Today’s blog post is an interview with Vasu Primlani, a celebrated speaker, environmentalist, actor, professor, somatic therapist, triathlete, baker, and is one of India’s top comedians. She employs comedy to disseminate issues of social messaging, particularly around boundaries, civic sense, gender equity, and the concept of consent, per US civic society standards. She is one of the most prominent social entrepreneurs in the United States and India. For her innovation, she received over a dozen environmental and economic leadership awards globally. Here’s trying to get to know her and her contributions towards environmental protection.
It will take more than just to interview to boil down all that you are – speaker, environmentalist, actor, professor, somatic therapist, triathlete, baker, and a comedian! It’s amazing to see all kinds of things that you do. Where do you get your energy from?
Vasu: Well, there is a rule in the universe. The more you give, the more you get. If you give with the true idea of giving, as in it is not for others, it is for yourself, it is true giving, it doesn’t sap me. It doesn’t tire me. If I’m tired, I’m ‘good’ tired. We tend to conserve energy when there is no need to conserve energy. Also my mother said, “Whatever you do in your life, do it to the best of your ability. If you are very intelligent and you don’t try and you come first, we will be happy with it. If you are not that intelligent, and you try your best and come last, we will be happy with that. Everything you do, do it so well that even God can’t do better than you.” Basically saying that do the best you can. She has taught me to put in 100% effort.
I feel you. Mothers are always so inspiring, my mom always said something similar – “Do what you do well and do what makes you happy.”
Vasu: Yeah, you are right. In fact, the mothers who do not raise their children well try to inculcate in them the practices that they were taught which is do things for others, doesn’t matter whether it makes you happy or not, you MUST do these things.
For the purpose of this interview, I’m going to narrow my questions down to focus on our environment. Tell us about your journey as an environmentalist and how it came to be. What makes you an environmentalist? Did you mother inspire you to be one in any way?
Vasu: I knew when I was 5 years old that I was going to be an environmentalist. I had a favorite teacher and one day she said she loved trees. From that day on I loved trees. I grew up with comic books like Phantom and Tarzan, grew to love these animals and the forests. As I grew older, I realized that, you know we have a saying in Hindi that ‘you don’t make a hole in the plate that you eat from.’ You don’t destroy your own resources, it makes no sense. It doesn’t make sense ecologically or economically. The only difference between the environment and economics is that the environment equals economics plus time. If you say it is not economically viable today, try two or three years later. If you want a healthy happy life, we are all interconnected. If a polar bear in the Arctic is not happy, neither can we be. If we don’t see this interconnectedness between the smallest microorganisms and us, and how the entire fabric of life is intertwined much like mycelium is, much like the internet is, then we haven’t been educated properly and most of us haven’t. Most of us, I would say 99% of people, put the environment as low priority, and their family and health as top priority. Somehow there has been a bifurcation between family, health and the environment, when to me there are all the same thing. My father inspired me, he bought me these comics, he was on the Second World War, he would tell me stories of the jungle, he was also the Dean of Banaras Hindu University, Botany, in his time this was a prestigious post. He used to tell me that before that science has established it, that if you pass by a plant and think a positive thought, the plant is going to be affected positively, biochemically, like you had given it a hug. If you pass by a plant and think a negative thought, it’s going to be affected negatively. Somehow, our ancient culture in India knew that because there is also a saying that if the king of a land is cruel and unfair, the crops of that land will fail. That makes sense because if the king is unjust, the subjects are unhappy, they are going to be walking around in their fields being unhappy, the plants are going to be affected and they are going to die as well.
Environmental education is gaining more and more importance in India now. Not to say it wasn’t there before, in fact seeds for this were planted in my life at school too. Someone came to our class for a workshop about ozone depletion and I made my parents buy a CFC free refrigerator. After that I guess it just started for me. Regarding old knowledge and traditions, they somehow haven’t trickled down so well to the newer generation. I read this interesting article the other day that said “Under this blanket of faith, there is a distinct acknowledgement of the services that these forests provide.” Speaking of education, you have received a master’s degree from UCLA in Geography, Urban Planning and Law. Why this particular course? How did that help you in your work?
