Two weeks is not much time to prepare to interview Vandana Shiva. The author of fourteen books, the fifty-one-year-old Shiva is arguably one of the most successful leaders in the social-justice and ecology movements. That I was able to meet her at all was sheer providence: she was traveling from New Delhi, India, to give a talk at the University of California in Santa Barbara, where I live.
I first encountered Shiva while watching a televised debate from the 2002 Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development. Speaking on behalf of the world’s poor and disenfranchised, she explained to an industry spokesperson how globalization and the World Trade Organization were turning the people of the Third World into the property of multinational corporations. As fiery as she was eloquent, Shiva cited statistics, studies, and real-world examples to back up her arguments. There was little doubt in my mind as to who prevailed.
Born in the verdant Himalayan valley of Dehra Dun in northern India, Shiva grew up on her family’s farm, in constant contact with the earth. Her father was a forest conservator, and her mother, a former official in the education ministry, had been displaced from her home when part of India became Pakistan in 1947.
“My mother taught me that a farmer and a university professor did not really have different status,” Shiva says, “that education by itself did not make you a better human being.” Moreover, she demonstrated to Shiva that nothing was beyond the reach of women. Both parents taught her to transcend gender stereotypes and to love simplicity.
From an early age, Shiva yearned to know more about nature. It was this desire, along with her admiration for Albert Einstein, that led her to become a physicist. “For the same reasons that I do ecology today,” she says, “I did physics then: to figure out a little better the patterns of nature’s laws.”
Although Shiva started out as a nuclear physicist, she later realized she was practicing “one-eyed” science, her term for science that looks only at the benefits, not at the costs. So she moved on to theoretical physics, eventually getting a PhD in quantum theory from the University of Western Ontario. Around the same time, she became involved in the Chipko movement in India, a grass-roots women’s initiative that succeeded in stopping commercial logging in the Himalayas.
Shiva continued with Chipko until 1982, when she founded the independent Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology in her hometown. Her goal was to work with local communities and social movements to promote sustainable agriculture and combat genetic engineering, water privatization, and factory farming. In 1991 she started Navdanya, a national movement to protect the diversity and integrity of living resources, especially seeds.
Shiva has been instrumental in challenging corporate-driven agricultural practices and attitudes about food. Her books The Violence of the Green Revolution and Monocultures of the Mind (both Zed Books) have alerted people around the world to the dangers of industrialized farming. She battled the Texas company RiceTec over their patent on basmati rice, a variety grown in India for thousands of years. In the late nineties she initiated the international movement Diverse Women for Diversity, which acknowledges the role of Third World women as seed conservators and experts in the use of medicinal plants. Other global campaigns have taken her to Africa, Asia, Latin America, Ireland, Switzerland, and Austria. Her latest book is India on Fire: The Lethal Mix of Free Trade, Famine, and Fundamentalism in India (Seven Stories Press). More information is available on her website: www.vshiva.net.
Shiva still lives on her family farm in Dehra Dun with her twenty-one-year-old son and her brother and sister. Although countless people around the world owe their livelihoods to her, Shiva’s own financial condition is anything but secure. “I really never know how my next month will be looked after — ever,” she says. She gave up her university career to do volunteer work, and she doesn’t take a penny from the organizations that she founded and runs. “I give my time and leave the rest to the larger forces of the cosmos,” she says.
Cooper: What sparked your interest in becoming a physicist?
Shiva: In those days, the belief was that physics was the foundational language of nature. Ecology wasn’t considered a real science yet. If it had been, perhaps I’d have chosen it as my first field.
I started out as a nuclear physicist and spent my summers training at India’s only nuclear fast-breeder reactor. But I gave it up when my sister, who’s a doctor, educated me about the health impacts of nuclear power. As physicists, we were never taught what nuclear power meant biologically. I see now that it’s irresponsible to practice one branch of science without looking at the negative impacts in other fields. That’s why I’m so opposed to genetic engineering.
I’ve never been disillusioned about theoretical physics, however. There’s still a part of me that’s drawn to it. In fact, right now I’m writing a paper on nanotechnology.
Capital accumulation always needs new domains, new frontiers. During colonialism, the frontiers were other continents. . . . Now the frontiers are water, plant life, and life itself.
Cooper: What led you to dedicate yourself to the environment and social justice?
