A Conversation with Konstantin Zülske

Hello. My name is Aarthi. I am in my fourth year of college as a pharmacy student. I am the Editor-in-Chief of MTTN, which is the student club of immensely talented people in Manipal. We are so grateful that you took the time to meet us. Please go ahead and introduce yourself. 

Well, thanks for having me. My name is Konstantin, 28, from Germany. And yeah, I have been cycling 15,000 kilometers from Germany to India in the last nine months to support the Safe Soil movement.


Tell us more about the cause and how you started it. 

Seriously, that’s one of the most common questions I get. Why are you doing it? What’s the inspiration behind it? But what I keep saying is actually, if you just look at the facts of what is happening to the world, especially in terms of soil. Now, I really didn’t have any other choice because I studied soil science, so I always knew that soil degradation is a huge problem, and I’d say it’s the problem right now. It’s the biggest ecological problem we have had.

90% of the soil on the planet will be degraded, will be gone, irreversibly lost. That means we’ll have 40% less food on the planet. Also, the population is going to be higher. That means severe water shortages. That means a lot of carbon, which is going to be emitted into the atmosphere.

We’re talking about malnutrition, farmers, livelihoods, wars, migrations.

And this is already a big, big thing. This is not a joke anymore.

It’s connected to so many ecological problems, especially water shortages and food crises. So just knowing all of these facts and the fire that Sadhguru and the Isha Foundation has put into me, I really don’t have a choice anymore. So I like cycling, but I also like soil. So I’m just combining these two things. I’m just trying to be a little useful.


Okay, tell me more about cycling. Why cycling? You could have chosen anything, you could have chosen to run.

Well, that’s true.

But first of all, I think people need to see that you’re really staking your life a little bit, like you have to do something crazy. You have to do something that catches attention so that people actually look at it and like okay, this is just to get the attention and then as soon as I have the attention I just drift back to the topic immediately.

But on the other hand, I always loved cycling in Europe. We have a big cycling culture and even during my university days my university is just like 40 kilometers away from my hometown. So every day I did like 80 kilometers. So even when I was a kid, I’ve done a lot of cycling. And yeah, it’s just a part of me. Natural choice to just pick cycling.


Tell me more about your experiences so far. 

So honestly that I think the most recent experience that I can remember, which really blew my mind, is when I got out of Iran and I cycled into Pakistan. I had no idea about this country and I just arrived there. But it was such a beautiful experience because I was going through the border and then I was not allowed to cycle.

I had to take a police escort because it was basically illegal to cycle in Balochistan because they said you’ll be a slow moving target close to the border of Afghanistan.

There are Taliban fighters there. So I was not allowed to cycle. I had to take a police escort. And then this escort spat me out in Karachi. And then I was there and I was just walking through the streets and I was like, wow, like, suddenly everything is so…Indian. Like all this food I have, all this amazing Indian food, which I never had before, all these foods. And they were like crazy things happening in the streets, like drumming people.

And it was just so different from Iran. And I thought, like, wow, like I’m in India. But I don’t want to get too political here. 


One more experience?

One more thing was when I got into Armenia, because I was there doing a student exchange before, when I was 16 years old, I was in Armenia for two weeks. And so for me, I was reliving a lot of childhood memories there. I was visiting my old host family, and they invited me to so many restaurants and places, and they showed me around. I was like, Oh yeah, I was here when I was 16.

And Armenia, it was one of the most beautiful countries on the tour because the whole landscape is so pristine. Very clear, clean rivers. Just hold my bottle in the river and drink from it, cycling for the landscape. Wild horses next to me. Really, really, very beautiful country. It’s perfect.


Okay, now tell us about the problems that you’ve faced so far.

Okay, let’s go back to Pakistan. Cycling in Pakistan was the hardest part of the whole tour because after I arrived in Karachi, I thought, the police’s court is going to be there.

But it was not like that. I basically noticed it’s illegal to cycle the entire country on your own if you’re a foreigner. So I had to take a police escort from the entire country, which was more than 2000 kilometers, for the month I stayed there. So at the beginning I thought that’s pretty cool.

Wherever I went, I had to tell them what I’m doing, where I’m going. I can’t even leave whenever I want. Like I have to tell them, okay, at this time tomorrow, I’ll leave and then I have to wait for them and whatever I do, like if I just want to go to the toilet, I have to tell them. But I can’t do anything.


How long were you there for?

I was in Pakistan for one month. One month, five weeks.

No, seriously, especially the women’s situation. It was very difficult for me to digest in Pakistan, like especially if you go to the small villages, you will just not see any women in the street. You will just see 50% of the population. And I don’t know the way, I don’t know, it was just very weird for me to see. I’ve never seen anything like that before. It was a little depressing for me to see how little rights women have there in the country and how they are being treated very, very hard. Like, I mean, I just as soon as I was in India, I was like, wow, OK, actually, I see women again and then I see them in a motorcycle again, like everything is so much more free, you know, than it was in Pakistan. 