Vasu: I had a choice. I got very fond of the English language. I could have done a Masters in English or Geography. I decided that English I can pursue on my own, but I wanted to be a specialist in Geography and the environment, so that’s why I chose Geography. I took the college that was best in Geography in the country. Went to UCLA, I applied to their program because it was at the top 3 at the time. I moved to the US to be an environmentalist, because the US has the highest consumptive pattern in the world, so I figured if I could make a difference in the belly of the beast, I could change the world.
And then you continued to work in the US too, correct? Tell us about your work in the US. How does that have an effect on your work in India? Do you travel to and fro?
Vasu: Initially, I worked in the US for Patagonia in sales, the outdoor company. I got jobs to pay my way through college. I worked for the Environmental Defence (formerly Environmental Defence Fund) at the time, I was a Tech Consultant. I did GIS, web design and programming. I then started my own non-profit and I ran that for 13 years in greening restaurants. What I did was create a system, what I turned on its head were quite a few assumptions – 1. It costs money to be green. 2. Only people who are environmentalists only will be interested or can afford it. 3. There was a one hour segment on NPR about how people of color do not care for the environment. I turned that on its head. Because, 90% of my restaurants were ethnic and I brought them to the top of the class. Their problem was not that they didn’t care actually third world countries traditionally care more about their environment than first world countries do in their cultural practices. It’s just they didn’t know the systems of the US. They didn’t know there was something called stormwater management. If you say stormwater management to somebody who is even fluent in English, they don’t know what they are talking about. How do you expect from a Thai person who is coming from Thailand, English is their second language, they work 16 hours a day, to expect to know what stormwater management best practices are. So, I broke it all down, created a system of quantification. I’m not interested in the touchy feely kind of environmentalism, that you feel good that you are environmentalist and that is enough, no it is not. You have to quantify your change, how much change were you able to achieve. Because of my modes of operation, traditionally government agencies would reach out to their target population through phone calls or brochures, they would get a participation or recruitment rate of 3 to 12% and I would get 95%. The changes I was interested in was not like for instance diverting solid waste from landfills to recycling, I wasn’t interested and I never am to date I’m not. I’m a triathlete, I’m an iron-man level triathlete, I’m not interested in small change, I’m not interested in 5%, 10%, 15%, 20%. My restaurants diverted about 90% of their solid waste to recycling and composting. The restaurant that did the most did 99.5%. Those are the systems I created. In the beginning when I started greening restaurants, it would take me one full year to green a single restaurant. I was interested in systematizing it because doing good should be really easy. You shouldn’t have to create your own path and stand on your head, it shouldn’t be hard to do the right thing. By the time I got the process going really well, I know it is an exception, but still from the point of recruitment and to the point of certification, and the implementation of a minimum 60 environmental measures – in energy conservation, water conservation, pollution prevention, and solid waste minimization, and third-party verification by inspectors, the record I have of greening a restaurant from start to finish was 3 days. That process of 13 years taught me so much I can’t even tell you – 1. The ability to make positive change in the real world. 2. When I went out to the investors, I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t have the system in place, I was trying it out myself. I walked up to strangers, restaurant owners, to participate in the program and God bless them I don’t know why they said yes. It told me what my parents in Alaska told me that most people are reasonable if you give them a reasonable argument and it is also ok to tell people that ‘I don’t know exactly how I am doing but this is where I am headed if you want to walk with me and see where it goes.’ People appreciate honesty. It also taught me that people can tell in 30 seconds if you are trustworthy or not. The San Francisco Foundation gave me a $20,000 grant. They didn’t know me, I didn’t know myself, I had no track record of proving anything in the real world. I just had a history as an environmental professional. It is amazing the leaps of faith that people took. It taught me the most essential thing about being an activist, is that your job as an activist is to make yourself transparent like a prism, white light comes in and it splits into 7 colors on the other side of you. You make yourself transparent, so that people don’t listen to you – the person, but they listen to the voice you represent, which in my case was the Earth. So I speak on behalf of the Earth, and whenever I speak they listen, not because they are listening to Vasu Primlani, but because they are listening to the voice of the earth, because I made myself transparent so that the voice can come through me.
