Shiva the Destroyer?
Postmodernist anti-science thought was once primarily associated with European
and North American academics in the humanities. Now not only has its influence
become international, but it has become integrally intertwined with a number
of other issues such as anti-globalization, anti-transgenic technology in agriculture,
and conservation. Nobody can fault the prevailing internationalism of postmodernists
and their respect for different cultures and peoples (except for the culture
of those who are committed to modern science/technology and its benefits). Nor
can we fault their argument that all of us have biases, though they fail to
comprehend the vital role that scientific method plays in helping to overcome
the limitations which personal and cultural biases impose. Their belief in the
worth and dignity of all human beings is unexceptionable. Some of us critics
would suspect, however, that in going global, postmodernist thought does not
necessarily impact on other political/cultural traditions in a way which upholds
the worthy ideas that most postmodernists claim to espouse. To the extent that
these postmodernist ideas have become part of the globalization debates, there
is a legitimate issue of consistency if in fact what is being forcefully advocated
produces adverse outcomes contrary to what its proponents claim for them.
None of us are totally consistent in all our beliefs, nor can we find total
consistency in the various political or social movements we may be committed
to. Life and the world of ideas are messy, and so we can take heart with Ralph
Waldo Emerson’s strictures against that foolish consistency which is the hobgoblin
of petty minds. A little untidiness and a few gaps in our knowledge here and
there are probably healthy, and facilitate the emergence of new ideas. However,
the argument to be pursued here is that there is a basic inconsistency, or more
accurately, a fundamental contradiction between what has been advocated
by a type of postmodernist thought, and its practical outcome in developing
countries. It is a contradiction that is often so blatant as to undermine whatever
merit there may be in the avowed postmodernist respect for other cultures. Stated
baldly, the respect for “local ways” of knowing, rather than promoting multi-culturalism,
ends up instead promoting crass forms of cultural chauvinism and intolerance
that can devolve into violence. In our internet/information age, there is no
excuse for those who have entered various globalization debates without knowing
the outcomes and implications of their advocacy.
Local knowledge and reactionary politics
Dr. Vandana Shiva is likely the world’s most celebrated holistic ecofeminist,
deep ecologist, postmodernist luddite, anti-globalizer, and spokesperson for
those she claims are without a voice. Because she has advanced degrees in science,
Shiva is useful for providing legitimacy to a range of anti-science views on
the part of those who mistrust scientific inquiry (except where they think that
it will promote their ideological agenda). Contemporary ecofeminist literature
is almost unreadable, particularly on the Green Revolution, which ecofeminists
deem to be a failure, and on “organic” agriculture, which they favor. Being
able to cite Shiva as a presumed authority allows them to talk about global
agriculture without any substantive knowledge of how peoples around the world
raise crops and feed their families. One wonders how many academics obtained
tenure on the basis of books and articles for which Shiva was a major source.
One leader does not fully define a movement, to be sure, but Shiva with her
condemnation of “scientific reductionism” has become so preeminent in the global
deep ecology/ecofeminist movement against modern science that raising serious
questions about her does in many respects raise questions about the entire movement.
Shiva’s ideas, which are shared and promoted in the West by ecofeminists and
others as radical and revolutionary, often turn out to have reactionary consequences
where they are practiced in India.
This may come as a shock to the true believers, but for many the faith in the
fundamental rightness of Shiva’s message is so firm that it would be a near
impossibility to convince them otherwise. The philosopher of science Meera Nanda
shows that the much revered “holistic way of knowing … lies at the very heart
of caste and gender hierarchy in India” (Nanda 2002, 54).”The role that the
goddesses and the idea of sacredness of nature have played (and still play)
in perpetuating the oppression of actual women is not adequately understood
by the enthusiasts for alternative sciences” (Nanda 2003a). It is the much venerated
“local knowledge” of the Hindu cosmology of “Karma and caste” which was used
to justify the repression of Dalits (the crushed or oppressed – untouchable).