Shiva: In the mid 1970s, while I was still working as a physicist, I got involved with the grass-roots Chipko movement, which worked to protect forests in the Himalayan region where I was born. The women said, “If you want to cut these trees, then you’ll have to kill us first.” The movement spread like wildfire, and commercial logging was stopped in the high Himalayas.
In 1982 India’s Ministry of Environment asked me to do an impact analysis of mining in my home valley. (They didn’t know I was from there.) Because of my research, we managed to shut down the mines and cement plants and other polluting industries. I realized then that independent research was necessary for the protection of the planet, and it was something I could contribute, so I gave up my university career and returned home. My mother gave me her cow shed, and I’ve been operating from there ever since.
I knew that we had to find a different way, a different model of research, one that doesn’t assume that five people in the university know it all, but recognizes that we can learn from a broad spectrum of individuals. Every time forests were logged and people protested, the experts worked for the logging companies. Every time the mountains were mined, the experts were the miners and geologists. Every time dams devastated the rivers, the experts were the engineers who were building those dams. Something was wrong. So I set out to create an institution that would bring other people into the conversation about ecosystems and the impact of commercial activity on people’s lives. Now there is no division between my activism and my intellectual work. It’s all part of a continuum.
Cooper: You say the conflict over global resources is not about trade. How so?
Shiva: Globalization has been presented as purely a trade issue, but it is actually about appropriation of resources. It makes property out of things that have never before been owned as property. Native plant life replenishes itself and belongs to communities. The idea of patenting seeds, plants, and even genes of certain organisms threatens to change this. Similarly, water, which has always been recognized as a commons, is being privatized. This conflict involves nearly all of humanity — and all the species on this planet — versus a handful of corporations.
Cooper: Why is this happening now?
Shiva: Because capital has reached its limits. Capital accumulation always needs new domains, new frontiers. During colonialism, the frontiers were other continents. Europeans came and took the land that belonged to the native communities in India and Africa. Now the frontiers are water, plant life, and life itself.
The limits of capitalization have been reached in the wealthy, industrialized North: how many more SUVs can you sell to families that already have two of them? In the Southern Hemisphere, people are poor. You can’t sell them SUVs, so you create new markets in the necessities of life, items that even the poor must have daily. Thus, you have a mechanism with which to suck capital from the poorest people of the world.
Cooper: WTO director Mike Moore denies that global trade benefits the rich at the expense of the poor. He says it’s well established that trade boosts economic growth, and quotes Jeffrey Sachs and Andrew Warner of Harvard University, who found that developing countries with open economies grew by 4.5 percent annually in the 1970s and 1980s, while those with closed economies grew by just .7 percent a year.
Shiva: I’ve had many debates with Mike Moore and feel that he uses such figures in irresponsible ways. One must remember that the 1970s and 1980s were prior to globalization. Even the description of economies as “closed” and “open” is, I think, inaccurate. What he calls an open economy is closed with concern to people’s basic needs and rights to resources. To me, an economy is closed when seeds are patented and peasants don’t have access to them. It’s closed when water is privatized and peasants have to buy irrigation water at ten times the cost. It’s closed if corporations like Enron can fix energy rates and raise prices 700 percent.
The countries that did have real growth in the seventies and eighties — such as South Korea, Malaysia, and Thailand — also had highly regulated integration into the global market. After globalization, though, their economies started to collapse. Look at Malaysia and Thailand today. The history of the last decade has shown that opening to the global market without any corporate accountability or responsibility on the part of foreign investors is a recipe for disaster.
And the way growth is measured is misleading. The standard measurement is gross national product, which looks only at the market. So just taking something out of the public domain and putting it into the market yields automatic growth when, in reality, nothing more has been produced.
On the other hand, if you consume what you produce, then you’re not counted as productive. That’s how women’s work and peasants’ work disappears. As long as people are working in their homes, they’re not contributing to growth. The moment they become slaves of others, however, suddenly they’re contributing.
Cooper: What about the food surpluses in countries like India?
Shiva: If you look closely, every time there’s talk of a surplus, there is no true surplus, just more being imported than exported. So surpluses are just the result of manipulated figures.
Right now India has 65 million tons of grain, much of it imported, rotting in silos because people are too poor to buy it, and the subsidies that once made food affordable have been withdrawn. Now all this grain is being sold to Cargill at half the price for which it was offered to Indian peasants.
