but it made me see really how challenging change will be. When I was there in that culture people focused on things that had been in their lives for generations using the land as they’ve used it for generations although they’re instituting a lot more technology and doing intensification of raising animals unfortunately but they really didn’t see things the way I did.
Sailesh Rao: Yeah it can be discouraging when you go to places like that but you can see that there are signals coming to us from all directions telling us that this is the most important thing we need to change. So if you look up health, it’s becoming increasingly hazardous to eat animal products and people are beginning to see that. There is an entire town in Texas called Marshall were a lot of people have gone vegan because of health issues.
Caryn Hartglass: And the governor, or the mayor.
Sailesh Rao: The mayor yeah, the mayor is the one who initiated that.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes, wouldn’t that be something if our politicians would lead, would really lead, and show us the way to go in terms of food and nutrition and lifestyle.
Sailesh Rao: Oh yeah, I am very optimistic about the local politicians because they tend to be much more closer to the people and they do things that are to the benefit of the people. The further up you go the more disconnected they become in my opinion.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes. Now you’re in California?
Sailesh Rao: I am in Arizona actually.
Caryn Hartglass: You are in Arizona okay. Things are pretty dry there.
Sailesh Rao: They are pretty hot here, yes.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes it’s pretty hot and dry. What are some of the things that people in your community are doing for the climate?
Sailesh Rao: We happen to live in what is rated to be the most unsustainable city in America. So I figured if we can make this place turn around it will happen everywhere.
Caryn Hartglass: Now who decided it was the most unsustainable place?
Sailesh Rao: There was an article in Grist. I don’t know exactly who did the study but it was a formal study by someone. So it rated Phoenix as the number one and number two was Tucson.
Caryn Hartglass: And what made it unsustainable?
Sailesh Rao: The fact that it’s a sprawling city, there is hardly any rain and there is a population increase happening and it gets hotter and hotter it is helpless. It is going to get another 3 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit increase in temperature for the next 20 years. So that makes it pretty unsustainable.
Caryn Hartglass: Right, so how do you cool it down and bring the water?
Sailesh Rao: Very simple we have to make it green again. And so if we can make Phoenix green again then we can make anywhere green again right? And we know that we can do that though formal culture techniques and bringing back the forest here is like bringing Phoenix back 200 years, that’s what it used to be. We deforested it and now we have to bring it back.
Caryn Hartglass: You mean it wasn’t hot and dry 200 years ago?
Sailesh Rao: No, no it wasn’t. It actually was the forest was cut down to grow cotton plantations and then the rain stopped coming and when the rain stopped coming then the cotton plantations gave away to cattle grazing so Arizona happens to be an open graze state so which means livestock can graze anywhere. So that really turned it into a desert.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah I don’t think people understand that cutting down natural forest do tremendous damage and we don’t have memory of the trees being in certain places and we didn’t know what it was like before. But half of the forest on this planet have been leveled and there are places where we are re-growing them but there’s all kinds of controversy with the scientist when it comes to climate change and deciding what goes on the carbon balance with the carbon dioxide, the methane gas that we are putting out into the atmosphere, the amount of carbon that cycles back into the soil and into the earth and down into the Geosphere and into the oceans and this carbon as you know moves around and around and some say that we’re imbalanced some say that we’re out of balanced. Imbalanced means that the carbon that goes into the atmosphere is enough to keep the temperature of the earth comfortable for human living and as we put more carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere a lot of us believe that we are making it warmer and it just seems so obvious to me, you cut down half of the planet’s trees the trees that are taking in the carbon and giving out oxygen is so obvious that we are out of balance and then to add to that we’ve leveled all these trees and we’ve put in its place more animals that are spewing carbon dioxide and fast tracking the fossil fuels out of the earth, burning them and putting them out into the atmosphere, it can’t possibly be in balance.
Sailesh Rao: You’re right.
Caryn Hartglass: I mean it’s simple I don’t have to be an environmental assessment specialist or any kind of specialist it just makes sense.
Sailesh Rao: You’re right we cut forest we do several things we release the carbon that was already stored into the atmosphere and at the same time we change rainforest patterns because forest bring their own rain so we change the impact on them so that place gets dryer and dryer as we cut it, in general and then eventually it becomes a desert once we use livestock to drain all the carbon from the soil and send it back up but now that the CO2 levels in the atmosphere are much higher than they use to be, forest are also able to sequester more carbon. This is why forest have actually taken up almost a quarter of the CO2 that we emit it and stored it in the land, in the soil. So there is a great potential for the forest to re-sequester this carbon back.
Caryn Hartglass: And now, are you originally from India?
Sailesh Rao: Yes, I am.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes, there is a lot of changes going on in India you mentioned this project in Rajasthan but India is a big country. And there are a lot of changes going on that’s positive. And some of the things we are concerned about here in the United States is countries like China and India becoming more like us. Making more of our mistakes.
Sailesh Rao: You are right that’s a huge issue because India used to be 90 percent covered by forest two hundred years ago and now the forest count is down to seven percent or less.
Caryn Hartglass: Seven percent?
Sailesh Rao: Seven percent or less. It’s pathetic what is going on now. It’s mostly from the consumption of diary. India does not consume much meat yet but Indians consume a lot of diary and the problem with dairy is that if you take a lot of milk but you don’t eat the beef the cows live for 20 years and they are literally eating up the forest in India. So India has the highest population of cattle on the planet. India has about 320 million heads a cattle and almost four time as much as the US and those cattle are doing damage to the forests in India.
