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A Moment Of Deep Hope

An interview with Vandana Shiva

by Geov Parrish and Vandana Shiva

Recently I had the tremendous honor, and pleasure, of sitting down for a conversation with one of the true heroes of global efforts to create a more equitable and sustainable world. Indian physicist Vandana Shiva is one of the most renowned and respected grassroots leaders in the global South. She has worked extraordinarily effectively to organize and advocate for farmers and other ordinary workers in India and other poorer countries to retain the rights to their seeds, their water, and their traditional livelihoods. Her 13 books (in English) have covered everything from feminism to environmental justice to biopiracy, the abuses of globalization and neo-colonialism, and means for creating a nonviolent and sustainable future for our planet. The following interview is abridged; the complete text was published Aug. 19 in my column at Parrish

GP: Three years ago, you were one of the most articulate and inspiring of the critical voices in Seattle during the WTO ministerials. You're back this time speaking specifically around water and food issues. Is that instead of globalization, or is that an entree to the broader issues as well?

VS: It's an entree to the broader issues. Water and food are the broad issues. What I want to do is revisit what globalization meant in terms of issues: food and water, which are issues of life, basic needs, and how globalization both undermines democracy and denies security. Out of that has come the series of happenings that have become globalization in all societies, all countries: terrorism, war, fundamentalism, violence.

The phenomenon of violence is the dominant fact of our time. That then connects further into the vicious circle: a vicious circle of violence, in which you have a violence of globalization, a denial of basic needs, usurpation of resources, undermining of democracy. It gives rise to fundamentalism, exclusion, chauvinism, nationalism of all kinds, fueling into a politics of diversion, in which the globalization agenda, which could never have gone through in democratic forms, is scuttled through, in a way, sneakily.

GP: As in last Saturday, when fast track was passed by the House of Representatives, unseen and with no debate, at 3:00 in the morning.

VS: As in India, the water policy, the patent law, trade liberalization, all of these have been done in the dark behind the backs of people in periods when the public is preoccupied with: "My God, we're at war, my God, we'll have a nuclear war, God, the Muslims!" That rule through fear is becoming a very, very convenient mode for continuing the failed Seattle agenda.

GP: A lot of people look at these very large issues, immensely powerful global corporations, global institutions, even democratic institutions clearly no longer acting as though they were accountable to the general public, and people throw up their hands, they say, "What can we do?" What can they do?

VS: The tremendous response that people had at the time of the WTO meetings in Seattle was a response that came of the first awareness: "Oh my God, there's these huge corporations, they're starting to rule over us, these are the agendas they have." Then we had 9-11, we had corporate takeover and corporate unaccountability showing in a very blatant marriage with unaccountable government.

GP: Not just in this country. All over the world.

VS: It's a world phenomenon. It's absolutely a world phenomenon. This country unhappily ends up very often being the leader in bad trends. Bad trends in corporatization, bad trends in militarization. It would be wonderful to have it lead in the trends of peace, in trends of equity, sharing, justice.

I think the joint assault on peoples' freedoms and rights from what I call the fundamentalism of the market and the fascism--fascism in governments as we've seen them, right now--is forcing all of us to invent democracy anew.

GP: How do we invent it?

VS: We invent it by turning to our advantage the smallness of the spaces left to us to act. I think when there is formal democracy, when there is peace, when there is welfare, a good economy, by and large people can leave it to other structures. They say, "Well, okay, it's all right, you're looking after education, you're looking after our food, fine, well, you can have the power." But now, it's become very clear that the system as it's now created will not allow food to reach the majority of human beings on the planet, is going to take water away--

GP: And is already doing it.

VS: Is already doing it, and the logic of it will be total denial of the very right to live. Not just to human beings, the eighty percent of humanity that doesn't have the purchasing power to play it out on the market, to work in the economy, but the millions of species whose rights to food and water are also at stake.

GP: Anything living that doesn't contribute to the bottom line is extraneous.

VS: Absolutely. Absolutely. And that is why the main things people can do now are the biggest things people can do, and they're the smallest things people can do. Ensuring that through the way we produce our food and consume our food, we open and reclaim the spaces--the food systems that serve the earth, that serve the farmers, and that serve the consumers. We don't have to live and tolerate the kind of recall of contaminated meat you just had, where all the time people are living in fear of either eating bad food and not knowing it, or eating bad food, knowing about it, and not being able to do a thing about it.

GP: There's so many technologies that we're told are progress, are inevitable. And they're not inevitable. They're specific decisions that benefit some and not others. How does that process become more democratic?

VS: Knowledge and innovation is another dimension of the living democracy. We've had, beginning with the Cartesian revolution, this idea that technology was something that some people created, and gave a life of its own. Democracy, also, was made to appear like that: a life of its own in an administration that depends on the people who put it into power, but forgets between elections that they have delegated rights and delegated authority.

Similarly, the very technological images and structures that have evolved have been made to look like there is an autonomous creation of technology, that it's inevitable, and that there's no delegating. And there is no accountability, there's no check-out.