Cooper: How do you respond to those who say that biotechnology is the only way to feed a global population that’s going to reach 10 billion?
Shiva: I care deeply for people’s right to food. I devote my life to ensuring that we have sustainable agriculture, productive methods, and efficient use of scarce resources.
Biotech fails the sustainability test, however, because the intellectual-property-rights system perversely treats plants and seeds as corporate inventions. Seed and crops have always been celebrated as sources of life’s renewal. But now, thanks to U.S. companies like RiceTec, which was granted a patent on basmati rice, the livelihoods of farmers in India and elsewhere are threatened. Allowing a company to claim invention for a plant variety denies the creativity of both nature and farmers. What is supposed to be the farmer’s highest duty — saving seed and exchanging it with neighbors — has become a crime. The Asgrow Seed Company, owned by Monsanto, won a lawsuit against Dennis and Becky Winterboer, Iowa farmers who sold their soybean crops to other farmers to use as seed — crops produced from Asgrow varieties.
Biotech fails the productivity test, as well, because there is not a single genetic modification that has given us higher yields by itself. Yields of particular plants are a multigenetic trait. So far, the genetic engineers have been successful only in creating a genetic resistance to herbicide, for example, or a plant that produces an insect toxin. These traits do not increase yields; they redesign the plant to perform a certain function. And in both cases the function is unsustainable. Herbicide-resistant crops are not leading to fewer weeds but to the emergence of new resistant weeds. Similarly, Bt crops — crops that have been genetically engineered to produce a naturally occurring insect toxin — are not controlling pests; they’re leading to the creation of pests that have a new resistance.
In the first year that Bt cotton was commercially planted in India, yields dropped from about fifteen quintiles per acre to two quintiles per acre. We had more pests in Bt cotton than we’d ever had in our cotton crop. After the harvest, however, Monsanto came out with cooked records and planted articles in scientific journals, such as Science, that used trial data from the previous year.
Cooper: But isn’t biotechnology still in its infancy?
Shiva: Yes, and precisely for that reason, commercialization at this stage is highly irresponsible. When a child has her first piano lesson, you don’t then have her perform a concert.
Cooper: What about its future applications?
Shiva: As for promises like vitamin-enriched Golden Rice, I don’t know whether I should laugh or cry. Golden Rice will have about thirty micrograms of beta carotene — a vitamin A equivalent — per hundred grams of rice. This, after billions of dollars of development work. The Navdanya movement already has a red rice in its seed collection that has far more beta carotene. Not only that, you don’t have to get vitamin A from rice; it’s found in an amazing variety of crops. In India we have the batwah, the amaranth, the fenugreek, the drumstick tree, the pania, and the coriander. These are foods with as much as fourteen hundred micrograms per hundred grams, and they want to give us a pathetic thirty micrograms and a little bit of free rice in the early years of development.
It’s a fruitless application, and it’s going to result in more poverty, more malnutrition, and more water scarcity. Because if you try to produce all your nutrients in a water-intensive crop like rice, you are not feeding the world; you are creating deserts.
Cooper: In your book Stolen Harvest you discuss the “masculinization of agriculture.” What do you mean?
Shiva: I mean that men are making the decisions and framing the way we look at agriculture, which is historically a women’s activity. For most of human history, food production and processing has been in women’s hands. When that started to change, it didn’t become a shared activity: women and men working in the fields and kitchens together. Instead, it moved into patriarchal control.
If you look at any society that has not been sucked in by the modern agricultural machine, you see children and women who are well-fed. They might not have huge amounts of capital to move around, but nutritionally they’re rich. The more masculine agriculture becomes, the more malnourishment and malnutrition and even starvation you find.
The way we think about food is also becoming masculinized. In women’s hands, food was about nourishment, nutrition, and culture. In the poorest of situations, women would feed the children first. Women could use the biodiversity in their backyards, in their home gardens, in their fields to provide the best nutrition, the best dishes, the best tastes, the best culture. Now, after twenty years of industrial agriculture, food has gone from being about taste, nourishment, and security to being about profit, profit, profit at any cost. We’ve got hunger in the Third World and obesity in the First. Both are symptoms of food deprivation.