Caryn Hartglass: Now you know what the United Nations would tell India to do and I know they are.
Sailesh Rao: Oh India is already doing that. India has become the largest exporter of beef on the planet.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, you could also intensify and go into animal intensification where there’s a number of things that you can do in terms of feeding the cattle and not allowing them to graze because unfortunately grazing puts out more greenhouse gas emissions than keeping the animals in a small space and feeding them some disgusting formula. And the governments are buying it, they’re saying okay we want to emit less greenhouse gas emissions so we are not going to let our animals graze.
Sailesh Rao: That’s a bit tough in India because in India cows are sacred for a lot of people so they won’t take kindly to factory farms springing up in India.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s good to hear.
Sailesh Rao: Yeah, but there are also drawbacks because then the cows are killing the forest and so the tiger dies. So the Tigers are impacted by the consumption of the cattle.
Caryn Hartglass: And how many people understand this?
Sailesh Rao: It’s becoming more well known in India in fact India is going through this process of accelerated knowledge where so McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken are coming to India and they’ve been active for maybe 15 years or 20 years and in the brief span of time the diabetes issues have skyrocketed, heard disease skyrocketed, obesity has skyrocketed and people are beginning to put two and two together because they knew what it was like 20 years ago and it wasn’t this bad. So they are putting two and two together and they are beginning to see, make the connection and see much quicker than we are in the U.S. so I am hopeful that people will wake up much faster because of that.
Caryn Hartglass : Yeah I hope so too. Now I can assume you’re a vegan.
Sailesh Rao: Of course.
Caryn Hartglass: Of course, I love that. Where you raised that way?
Sailesh Rao: I was raised lacto vegetarian. So I was lacto vegetarian for the first 40 years of my life and it was when I saw the impact of dairy on the forest of India that I turned vegan, until then I was in my own little bubble with a story that we are not really hurting the cow we are just milking her, that’s what I was told and I didn’t see the connections between that milk that I’m consuming and the tiger dying and also the fact that when you milk a cow you are literally stealing from the calf. I was always told that the calf gets to drink the milk first and then you took the rest for human consumption but all that is gone because in India you cannot afford to do that anymore. The demand for milk has gone up so much that the calf gets absolutely nothing. They put the calf away, even in the villages, after just 30 seconds and they tie the calf in front of the mother and the mother is licking the baby and they milk the cow dry and then they release the calf so the calf can go send a signal to the mother saying she doesn’t have enough milk. It’s heart wrenching to watch that. I watched that and I said that’s it and I’m never going to touch this again.
Caryn Hartglass: Now you said that you saw that. There are people that do it and they don’t.
The trouble is the people that do it are not the ones that consume the milk so the people who do it are in the villages and they are doing it because that’s the only thing that the rich people want from the village. So they’re selling the milk and with the money they get and with the meager amount of money they get, they go and buy other necessities that they need. So the villagers are not drinking the milk.
Caryn Hartglass: You know that organization Heifer international?
Sailesh Rao: I’ve heard of them yes.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah so one of the things that they do is they get animals, they give them to villages in developing nations where people are very poor and it’s supposed to help them have something to sell and improve their livelihood but actually I think what they’re doing is like you were saying these animals destroy the terrain.
Sailesh Rao: Right.
Caryn Hartglass: In some areas they do more harm than good but it’s a very successful organization because their marketing is so appealing they show all these adorable cuddly little animals that people are holding and it taunts at your heartstrings because I think deep down we really do care about animals.
Sailesh Rao: Absolutely we do.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay so here you are you’ve got the climatehealeres.org you founded in 2007.
Sailesh Rao: Right.
Caryn Hartglass: And you also wrote a book called Carbon Dharma: The Occupation of Butterflies. Can you just give me a brief summary of what that’s about?
Sailesh Rao: That’s about the metamorphosis that I believe is happening. This is the change that is going to happen in the next 15 years as return from caterpillars will conceal mindlessly into butterflies that redirect the planet. So it’s about the transition and why I believe it is going to happen. It’s a fascinating story because there are many ways to talk about the environment. Typically we people say everything is a complete mess and everybody needs to change and that doesn’t inspire people. Or you can say everything is perfect and nobody needs to change you just the opposite side and that’s not being realistic. And of course the third corner is everything is a mess and nobody needs to change which George Carlin for instance says that, he’s a comedian, and basically he’s saying we are all going to go away we are going to disappear from this planet so don’t have to change and that’s not good either. So the way that I’m trying to see this is everything is perfect and everything will change.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay I’m going to use that one. Everything is perfect and everything will change, I like that very much.
Sailesh Rao: Thank you.
Caryn Hartglass: Sailesh thank you for joining us half hour on its all about food. Love what you’re doing.
Sailesh Rao: Thank you so much Caryn.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay be well. All right we are going to take a quick break I’m Caryn Hartglass you’re listening to Its All About Food. And just remember everything is perfect and everything will change and then we’re going to take a little break and we’ll be back with Keegan Kuhn and Kip Andersen the co-directors of Cowspiracy.
Transcribed by Alma Yesina, 5/27/2014