For a living democracy, people have control over the decisions on what technologies are created. Now, there is not scrutiny over them, because the lack of that scrutiny is created in the technology itself.

Fifteen years of my life have been dedicated to ensuring farmers have their right to livelihood and biodiversity saved, people have food, And the only way biotechnology has been adopted--a vilest technology which doesn't produce more food, destroys farmers' survival, destroys consumer confidence--in spite of all that, the only reason it's still around in food and agriculture is because, just like Arthur Andersen cooked up its figures and accounts, Monsanto's constantly cooking up the figures on what it delivers. And that happens because of this taking technology beyond the reach of people, even when the technology's going to hurt people and it's about our lives.

GP: Specialization encourages that, too. It's too complicated for most of us to understand.

VS: And it's deliberately made that way.

GP: Even when it's not complicated.

VS: For example, a monopoly on seed is a monopoly on seed. Now, you can call it intellectual property rights, and through that, derive huge beautiful language on the right to have a return on investment to keep innovation going in society, and all the paraphernalia that has been used for ten years to justify monopolies on life and ownership of life and the false claim that corporations create life, create seed, invent plants.

GP: There seem to be real, structural ways in which the institutions of globalization have been encouraging militarization, have been encouraging wars--through the arms trade, through some of the economic policies. Talk about the logic of that.

VS: It's even deeper than the arms trade. The globalization of the arms trade is the obvious part we see, but there are two other levels at which globalization and militarism are two sides of the same coin. They're not even two different coins that are made out of the same metal. They are the same coin.

The first link comes through the fact that when states expropriate resources from people--food, water, biodiversity--when they deny people basic needs, jobs are destroyed, livelihoods are destroyed--the democratic response of any community anywhere is the democratic right to protest, and to say, "We want a change."

Globalization has basically, through taking away the rights of people, and defining the ownership control over these vital resources, over food and water, as corporate rights which states then have to defend--it actually has equipped states to unleash terrorism on their own. I am both remembering the streets of Seattle and the violence of the police against protesters--and every protest.

GP: Seattle was almost nothing, compared to a lot of events around the world.

VS: Since them. Absolutely. Look at Genoa. But look at India, and tribals defending their constitutional rights to land. In our constitution, tribal land cannot be alienated. Tribals that have been working their land have defended it over the decades. Today, when tribals come out, they are shot. They are killed because the right of the investor who wants their land, the right of the corporation who wants their water, is treated as the higher right, which states must defend.

Thomas Friedman played it out better than any of us when he said, "Behind the invisible hand of the market is the iron first of the military. Behind McDonald's is McDonnell Douglas." We've seen that unravel.

GP: Unravel in what sense?

VS: When there's reference made to a global war against terror where you don't know the enemy and you don't know the time limit and it's going to be limitless, it's not just Al Qaeda that is in the net. It is ordinary people. Ordinary people defending their constitutional, democratic rights have become targets of the militarized violence.

GP: And "people defending their rights" becomes the working definition of "terrorists."

VS: Absolutely. And it's not a surprise that after 9-11 every state could pull out instantaneously anti-terror laws, even through we know how long it takes for genuine lawmaking to create a new law--especially laws that step on peoples' toes.

So you really have--the state being the protector of the people. You have the state criminalizing their own population.

GP: Or a portion of their own population.

VS: Large portions. The tiny portions they don't criminalize are usually not--especially in our part of the world--it's not in our population that's protected, you know. Very often, what is protected is foreign capital.

The third level of this link between the militarization and globalization, which is the most subtle link, is the link between globalization, destroying security, livelihoods, and from that insecurity, people are attacked through the xenophobic, fundamentalist, racist, right wing agendas. It has happened in this country, it's happened in France with Le Pen, it's happening in India right now with the right wing becoming more and more fascistic at every moment, killing 2,000 Muslims in Gujarat.

All of that serves two purposes simultaneously. The first purpose is basically surviving a period of discontent and creating a mutation in the democratic agenda. The democratic agenda for people is our food and water, and peoples' rights. Democratic agenda electoral politics in the mutated agenda ends up being about who you can kill, who you exclude, who is your enemy: migrants, another religion, another ethnicity.

The second purpose all this fulfills is it becomes a wonderful screen. It becomes a screen in which political fascism combines with economic fascism to continue the globalization agenda, now with it militarized.

GP: Embedded in the convenience of "why don't you go off and attack them?," there's a real vent in the sense of people feeling powerless about institutions they feel they can't control, then being able to identify a usually less powerful minority of one sort or another that they can then go and have power over by attacking.

VS: Xenophobic and fundamentalist tendencies--usually they go by the name of cultural nationalists--it's very interesting, they happen precisely because globalization destroys economic nationalism and destroys the securities of people to have their jobs, to meet their needs, and to have economic democracy. The death of economic democracy and economic nationalism leads to the rise of cultural nationalism and peoples' insecurities being managed through allegiances of these narrow nationalisms.

I was just reading this morning about the soldiers who came back from Afghanistan who are now killing their wives. That's the model. You went and got innocent people there, you can't live with it any more, come back, and instead of turning around and telling and becoming a conscientious objector and saying, "Why on Earth are we killing innocent people in other countries?," you turn around and kill your wife.