As the men who control corporate capital have taken control of our food systems, it has also led, in some situations, to devastating consequences: groundwater dried up, rivers dammed, entire aquifers dead because industrial, masculine agriculture uses ten times the amount of water to produce the same amount of food and simultaneously makes its water use invisible. The government of India has even proposed a $200 billion project to divert rivers. Yet the insatiable thirst of industrial agriculture remains hidden.
Cooper: How pervasive is the water crisis?
Shiva: In 1998, twenty-eight countries experienced water stress or scarcity. That number is expected to rise to fifty-six by 2025. My own involvement in the ecology movement was spurred by the disappearance of the Himalayan streams in which I played as a child.
As the water crisis deepens, the globalized economy is shifting the definition of water from common property to a private good. Consider the case of Cochabamba, Bolivia, a semidesert region where water is scarce and precious. In October 1999, on a recommendation from the World Bank, Cochabamba’s municipal water supply was privatized and licensed to International Water, a subsidiary of Bechtel. In a city where the minimum wage is less than a hundred dollars a month, monthly water bills reached twenty dollars — nearly the cost of feeding a family of five for two weeks. In January 2000 a citizens’ alliance called La Coordinara was formed. It led mass protests that shut down the city for four days. Millions of Bolivians marched to Cochabamba, held a general strike, and stopped all transportation. Protesters used slogans like “Water is God’s gift, not merchandise” and “Water is life.” The government tried to silence them. Activists were arrested, protestors were killed, and media outlets were censored.
Finally, on April 20, 2000, the people won. They undertook the challenge of establishing a water democracy. Unfortunately, although Bechtel left Bolivia, it is now suing the Bolivian government and continues to harass and threaten activists of La Coordinara.
Bechtel also got the first big Iraq-reconstruction contract, a prized $680 million deal to repair the water infrastructure. If it follows the pattern from Bolivia, Bechtel will try to control not just the waterworks in Iraq, but also the water resources. If the international community and the Iraqis are not vigilant, Bechtel could try to own the Tigris and the Euphrates the way it tried to own the wells of Bolivia.
Cooper: You’ve called the conflict over global resources a class issue as well.
Shiva: Yes, because a handful of corporations are taking control of the necessities for life and pushing the poor deeper into poverty. The majority of people in the Third World are eating one meal a day. If they have to spend huge amounts on water and seed every year, they will go into unrepayable debt. We are already seeing an epidemic of suicides among Indian peasants as a result: twenty thousand over the last five years.
This year farmers started to commit suicide in Uttar Pradesh, the richest agricultural state in India. Some of the most fertile soil in the world can be found there, and the region has never had agricultural problems. But the first rule of globalization says, “Don’t grow food for yourself; grow export crops.” So the farmers there all grew potatoes. And then potato prices collapsed. The potato-chip makers have walked off with super profits, and the farmers have been left with huge debts.
So it’s a class issue, but slightly different from past class issues. Karl Marx talked about the appropriation of surplus value through the exploitation of labor. Now what’s being appropriated is not just surplus value, but the very possibility of survival.
During the Industrial Revolution, when Marx was writing, the factory owners exploited workers but also did what they could to keep them alive, because the workers made the factories run. Even peasants and slaves in colonial times had to be kept alive to work on the farms. Today, because of globalization and technological changes, the seed itself can be exploited and manipulated. A handful of corporations derive profits by appropriating the future value of seed, and these corporations provide just 3 percent of the jobs in agriculture. That means that farmers are dispensable.
The corporation Monsanto, for example, actually celebrates each crisis in farming. When we had a severe drought last year, Monsanto called it a good thing, because it wiped out the small farmers. Robotics and nanotechnology are what farming is all about now. We don’t need humans anymore, because nature can be exploited directly.
Cooper: You’ve referred to the cloning of the sheep Dolly as “sexist science.”
Shiva: Although cloning has been heralded as an age of reproduction without men, these technologies put women’s reproductive capacity fully in the hands of the men who control the capital and the technology. It took more than one thousand unfertilized eggs to give birth to Dolly. It would take thirty women selling their eggs and renting their wombs to give birth to a human Dolly. Scientists Ian Wilmut and Ron James have declared themselves the “creators” of Dolly, whom they own as a “biotechnological invention.”
