The Eco-Philosophy of Vandana Shiva A Critical Review of Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development

screen-shot-2016-11-18-at-7-47-49-pmGUEST AUTHOR: Marco Rosaire Conrad-Rossi

There is no figure in the anti-GMO movement that commands more respect than Vandana Shiva. An Indian writer and activist, Shiva has placed herself at the center of the anti-GMO movement through her relentless opposition to biotechnology and her willingness to theorize the objectives of the anti-GMO movement into a broader vision of society. Shiva doesn’t want to just label GMOs, she wants to upturn the entire social order, and she views her opposition to biotechnology as the linchpin cause in this great green revolution.

Despite her popularity as a speaker, there are very few analyses of Vandana Shiva’s own eco-philosophy. In order to better understand where she was coming from with all this, I decided to read her book Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development. It is her first book, and considered a serious statement on her “ecofeminist” ideals. Upon reading it I was shocked at both the content and the scholarship. It was full of fallacies and creative interpretations of history—not to mention repetitive statements which inflated her message, but did little to fortify it against obvious criticisms. Most surprising though—and probably to the dismay of many western liberals—soon into the book it became evident that Shiva’s “ecofeminism” is a profoundly conservative, if not reactionary, ideology. Once you peel back the layers of her thought, you find that she is a vicious opponent of modernism, suspicious of enlightened humanism, a wily eco-mystic who has more in common with religious fanatics than the progressive activists who are her main audience.

Vandana Shiva used to put forth the idea that plants that can't reproduce would somehow takeover the world.
Vandana Shiva used to put forth the idea that plants that can’t reproduce would somehow takeover the world.

At the heart of Vandana Shiva’s view of the world is the idea that the major problems facing women, indigenous peoples, and the environment have their roots in Europe’s move towards rationalism and scientific thinking. She refers to this movement as “reductionism”—but she so often associates “reductionism” with patriarchy and colonialism that it almost seems as if she has redefined “reductionism” to be synonymous with these terms. In any case, for Shiva the rise of “reductionism” began with the European Scientific Revolution, which—according to her– “turned woman and nature into passive objects, to be used and exploited for the controlled and uncontrollable desires of men.” The idea that women and nature were “turned” into passive objects implies that before this time everything was fine, or at least much better. The historical evidence that she uses to prove this point is—to say the least—lacking. The only connection that she draws between the European Scientific Revolution and the oppression of women is pointing out that witch hunting occurred in Europe while the Scientific Revolution was underway. Ignoring the obvious fact that the persecution of both “witches” and scientists was organized by the Catholic Church, Shiva makes her case by mixing a few vague references to episodes of witch hunting with a few select quotes from European scientists. This hardly establishes a close connection. The only specific example of witch hunting that she does cite is an English law against witches passed in 1511, but this is a very problematic example. Most scholars would place the beginning of the European Scientific Revolution at the publication of Copernicus’ On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres. The problem for Shiva is that Copernicus’ book was published in 1543—thirty years after the one example of witching hunting she uses. This chronologically challenged view would be comical if Shiva’s topic weren’t so serious.

Unfortunately for the reader, Shiva’s hermeneutic skills are just as poor as her aptitude for history (which is actually surprising considering she has a PhD in philosophy). She places much of the fault of “reductionists” thinking at the feet of Francis Bacon, but her arguments rarely rise above the use of selective quoting and dubious inferences. She claims that “in Bacon’s experimental method, which was central to his masculine project, there is a dichotomizing between male and female, mind and matter, objective and subjective, rational and emotional, and a conjunction of masculine and scientific dominating over nature, women, and the non-west.” And, what is her evidence for this bold interpretation of Bacon? The answer is that Bacon—writing in the sixteenth century—refers to nature as “she” and humanity collectively as “man.” So, when he is writing about science using these denotations he is imbuing an inherently sexist formulation into modern science—a formulation that it cannot escape from no matter how much it tries. Needless to say, this analysis is juvenile. Of course Francis Bacon had sexist prejudices which were nearly universal among all males of his time, and this obviously influenced his language. But, how this becomes an indictment of all of modern science is more than a bit of stretch. Here, Shiva is clearly confusing metaphor with meaning and in doing so derives a radical misinterpretation of Bacon’s work.

Considering her focus on “reductionism”—and the horrors that it causes—it would seem important for her to clearly define what exactly she means by it. Problematically, the book contains no straightforward definition. The closest thing to an understanding of “reductionism” that the reader gets is a sub-section of the book entitled “The natural-unnatural divide.” In it Shiva describes her three categories of knowledge. “Reductionism” fails to adequately explain the first category—the realm of nature, as in ecology—because “reductionism” needs to reduce everything to the confines of the controlled experiment. This reducing of experience to the controlled experiment makes it impossible to comprehend how things work in the real world—and because of this leads to a misunderstanding of ecological systems and the eventual destruction of the environment. The second category—the realm of particle physics and related fields—is adequate for “reductionism” because these fields can be explained through controlled experiments, but they have no practical implications for the real world, so therefore they do not run the risk of environmental degradation. There is, however, a third category which “reductionism” does provide adequate tools for and does have practical implications. According to Shiva this category “unlike particle physics, transcends the material context of the experimental laboratory and, unlike knowledge of fields related to health and food and agriculture does not create ecological imbalances.” And what is this third category? The answer is electronics.

