Climate change & environment writer
A quantum physicist, farmer, ecofeminist activist and seed saver, Dr Vandana Shiva might have the most interesting job in the world. She realised early on that the way that major global powers and corporations exploit the earth is based on a colonial world-view, one that is bound to diminish the rights and lives of small-holder farmers, women and indigenous communities.
Since then, she has been putting her scientific training and knowledge-driven approach to the service of activism. The author of numerous books such as The Violence of the Green Revolution (1989) and Soil Not Oil (2008), she advocates for the reintegration of indigenous farming methods and a dignified life for farmers. She is a supporter of Chipko, a non-violent feminist conservation movement, and in 1984 she founded Navdanya, an NGO that aims to preserve biodiversity and save seeds in India. It has created more than 150 community seed banks, while Dr Shiva has worked to help governments and communities improve their access to knowledge worldwide.
Here, we discuss a whole raft of subjects with her, from what it’s like to build a multifaceted career, to burnout, to farmers protesting in India for better working conditions and the right to self-reliance.
As well as being an environmental activist, you are also a scientist. How did your journey begin?
My journey was inspired by Einstein. I wanted to be a physicist with a conscience, like he was. That made me realise the kind of person I wanted to be.
I did an MSc in particle physics at Punjab University. After school, I was training to join [the Indian] nuclear establishment, the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. It was immensely exciting and inspiring… until my sister asked me a question on radiation, and I had no idea how to answer. As a physicist, you are taught how to work out chain reactions and transition equations, that’s it. You don’t look left, you don’t look right. But I was doing physics to understand the world. So where had I gone wrong?
I decided to delve deeper into theory and went to Canada to do a PhD in the foundations of quantum theory. I still wanted to return to India in order to give back, however, because there was a puzzle that was deeply troubling me. We were always told that the more science, technology a country has, the less poverty it will have. We are the third-biggest scientific community in the world, and yet our poverty just keeps growing. I decided I was going to find out why.
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Do you recall the moment in which you turned towards activism and the environment?
Before I left for my doctoral work in Canada in 1977, I went to visit my favourite forest in which I had grown up, and whose mountains I had trekked all over. The forest was gone. The stream that came from it had been reduced to a trickle. I really felt wounded, like a part of me had gone. I asked around and found out that this lovely movement had grown, called Chipko – which means “to hug”. I made a commitment then that I would go to Canada, but I would come back every vacation to be a volunteer for Chipko. I was an activist during vacations and then I did my studies the rest of the time.
All this eventually opened the door for me to work with the Ministry of Environment in India, to shut down the mines in my hometown. That’s when I decided I was going to work to protect the environment. I founded the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, then out of that grew Navdanya and seed saving. To me it’s like branches of a tree–different branches come out at the right moment, but the trunk is an understanding of the world that is scientific, coherent and truthful.
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Let’s turn to the farmers’ protests in India. How do they fit into the global conversation about workers today?
For me, the reason the farmers’ movement is significant is because they repeatedly say: “Ours is the most dignified work.” Farmers are resilient, and what they’re fighting for is not only the future of agriculture, but ultimately the future of work, even though the fury of money-making has tried to make agriculture an obsolete vocation. Corporations are now talking about farming without farmers, factories without workers–as if we could do without these two groups of people, because we can just get robotics and AI to do the work. It’s an interesting moment for the future of work, for sure.
Speaking of which, some suggest that technology is there to make things better for farmers, while others posit the opposite. Is there a balance to be found between tradition and technology when it comes to improving work for farmers?
That’s a totally false dualism. Indian farmers have been there for 10,000 years: you couldn’t have farmed sustainably for that long without different technologies. There are indigenous technologies and there are industrial technologies.
Let me take a step back. In 1984, the farmers of Punjab rioted. They were protesting because they couldn’t choose what they grew or how they grew it. Thirty thousand people were killed in that violence. Then, soon after, a pesticide plant leaked in the city of Bhopal and killed thousands more. Thousands dead for a technology that won the Nobel prize.
So, what you’re calling technology in absolute terms is really tools for killing plants and insects: herbicides, pesticides and insecticides. But we do control pests: if you preserve biodiversity, you will have insects, but no pests.
