To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Resurgence, I, with my wife June and my son Mukti, walked 50 miles from the source of the river Thames to Oxford. It took six days, and from the third day 50 people joined us on this pilgrimage. Walking along the Thames was refreshing and inspiring. The river flowed so calmly that we hardly noticed its movement. Father Thames seems to believe that slow is indeed beautiful. He became our teacher for calm abiding.

We learned that the river, too, is on a journey, as we are on a journey of life. In this journey we are enriched by many influences, as the river is by its many tributaries. The river does not flow in a straight line, nor do we in our lives. When the river meets an obstacle, it does not fight, nor does it stop. It moves around, meanders and keeps flowing. We need to do the same to complete the pilgrimage of life.

We dedicated this walk not only to the water of the Thames, but also to earth, air and fire. These four elements are the basis of life. Sometimes we tend to forget this simple truth and take them for granted. Every day during our pilgrimage we committed ourselves not to do that.

Mainstream society is focused on, if not obsessed with science and technology, industry and the economy. Politics, business, the media and education hardly pay any attention to, least of all care for, earth, air, fire and water. Economists and industrialists look at Nature and see her merely as a resource for the economy. But in reality Nature is not a resource: rather, she is the source of all life.

Science and technology, economy and industry are merely icing on the cake. The real cake is made of the four elements. If we only focus on the icing, increase it and eat it, we are bound to be sick. No wonder our planet Earth is sick with the fever of global warming and is facing depletion of the soil, pollution of oceans and rivers, destruction of rainforests, contamination of air with greenhouse gases, and misuse of fire with the burning of fossil fuels. During our walk we urged the powers that be to protect, conserve and honour the four elements from which life is made.

Nature is not just “out there”. We humans are also Nature. We are made of earth, air, fire and water. Our bodies contain these elements together in one unity. We pollute, contaminate, damage and diminish these elements at our peril.

Science and technology, economy and industry are all very well, but without the purity and integrity of these four elements life cannot be sustained or maintained. This self-evident truth should be common sense, but unfortunately this common sense is no longer common.

The media, schools, universities and politics hardly ever talk about honouring the elements and maintaining their integrity. The modern mantra chanted by the leaders of politics and business is economic growth, economic growth and more economic growth. And when they chant the mantra of economic growth they don’t even mean economy in its true sense. The Greek word oikos means ‘home’. In the wisdom of the Greek philosophers the entire planet Earth is our home. Nomos means ‘management’, and thus ‘economy’ means ‘management of our (planet) home’. Politicians and business leaders have forgotten this meaning. For them the economy is simply finance and the movement of money. As long as society is making money by transforming the four elements into commodities to buy and sell, they call it ‘progress’ and consider themselves successful and satisfied. This is a profound tragedy of our time.

Our pilgrimage along the river was to remind ourselves and our fellow human beings that our focus should change from the icing to the cake. Once the cake is in good health, we can give our attention to the icing. There is nothing wrong with the icing, nothing wrong with science and technology, economy and industry, but turning the cake into icing will only lead to catastrophe.

While walking along the river, I had a revelation. It occurred to me that there is an invisible fifth element, which holds the four elements together and connects them with each other. That fifth element is the imagination. Only through the imagination can we care for and celebrate, honour and appreciate the life-sustaining power of the four other elements.

Unfortunately, imagination is as undervalued and underrated – if not altogether ignored – as the four other elements. Politics is mostly about point scoring, superficiality and triviality. The mainstream media, too, is full of irrelevant scandals, abuses, insults and celebrity obsessions. Education has become a way of passing exams, getting a job and serving the machine of industrialism and consumerism, and denuded of imagination. The arts, crafts, culture, spirituality and beauty are relegated to second or third place. It is assumed that those who are not clever enough to go into business, banking or manufacturing go into the arts, crafts and culture. As a result an artist or a craftsperson can barely make a living.

The industrial economy and consumer culture have become the enemy of the imagination. No wonder depression, frustration, anxiety and anger are on the rise; no wonder souls are starving without nourishment from the imagination.

Touching the earth with our feet alongside the waters of the Thames, breathing fresh air, warming our bodies with the sunshine and imagining the sustaining power of our planet home was an inspiring experience. Arriving in Oxford on foot to participate in the proceedings of our 50th anniversary conference and celebration, One Earth, One Humanity, One Future, was perfectly fitting.

The great work now is to restore our respect for earth, air, fire and water – and the imagination.

Satish Kumar is the author of Soil, Soul, Society.