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Making Peace with the Earth, by Vandana Shiva.

January 7, 2013

Making Peace with the Earth: Beyond Resource, Land and Food Wars, by Vandana Shiva.
Australia: Spinefix Press, 2012.


Vandana Shiva has long been an international advocate of environmental and social justice. She has written many books on these subjects as well ones sharing her understanding that the same problems that threaten the environment also threaten other aspects of our lives. In addition to working tirelessly in local movements to protect land and livelihood in her native India, she has published widely.

What sets Shiva apart from many other environmentalists is her forthright radicalism. She does not suggest necessary changes can occur within existing political and economic systems. Instead, hers is an oppositional environmentalism.  She names existing, revered economic and political institutions as the root of our problems and attacking capitalism and globalization as fundamentally destructive of the earth and the majority of its people.

“Think globally and work locally” is the core of Shiva’s environmental commitment. On a world scale, she eloquently points out the interrelationships and hidden costs of practices that seldom get called into question. From her own work in India, she is also able to give specific, and often dramatic, examples of how her country’s much praised economic “progress” has hurt significant numbers of its people and the land and water they need to survive.

Shiva opens her book with a call for all of us to develop a worldview that is not based on growth and consumption. She claims that “The global corporate economy based on the idea of limitless growth has become a permanent war economy against the planet and its people.” Consumption, commodification, trade wars, and globalization combine to make irresponsible demands on the resources of the planet. The rich are destroying the poor in order to obtain unnecessary luxuries and profits for themselves. National governments promote private greed. We need new paradigms for thinking about our relationship to the world in which we live.

I consider myself an informed environmentalist, active in the Sierra Club and ready to support much needed changes, but Shiva had much to teach me. While I had a vague understanding of the costs of an economy based on profits and consumption, she filled me in on concrete details and analysis that reached far beyond my own knowledge. Since she was using examples primarily from her own country, I learned much I had not known about India.

As Shiva explains, India has been a country of small farmers and retailers, buying and selling to meet local needs. Globalization is fundamentally changing all that. The national government is aiding wealthy Indians and international investors, accepting their lies about the safety and benefit of genetically modified food crops and monoculture agriculture. She points out that India is touted as the “poster child” for development and globalization when in fact it is becoming less able to fill its people’s needs for food security and decent lives

It all starts with land, and Shiva examines the ways in which the Indian government and international investors are taking land away from subsistence farmers who have little else. Some of the land grabs are to create SEZ, Special Economic Zones, which destroy unique local resources and replace them with dangerous and unneeded projects. Water is another of the basic needs of Indian farmers which is being taken from them. And all the new development contributes to heating the atmosphere and bringing the dangers of radical climate change closer. As the planet warms, India and its people will be dramatically affected by the melting of the glaciers in the Himalayas. Forests are also vulnerable and their destruction is another contribution to making our planet hotter and drier.

Then Shiva examines the ideas and methods of those who profit from globalization and the plight of those who suffer from their efforts. She asks:

Why is every fourth Indian hungry? Why is every third woman in India anemic and malnourished? Why is every second child underweight, stunted and wasted? Why has the hunger and malnutrition crisis deepened even as India has seen nine per cent growth? Why is “shiny India” a starving India?
Her answer is that global leaders have created “hungry by design” which envisions a scarcity economy in which people were merely commodities to be negotiated for profit. . Constantly increasing profits for a few and a rising GDP do not translate into viable and sustainable life for the planet and its people

India is large and diverse, and farmers have bred crops that fit its varied conditions. After India became independent in 1947, the “socialist” leadership of Gandhi and Nehru created policies that protected the small local farmers and retailers rather than encouraging international trade. Tariffs kept other nations from dumping cheap food and the infrastructure connecting produce with ports was neglected. Now the government has reversed its policies and local communities are losing their access to adequate food.

One disturbing element of Shiva’s story is the way in which national governments support policies because corporate leaders simply lie about the success and dangers of their products. She has extensive evidence to show that the often repeated claim that Genetically Modified crops are necessary to feed the world is simply false. The diversity and local adaptation of seeds are much more productive over time than monoculture crops grown by agribusinesses and international distributors. Diversified organic farming adapted to local conditions is more productive than the heavy use of pesticides.

For Shiva, the key to finding an alternative to globalization is for people to have a voice in policies that affect them. Today, corporations like Wal-Mart are as likely to become dictatorial as any government. In doing so they can even limit what we have available to eat and threaten our food security. We need to create systems in which we have democratic decision-making over issues as basic as the food we can eat and the work we can do.

Vandana Shiva is an eloquent and thought-provoking author, as is appropriate for someone intent on changing how we think and act. Her sentences cry out to be quoted and repeated. She has a unique ability to explain complicated connections between different aspects of life. Her examples are hard to ignore, as when she describes thousands of farmers killing themselves by drinking the pesticides they went in debt to buy. Occasionally her prose gets hard to follow when she uses unfamiliar names and abbreviations in making comparisons. Yet part of her importance in the environmental movement is the sheer power of her rhetoric.

Globalization is the latest form of colonialism to drain countries of resources their people need according to Shiva. The threat of tyranny today is not from big government, but from big corporations like Walmart that destroy the livelihoods of both producers and retailers. This is a truly unique and radical position, especially here where Americans have long feared big government. What is happening, however, is that corporate power is moving to control governments with contributions and lies about the safety and benefits of their products. At the same time, they are working to eliminate governmental services to the majority of people and weaken governments by cutting revenue for social services, and generally shrinking government “until it can be drowned in the bathtub.” Government big enough and willing to stand up for its people is our only protection against the domination by profit-driven corporations that Shiva describes.

Not all readers will like or agree with Shiva. Some will believe that it is impossible for us to reshape world values as she advocates. That is all the more reason to read her book. Only by uncovering the true costs of globalization that Shiva describes can we begin to right the problems it is causing.

This is a book that should be read by everyone, because we all need the concern for the fate of the earth which it informs and inspires.

Thanks to Spinefix Press for sending me this book to read and review.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 8, 2013 7:09 am

    This sounds fascinating & well worth reading. Have you read Arundhati Roy’s Walking with the Comrades? It deals with mining in India; I blogged about it in 2011 ( Anyway, sadly I’m not sure if I’ll be able to get my hands on a copy (library didn’t have one & ILLing seems unlikely). But I’m glad books like this are being written. I’m reading Sonia Shah’s Crude right now, which is incredibly eye-opening about the oil industry. Even though I already knew a lot of its wrongs intellectually, Shah’s affecting me on a powerful emotion level. Describing all the different problems one after another just has so much more impact than reading bits here and there.

    • January 8, 2013 5:19 pm

      Yes, this is very good at both giving more factual information and conveying the emotional punch. Haven’t read Roy. Not sure I can take any more of this type of writing right now, Especially about the oil companies.

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