If these techniques were applied to humans, the human “products” would also be treated as the intellectual property of the scientists involved. This scenario is not liberation for women. It’s total patriarchal control over reproduction.
Cloning is also promoted as a technique for replicating animals with proven performance records to produce “elite-selection herds.” In reality it would create monocultures vulnerable to stress and disease.
What has been forgotten, too, is that more than 99 percent of the “products” Wilmut and James produced were not carbon copies but abnormalities. Dolly was the only lamb born from 277 fusions of oocytes with udder cells. Of the 277 embryos, only 29 developed sufficiently to be transplanted into foster mothers. Of these 29, only one survived — a success rate of .3 percent. If this rate were applied to the automobile industry, its stocks would crash. But in biotechnology it is dreams that sell, not results.
For most of human history, food production and processing has been in women’s hands. When that started to change, it didn’t become . . . women and men working in the fields and kitchens together. Instead it moved into patriarchal control.
Cooper: You’ve rallied against McDonald’s franchises in India. The chain’s website says it has introduced “world-class cuisine to Indian soil,” and “has fulfilled its social obligations in every possible manner and brought smiles to many faces.” What’s your take on the Golden Arches?
Shiva: Well, when McDonald’s entered India, it was talking about opening two hundred outlets in a year, but it came nowhere near reaching this goal because Indians did not see this as “world-class cuisine.” They saw it as junk food. McDonald’s is losing money badly in India. And it knows it’s going to lose money for another ten years, but it’s hoping to stick it out until then. We’ll see what happens.
Basically the chain’s only clientele are little kids who go there because the toys are tempting. And the children drag their parents there — especially middle-class parents who end up being indulgent because they don’t have enough time to spend with their children. Nobody goes there for the food.
McDonald’s in India is actually selling chutney and so forth. It is stealing from Indian cuisine to make its food palatable to those few who are eating it.
Cooper: The introduction of industrialized farming in the Third World has been called the Green Revolution. You talk about the Blue and White Revolutions, too. What are they?
Shiva: First let me say that the Green Revolution went wrong because it assumed that plants were like factories that take up chemicals and, as a byproduct, produce grain to sell in the marketplace. They forgot the most important part of the plant, which is the leftover stalks or straw. You can grow plants forever by recycling this organic matter. But the architects of the Green Revolution considered straw waste. Once-rich farmlands have become deserts as a result.
The Blue Revolution is the industrialization of marine farming, which is devastating coastal communities in India. Again, it was the women who rose up in protest, and the Supreme Court in India ruled that the shrimp farms had to be shut down, because for every export dollar they generated, they did ten dollars in damage to the local economy and the ecosystem. The same thing is happening in the U.S. with salmon farming and catfish farming.
The White Revolution involves crossbreeding cattle to make them produce more milk. But just as the Green Revolution ignored the straw, the White Revolution ignores animal energy. In our system, the male cattle pull the carts and ploughs, and the females give the dairy products. Industrial farming presumes that machines will do all the work, so the male calf has no value. When you see animals merely as milk machines, not as sustainers of our soil, you select breeds that have low energy. Try pulling a cart with a Holstein crossbreed; they just have no stamina. In addition, they lack the hump of the Indian cattle, which is necessary to hold a yoke in place. Combine the low energy and the missing hump, and you have cattle that can’t be used for labor. So we’ve seen increased slaughtering, and we’ve had to replace animal energy with tractors, diesel, and fertilizers, at huge costs. Just as with industrial shrimp farming, there’s a ten-dollar cost to a one-dollar benefit.
Globalization is creating food totalitarianism: totalitarian control over seed through intellectual property and patents, totalitarian control over distribution systems through unfair trade rules; and totalitarian control over processing through so-called sanitary and phytosanitary measures.
Cooper: What’s wrong with sanitary measures?
Shiva: They are not aimed at making food safer but rather at shutting down small-scale producers. India has more than a million small processors of soybean oil scattered in tiny villages. They put seed in the press, and the cattle go around, and you get oil. The press has a ten-to-fifteen-kilogram capacity, but it produces wonderful oil, the purest you can get — and it’s been banned on the grounds that it is not factory packaged and there are no chemists involved.
Food is not about chemistry; food is about nourishment. What peasant can afford to employ a chemist? It’s incredible: the oil you can watch being extracted in front of your eyes is considered dangerous, but oil processed a thousand miles away using scientific methods that encourage their own brand of contamination is deemed safe.
