The New Repression

OpenEye - Issue 3, 1995

Indian scientist and radical ecologist Vandana Shiva fears that a single authoritarian vision is sweeping the globe and making millions of people superfluous. A contrasting sustainable vision is urgently needed.

You say we need a sustainable relationship to the land, why?

I think one of the things that is becoming so clear is that the development pattern that has assumed that agriculture should be free of people and loaded with machines and chemicals and that people's only habitation should be the city is at the root of the unsustainability of the city as well as of agriculture. One of the key things we really need now is the shift into sustainability of some kind. We just have to get used to not having to talk of the fact that a stable society means going backwards - because we don't have any option but to go into the future, into stability of some kind.

Every time people talk about what will be needed for sustainability, the response is "Oh, you want to go back?" There's no going back. Right now we are in a cul-de-sac and we'd better get out of it: it is a dead end! Cities as the only habitation of increasingly disenfranchised people for whom there is no work are non-sustainable social systems and they're non-sustainable ecological systems. That is the model on which the big decisions are being made: get people off the land, have agribusiness running all the food enterprises, create market deregulation for labour. let people's salaries drop, let workers become more part-time, let men sit jobless. let women come out and do part-time insecure jobs, let the male ego get even further fractured so the husband will start beating up the wife when she returns after having gone out, not because she has a choice but because she's the only one who's willing to work and able to work on a part-time basis. There is nonsustainability building up right in the household, which leads to increased violence against women.

Soon people can't walk safely down the street. Some kid without a job will have to snatch your camera to get the food for that night, or the drugs, or the drink or whatever it is and even for the better-off the system will necessarily mean more and more enclaves of protection built into an unstable situation. So if peace, sustainability and justice are to be arrived at, this imbalance that has been created has to go and the opportunity for us is the fact that we are moving away from the dominant paradigm that has assumed that jobs are not important, livelihoods are not important, people are not important. I think we have to just say people are important, and the recovery of the planet does not mean forgetting people.

What would a sustainable future pattern look like?

We have to learn from the old pattern and derive the principles from the old pattern. No matter how futuristic your agricultural system, if it's sustainable it'll have to be based on the perennial systems of conserving water, and conserving nutrients. If you can't do that, it's not sustainable. In the past agriculture was based on a system that lives

"We are entering a more
authoritarian era than we've
ever had before"

within the bounds of the fertility cycle and lives within the bounds of the water cycle - those are inevitabilities-and that's where it had better be based in the future.

How will all this work? To me at the ecological and social level the only way to build up is to take concrete problems in concrete situations and find the solutions. Sustainability has to be worked out by taking a city that is becoming non-sustainable, finding people who are becoming surplus. finding agriculture that is becoming non-sustainable and putting together the three things to..

"GATT and free trade will create so much destruction
that even
the north will start to experience
what the Third World has experienced"

meet each other's needs. It will have to be built bit by bit and if, as my sense is, the crisis is so deep and the solutions work, they will trigger all kinds of other people taking it on because the one thing I see GATT and free traders doing is that it will equalise the discourse North and South. It will create so much destruction that even the North will start to experience what the Third World has experienced. For the first time we are entering a situation where for the North and for the South the issue is survival for the majority of people and finding something that works in a period where survival should not work. The plans have no place for you. Well if one person can make it then the next can and then the next can and the next can.

What have been the most successful pro tests against the GAIT juggernaut?

In India I've been part of protests where 500,000 farmers came out to say no to GATT and patenting and other things. It's crazy for a country like India to accept free trade in agriculture where imports will remove people from agriculture and exports will remove land from food production and we can't afford either. We've had a lot of direct action around this and I think permanent direct action has to be part of what all this is about because when they say GATT is free trade, basically it is freedom and no limits for those who control global capital.

Quite clearly there is more and more unfreedom: the farmer who is not allowed to save his seed for the next year because of intellectual property rights. It's so clear to us that this is unfreedom for the farmer So free trade is built on many unfreedoms and if that freedom still has to be retained or created anew it must involve direct action, it must involve doing things differently from what is planned for you in this GATT juggernaut.

It involves something simple like farmers setting up seed banks. It involves something simple like consumers insisting that the food they will eat will have to come from local neighbourhoods and will generate employment for local communities, consumers insisting that in the process they help generate livelihoods on land as well as generate livelihoods in services. Agribusiness is not just production, it's also distribution.

The solutions in the concrete will come out of direct action that is so creatively thought out that it can last. I think sustainability of activism is the new thing we have to think about, because we are entering a more authoritarian era than we've ever had before. Basic rights of dissent in a democracy will be treated as very dangerous and the state, instead of being that which regulates uncontrolled greed, will become that which implements the agenda of uncontrolled greed and a state that is inverted in that way, which stops being the regulator of economic power and becomes the instrument of economic power, must necessarily have only one function left and that function is of law and order management.

It's very often said
that power is one level of fiction to which the powerless subscribe.
The power of GATT is only to the extent
that the rest of us take it lying down.

It is in the structure of the system. It will not be that a Thatcher is horrible or that a Narasimha Rao is a bastard-it is the system that is going to force them to act increasingly in these ways. But if that's the case we have got to find counter-strategies of permanent resistance in ways that recharge us, bring us creative energy and as Gandhi always said "in the resistance is built the creative construction of an alternative". So you're doing three things at the same time: you're saying 'no', you're building alternatives that work in that situation and into the bargain you're empowering yourself. It's very often said that power is one level of fiction to which the powerless subscribe. The power of GATT is only to the extent that the rest of us take it lying down. It is powerless if across the board people treat one or two things as being very very basic. If every woman in the world recognises the fact that today as a privileged consumer of the North she has the most tremendous countervailing power even as a housewife to decide what kind of food system we will have in the future and just uses that visit to the grocery as a vote: a daily place to construct alternatives.