I imagine your mom saying in the background ‘if you do something do it well’, when you say you reached for that 100% while greening the restaurants. It is empathetic of you to keep the culture and language in mind while certifying these minority restaurants. I think the goodness in you made those people have that leap of faith in you. This non-profit you mention, is it the Thimmakka’s Resources for Environmental Education?
Vasu: Yes it was Thimmakka’s Resources. When I came back to India, it showed me exactly how much corruption there is in India. I used to respect Thimmakka, I used to think of her as a hero, now she is not even an average person. This person is a greedy person, they came after me because they assumed that the million dollars that I raised for the environment that I have kept for myself. They don’t know that according to the law of United States IRS that I cannot keep even a penny for my own use. They are so crooked, these people, they believe that there must be two sets of books, one that she shows and one that she has on the side. They came after me, the state of Karnataka put me in prison. They broke law after law after law in getting after me. They said “If you don’t give us money, we would put you in jail.” Which is exactly what they did. It wasn’t led by Thimmakka but she was definitely a part of it. She went publicly and said that I have cheated her and broke a huge amount of laws to prosecute me on a state level. The media in India and the state of Karnataka in India are all colluded to make this corruption, the threat and this prosecution happen.
That sounds so scary. Whatever you do, it seems, you are always going to face challenges and I commend you for standing your ground and not giving in to such things. Is it difficult to use comedy to raise awareness about environmental issues? After all, there’s some politics involved in that as well. I personally get so serious sometimes, I wish I could be funny too. I’ve seen George Carlin and Louis C K do that and it is amazing how comedy puts forth the harshest of truths without spreading negativity.
Vasu: Thank you. I lost 10 Kgs in 1 day, and wasn’t able to think for 3 months. Went through PTSD. Yes, it is difficult to do jokes about the environment because the rule of comedy is that you have to make jokes about things that are popular. That’s relatable, that’s what the best comedy is about. Talking about and do sets on the environment, about diversity, about gender equality, these are the things people don’t even talk about. These are negative subjects. You talk about people getting quiet, they get on their defences, they get offended easily. So, to make jokes about that and I do jokes about these and I get applauded to that level and I said I have to pick up my socks as an artist, pick myself up by my bootstraps to improve the artist I am. The first 6 times I did environmental jokes it went flat. By the third time, the comedian will say this joke is not working I need to stop using it but I said no I need to stick with it because this is the message I need to give and I need to be become a better artist to be able to deliver this level of message.
I’m sorry to hear about your PTSD. I can’t imagine.
Vasu: Yes. They made my mother cry. My father was 93 at the time. Imagine what they went through. And all because there is a veneer of democracy in India. Power runs the law. Not honesty, or justice. All you need to do is make associations with powerful people and even the most crooked people can bend the law to bully good people.
When did you became the green comedian? Did green come first and comedian later?
Vasu: Green first, comedian second.
One of your standups is about solid waste. (Video link here.) According to Jambeck, lead author of a 2015 study and a researcher at University of Georgia in the US, “The top 20 countries, including India, account for 83% of all the mismanaged waste available to enter the ocean”. What do you think about the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan?
Vasu: I actually have seen absolutely no results in the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan other than a host of marketing everywhere. I have no respect for where I don’t see results. So far, it seems to me and a lot of Indians to be a whole lot of hype.
You’ve formed a Facebook group Delhi Blue Skies to do something about Delhi’s air pollution. How’s that going?
