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War on the Earth: An interview with 2010 Laureate Dr Vandana Shiva on planetary crises

Dr Vandana Shiva was the 2010 Sydney Peace Prize Recipient. She an international voice for sustainable development and social justice. She’s a physicist, scholar, social activist, and feminist. She is director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy in New Delhi and a recipient of the Right Livelihood Award, the alternative Nobel Prize. She is the author of many books, including Water Wars, Earth Democracy, and Soil Not Oil.

BARSAMIAN: On receiving the Sydney Peace Prize in November 2010, you said, “When we think of wars in our times, our minds turn to Iraq and Afghanistan, but the bigger war is the ongoing war against the Earth. This war has its roots in an economy which fails to respect ecological and ethical limits.” Tell me more about this war.

 This war is being fought, for example, in India across the country, wherever there are minerals, which happens to be where there are forests, which happens to be where tribals live. And it’s fueled by the very investor-speculators who brought down the world economy. Huge money is to be made out of iron ore and bauxite mining. And then to push consumption, to use more and more of these nonrenewable resources.

India until 20 years ago never had landfills. But our laws are now saying they want us to move from 1 kilogram of aluminum use to 15 kilograms per capita of use. Fifteen kilograms multiplied by a billion Indians means that every mountain will have to be mined, every forest will have to be destroyed. This generates war against nature because it devastates ecosystems. But it’s also a war against people, because every human right must be violated, and a war economy, in a real sense, has to be created.

You say that the war against the Earth begins in the mind. How does that happen?

The moment you take an Earth in which systems are mutually supporting, in which forest systems create the weather systems and create the water systems, where the soil gives us the food—a reductionist, mechanistic worldview chops up that interconnected nature. That chopping up, reductionism, is the beginning of the war in the mind.

And this “eco-imperialism,” as you call it, has its roots—are we talking a couple of hundred years now?

All of this was a synergy between colonialism, a conquest of the South, and defining the people of the South as if we weren’t fully human. A conquest of nature through redefining nature as dead, inert, manipulable matter. And it was a conquest over the feminine aspect of every society. The witch hunts were part of it in America and in Europe because what was being hunted was not women who were witches, but holistic knowledge and expertise by women. This triple colonization is really only a few hundred years old, and it has reached its limits. But those who gain from it, whether its power or its money would like to push that limit a little longer by commodifying every aspect of nature.

There are multiple crises facing the planet. They’re fairly obvious, and are interlinked: climate change, food, and the economic/political crisis. The interconnections have actually just intensified in the last two years.

We see the financial crisis that created the unraveling of the economy. Ordinary, hard-working people are paying the price, sometimes with their lives. The financial crisis, then, is linked to the energy crisis, because a fossil fuel-driven economy can only carry on its path of growth by converting the living earth into oil rather than finding an alternative economy based on nonrenewables, and they would like to take renewables and turn them into nonrenewables. The biofuel grab is part of it. And that biofuel grab is leading to the land grab in Africa. All of this is also creating the climate-induced catastrophes, which are then feeding back into food insecurity. So 2010 saw forest fires in Russia, floods in Pakistan, flooding and then cyclones in Australia—after about six years of an intensive drought.

Meantime, that same financial gambling game is speculating on food as a commodity, driving up food prices, which is a big issue in Indian politics. Recently, nine opposition parties came together to fight the price rise. We are tied up in these interconnections of a vicious cycle, where each crisis feeds the other crisis. And bio-imperialists, who want to use the planet’s resources for their own gain and extension of their power, now use the crisis they have created to say, “Okay, let’s grab Africa. Let’s grab the farmlands of India. Let’s grab the last mineral. Let’s commodify every bit of food and grain on this planet,” never answering the question, “What happens to 80 percent of humanity?”

The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization said food prices in 2010 were the highest in history.

In 2008 there was a spike in food prices and 2010 has gone beyond that because 2010 has been a combination of real scarcity due to climate catastrophes, along with the artificial scarcity created by speculation. And when you have two forces driving prices upwards, and they are structural, that is why any government who says, “Oh, next month the weather will be fine” or “the harvest will come,” is not realizing two things. One, industrial globalized agriculture as well as other fossil-fuel-driven systems have given us climate chaos. It’s not a future issue, it’s not a future debate of what will happen in 100 years. People are dying today. The second thing they don’t realize is politicians still try and respond to these crises as if they’re living in isolated nation states, when they themselves have signed a WTO agreement interlinking the global food system, which means a problem in one part of the world gets transmitted to the rest of the world—whether it be a speculation or climate damage.

