GENTECH archive



Shiva's Little Green Book (Book Review)

The Times Higher Education Supplement
By Fred Pearce
March 2, 2001

Fred Pearce argues that visionary green thinking can lead to disaster.

Tomorrow's Biodiversity. By Vandana Shiva. Thames and Hudson 144pp, Pounds
6.95. ISBN 0 500 28239 0. THES Bookshop Pounds 5.95

Earth Summit 2002. Edited by Felix Dodds. Earthscan 336pp, Pounds 18.95.
ISBN 1 85383 712 1 THES Bookshop Pounds 16.95.

Managing the Planet. By Norman Moss. Earthscan, 224pp Pounds 16.99. ISBN 1
85383 644 3. THES Bookshop Pounds 14.99Tel: 020 8324 5104

Vandana Shiva is the Chairman Mao of the green movement. Her long
intellectual march on behalf of peasants and plants, and against what she
sees as the dominance and destructiveness of reductionist science and the
industrialisation of technology, is enervating, brilliantly expressed,
intellectually beguiling and ultimately crackers. It contains within it a
recipe for as much potential for famine and social dislocation as Mao
Tse-tung's Great Leap Forward. Luckily, she has no country to try it out

Shiva is an Indian physicist and philosopher, one of a generation of
social and environmental radicals inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. She has been
building her guru status for many years now, through books, articles in
journals such as The Ecologist and the salons of a few green thinkers
round the world. At each stage, she has hooked her thesis to prevailing
western concerns, whether feminism or, as here, fears over the various
ecological and health threats posed by genetically modified foods. And her
star continues to rise, up to and including a Reith lecture on the BBC
last year.

She takes no hostages. "Reductionism destroys biodiversity," she says.
Why? "Because it reduces our complex, diverse and dynamic world into a
fragmented, atomised and uniform construction. This in turn leads to the
intensive manipulation of ecosystems and species to increase partial and
fragmented production."

She chastises technology for its reliance on "a crude, mechanical paradigm
based on competition rather than cooperation, monocultures rather than
diversity, control rather than self-organisation". Industrial farming and
fisheries, forestry and medicine, she says, have all been shaped by this
reductionist world view. It is a view that destroys cultural as well as
biological diversity "because non-reductionist systems of indigenous
knowledge have been discounted and discarded as unscientific".

Much of this is no doubt true. It is an inescapable fact that global
standardisation has wiped out a lot that is local. And that the lands
where there is greatest cultural diversity are also the lands with the
greatest biological diversity. Look at the Amazon rainforest, or the
island of New Guinea. But equally, much more of what survives of the
world's linguistic, cultural, biological and technological diversity is
available locally, whether on the internet, in Sainsbury's or among the
exotic shrubs of an English country garden.

Shiva is right to see science moving in her direction, and to spot that
there is a growing tension between the reductionism of much technology and
the anti-reductionist trends in much science. "Scientists round the world
are challenging the dominant paradigm of genetic reductionism and evolving
a science based on gene ecology," she says. "They show that complex,
self-organising, dynamic living systems are not reducible only to
constituent genes. Sciences of processes are replacing the reductionist
science of mechanics and objects, sciences of qualities are replacing the
science of Cartesian quantity."

She rails against the commercialisation and industrialisation of nature.
For her, the development of a resource in the modern world is its
commodification and, in effect, its theft from the poor of the planet. She
has much to say that is useful on the way corporations use and abuse the
advances of science and technology. And coming from India, she sees
clearly how the resources of that country are hoovered up, patented,
repackaged and sold back. But in emotional terms she too often feeds off
the West's visions of a golden age of pre-industrial idyll when the
peasants lived in mystical harmony with nature.