Vasu: I’m just sitting with some slums people to do some passive solar for them. I’ve made one video on indoor air quality plants so I’m starting with me. Got 90 indoor air quality plants and getting them ready for my house. Got a solar audit done for my house and see how many houses I can get under the solar renewable purview. Also designing passive solar for slums because I was thinking of class and there is no reason why poor people can’t have solar systems as well. I’ll start with passive solar and then look for CSR funds to do active solar for slums. Then I’m going to make a video, I just did a brief survey in Delhi on efficient driving and found that 95% of the vehicles that I surveyed get mileage less than what the manufacturer claims. Mine is the highest in the group even though my car is a 2010. If everyone was to drive the way I do, they would save an average 53% on their fuel cost and emissions. Which is great if buses, trucks, Uber and Ola, they all do it, they are going to make a substantial difference on transport emissions in Delhi.
Could you please elaborate on how is it that you drive that would save an average 53% on the fuel cost and emissions.
Vasu: Think of this, imagine two cyclers and they are coming to a stop sign. One cycler pedals all the way and does a hard break at the end. The other guy has been going at the same speed as the first guy. The second guy pedals once and coasts to a stop. Which one arrives first and which one used less energy? This is smart driving right? You drive with the principle of a marble. When a marble rolls, when it’s a ball, when it is something circular, when it has to move, you don’t have to physically put it there to the end point, you can just give it a little tap and it will roll the rest of the way. So, using smart driving principles, such as that, using appropriate gears, little things that don’t cost you anything such as when you are stopped, when you are at a halt at a red light, for more than 10 seconds, you turn off your engine. These are the small things that I do that gives me 21% better mileage than what the manufacturer gives. I have a Nissan Micra and these days I have said I’m not going to drive at all or very little. I’m now taking the bus, I came for this meeting in the bus. Or metro, or bicycle. I’ll also look at buying an electric vehicle after I put in solar in my house so then all my fuel comes from a renewable source for my vehicle. I’ll make a video on that so that will show exactly what I do, so you’ll see then.
True. It’s the little things that help, for example, keeping your tyres inflated to the right pressure. I will be sharing this video exclusively on my blog when you are done creating it :)
Vasu: Exactly, that’s the first thing, the tyres is the first thing. So, I’m a triathlete, any olympic athlete will tell you that they are not necessarily stronger than the next guy but they are definitely the most efficient. They use the greatest amount of conversion of force towards forward propulsion. Any swimmer will you tell you that, any cyclers will tell you that, any runner will tell you that. The purpose of winning in a race is not the one who jumps the highest, the one who’s got the longest stride, the one who’s got the beefiest muscles. It’s the person who goes the greatest amount of distance with this smallest amount of power required. That’s what makes champions. That’s what makes smart driving.
I like how you give metaphors to explain something. You teach courses in business schools and IIT on sustainability. What’s your teaching philosophy? How do you make students understand sustainability? What are your methods?
Vasu: I use everything from economics to teach sustainability, to comedy, and somatic therapy also, in terms of realizing the reality of the body, what you feel good about. A lot of people are stuck in jobs that they hate, that are creating a lot of pollution, but they feel they have to do that for a livelihood. I ask why. Why can’t you create livelihoods doing the right thing? Why can’t you earn money by doing good, that makes you feel good, that’s good for the environment. Why do we have to be losers? Why can’t there be winners everywhere?
Reminds me of Bruce Lee when you talk about efficiency and energy conversion.
Vasu: These are universal principles. Anybody who has tried anything will know these principles.
‘Why can’t there be winners everywhere?’ Great coaching from you. Your tweets are also exceptionally positive. I understand that you want to also replace the punitive approach for enforcing environmental compliance used by state agencies with a more positive incentive-based strategy. You’ve applied this to your work with greening restaurants. Have you also applied this elsewhere.