It’s just, it felt very congested to me.


How do you basically find Isha volunteers?

Actually, since I’m in India, I think there was not a single day I didn’t spend with the Isha volunteers, except for like a very few ones when I was camping on a beach somewhere in Goa. So, apart from that, I’ve always been with Isha volunteers because I have one volunteer. He’s like, wherever you go, you tell me the name of the city, I tell you the name of the volunteer.

I’m really blessed. I have this huge family.


Tell me about your time at Isha? What was your journey with them like?

I was part of an intense meditation programme for 7 months which is called Sadhanapada. It’s for young people who want to do something else such as work on their Sadhana. It was intense. Waking up at 4.30 AM doing my sadhanas, asanas and yoga, two meals a day, a lot of volunteering. It was an intense time. I realized that this is the place to be because it is so conducive for my growth and inner self and I ended up staying there for 3 more months and then I went back to Germany just to earn a little bit more money and then I went back and forth between Isha and Germany. 

How did you spend your time in Germany? 

So I am a musician. I play the guitar and the harmonica and I would basically go to a different city each day and I would play the guitar on the streets everyday and at the end, I would collect the money and I would go home and repeat the next day. It was actually good money. 


How do you think one can make change? With regards to saving the soil? What are some everyday things one can do? 

It’s so easy. You just go to savesoil.org and watch a documentary to familiarize yourself with what’s happening in the environment and the world. Educating yourself is the first change you’ll bring in. Once you know what is happening in the world, you won’t be able to refrain yourself from talking about it. It’s simple. Spread awareness by printing out a logo and putting it up or posting it on social media so that more people get educated.

Sadhguru and Isha foundation were sitting with ecological scientists at the United Nations making a draft policy recommendation for soil reutilization for every single country in the world. It took more than 3 years to draft it. It was received by more than 600 political parties across the world so they are aware of it. But for them to take the message seriously, we’ll need a mass movement of people to stand up and say something about it. It has never happened in the world before, inspiring 3.5 billion people in the world, representing 60% of the world to make it a political issue and make a change. 


What do you think is the most important thing you’ve learned in your journey?

I am telling you the biggest thing was learning how to spend more time in nature and how it taught me how to overcome a lot of compulsions i had in my mind and my body. I tell people if they want to be healthy, they should spend more time in nature. I read a study where 95% of Europeans spend their indoors not being in touch with nature. That’s interesting because I spend 99% of my time outdoors. In countries like Turkey and Iran, I was camping everyday, just in touch with soil and nature. And especially cycling, everything is happening in your head. You’ll go through a lot of things if you’re on your own  and the mind will bring so many things that you’ve buried in your head and all of it will come up. So, it’s actually nice but you have to put effort into it. 


Tell us how soil directly affects biodiversity in this ecosystem.

I mean, if you hold one teaspoon of healthy soil, there will be more microorganisms inside it than human beings on the planet. There’s a huge universe beneath our feet that we don’t really, really know anything about. Although we’re 85% of the biodiversity of this planet, it’s only happening in the upper 30 centimeters of topsoil. Because all these fungi, microbes and bacterias, they are the majority of the biodiversity of the planet. But this is where most of life is happening, just inside these top 30 centimeters.

But every year 27,000 species are going extinct. And various studies have found that industrial agriculture is the main part of this program. And none of these 27,000 species which are going extinct every year, those are mostly soil microbes which are going extinct because of plowing. But with pesticides, fungicides and herbicides; that’s downright poisoning. That’s absolute genocide. If you plow the soil, you’ll very efficiently kill all these earthworms.

These are mainly species which are living in the soil now. More and more of these species going extinct, it’s going to be harder and harder in the future to revitalize soil. The United Nations is saying that if we can turn this around now, it can be very easily done in another 30 to 50 years. If we don’t do anything right now, if we wait for another 50 years, it’ll take anywhere between 200 and 300 years. So that’s why we want this to happen right now. 


How does Save the Soil relate to climate change?

Very big way. Soil is actually THE biggest carbon sink that we have on earth. Soil stores three times as much carbon present in the atmosphere and four times as much carbon present in the plants and living beings on earth combined.

Actually I read a study during the COP in Dubai that if we just raise the organic content of soil by only 1%, it will be enough to store an additional 35 gigatons of carbon dioxide, which is exactly the gap that is currently needed to stay within the 1.5°C. So if you just do that, you’ll be done! Fixed! So there’s no way of talking about climate change without talking about soil.


Tell me about nihilism. How do we deal with people that don’t believe in climate change, don’t believe that things are going wrong? 

That’s a good question.