The day after the ban was placed on local processing, import restrictions for soybean oil were removed, allowing surplus soybean oil from the U.S. to be dumped on the Indian market. This destroyed India’s edible-oil industry.
According to U.S. and international trade data, the dumping of surplus grains, soybeans, corn, wheat, and cotton on foreign economies has ruined the livelihoods of small farmers worldwide. A study in Africa found that, for cotton alone, dumping has meant $250 million of annual losses to peasant farmers.
The same thing has happened with small slaughterhouses in the U.S. and Europe. They’ve been replaced by huge, polluting factory farms that are breeding grounds for disease. A small slaughterhouse can’t survive, but these giant, polluting torture chambers are allowed free rein across the countryside. To me that is food totalitarianism.
Food has gone from being about taste, nourishment, and security to being about profit, profit, profit at any cost. We’ve got hunger in the Third World and obesity in the First. Both are symptoms of food deprivation.
Cooper: In your article “Pests, Weeds, and Terrorists” you say that the way we kill pests on the farm is a metaphor for the way we deal with problems in the world.
Shiva: This idea occurred to me while I was sitting on our organic farm and thinking how much pesticide is being used in my country, including the new genetically engineered Bt cotton. It doesn’t have to be that way. In the four years that we’ve been farming organically, we’ve transformed the badly impoverished soil of a former eucalyptus plantation into rich, fertile farmland. In the first year we had some pests, but today we just don’t have them. We have healthy crops.
Nothing is a ready-made pest. We turn insects and weeds into pests when we feed vulnerable plants diets of chemicals and grow them in monocultures that allow the pest population to explode. In the absence of predators and biodiversity, the only way you can keep that population under control is by using pesticides.
And just as “pestiness” is not built into the nature of any creature, terrorism is not built into any human being. We are creating terrorists by depriving human beings of their full nourishment and making them prone to violence. We create conditions of fundamental insecurity, hate, anger, and dissatisfaction, and then we remove the safety valves of society. All these new antiterrorist acts are the equivalent of pesticides that also kill friendly insects. They remove from society the democratic functioning that could contain the rise of terrorism and violence.
Cooper: Speaking of democracy, the New York Times recently published an article titled “Does Democracy Avert Famine?” about Nobel prizewinner Amartya Sen, who said, “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.” You were quoted as criticizing Sen and saying that famine is “making a comeback” in India.
Shiva: I have deep respect for Amartya Sen and his work on the famines in China and India. He showed that the 1942 famine in Bengal, which killed two million people, was due not to lack of food, but to a lack of entitlements. But he has gone on to talk about democracy averting famine at a time when democracy itself is being hijacked by antidemocratic forces in the U.S. as well as in India.
It’s true that when democracy was vibrant and food rights were part of our constitutional guarantee, public distribution systems got food to people at affordable prices. Farmers were secure. But globalization has torn that fabric of food security apart. The WTO’s agreement on agriculture prevents countries like India from providing food subsidies to the poor, but allows larger and larger subsidies for big agribusinesses. So we see farmers committing suicide and poor tribal women and children dying of starvation.
Cooper: Why isn’t democracy able to prevent starvation and famine?
Shiva: Because one of the impacts of globalization is that it undermines a functioning economic democracy. In an economic democracy, farmers grow what they want, but also what suits the ecosystem and the current climate conditions. For example, if this year the rains are not good and our water table is low, we will not grow sweet potatoes. So it is individual freedom, but one that takes the community and the environment into account.
All that ends when the forces of globalization enter the picture, bringing with them heavy debt. We’ve had debts in the past with industrial agriculture, but because they were public debts, farmers could organize democratically and say the debts were unjust and refuse to pay. Globalized agriculture reduces the farmer to a consumer, and farmers, especially men, are wooed by these companies’ deceptive claims.
It’s a bit like gambling addiction. When a man goes into town to gamble, he doesn’t tell his wife about it. When a farmer buys seed on credit and goes into debt, he doesn’t tell his family. And when the time comes to pay the debt back, he can’t think how he’ll manage, and he can’t face his family, so he commits suicide.