The women of Sweden decided through pressure in organic farming and consumption-green consumerism-to have all packages declare where the food is produced, which number, who can be called and who's accountable. In fact people are going more and more for packages that can tell you that it was this family, this little kid with the tooth missing, that was involved in growing this piece of carrot. Now if something like that can be brought onto the global free trade agenda then free trade won't go where it was meant to go-it will basically go to rebuild community and rebuild local economies but we have to be ingenious and, like I said, thank God we don't have the luxury to woffle around and ask "will it work or won't It work?"-because I think so many people are going to be in such bad situations otherwise. We will have to innovate. We will just have to invent survival again.

How can we transform knowledge?

Knowledge has never grown in cumulative patterns. It's not that we have knowledge and keep building on it, while all the rest of it stays. Every time we make a choice of a certain knowledge system and every time governments and people agree to endow a certain stream they're also saying that another was worthless so let's kill it. So every step in financing, high financing, for molecular biology and genetic engineering is more of a death sentence to ecology, evolutionary biology and all the other biological disciplines that are fundamental to the recovery of this planet. So when people say there is more knowledge and we should use it or else the researchers will be out of work, basically the opposite is already happening. Researchers are being told you have no place unless you can work for profit. If you work for basic knowledge - if you work for societal knowledge-if you work for knowledge that is necessary but may not necessarily spin a dollar then you are out of work. That's already happened. We have once more to make a societal choice about whether we are going to allow this model of progress in research to kill basically all of humanity's heritage and knowledge, which is what will happen, and of course we'll have lots of people who can read the gene sequences of all kinds of organisms but cannot identify that organism itself.

If you work for basic knowledge
- if you work for societal knowledge-
if you work for knowledge that is necessary
but may not necessarily spin a dollar
then you are out of work.

That's already happened.

That's what's already happening. There's a wonderful essay by one of the leading ecologists in the US called "Forgetting" and he's just reporting on what has happened to one biology department. He says as molecular biology has grown and earned its living through joint ventures with corporations all the other biology departments have faded away. It's not the case that knowledge just grows and expands: every bit of knowledge that gets created, unless it is ecological and has all the integration's in mind at every point, every bit of knowledge that's reductionist that grows is an island with a bigger sea of ignorance than we have ever had before. Before we introduced pesticides, we didn't need to know what pesticides do, but once we introduced pesticides we needed to know and we never had that knowledge. So the sea of ignorance is growing much faster than the islands of light and with genetic engineering that sea of ignorance is going to be huge.

Is there a role for personal change?

I think each person has to change, but each person thinking they're an island and making changes, as is very often the fashion in the West-you pay a hell of a lot of money for that internal change-will not bring about change. We are in a period of history where the deepest spiritual transformation involves very direct involvement in daily matters and a process of political transformation there, and that requires a very deep inner source of strength, to understand one's own scale, one's contribution, one's significance, or lack of it. I think that's very much the key because if you don't have a sense of the lack of significance you get huge egos. So it's absolutely true everyone must change, but everyone must change with the knowledge of being connected to bigger, larger processes. I think for the West the big transformation required is how will we get into a better world without necessarily having it premised on the privileged status of the West? How will ecological recovery take place without deciding how every tribal should supply to European markets?

We may begin to think less in terms of consumption and more in terms of meaning, and quality of life.

You often talk about women; what is women's big mission in this transformation?

That they don't have a mission. Part of the problem was that we had too many missionaries in the past. The first round of missionaries went out and annihilated millions in the name of deliverance and the next round of missionaries went out and brought 'development' as the next mission. Now they're bringing free trade as the next mission. I think missionary zeal has more often than not created more problems than it has solved. I think what's wonderful about women and their effectiveness is that they don't have a mission, they do have causes, and they do have things they love, and they will fight long to protect, and it is without overarching order from somewhere that enough of them care and they care simultaneously. But each of them cares in their own terms and it's the resonance of that kind of highly autonomous action and highly autonomous politics that is the power of the women's movement and women as activists, women as thinkers.

Is there really a "caring" part of women that is important?

When I talk about this I get jumped on. Do you want to maintain the sexual division of labour between women who care and men who don't? Of course one doesn't want that - one would love for men to be more caring. Not only that, one would love to have men who have the capacity to be more caring because I think men want to care and I think the capacity is somewhere far away, so the issue really is that all of us have to care. We're getting enough of the breed of women who don't care at all.

Vandana Shiva is a physicist and philosopher of science turned ecological activist She is the author of Staying Alive - Women, Ecology and Development, The Violence of the Green Revolution - Third World Agriculture, Ecology and Politics and Monoculture of the Mind - Perspectives on Biodiversity and Biotechnology and, with Maria Mies, Ecofeminism. She won the Right Livelihood Award - the alternative Nobel prize - in 1993.

This interview was recorded at a press conference during the International Transpersonal Association's conference 'Toward Earth Community: Ecology, Native Wisdom and Spirituality'. Other speakers included Arne Naess, Stanislaw Grof and Helena Norberg-Hodge.

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