There could be several objections to this classification, but I will narrow my criticisms to Shiva’s understanding of electronics. First, to say that electronics is a category somehow separate from particle physics is a fallacy. If anything electronics is the practical application of knowledge drawn from our understanding of physics. Without the breakthroughs in quantum mechanics the digital revolution would not have occurred. Next, it is shocking for any environmentalist to claim that electronics do not create ecological imbalances. At least in their current manifestations, our electronic devices are a tremendous burden on the environment—from the minerals that are mined to the waste that they produce. But, these points aside, there is something revealing about Shiva’s categorization. When it comes to areas of “health and food and agriculture” Shiva is a total Luddite, but she is more than happy to use computers, airplanes, and cell phones. She claims to be walking in the footsteps of Gandhi, but Gandhi was at least consistent. He ate a raw vegan diet, very rarely used cars, and probably never visited a motion picture theater in his entire life. If there was suffering to be had in a lifestyle that denounced modern technologies, he was the first one to sign-up for it. Vandana Shiva is less passionate about her own asceticism.

Shiva keeps a busy schedule on the international lecture circuit. Photo by Saskaboy | Flickr CC license
Shiva keeps a busy schedule on the international lecture circuit.
Photo by Saskaboy | Flickr CC license

How can she justify this contradiction? Why not accept “traditional” knowledge on flight when stepping onto an airplane? Or what about tribal “ways of knowing” when building a cell phone tower? Her view of modern science—and her replacement of it with “ethno-science,” science that is bounded within the culture of particular peoples rather than a universalizing project—allows her a convenient escape out of this quagmire. Basically, “health and food and agriculture” were things known to indigenous peoples, they had direct experience with them, and intuitively knew about ecologically systems. So, their views on them—no matter how incorrect by the standards of modern science—are valid. More modern inventions were not. So, the “ethno-science” of the developed world is correct when applied to these electronic inventions, but becomes “reductionist” when it is applied to these other areas. This view is so conspicuously contradictory and opportunistic it is hard to understand why anyone would believe it. Whatever the rationale, the effect of Shiva’s philosophy is that “reductionism’s” merit is in providing her with certain comforts that she is unwilling to live without. In this case it is cell phones, airplanes, and computers. But, it becomes the nucleus of all oppression and degradation in the world when it applies to things that she has less utility for—because they have already been provided to her in abundance—such as “health and food and agriculture.”

The hypocrisy of this position is lost on Shiva, as the majority of her book is dedicated to painting an overly romantic view of indigenous peoples and an idyllic past that never was. For Shiva the idea that indigenous peoples living in a tribal society suffered from any type of scarcity is purely a fabrication of this “reductionist” thinking. The problem with indigenous societies is not their poverty, but how wealth is defined through the western mindset. Shiva claims that “traditional economies are not advanced in the matter of non-vital needs satisfaction, but as far as the satisfaction of basic and vital needs is concerned, they are often what Marshall Sahlins has called ‘the original affluent society.’” One merely has to consider the rate of death from now curable afflictions to see how effective these societies actually were in satisfying their “basic and vital needs”—not to mention things such as housing, leisure, and the ability to pursue specialized forms of knowledge such as writing, scientific inquiry, and artistic endeavors.

The reference to Sahlins’ is also revealing. Marshall Sahlins was made famous in the field of anthropology for showing that hunter-gatherer societies did not live always on the brink of starvation. While some of Sahlins’ conclusions are still controversial—as in the amount of time that these societies actually devoted to labor and what is considered “labor” in their societies—it has been acknowledged that many of his observations are important contributions to anthropology. The problem is that many people—especially those with a regressive environmental agenda—have misread and exaggerated Sahlins’ claims. His work has been abused by environmentalists to say things about indigenous societies that Sahlins’ did not support. As Jacqueline Solway explains in her essay reviewing the legacy of the Sahlins’ work: “some nonacademic groups have elevated “The Original Affluent Society” to something approaching cult status…Organizations promoting ecological sustainability and advocate a return to nature, antimaterialism, and communalism find in the “The Original Affluent Society” a rational and a vision from their utopian dreams and position.” Shiva—in her zealous rush to heap praise on tribal peoples—is horribly guilty of this intellectual misnomer.