Globalization is a breakdown of democracy at the local level and the removal of all its protective layers. The political representative democracy remains, but it ends up moving toward right-wing, authoritarian rule that uses fear to manipulate people. Just as the war with Iraq is used to divert attention from the economic crisis facing America, the threats of communalism and fundamentalism have been used in India to divert attention from basic issues like food. We can either bring back food rights and restore economic democracy, which would force changes in globalization, or we can have this veneer of democracy, which allows a deepening of famine conditions while the ritual of elections continues.
Cooper: Don’t elections still have the power to change things?
Shiva: Not as much as they used to. In recent years we’ve seen a convergence of three kinds of power: economic power, political power, and information power. In the past, science and research were done by public institutions, selling was done by businesses, and policymaking was done by political bodies. If governments decided that food security was important, they could support food first, not trade first.
The rise of globalization and biotechnology has allowed corporations to decide policy. The WTO’s Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement was written by Monsanto and other global corporations. The agricultural agreement was written by Cargill representatives. Corporations also control knowledge through intellectual-property rights and by buying up entire public research institutions. So there are few independent scientists or policymakers left. The political leadership has become indifferent to what’s really going on. It doesn’t need to observe; it doesn’t need to listen.
About five years ago, because of globalization, onion prices in India shot up from three rupees to a hundred rupees a kilogram. And if you know Indian cuisine, you know the onion is very important. It’s the poor person’s spice. If nothing else, you have bread and onions. So when prices got too high, the ruling party lost in every regional election.
Now, around the time of these “onion elections,” as they were called, the World Economic Forum was meeting in India. In his keynote speech to the World Economic Forum, the Indian prime minister said, “Don’t worry about the drama of democracy outside. I guarantee you that the policies we shape will be irreversible.” In effect, he was admitting that globalization is undemocratic, that it makes policy in such a way that a democratically elected government cannot change it. Contrary to what some say, globalization does not mean less centralized government; it’s more centralized government and the takeover of the entire economy.
Cooper: So what can we do?
Shiva: We can start by removing the deaf and blind from the driver’s seat or by finding ways to open their ears and eyes. I’m hopeful that the various opposition movements will bring back a really free society. Scandals have exposed the illegitimacy of corporate rule. Three months ago, one couldn’t imagine a mainstream critique of the invasion of Iraq. Now everyone is asking, “Where are the weapons of mass destruction?” Even Time and Newsweek, among the most conservative of media outlets, are having to raise this question.
We need to set an example for politicians and industry to follow. If we don’t just talk but demonstrate different ways of doing things, alternative systems of food and governance, those in power will take notice. I am told that the mayor here in Santa Barbara has been walking in the peace marches. She went to Washington, D.C., to march with women and hold a vigil at the White House.
If enough people practice alternative forms of political organizing and present a different political message, it can add up to a sound loud enough for the deaf to hear. And the more we start taking power into our own hands, the more we shrink the power of lifeless capital to destroy life on the planet.
Interestingly, my training as a physicist taught me to see beyond materialism. Physics and spirituality are both about connecting to larger systems, and they both leave us feeling humble.
Cooper: What are your doubts, your compromises, your fears?
Shiva: I’ve not made a single compromise. I’ve given up privileges instead. And this has not been a hardship, because it’s given me simplicity and freedom from attachment in return.
Cooper: Any fears?
Shiva: Not for myself personally. And that is something I thank my parents for every day. They passed away long ago, but before they did they taught me to be fearless, to have courage. You’re only afraid when you’re attached to something, because then you’re afraid you might lose it. When you know that everything is temporary — it’s going to end one day or another — you lose that fear.
I have built huge movements and institutions, and I’ve looked after large numbers of people, but I don’t worry what will happen if tomorrow I’m not there. I always feel someone else will look after it.
Cooper: It sounds as if your mind-set is connected to a spiritual practice.
Shiva: I’m a spiritual person in the sense that I’m not living in this world as a consumer. Interestingly, my training as a physicist taught me to see beyond materialism. Physics and spirituality are both about connecting to larger systems, and they both leave us feeling humble. Anthropocentric or matter-centered thinking ends up making us arrogant.
Leadership that comes out of a materialistic understanding of the world is really about making people move. The leader is moving inert objects around into some magnificent new formation. If you’re motivated spiritually as a leader, you know there are larger forces at work that sometimes cooperate and sometimes don’t. Those bad periods require patience and an inner resilience.