The liberation of women is “linked” to overcoming the “kind of cultural assumptions
about sacredness and holism” that are promoted by Shiva (Nanda 2003c).
Many of those now promoting the virtues of “local ways of knowing” were, we
hope, opponents of it in its pre-postmodernist manifestations. From 1948, with
the election of the National Party in South Africa, to the early 1990s, a similar
reverence for “local ways of knowing” appropriate to the culture was proclaimed
and promoted as “Bantu education.” It was called Apartheid and many of us spent
most of our adult life in active opposition to it, as, undoubtedly, did many
of today’s activists who tout the special virtues of local knowledge.
Among the many reasons for opposition to Apartheid and its repressive policies,
was that the so-called “Bantu education” would handicap the student even in
a non-Apartheid society by not providing her or him with the knowledge necessary
to survive economically. Today we have what is misnamed as “Science Studies”
promoting a “Navajo way of knowing” (which is “assuredly more spiritual and
holistic than European ways”) in learning mathematics by “teaching calculus
before fractions” (Olson 1999). Among many problems with this method of teaching
is the “difficulty of expressing the slope of a line, one of the fundamentals
of calculus, in any way other than by using a fraction or decimal” (Olson 1999).
Thus, “while well-meaning teachers puzzle out such difficulties, Navajo children
are … to grow up without learning how to compute sales tax” (Olson 1999).
From the elite precincts of Western universities, “multi-culturalism” has spread
to other parts of the world. Across the border from where Shiva’s ecofeminism
lends support to Hindu chauvinism, Pakistani proponents of “Islamic science”
and “Islamic epistemology” have been:
citing the work of feminist science critics in their campaign to purge
many Western ideas from the schools, and certain feminist professors in
the West–perhaps caught up in the thrill of having their work cited half
a world away–have favorably cited the Islamicists right back (Olson 1999).
Not to be outdone by Shiva’s Indian advocacy, in the United States there are
advocates of a mysterious entity called “feminist algebra” (Bookchin 1995, 212).
When the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in Uttar Pradesh,
India, in 1992, they sought to awaken “national pride” by making “Vedic mathematics
compulsory for high school students” (Nanda 1996). “Hindu ways of knowing” involved
government-approved texts replacing standard algebra and calculus with sixteen
Sanskrit verses. Leading Indian mathematicians and historians examined the verses
and found “nothing Vedic about them,” thinking them merely a “set of clever
formulas for quick computation” and not a “piece of ancient wisdom” (Nanda 1996).
According to Meera Nanda (1996), “in the name of national pride, students are
being deprived of conceptual tools that are crucial in solving real-world mathematical
problems they will encounter as scientists and engineers.”
Hinduization extends beyond mathematics to promoting the “Aryan race” together
with a disdain for all “foreigners including Muslims.” The BJP along with the
VHP (Vishva Hindu Parishad or World Hindu Council) are offsprings of the RSS
(Rashtirya Svyamsevak Sangh or Organization of National Volunteers) which has
been actively promoting hatred of Muslims and Christians in India, and has been
involved in the destruction of Muslim and Christian places of worship and fostering
deadly riots against non-Hindus. Postmodernist/ecofeminist multi-culturalism
might be a worthy idea in some ways, but when it is integrated with a “suspicion
of modern science as a metanarrative of binary dualism, reductionism and consequently
domination of nature, women and Third World people” it supports Hindu reactionary
modernists who claim the “same holist, non-logocentric ways of knowing not as
a standpoint of the oppressed but for the glory of the Hindu nation itself”
(Nanda 2000, 2001a).
The Chipko "Movement"
Many activists like Shiva, who are promoted in the West by the anti-globalization
Greens and who receive uncritical acclaim, are often the object of very severe
criticism in their own countries, a fact which goes largely unreported. After
an article in a Malaysian newspaper talked about Shiva in highly flattering
terms, claiming that she was a leader of the famed Chipko (tree huggers) movement
in India, the Chipko local activists sent a letter of protest to the editor,
arguing that the interview was based on false claims and noting that it had
angered many people. Those writing the letter saw themselves as being the “real
activists,” who do not understand why Shiva is “reportedly publishing wrong
claims about Chipko in the foreign press.”