If all this romanticizing of indigenous peoples while carving out a special philosophical niche for modern electronics seems a bit self-serving, well that is the way I would describe Vandana Shiva’s book: self-serving. According to Shiva, India has been at the center of agricultural innovation and husbandry. The fact that developed nations have eclipsed India in recognition is merely a shrewd ploy devised by “reductionists” to marginalize other ways of knowing. Not only that, but Indian women are more knowledgeable about agriculture than anyone else—and if those women are indigenous, then they are at the apex of agricultural knowledge. Nowhere in Shiva’s work does the reader get the sense that knowledge is derived from experience, hard work, discipline, and education. Rather, knowledge is a product of identity, and the identity that she just so happens to see as the most knowledgeable are indigenous women from India; the fact that she herself is an Indian woman who romanticizes indigenous people—and how this may influence her own perspective—is not something she reflects on.

Not thinking about her own identity (Shiva is from the privileged Brahmin caste in India) and the possible blinders that it may entail appears to be one of the major factors that have led Shiva to have such erroneous views on science, philosophy, and history. The scholarship in her book is just terrible. She picks and chooses from authors the points that will support her view, and then ignores aspects of their work that contradict her position. For example, on pages 119-120 she cites acclaimed Indian economist Amartya Sen to prove that the Green Revolution has deepened the gender divide in India. Her evidence is that the sex-ratio between men and women is less in Africa—which did not have a green revolution—than it is in India. Not only does such a comparison say little on the actually effects of the Green Revolution, but Sen would probably be vexed if he knew that his work was being used in this manner. Sen, a Nobel prize winning economist who is an expert in famines, has never gainsaid the importance of the Green Revolution — and he most definitely wouldn’t think it led to greater sexism in Indian society.

In addition to this selective reading of authors’ work, Shiva also has numerous other scholarly offenses. She throws out outrageous factoids without any citations. One of the most outlandish examples of this is on page 23, where Shiva claims “80% per cent of scientific research… is devoted to the war industry.” Without a source for this information the reader is best to assume that it is wholly fabricated. The majority of the scientific research that she does cite is from newspaper articles and not the original sources. Other sources are just downright ridiculous, like when she has the audacity to cite a company memo written from an anonymous person. At other times she is just lazy. In one section she presents a graph on rainfall. Instead of doing the calculations to find out the average rainfall over a 40 year period, she just provides reader with an estimated range. Personally, I don’t think this book would get a passing grade in most graduate classes. At best, a teacher would consider it a draft.

However, for many people Vandana Shiva not only passes, but is moved to the head of the class and made the new professor. The only reason I can think of as to why this is the case is that Vandana Shiva nurtures the biases and prejudices that many people in the west have about the developing world while at the same time provides them with an ideological cover to never have to escape the comfort of their privileged lifestyles. Shiva gives people the hope that they can have their organic cake and eat it too. Most likely, she has surrounded herself with sycophants who—enamored with the noble savage motif she promotes—are looking for a guru. Her entire philosophy and approach to scholarships is a confirmation of the belief that gurus are real, and by telling people what they want to hear she becomes the guru that they are looking for.

On top of this, her shrill language makes it impossible to criticize her. Just as Vandana Shiva is never wrong, those who have a different view than her own are never simply misguided. Instead, they are participating in a grand western experiment of oppression and colonization. If there is a formula to Vandana Shiva’s thinking it is this: anthropomorphize nature, essentialize women, and romanticize indigenous peoples. Thus, soil has “rights,” equality is based on a “feminine principle,” ecological sustainability involves learning from tribal “ways of knowing,” dams act “violently” towards rivers, controlled experiments are “masculinist” institutions, economic surplus is the “epistemic” of western colonization, and so on. She has filled the debate landscape with so many rhetorical landmines that it is in impossible to criticize her without being accused of wanting to perpetuate the suffering of others. How then is a sincere critic able to mount a successful challenge against Shiva? The answer is you can’t, not unless you are willing to pull back the curtain on her entire charade and reveal the hypocritical and reactionary principles latent in her work.

After reading Staying Alive it is clear that if the ideas of Vandana Shiva ever did reach prominence the world would be anything but an ecotopia. Her nostrums are worse than the disease. There is a reason for this. When people throw out reason—either in the form of humanism when it comes to society or science when it comes the natural world—the vacuum created in their minds is filled with impulses, biases, and prejudices. No matter how much they try to cover up these biases and prejudices with neologism like “ethno-science” they are still there. At times these forces may make good decisions, but most of the time they will make bad ones. People who are too credulous about their own intellect—people who think they have nothing to learn and everything to teach—won’t be able to tell the difference, but people who have to suffer under those decisions will. And, if they have enough support from others it should be only a matter of time before the suffering voices speak louder than the shrill platitudes and demagoguery of Vandana Shiva.


This essay was previously published on Nodes of Science. It appears here by permission of the author.

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  • shay simmons

    “There is no figure in the anti-GMO movement that commands more respect than Vandana Shiva”

    That’s damning with faint praise.

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  • Robert Howd

    It seems to me that the anti-GMO movement is driven by Indian Ayurvedic mysticism, as reflected by Vandana Shiva as well as the Maharishi contingent in the U.S., (Steven Druker, Jeffrey Smith, John Fagan, and others). This seems a bit weird to me; we haven’t had this much attention to Indian naturalistic theology in the U.S. since the 60s, led by the Beatles.