Then you have crude, militaristic technology. You kill the friendly insects that would help control the pests, and instead grow monocultures that create a feast for them. You spray poisons that create insecticide resistance. Then you put a pesticide into a plant through genetic engineering, which gives you super-pests.
As a scientist, I say this is a failed and clumsy technology. I don’t think the issue is tradition versus technology. It’s ecological technologies that work in harmony with nature versus violent tools that are at war with nature. That is the choice we have to make.
You have farmed and, at the same time, you have worked directly with policymakers, shaping national laws and the international system. What has it been like, professionally, to be in this middle ground between two worlds that seemingly don’t meet?
You have “the farmers who don’t have brains and who should have no role in policy” and then you have the so-called experts who have never farmed, who have no idea how the soil is a living complex system, or how you would put a seed into the soil. I see this as a result of the hierarchies of colonialism and industrialism, where separations were created. I’m not in anybody else’s middle. I am at my centre. My own centre is farming and learning about how living systems work. At the same time, I have been very privileged to have helped our parliament draft laws on patenting.
Let’s talk a little about seed saving. Could you tell us what this is as a profession and why it is so fundamental to the survival of humanity?
From 1987 to 1991, I collected seeds, I went to the villages of Chipko and I talked to the women, encouraging them to save seeds too. That’s how Navdanya was born, as a movement for seed saving, one that grew out of the recognition that a seed is a living system.
It’s important for three reasons. First, because the seed must simply be saved – just like if someone was drowning and you could swim, you’d leap into the river. The second reason is that the more biodiversity we have on our farms, the more production and nutrition we have, the more food security we have. The third reason is: the alternative is toxic seeds. We will be sick if we haven’t saved seeds, or if we don’t eat food that has been grown by a farmer who has.
What is your relationship to your work?
I see my work as self-discovery, as meaning and as fulfilment.
This fulfilment must also come from being on top of multiple projects at the same time, especially in an activist environment. What gives you the drive to keep going?
Behind my search for science there is a desire to know the truth about the world. This is my driving force and my oxygen.
When I hear a total untruth, like “We feed the world” or “The seed is a machine”, what I do is just the work that it takes to debunk it. The work itself teaches me.
But also, when you’re taking on the biggest brutal powers of the world, then your own seeking has to be on very sound ground. I will go where the truth is, and if that’s in 30 sources, I will seek them all out. A few years ago, when we were seeing chronic diseases explode, I wrote a book on food and health with my colleagues. As a result, scientists working on the gut microbiome started sending me their papers. When you seek the truth, it will seek you out in return.
Then, there is something people forget very often: when a system is driven from within, it never exhausts itself. Whereas when it’s forced from the outside, entropy is created. That entropy is not just the pollution and the greenhouse gases, it is also the dissipation of your soul. You don’t get fulfilment. That’s why working from within your truth and conscience is so crucial.
Is that how you explain burnout?
Definitely. Burnout is dissipating, instead of regenerative, energy. This is what the farmers of India are fighting for: to be autonomous workers. Autonomy means “I define” – it means that the farmers define when they go to the field, and they choose it according to when the field needs them, not the other way around. When you’re a farmer for the big industrial farms, you’re exploited, so you exploit.
The workers’ movements that came out of the industrial revolution were about the rights of workers. In our time, the fight will be for the right to work and the right to working conditions that are in harmony with nature, in solidarity with the community, and that meet our needs in a decent manner.
Your work and your “non-professional” identity are tightly interlinked. Are there any adverse aspects to that?
No, I very consciously chose to leave an academic career. When I founded the Research Foundation in 1982, I removed the “Dr” in front of my name: my PhD wasn’t going to define who I was, my work was going to do that for me. If I was to take the attacks and the trolls seriously, then of course there are costs. But I don’t take anyone who is paid to tell a lie seriously.
What is your advice to younger people who want to take a similar approach to yours on work and activism?
What I share is self-discovery and the realisation that work is a constant evolution of potential. You have limitless potential and it flowers best when you follow your passions, when you follow what inspires you. The beauty is that there is so much that needs to be done in the world.
The opportunities to work in different ways are so many, but the one thing I realise you have to shed is the illusions of hierarchy that we have been made to follow. There’s no work that is lesser than other work. In fact, the only work that should not be counted as such is theft and exploitation. Work means working with your potential, your body, your mind, and with other beings who are striving to create a better world.
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