Shiva uses Chipko as a model for Green ideologies from deep ecology to eco-feminism.
Jayanta Bandyopadhyay, a distinguished scientist and environmentalist, examines
each of these ideologies and deems them myths without any basis in fact (1999).
He is an active supporter of the Chipko villages, in which he finds “a movement
rooted in economic conflicts over mountain forests,” and a “social movement
based on gender collaboration” and not a “feminist movement based on gender
conflicts” (Bandyopadhyay 1999).
Chipko is but one example where external activists, even those who may be well
intentioned idealists, in effect hijack a movement and use it to promote an
ideological agenda. The original motivation for “participating in Chipko protests”
was to gain local control of forest resources in order to create a forest-based
industry which offered the Himalayan villagers the possibility that their kinsmen
who had to migrate to find work, might be employed closer to home. Further,
increased local access to forest resources might “have offered women the possibility
of adding to their meagre incomes and insuring themselves from potential crisis
if remittances ceased or became intermittent” (Rangan 2000, 199-200).
Chipko is one of many cases of environmental groups in developed countries
co-opting a cause like wildlife or habitat conservation, or a local movement
with legitimate grievances, and then subverting them. In the case of Chipko,
the co-option was initially by people from the urban elite in India, who received
international acclaim as a result. As with other cases that I have examined,
in places like Africa and the Americas, not only do local concerns get brushed
aside, but often the locals are worse off because of the external “support.”
This is particularly true in case after case that I have examined for conservation
projects, be they in Africa, Central America or India, where local interests
are swept aside in favor of saving the environment from those who live there
(DeGregori, 2004, Chapters 4, 10 & 11 and DeGregori 2002, Chapter 2).
One of Shiva’s ‘Chipko women’ from the Pindar Valley in Chamoli District, Gayatri
Devi, bitterly states that the movement has made life worse in the valley:
Now they tell me that because of Chipko the road cannot be built [to her
village], because everything has become parovarian [environment] … We
cannot get even wood to build a house … our ha-haycock [rights and concessions]
have been snatched away (Rangan 2000, 42).
This helps to answer the questions which Rangan raises:
Why do words like environment and ecology make so many people living in
the Garhwal Himalayas see red? Why do so many of them make derisive comments
when the Chipko movement figures in any discussion? Why is it that in most
parts of Garhwal today, local populations are angry and resentful of being
held hostage by Chipko, an environmental movement of their own making (Rangan
When the world community was ready to hear the claims of the Garhwal Himalayan
their voice in the Chipko movement had all but ceased to exist. The brief
love affair between Chipko’s activists and the state had resulted in the
romantic ideal that the Himalayan environment by itself mattered more than
the people who eked out their existence within it.
Rangan adds that:
if some of the communities are ready to banish their axes today, it must
be seen as yet another attempt to affirm themselves and give voice to the
difficulties of sustaining livelihoods within their localities (174-175).
From Agarwal and Narain, we learn that the situation has driven some to advocate
practices that violate laws which the urban conservationists have imposed. “Uttarkhand,
the land which gave birth to the Chipko movement, now even has a Jungle Kato
Andolan (cut the forest movement). Thanks to the ministry of environment, ‘environment’
is no longer a nice word in Uttarkhand” (1991). Rangan argues that the Chipko
today is a “fairy tale,” a myth sustained and propagated by a few self-appointed
spokespeople through conferences, books, and journal articles that eulogize
it as a social movement, peasant movement, environmental movement, women’s movement,
Ghandian movement–in short, an all-encompassing movement (Rangan 1993, 158).
