What Vandana Shiva says should be demoralizing, should make you give up hope for where our society is going and just retreat into a hole, full of fear and despair. But somehow, she has precisely the opposite effect, instead lighting you up with the fires of possibility.
Her talk last Friday night at the Voedel Anders (Food Otherwise) conference in Wageningen was filled with depressing facts about what is going on with food and agriculture in the world. She talked about how the wide use of chemicals in our agricultural system had its origin in the chemicals produced for war, pushed on agriculture after they were no longer needed to kill people. She talked about how the development of the industrial agricultural system has led to a wide range of ills, from the inevitable monoculture that chemical fertilizer use engenders, to the desertification of croplands, which are left with no living organisms other than their overly managed crop, to the concomitant huge loss of biodiversity. She talked about how it overused resources like water and fossil fuels, how it leads to the waste of food, how it needed 10 units of energy to produce one unit of food and how it produces 40% of greenhouse gasses. She talked about how, in the last half century, industrial agriculture has destroyed the ecological viability of 75% of the world’s agricultural land, including killing the earthworms and the bees so necessary for growing food. She told us how no species has deliberately designed our own extinction, but how we were doing just that, giving us only 10 years before the it all falls apart.
She also talked about how multinational corporations work to maintain this system, having concentrated the entire food industry into 20 integrated companies. She told how they are pushing their chemicals and seeds, driving farmers into bankruptcies and suicides – 284,000 of them in India alone. She talked about how they are patenting natural processes, forbidding the saving of seed, influencing the changing of laws to industrialize food production and forbid traditional methods as unhygienic, breeding crops to fit the need of transport and storage rather than edibility and making what is grown less nutritious, all while increasing the footprint and waste of food production to produce only five crops instead of the 850,000 varieties we used to eat. She talked about the Bhopal disaster and how multinationals are promoting GMOs so that they can collect royalties and patents, and about how they are developing corn resistant to Agent Orange to fight the super weeds that can resist their other chemicals, meanwhile squashing any scientific opposition to it all, even by replacing editors of scientific journals. She talked about how they ensure that theirs are the voices heard in making international agreements and other laws, Monsanto even bragging about writing GATT, and how they sue those who try to stand against them.
But even with all of these depressing statistics and the description of what can seem like an implacable foe, there was somehow the feeling that all was not yet lost, that we still had time to make a change, and that we could actually do it. The main beacon of hope came from countering the argument that we hear so often, that industrial agriculture may not be ideal but is the only thing that can feed the planet. She pointed out that 70% of the world’s food production comes from small farmers, who only use 25% of the productive land, and that using agroecological principles is actually more productive if you measure total food output per hectare and not just the output of one crop, and how more biodiversity leads to more production and more profit. She pointed out that pesticides shouldn’t be needed if the field is in balance, and that there is no waste in this system – there’s always the mouth of a cow, that every living system is self-organized and based on cooperation.
The hope also came from calling for a better, more democratic, resilient, creative and local farming. She called for supporting the small farmers, for moving to a model that returns 50% to the farmer, rather than the 1% they receive now, so that people could return to the land and use their creativity to create jobs and food. She pointed out that 50% or people now work in food, but mostly in the industrialization of it, so they could easily shift. She called on scientists to do research in this area, not on GMOs, and on journalists to write about the truth and on ways to become more sustainable. She pointed to what’s happening in Greece and Rome and Spain, where unemployment among young people is staggering, and how they are now going to farm. She told about the work that she’s doing to save seed, to fight the corporations and to start a university to learn about building a whole food system and reclaiming democracy, committing to non-violent agriculture. And she was clear that we need to act now, that we have a short time to reclaim our bread and freedom, otherwise we will have neither bread, nor freedom.
As the moderator pointed out, Vandana Shiva definitely succeeded in getting the audience fired up and fighting the damping effects of criticism. The audience listened raptly and gave her a standing ovation. The reviews afterwards from audience members were uniformly positive, citing her as inspiring and warm.
Shiva’s success in firing up rather than depressing the audience points to a basic principle that is too often forgotten when talking about the ills facing our planet – the need to temper a message of despair with a hopeful solution. It’s a principle that fire and brimstone preachers have used for a long time to drive conversions – first make people hopeless, then provide salvation – but that is often ignored in the sustainability movement. For example, Bill Rees, the co-originator of the Ecological Footprint, and one of my professors and thesis advisors, was famous for giving wonderful talks that make everyone aware of the multitude of threats to the planet, but most people left his lectures feeling somewhat overwhelmed by it all, feeling like change was hopeless. And when people are hopeless, they tend to bury their heads and ignore the problem, which of course leads to the opposite outcome than we want.
Shiva also avoided the quick fix for a message of despair – letting people out of it with an easy solution that makes them feel better but doesn’t actually accomplish anything, often referred to as slacktivism. This can be, for example, calling for only a like on Facebook, or only passing it on via social media. She called on people to do the real work and to make change in their own lives.
In the end, what makes it work is that Shiva is so full of hope and love herself. At my masters thesis defense, Rees’ last question, one he seemed to be honestly asking in seeking his own answer, was about how I could be hopeful – my answer then was something along the lines of it’s better to do something, however small, than give up, because it’s the only way to change – but it is a question I continue to struggle with myself. Shiva doesn’t. An audience member asked her basically the same thing: “what gives you the energy to go on and not get stuck?” but her answer was much more inspiring. She said that when life is at stake, you can’t waste time and that she continually asked how she could serve and what she could do. Finally, she said, “If you think of the earth, and beauty and the future, how can you not do the right thing?”