You mentioned Australia—drought, floods, cyclones. Is extreme weather an anomaly or is it part of a pattern we’re going to see more of?

Climate chaos, as I call it, is a pattern. That’s why I am reluctant to use the words “global warming,” in which case you get one snowstorm and the climate skeptics say, “Oh, this is global cooling? Didn’t we tell you?” As if all the time the temperature will be rising everywhere rather than what the climate scientists say, average temperatures across the planet are rising.

The second is, when you talk “climate change,” you get other climate skeptics saying, “Oh, we just adapt to it. And Swedish beaches will become like the tropics, so isn’t that wonderful?” Or “England will get warmer and will now grow grapes and will become wine country.” That kind of stupidity does not take into account that the same England also gets a snowstorm and gets stalled for two weeks because they are not a heavy snow country and have none of the equipment to clean up Heathrow airport.

A large number of Americans seriously doubt there is such a thing as global warming and climate change. You’ve studied the issue, you’re a scientist. Is the science solid?

There are reasons why we have to take climate science seriously. It’s not just one or two scientists or single discipline. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, is a multidisciplinary group of 2,500 scientists. Never in the history of humanity have 2,500 scientists, trained in different aspects of the environment, resources, the planet, the climate, the atmosphere, put together their collective expertise from 1988 onwards.
Every ecosystem with an additional burden will have a different behavior. A river with too much pollution becomes a dead river. An atmosphere with too much pollution will start having different patterns, too much snow where there should be no snow, and no rain where there should be rain. All of this unpredictability needs to be seen as a phenomenon that people are living through.

Mining issues are key in India. There is the Niyamgiri Mountain issue in Orissa in eastern India. You’ve been there. Talk about that and why it is significant and the push-back and resistance from the people. They talk of something called the India story. And the India story is a high-growth story built on the outsourcing of software, creating Silicon Valleys in Bangalore. But the untold part of the India story is the outsourcing of pollution and resource extraction. So while most aluminum and steel manufacturing has shut down in Europe, the U.S., and Japan, the consumption of all of these items is being pushed even further with everything that makes this global economy run. Aluminum is vital to it. Bauxite is the raw material for aluminum.

Vedanta, a UK-based company owned by an Indian, wanted to mine a mountain called Niyamgiri, which means the mountain that upholds the sacred law. Niyam means the law of the universe and giri means mountain. The most ancient tribes of the Dongria Kondh have been living on this mountain since the beginning of their own memory. They’ve resisted the bauxite mining. In spite of it, Vedanta managed to set up a refining plant and a smelter in the valley and further downstream. Because of the protests, they were never able to get to the bauxite, even though the courts and the Ministry of Environment were manipulated.

The interesting thing is there is another plant in Orissa which is called Posco. It is a Korean steel plant, but our research shows it’s actually owned by Wall Street. The majority of shares are owned by Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. The World Bank forced the privatization of this plant in the Southeast Asia financial crisis. They want 4,000 acres of the coast with a captive port and parkland. Then, of course, they want mines. Most of the iron ore they mine will go straight out to Korea and China. Some will be processed in an export zone, also for export.
Tell me how rivers can be sold.

Both aluminum and steel making are highly energy-intensive and resource-intensive processes. They are extremely water-intensive processes. Entire rivers are being rerouted for steel and aluminum making. The River Shivnath in Chhattisgarh is flowing through tribal areas. We use our rivers to go down and wash our clothes, to bathe. Our buffalos and our cows go to the river. The river recharges all of the groundwater around it. The River Shivnath, 22 kilometers of it was privatized, to bring water to Jindal’s steel plant. In order to privatize it, people could not access the river water, they could not access the groundwater in their own fields and wells.

It’s very much like the privatization of water in Bolivia where, when Bechtel faced resistance, they said, “You can’t have this water on your roof, you can’t take water in your well.” And the Bolivian people said, “So you now own the rain and you own the groundwater?” That’s what the people of Chhattisgarh said. That project had to be cancelled. This was a direct legal transfer of a river to a private company.