The Green Revolution
Dr. Vandana Shiva, in a book length diatribe against the Green Revolution,
frequently refers to its voracious demand for chemical fertilizers and indicates
that there are alternative ways, more benign, of achieving these outputs (Shiva
1991). Plants need ingredients (nutrients) in order to grow. If a molecule is
in the plant, it or its constituent elements must come from somewhere. Except
for carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, plants derive their nutrients from the
soil, or in the case of nitrogen from atmospheric nitrogen mediated by cyanobacteria
(other than that from fertilizer). More plant output means more nutrient input.
The often repeated claim that Green Revolution plants need more fertilizer has
about as much meaning as saying that it takes more food to raise three children
than it does to raise one. If sufficient nutrient is not in the soil, it must
be added. Shiva’s argument in essence is that one can grow plants without nutrients
or that one can achieve the same output as Green Revolution seeds yield without
providing nutrient input other than available “organic” sources. This is patently
nonsensical and violates our fundamental knowledge of physics.
Shiva has made a number preposterous statements over the years about yields
in traditional Indian agriculture or traditional agriculture elsewhere such
as among the Maya. Even before the Green Revolution dramatically increased the
demand for and use of synthetic fertilizer, there was a large difference between
the nutrients extracted from the soil in India and the “organic” nutrients available
to be returned to it. In fact, nearly twice as much nutrient was being withdrawn
from the soil as was being returned. Contrary to Shiva’s assertions, this process
was not sustainable. Given the dramatic increases in Indian agricultural output
over the last four decades (which more than accommodated a doubling of the population),
the deficit in “organic” nutrient must be vastly greater today. Shiva cites
Sir Albert Howard, whose vitalist ideas on “organic” agriculture were developed
in colonial India (Howard 1940). But though he was a strong proponent of composting
(“Indore method”), Howard recognized the need for additional synthetic fertilizer
and improved seeds, which means he might have favored GM crops if he were alive
Shiva has a belief that “food crops for local needs” are “water prudent” (Shiva
2000). For the Green Revolution grains, the primary output is a larger percentage
of the plant (harvest index) and therefore requires less nutrient input per
unit of output. These gains in agricultural efficiency and in yields per hectare,
particularly for the Green Revolution grains, has accommodated a doubling of
the world’s population, with about a 30% increase in per capita food consumption
with only a slight increase in land under cultivation (about 4% for grains).
For rice, the gains in water use efficiency have been nothing less than astounding.
According to a recent FAO (UN Food and Agriculture Organization) report, “the
modern rice varieties have about a threefold increase in water productivity
compared with traditional varieties” (FAO 2003, 28). Overall, for water use
in agriculture, “water productivity increased by at least 100 percent between
1961 and 2001″ while water use per capita was falling about in half (FAO 2003,
25-26). What the FAO is primarily describing is the yield increases and greater
plant efficiency of the Green Revolution technologies so sharply criticized
Biotechnologists are working to create even more efficient plants, a goal which
is opposed by Shiva and her followers. In her paeans in praise of cow dung,
Shiva’s pre-Green Revolution Indian agriculture is one of a healthy, self-sufficient,
calorically adequate, nutritious food supply produced in an ecologically sustainable
manner (Avery 2000; for a critique of Shiva by an Indian scholar, see Nanda
1991, 1997 & 1998.). Why hundreds of millions of peasant agriculturalists
in India and around the world have forsaken this utopian existence and adopted
the Green Revolution’s crops and modern agricultural technologies is never explained.
Maybe those actually raising crops and feeding their families know something
about agriculture that Shiva and her fellow activists don’t?
Equally unexplained is why, if, as Shiva argues, modern technology is pauperizing
populations and in many cases driving people to suicide, life expectancies have
risen so dramatically throughout Asia for both rural and urban populations.
Even more difficult to explain is why those in developed countries, who are
presumed to be educated and informed, uncritically accept her musings and pay
her homage, including selecting her to give prestigious presentations such as
the Reith Lecture (Shiva 2000 and Scruton 2000).