And her prescriptions are deeply worrying. She would sweep away the green
revolution of the past half-century -a revolution that doubled world food
production faster than world population could double. She is right that
the revolution reduced crop biodiversity. Yes, the gains in grain
production tonnages were often at the expense of other crop products such
as straw and green manure; and yes, the revolution required huge and often
unsustainable inputs of chemicals and water. But without it, would the
world's stomachs be anything like as full as they are today? It seems
unlikely. The warnings of the early 1970s that billions could be dying of
starvation before the 20th century was out could indeed have come true.
And, in this dogmatism in the
face of the world as it is, her world view does bear comparison with Mao's
madder phases. It is all too easy to imagine Shiva, transported back in
time to the dawn of cultivation, raging against the loss of genetic
diversity and the commodification of food caused by clearing land for
planting crops rather than simply picking fruits from the forests.

Her book is full of name-calling and provocative phrases. Some are
borrowed from the tabloid press, "frankenstein foods" for instance. Some
are self-coined such as the "monoculture of the mind". She talks usefully
of the "genetic mine" as being the predominant metaphor of genetic
engineering. On this view, genes are simple encoders for certain
characteristics, to be mined and used as we think fit. They are apparently
divorced from the organisms from which they come, and the ecosystems
within which those organisms live. In taking this view, the engineers are
no doubt simplifying the world. And perhaps as a result they will have
some nasty shocks when, transposed into new organisms in a new
environment, genes start coding for things we had not bargained for. But
what is new? Humanity has always made
sense of its surroundings by simplifying and reducing complexity to the
bare essentials. When our simple views fail to work for us, we change them
for ones that do. And science, reductive or not, has been a superbly
successful tool for doing that.

Moreover, Shiva herself, in telling her simple and compelling story of the
appropriation and industrialisation of nature, is engaging in her own form
of reductionism. It is a defining characteristic of mankind. It is what
our brains do.

At the other end of the environmental arena from Shiva and her visions sit
the environmental diplomats. They have been in trouble lately. The failure
of the climate conference in The Hague in November to deliver a completed
Kyoto Protocol was a serious blow. Initial claims that fatigue and
shortage of time had scuppered the deal were undermined when subsequent
informal talks failed to break the log-jam between Europe and the United
States. Now George W. Bush is in the White House. And there is a growing
fear that the
task of reining in climate change, perhaps the most vital global project
for the 21st century, is in serious trouble. If that proves to be the
case, then the only substantive outcome of the Earth Summit in Rio de
Janeiro in 1992 will have foundered. And that in turn will throw a burning
spotlight on the follow-up to Rio, scheduled for South Africa in 2002, and
what it will do to rescue the world's climate.

How sad then that the first pre-summit reader, Earth Summit 2002, should
contain just two passing references to climate change. Written before The
Hague meeting, the book blithely assumes that the Kyoto Protocol is a done
deal, and that, with climate targets set, the South African summit should
move on to other topics. How wrong can you be?

The book seems mired not simply in the pre-Hague world, but also in a
mindset where even planetary salvation can appear a mundane,
committee-bound, jargon-ridden pursuit. The contributors, many respected
figures in their fields, are mostly regurgitating things they have written
too many times before. Those people already deeply bound up in the
pre-conference diplomacy will no doubt feel they must read it. The rest of
us might do better to take a look at Norman Moss's racy Managing the
Planet, subtitled The Politics of the New Millennium. Moss covers much old
ground. But, as a journalist of some repute, he covers it well. This is
the story of how, for the first time in history, mankind is acting in a
significant way on key planetary processes. We are responsible for ripping
holes in the
ozone layer, taking over the sulphur and nitrogen cycles and tweaking the
carbon cycle on a scale that within a few decades will be as profound as
the planetary wobbles that swing us into and out of ice ages.

Unlike Shiva, Moss does not shrink from this responsibility. Shiva tells
us to stop worrying the sheep and get back in our kennels. Moss says that,
having created mayhem across the hillside, we have to get out there and
round up the sheep. If we are in charge of the planet we had better make a
go of it. We are apart from nature, he concludes. "Humans have the right
to impose their moral values on the rest of nature because they are the
only creatures with moral values." Having invented biotechnology we have a
near-duty to use it. By taming nature, we may find a way to live with her.

Fred Pearce recently wrote (with Paul Harrison) the commentary to the
Atlas of Population and Environment, published by the American Association
for the Advancement of Science.