Vasu: I was director of Ecotel hotels in India, where I was training hotels and saving them millions of dollars every year. One thing we applied at a major chain is I said that they need to make this one change to their lighting and my boss said you cannot put this in front of a 5 star hotel chain because it goes against their brand standards so they will not change that. I said it is not my job to decide for the client on their behalf as to whether they’ll yes to it or whether they’ll no to it, they can do whatever they want with this information. It is my job to present this information to them. They can say no to it for any reason including they don’t like my face. That’s their choice. But I’m not going to make that decision on their behalf. So I gave them that measure which would save 27 lakhs per property globally. I was told by an engineer later that they changed brand standards to incorporate this principle.
Are you at liberty to talk about the technological change in the lighting?
Vasu: Yeah, I specialize in low-cost and no cost measures that immediately save you money. So, this change was that in their lobby they have 1000 watt bulbs, that’s 1kW, you can run an AC on that. They would have these bulbs on during the day. It is really funny. When we were doing lumens measurement, it is a test where you measure how much light is hitting the floor in the lobby. So, the guy who is doing the test recorded the test with the lights on in the lobby and he said “Ok, go ahead and turn the lights off to see if there is a difference in the amount of light that’s hitting the floor during the day.” He said, “Turn off the lights.” “Turn off the lights.” “Turn off the lights!” He said that three times before one guy came running up to him and said, “Sir, the lights have been off.” He could not tell the difference, the instruments could not tell the difference between when the lights were on and when the lights were off! That means that the lights that were on were making absolutely no difference to the light that was hitting the floor. What’s the point of these lights being on? I said, “Just turn these off during the day and you turn them on happily when it gets dark, when it is overcast. It costs you nothing, you have these running for no reason whatsoever.” Another one is, a lot of hotels in India hold the default temperature of the room at 18 deg C. I did a little bit of research and found that the band of human body comfort is I think 24 to 26 deg C. So, you are actually putting them in freezer conditions and if the guy doesn’t know how to control a thermostat, which a lot of Indians don’t, they’ll just sit there, be uncomfortable, wear a lot of quilts, and maybe get sick in the room. Rather than setting it at the band of comfort that you are supposed to, which our bodies are built for. That you find in a lot of Indian hotels, which American, European or Australian hotels don’t do.
Centralized heating and cooling is such a waste, I agree! The technology for distributed heating and cooling exists too. My last question to you would be – What’s your take on the current state of the environment in India? What are your suggestions?
Vasu: When I started working in the US, the population of the US was 264 million and the estimate then was an average first world resident consumes as much as 50 times as many resources as the average third world resident. That would place its metric population at about a billion. India has 1.3 billion population now and it has got the biggest middle class in the world with consumptive patterns that are increasing on a daily basis to perhaps come close to the US consumptive levels. So you are really looking at a population that is not just 1 billion, but 2 billion or 3 billion, in terms of its to its consumptive pattern. So, you are looking at instant disaster. Everyone wants the American dream, everyone wants to have 2 cars or 4 cars. And it is not really about what the environment can afford, we are so removed from what the Earth can sustain, that’s not even in the rhetoric. I have approached Uber and Ola about doing smart driving, they are not even interested. We are going to be talking to the Delhi Transport Corporation. The Delhi Government is not particularly interested. Even though the air in Delhi is in critical conditions, I don’t see system wide solutions being implemented. Honestly, I see it heading for disaster. There’s studies done by leading climatologists that have said that if the Earth was to start all commerce entirely, to 0%, right now, it would be too late. We are nowhere close to reducing it to 0%, we are not even keeping it at 100%, we are increasing it day by day. It doesn’t look good unless there are drastic changes, major changes.
Thinking of the tipping point feels depressing. I guess we are then just buying more time on this planet. Humans seem to be motivated either by money or crisis.
Vasu: Yes and it’s foolish to do so.
However, people like you certainly help bring the positivity and the energy to this movement. And I thank you so much for doing this interview and appreciate the time you took from your busy schedule.