Contradictions, Mistakes and Double Standards
Contradictions and mistakes are all too prevalent in the work of Shiva and
those who revere her. For example, in a public lecture in Toronto, Canada, she
claimed both that the price level of food in India was doubling and that it
was falling. Arguing that the technologies of the Green Revolution have failed,
she has the price of food in India doubling so that consumers can no longer
afford it. But when she wishes to criticize the United States for “dumping”
food on the Indian market, pushing Indian farmers to commit suicide, she claims
that subsidized foreign food is “driving down prices” (O’Hara 2000 and Oakley
The following excerpt from a news item on Shiva’s visit to Houston in the October
of 2000 is indicative. Shiva appears not to know the difference between a field
of rice and one of weeds.
Shiva walked across the road and looked out into a shaggy field.
“They look unhappy,” she said. “The rice plants. Ours at home look very
“That,” RiceTec reports, “is because it’s not rice. That’s our test field,
it was harvested in August. That’s weeds” (Tyer 2000).
Shiva inspired anti-technology criticism reached its true nadir when humanitarian
aid for people in need was attacked because of the technology used to produce
it. In India, following a “super-cyclone,” a team from Vandana, Shiva’s “research
foundation”, gathered samples of donated grain while involved in “relief work”
and had them tested in the United States to see if they were genetically modified.
Claiming that they were genetically modified, Diverse Women for Diversity
then demanded that the government of India “immediately withdraw the corn-soya
blend from Orissa,” seemingly preferring starvation for the cyclone victims
to a presumed but unproven contamination from GM food (RFSTE 2000, Devraj 2000,
Lean 2000 and Jayarsman 2000c).
Possibly, Shiva could arrange for “organic” agriculturalists like Prince Charles
to provide famine relief using funds from Greenpeace and other environmental
groups with annual budgets into the tens of millions of dollars. And once again,
it is appropriate to ask how many poor farmers have Shiva’s Diverse Women
for Diversity or The Research Foundation for Science, Technology and
Ecology helped to grow more food? How many of those in need have they helped
to feed? And in the name of transparency, what are the sources of its funding?
These questions are legitimate because too many groups that raise and spend
significant amounts of money and help feed no one, demand transparency from
others and criticize groups and individuals who have assisted those in need
by helping them to grow more food or by providing relief food that modern agricultural
surpluses facilitate. Many “Civil Society” groups in developing countries are
largely and in some cases fully funded by developed country NGOs, so one can
legitimately ask questions about the independence of their judgements in much
the same way that one would question the independence of a statement by a developing
country employee of a multinational corporation (see DeGregori 2002c).
Nanda accuses “populist intellectuals like Shiva” of being “guilty of hypocrisy
and double standards” for failing to recognize that “their own growth as intellectuals
and activists owes a tremendous debt” to the very ideas that they disparage
(Nanda 1991, 55). It has not gone unobserved that those like Shiva who are most
critical of modern science have gained favor in Western universities and have
often benefited greatly as a result.
Furthermore, the jet-setting, globe-trotting neopopulist intellectuals’
propensity to project the life style of the poor as being morally superior
and socially richer than that of the Western oppressors is hypocritical
to say the least … (and) fails to offer a progressive and feasible program
for change (Nanda 1991, 39).
Local Knowledge versus Modern Knowledge
We talked earlier about the Chipko movement in the Himalayan Garhwal region
of Uttar Pradesh, India for whom Shiva presumes to speak and for which she has
won international acclaim. When the Chipko movement’s battle for local control
of vital forest resources was taken up by Shiva and other “deep ecologists,”
the local struggles for resources and development were sacrificed to global
environmental concerns by groups that “tacitly support coercive conservation
tactics that weaken local claims to resource access for sustaining livelihoods”
(Rangan 2000, 239, see also Peluso, N. 1993).