I mean, in denial about it.

Nihilism essentially means you’re making a prediction like everything is in vain anyway and nothing is going to work out.

That’s not what we’re trying to do. The whole soil thing is not a prediction to be made.

We have a plan. There’s science and data. 

Yes, there’s data. We want to do something about it and whether it works out or not, we focus on the process right now. That’s a common problem in the world, that people always focus upon the outcome of what they’re doing. If you just focus on the process of what you’re doing, the outcome will anyway happen.


Which country or city did you see the most environmentally conscious people?

To be honest, Germany. 

Especially the youth. The governing party right now is the Green Party which is the environment party and we have a lot of education about that. Germany is such a clean country, to be honest. And not just Germany, all of Europe, basically all of Western Europe especially.


You won’t ever see any garbage laying anywhere in the streets. And yeah, the amount of tree planting projects we have going on there and also the help and development for other countries in the world, which is coming from Germany, it’s quite incredible. So we have a lot of equal conscious people there. But still, Save Soil is basically a global campaign. So this needs to happen not only in Germany, but all over the planet.


How do you feel like the education systems can step up and get more people going? (If you know the Indian education system, all you study is science and math)

Well, I feel like the education system is mainly working to make people get jobs and money. That’s why people want to get themselves educated. But that’s not what education is all about.

I think education should be to awaken a certain sense of curiosity. 

That’s what children have. If you see a 5 year old child, he is just curious about everything. But then by the time he comes to school and he goes through 12 years of education, he is just fed up with so much knowledge. Because modern education only focuses on memory. Education should be helping the child in becoming more curious and awakening their inner talents. But that’s not really what’s happening. But I think if we can shift to such a mode of education where we’ll focus more on curiosity rather than information feeding, then children will anyway become more sensitive.

When we had Save Soil presentations, we would initially make people sit under the sun and talk about planting trees. And then they will sit there, their makeup will run down and they’ll be sweating. And then we put them under a tree and make them sit in the shade. And then they’ll realize.

This is what SOIL can give you.

Yeah. This is what healthy soil is doing. So right now we need to plant trees in the human mind. 


How are you going to end this? Where are you going to end this?

In Isha Yoga Centre, for Mahashivratri, March 8th. So in another two weeks, I’ll be in Isha Yoga Centre and then the nine months journey will come to an end. But I think I’m still just getting started. I’ll go back home to Germany for some while to make some money, but I’ll be coming back to India anyway. And now I have some more cycling plans in the future, but I’ll see what happens.


What are some moments you felt like you wanted to give up? You wanted to?

No, actually not.

But there were some moments where I thought, man, what the hell am I doing here?

This is really hard, especially when I was cycling in Iran, I was cycling through the desert for two entire weeks. And there’s a strange demotivation when you don’t really have a proper diet and when you’re just cycling and there’s just heat and flies and sand. 

So I was a little demotivated at times, but never there was a moment where I thought about giving up. That never happened.


It’s pretty strong. How do you get to that? How did you keep going? 

I’m doing my yoga every morning. So this is almost like a pill that I take in the morning.

If I do my Sadhana in the morning, whatever happens, happens. I mean, it’s not that it’s easy but it just doesn’t affect me so much anymore. 


How do you feel about biotech measures taken to beat food scarcity?

So I will give you some context for that.

I read a study about that that there’s been an 80% drop of proteins in Indian vegetables and a 60% drop of micronutrients like magnesium and iron. That is because the soil right now is so depleted of these nutrients.

If it’s not in food, it’s definitely not in US.

So if you think you can just make it up by just swallowing pills and just taking vitamins, it’s not going to work like that. So now, there’s a whole discussion about this engineered food or engineered clone meat or something like that. I think it might not be the best solution because after all, you have to have some nutrition in the food you eat. 

And right now there’s this huge problem that we think we’re actually eating nutritious food, but it’s not doing much except for filling us up. There’s a study that said, in 1920, if our grandparents ate one orange, to get the same nutrition from that one orange, we would have to eat eight oranges now. 

So it’s not practical anymore. I don’t know if you’ve ever eaten eight oranges unless you work in an orange farm. If you don’t take care of the soil, whatever food you grow, it’s going to be the same problem, yeah?


When it comes to saving soil, do you think you’ve made any contribution to that? 

I hope so. Just reaching out to people and talking.

I mean, I still see we could make this in a much bigger way and it could be more organized, but I’m just trying to be a little useful. And yeah, I hope something fruitful will come out of this and somebody will visit safesoil.org, post about it, talk about it because it needs to happen right now in the world.

Interviewed by Aarthika Srinivasan with Ashritha Patta and Fariha Fatima 
Transcribed by Dhriti Bharadwaj
Edited by Vaishnavi Katiyar 
Uploaded by Vaishnavi Katiyar

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