GP: We're also trained to view violence of one sort or another as a solution. As a way to resolve conflict.

VS: Absolutely. That is the real disease. It's a disease that has a natural next step and evolution built into it because it's fed by all the mythology we've created around technology. When we're saying that violence will solve it, we're also saying that the latest technology will solve it. The biggest bomb will solve it.

GP: We've also seen it as being the only way now in which the IMF, for example, and the World Bank leave it as an acceptable route for governments to prime the pump. They can't spend on social spending, but they can spend on the defense sector. That's true all over the world, in First World countries as well.

VS: And in fact the First World countries are our arms merchants. When we had this buildup of tensions between India and Pakistan we would have US peace missions, and at the end of each of these peace missions there was an arms sale.

GP: It was very striking to me, going back and looking at much of the literature thirty years ago, there was this expectation, genuine or not, that the South would be developed. The "underdeveloped" would catch up eventually. That expectation has evaporated. It's not even posited as a desirable goal at this point. Similarly, the ethic in the North of "Our children will have a better future than our parents did" has evaporated. How can some of those more positive expectations be reclaimed? Or can they? Or should they?

VS: It was precisely by distorting what the development agenda was, what "underdevelopment" was, what "developing" was, because "developing" was defined as reaching the levels of contaminated production and superconsumerism of the West--which was never in any way available economically or ecologically to the world--the twenty percent [already] required eighty percent. You couldn't make that model without five planets, which weren't available, so all you've done is make our own planet uninhabitable.

But in addition to that, the aspirations left in the minds of people who couldn't reach that are also an element in what is leading to the fundamentalist terrorist upsurge. The peoples' discontent when they know they can't get somewhere, and they're angry.

That project was the wrong project in the first place. It was manipulated to introduce systems of inequality, nonsustainable systems. I remember in the '60s and '70s a lot of the development literature used to mention India being underdeveloped in terms of how little plastic we generated. That was an indicator. And even though all of us want future generations to be better than us, the point is, what is that life? What goes into that definition of "a better life"? The failure of the development project and its obvious unachievability, in economic and ecological terms, and the failure of the promise of a better tomorrow for children, where a better tomorrow for your own life is disappearing in front of your eyes in the affluent part of the world, is in a way giving us the opportunity to basically say that "a better life" has to be defined some other way. Not in consumerism, not in fictitious wealth creation, but in sustainable wealth creation, sharing of our wealth. That's the real future we need for the children.

The opportunity that this total global disaster is creating for us is refocusing on life. The problem was, when we said "a better life," what we meant was "a more expensive fridge."

GP: A bigger collection of stuff.

VS: Or a bigger collection of stuff. We never meant a better life, in that life was always being taken away. Those are very basic things. Life was getting eroded in order to fit better into the gadgetry cycle. At this point, that is also becoming unavailable, to not the deceitful rich, but the recent rich, who put their trust in Wall Street and in companies and accountants who weren't trustworthy in the first place.

GP: Many of the types of changes you're talking about are essentially revolutionary changes, not in the sense of armed struggle, but in the sense of going to the root of how our economic and cultural and political systems work and redefining them, redefining the goals, and redefining who controls and who makes the decisions. How can we get from here to there?

VS: I think we are in a moment of deep hope, because the corporations have done a better job of destroying themselves than humans ever could.

Another source of hope comes from a new solidarity, where, while globalization, in terms of economic and corporate globalization, has been a dividing, inequality-creating, life-annihilating, democracy-annihilating, violent phenomenon, the new internationalism that it has given birth to--not because it linked us together in the benefit-sharing, but it links us together in the sacrifice of it--

GP: And the common oppressors.

VS: And the common oppressors--we are now in a different moment, where I can really see five years down the line people looking back at corporations dreaming of owning the water of the world as a joke. At, okay, they've taken over a few municipalities, but [laughing] they have many more municipalities to take over. They have taken over a few aquifers, but have many more aquifers to take over.

GP: And there are more Bolivias than there are successful takeovers.

VS: Absolutely. I mean, every day there's a Bolivia. There's a Bolivia happening in India right now. That's another source of hope--that there are more Bolivias. And they're happening, and people are self-organizing. There is no mastermind in one place saying "This is how you organize." When your water is taken away, every community knows what to do about it. Noone has to be told and told and ruled, and they don't have to have Das Kapital in their desks, nor do they have to have political science theorists advising them. Water goes, you know what to do. Basic life survival goes, you know what to do.

GP: One of the things that has given me a lot of hope recently is the inability of governments to withstand popular outrage--Bolivia, Argentina, Venezuela. People in the US's reactions are very far behind where people in the rest of the world already are. There's a lot that can be learned, and some of those links are being made now.

VS: And I think the leaders are very far behind. They are still in a Cold War mentality and the Cold War is over. They are still in technocratic rule, and people don't trust technology. They still want to have us believe in their accountants, and they themselves recognize that their accounts don't work.

And they are exercising power that they already have lost.