Those who champion local wisdom too often respect it only so long as it is
in line with their ideological agenda. Ideas that are presumed to liberate end
up being instruments of oppression. Their advocates in developed countries seem
to live in a virtual Potemkin village, blissfully unaware that local knowledge
and control privileges traditional elites who tend to be dominating upper class
males who find the rhetoric of ecofeminism useful, but not its desire for equality
of classes, races and genders. Anyone who has been involved in economic development
is aware of the importance of local knowledge and the need to use it along with
any other available knowledge. But there is a very big difference between using
local knowledge and being dominated by it. And it is important to distinguish
between local knowledge and local myth, particularly myths of domination that
deny some people access to productive resources.
Intellectual elites in some developing countries such as Mexico promote local
use and custom (usos y costumbres) with the same outcome of male domination.
The modernism which opened up society and allowed racial and other minorities
to demand equal rights and women to challenge male domination is being denied
those who are most in need of change in poorer countries. “The oppressed Others
do not need patronizing affirmations of their ways of knowing, as much as they
need ways to challenge these ways of knowing” (Nanda 1996 and Nanda 2003b).
Modern knowledge allowed Nanda to escape from such practices as forced marriage
and other forms of domination but still allowed her to retain a sense of shared
identity with the culture of her origin. It is the rationality of the Enlightenment,
science and modernity that were instrumental in the creation of more tolerant
multi-cultural societies. As Nanda states it, “We Are All Hybrids Now” (Nanda
2001). I would add that we have been hybrids for some time. Over 60 years ago,
the anthropologist Ralph Linton had a sketch of a “solid American citizen” awakening
in a “bed built on a pattern which originated in the Near East” traversing the
day taking for granted the diverse global origins of the items of his daily
routine, ending it by thanking a “Hebrew deity in an Indo-European language
that he is 100% American (Linton 1963, 326-327).
More important, modernity allows one the freedom to participate fully in modernity
while still being able to retain a more localized personal identity. This is
a tolerance for diversity which is rare in the traditional societies that Shiva
seeks to promote. Modern science and technology are central to this hybridity.
As many of us (including Nanda) have long argued, calling science and technology
“Western” is to accept the 19th century claim of exclusive authorship to what
has been and remains a universal endeavor to which all peoples have contributed
just as they contributed to the artifacts of Linton’s 100% American.
Shiva and others can call modern science logophallocentric reductionism and
any number of other pejorative slogans in contrast to Prakriti or the feminine
principle, but, in fact, modern knowledge is liberating. Shiva and her cohorts
may feel “victimized” by “alien” ideas, but it is doubtful that this is the
case for many throughout the world who have benefited from it, whether by a
larger crop or lives saved by immunization or antibiotics. Nanda suggests that
it would be “interesting” to see the reaction of “untouchables” to the “knowledge
that DNA material … has the same composition in all living beings, be it brahmin
or bacterium. Or what would a women do with the knowledge that it is the chromosome
in sperm that determines the sex of the new born?” (1991, 38).
May we add that over 99.9% of the human genome is shared by all human beings
and that of the less than 0.1% that differentiate us, only about 3 to 5% of
it is between groups, with about 95% being intra group variation (Rosenberg
et al. 2002). If Shiva wishes to help women and those in need in India, she
should be promoting an understanding of DNA and molecular biology and its liberating
implications rather than fostering false fears of its use for human betterment.
Not only is the genome that unites us as humans vastly greater than that which
differentiates us, but the portion of the genome that defines our individual
biological differences within our culture is vastly greater than the minuscule
portion of the genome, 0.05%, that defines differences between groups (Rosenberg
et al. 2002, King et al. 2002 and Wade 2002).
We can argue as to how far we have come on the road to a more just society
or how much farther we have to go, but it is undeniable that in countries like
the United States, the rights of minorities and women have been greatly expanded
over the last decades. Shiva has been promoting a road to a past that never
existed and to a future where nobody really wants to go, including those who
blindly follow her.
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