De facto privatization is happening everywhere. When you look at Vedanta, their aluminum factory has totally rerouted the Indravati River that flows southward, moved it northward, had it dropped into a river called Hati Tel River to then service this huge aluminum smelter. The Tatas, when they expanded their Jamshedpur factory, put dams on two tributaries of Suvernarekha River, and that was 100 percent water for Jamshedpur. We fought the privatization of Delhi water, which was going to bring water up into the Himalaya from the Tehri Dam, and Suez was going to then sell it at 10 times the normal price that we pay for water. So whether it’s for a city or a steel plant, an aluminum plant, they’re such thirsty projects that they have to steal water from people and from nature.

But this other story of the emerging economy, the giant with 9 percent growth, is a joint construction of the Indian elite and the global elite. The global elite, of course, spun the globalization story. The global elite need the success of the model of globalization, of free trade, of corporate-driven economies. They have to constantly sell that. They first tried to sell it through the Southeast Asian countries. You remember there was a period when the East Asian tigers and the dragons were the poster children of globalization. In 1997 that collapsed. The West was its own poster child. After 2008 that collapsed. So if that fake story of globalization and corporate control has to continue, they’ve got to have some poster child. And they’re hanging desperately to the India of today, with its rising billionaires, but constantly more and more impoverished people. We have some of the richest people in the world today: the Ambani brothers, the Mittals, and Anil Agarwal sitting in England. They are using the India story as a subcomponent of the globalization story.

But nobody tells the story that this has pushed half of Indian children to severe malnutrition, that every fourth Indian is today hungry. That the land wars are being fought between the poor, who want to defend their quarter-acre land, against the richest of these people, who are engaged in a big land grab.

You also talk about agriculture and militarized language.

The Copenhagen Treaty agreement on climate change should have brought us to the next level of legally binding agreements to bring down emissions because the Kyoto Protocol period was running out, climate catastrophes were getting worse, and something needed to be done. Instead, President Obama came, bullied four other countries—the so-called rising powers of China, India, South Africa, Brazil—and signed this Copenhagen Accord, which is a non-accord in terms of legally binding commitments.

The world is waiting for another paradigm, another worldview, another way of centering our lives. The West needs it because their economies are collapsing. The South needs it to prevent their economies from being totally wiped out, because I believe it’s cultures that define their rights through the Earth that have the strongest struggle even for their own rights. I’ve seen it with every land movement.

Is there a connection between capitalism and environmental degradation?

There is a very intimate connection with the rise of capitalism and the plunder of nature, because capitalism located wealth in capital, which is just a construct. It’s in human imagination. And it gave power to those who owned capital to then start owning the resources of the Earth. The privatization of rivers, the privatization and patenting of seeds (the basis of my work in Navdanya) the privatization of the atmosphere for emissions trading, all of these privatizations are defending the rights of capital and allowing capital to expand its control, because capital is an abstract.
Given the urgency, it seems to me individuals are limited in what they can do and that collective action is required.

Individuals acting consciously as members of society and collectives is what we need. The two things we need that everyone can do are, first, a shift in the mind. If these wars are wars in the mind, then the place to make peace is in the mind, peace with nature and peace with each other. Creating living economies, a movement we’ve tried to build through Navdanya here, local living economies, but a movement that’s very strong in the U.S., is something people can start engaging in today. If they don’t, they will have nowhere to turn to. Our calculations show that even though global corporations have the power to reach the last resource, they only have the power to generate employment for 3 percent of humanity. You can’t have a system where 100 percent of resources are owned by probably 15 to 20 corporations, and 3 percent are hired for them to do the stealing of the planetary wealth. So you need to have other ways for people to look after themselves.

You cannot do that individually. You can begin the shift in your mind, but framing other economies and framing other ways of structuring society has to be a collective enterprise, because what was killed by the privatization of the economy was a very collective identity, the identity that we are interconnected. And Margaret Thatcher saying, “There is no society, there is only individuals,” is part of that market individualism of atomizing us, making us lonely, isolating, and telling us we have nowhere to turn.

Just like Evo Morales removed the censorship on the rights of Mother Earth, India is a civilization based on the recognition of the Earth as a living system, as our living support, and peace with the Earth as our duty.

This ancient prayer has always been my inspiration. It is from the Bhoomi Sutra of the Athara Veda. And it says:

May there be peace with space and the skies,
Peace with the atmosphere,
Peace with the waters.
May there be peace with the earth.
May there be peace with the herbs, the plants, the trees.
May all the divine beings pervade peace.
May the peace that pervades all creation
Be with you.

First published on http://www.zcommunications.org/war-on-the-earth-by-david-barsamian