Shiva's little green book

March 2, 2001

Fred Pearce argues that visionary green thinking can lead to disaster.

Vandana Shiva is the Chairman Mao of the green movement. Her long intellectual march on behalf of peasants and plants, and against what she sees as the dominance and destructiveness of reductionist science and the industrialisation of technology, is enervating, brilliantly expressed, intellectually beguiling and ultimately crackers. It contains within it a recipe for as much potential for famine and social dislocation as Mao Tse-tung's Great Leap Forward. Luckily, she has no country to try it out on.

Shiva is an Indian physicist and philosopher, one of a generation of social and environmental radicals inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. She has been building her guru status for many years now, through books, articles in journals such as The Ecologist and the salons of a few green thinkers round the world. At each stage, she has hooked her thesis to prevailing western concerns, whether feminism or, as here, fears over the various ecological and health threats posed by genetically modified foods. And her star continues to rise, up to and including a Reith lecture on the BBC last year.

She takes no hostages. "Reductionism destroys biodiversity," she says. Why? "Because it reduces our complex, diverse and dynamic world into a fragmented, atomised and uniform construction. This in turn leads to the intensive manipulation of ecosystems and species to increase partial and fragmented production."

She chastises technology for its reliance on "a crude, mechanical paradigm based on competition rather than cooperation, monocultures rather than diversity, control rather than self-organisation". Industrial farming and fisheries, forestry and medicine, she says, have all been shaped by this reductionist world view. It is a view that destroys cultural as well as biological diversity "because non-reductionist systems of indigenous knowledge have been discounted and discarded as unscientific".

Much of this is no doubt true. It is an inescapable fact that global standardisation has wiped out a lot that is local. And that the lands where there is greatest cultural diversity are also the lands with the greatest biological diversity. Look at the Amazon rainforest, or the island of New Guinea. But equally, much more of what survives of the world's linguistic, cultural, biological and technological diversity is available locally, whether on the internet, in Sainsbury's or among the exotic shrubs of an English country garden.

Shiva is right to see science moving in her direction, and to spot that there is a growing tension between the reductionism of much technology and the anti-reductionist trends in much science. "Scientists round the world are challenging the dominant paradigm of genetic reductionism and evolving a science based on gene ecology," she says. "They show that complex, self-organising, dynamic living systems are not reducible only to constituent genes. Sciences of processes are replacing the reductionist science of mechanics and objects, sciences of qualities are replacing the science of Cartesian quantity."

She rails against the commercialisation and industrialisation of nature. For her, the development of a resource in the modern world is its commodification and, in effect, its theft from the poor of the planet. She has much to say that is useful on the way corporations use and abuse the advances of science and technology. And coming from India, she sees clearly how the resources of that country are hoovered up, patented, repackaged and sold back. But in emotional terms she too often feeds off the West's visions of a golden age of pre-industrial idyll when the peasants lived in mystical harmony with nature.

And her prescriptions are deeply worrying. She would sweep away the green revolution of the past half-century -a revolution that doubled world food production faster than world population could double. She is right that the revolution reduced crop biodiversity. Yes, the gains in grain production tonnages were often at the expense of other crop products such as straw and green manure; and yes, the revolution required huge and often unsustainable inputs of chemicals and water. But without it, would the world's stomachs be anything like as full as they are today? It seems unlikely. The warnings of the early 1970s that billions could be dying of starvation before the 20th century was out could indeed have come true. And, in this dogmatism in the face of the world as it is, her world view does bear comparison with Mao's madder phases. It is all too easy to imagine Shiva, transported back in time to the dawn of cultivation, raging against the loss of genetic diversity and the commodification of food caused by clearing land for planting crops rather than simply picking fruits from the forests.

Her book is full of name-calling and provocative phrases. Some are borrowed from the tabloid press, "frankenstein foods" for instance. Some are self-coined such as the "monoculture of the mind". She talks usefully of the "genetic mine" as being the predominant metaphor of genetic engineering. On this view, genes are simple encoders for certain characteristics, to be mined and used as we think fit. They are apparently divorced from the organisms from which they come, and the ecosystems within which those organisms live. In taking this view, the engineers are no doubt simplifying the world. And perhaps as a result they will have some nasty shocks when, transposed into new organisms in a new environment, genes start coding for things we had not bargained for. But what is new? Humanity has always made sense of its surroundings by simplifying and reducing complexity to the bare essentials. When our simple views fail to work for us, we change them for ones that do. And science, reductive or not, has been a superbly successful tool for doing that.

Moreover, Shiva herself, in telling her simple and compelling story of the appropriation and industrialisation of nature, is engaging in her own form of reductionism. It is a defining characteristic of mankind. It is what our brains do.

At the other end of the environmental arena from Shiva and her visions sit the environmental diplomats. They have been in trouble lately. The failure of the climate conference in The Hague in November to deliver a completed Kyoto Protocol was a serious blow. Initial claims that fatigue and shortage of time had scuppered the deal were undermined when subsequent informal talks failed to break the log-jam between Europe and the United States. Now George W. Bush is in the White House. And there is a growing fear that the task of reining in climate change, perhaps the most vital global project for the 21st century, is in serious trouble. If that proves to be the case, then the only substantive outcome of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 will have foundered. And that in turn will throw a burning spotlight on the follow-up to Rio, scheduled for South Africa in 2002, and what it will do to rescue the world's climate.

How sad then that the first pre-summit reader, Earth Summit 2002 , should contain just two passing references to climate change. Written before The Hague meeting, the book blithely assumes that the Kyoto Protocol is a done deal, and that, with climate targets set, the South African summit should move on to other topics. How wrong can you be?

The book seems mired not simply in the pre-Hague world, but also in a mindset where even planetary salvation can appear a mundane, committee-bound, jargon-ridden pursuit. The contributors, many respected figures in their fields, are mostly regurgitating things they have written too many times before. Those people already deeply bound up in the pre-conference diplomacy will no doubt feel they must read it. The rest of us might do better to take a look at Norman Moss's racy Managing the Planet , subtitled The Politics of the New Millennium . Moss covers much old ground. But, as a journalist of some repute, he covers it well. This is the story of how, for the first time in history, mankind is acting in a significant way on key planetary processes. We are responsible for ripping holes in the ozone layer, taking over the sulphur and nitrogen cycles and tweaking the carbon cycle on a scale that within a few decades will be as profound as the planetary wobbles that swing us into and out of ice ages.

Unlike Shiva, Moss does not shrink from this responsibility. Shiva tells us to stop worrying the sheep and get back in our kennels. Moss says that, having created mayhem across the hillside, we have to get out there and round up the sheep. If we are in charge of the planet we had better make a go of it. We are apart from nature, he concludes. "Humans have the right to impose their moral values on the rest of nature because they are the only creatures with moral values." Having invented biotechnology we have a near-duty to use it. By taming nature, we may find a way to live with her.

Fred Pearce recently wrote (with Paul Harrison) the commentary to the Atlas of Population and Environment , published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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