Organic approach to happiness

Vandana Shiva continues fighting distorted economic system

A few years ago the government of Bhutan — the tiny Himalayan nation that famously replaced the economic measure of Gross Domestic Product with Gross National Happiness in the early ’70s — resolved to adopt an entirely organic system of agriculture. It’s no surprise that Vandana Shiva the renowned physicist and environmental activist was summoned to lead the charge.

For decades Shiva has been one of the world’s most emphatic proponents of small-scale agronomy. Navdanya Farm which she founded in 1994 in the Indian state of Uttarakhand exemplifies her philosophy that the organic approach can be a tool to resist the corporate seizure of agriculture and achieve equilibrium with ecological systems. Such outcomes are pretty important considering the Himalayas provide hydration for billions of people in surrounding nations.

“It’s like the heart” says Shiva who picks up an early morning call while in New York City for a conference on sustainable agriculture. “The heart is a very small organ but the minute the heart stops beating the whole body is over. In a way mountain ecosystems are the heart of all land-based ecosystems.”

The way that Shiva continually personifies biological networks is — in addition to her fervent yet considerate tone — one of the most pronounced elements of her speaking style. Later in the conversation she refers to the interference of big business in government as a “political cholesterol blocking the arteries of democracy.” It’s the “creative activities of human beings” that are the impeded blood cells needing to flow she says.

Such metaphors aren’t just fluffy rhetoric. In her 1988 book Staying Alive: Women Ecology and Survival in India — which served as both Shiva’s debut non-academic publication and a foundational text in ecofeminism — she describes the Hindu philosophy of Prakriti “a living and creative process the feminine principle from which all life arises.” A few chapters later she contends that “Prakriti far from being an esoteric abstraction is an everyday concept which organizes daily life.”

That same spirit is present in Shiva’s concept of the Earth democracy a central argument in her career. As suggested by the title the idea of the Earth democracy is a recognition of the holistic nature of exploitation — namely the relationship between environmental degradation and violations of human rights (particularly those of women and indigenous peoples) — and the urgent need to adopt a more sustainable egalitarian paradigm.

“Let me put it this way: if we’re alive today it’s because there’s an Earth democracy” Shiva says. “If we continue to deny the rights of other species the rights of all people to the vital resources and processes that sustain life — whether it be the water or the soil or the climate or the seed or the food — and continue to use a very distorted economic system as the measure we will be extinct.”

Gloomy talk about a mass die-out of humans certainly isn’t abnormal in leftist circles. It’s perhaps the fact that Shiva speaks frequently of such an event — not to mention the sobering subjects of seed patenting water privatization desertification and peak oil — without coming across as cripplingly melancholic that distinguishes her from her colleagues. Defeatism simply isn’t part of her conception of the world.

Which brings it all back to Bhutan. In addition to her recent work with its farmers Shiva has served on a team of experts appointed by the country’s monarch to help spread the idea of Gross National Happiness (GNH) to other nations. Two years ago she participated in a panel discussion on the subject for the United Nation’s 66th general assembly. Only a few weeks ago she organized an international organic agriculture conference in Bhutan. As the prime minister of Bhutan put it in 2011 “going organic is living GNH.” Or in other words the Earth democracy embodied.

“Countries have to shift from an accumulation of wealth by destroying the planet which is what GDP is as it measures that which you destroy and does not measure what you create” Shiva says. “GDP was created for the war to finance warplanes and bombs. Its only purpose is how to extract the last bit out of nature and society. It’s now time to give back.”


Political cholesterol: "The block is quite simply the power of corporations and the fact that the distinctiveness that is necessary in any democracy – separation between economic and political power – has dissolved and it’s one corporate state as I call it. Normally democratic states should be overseeing economic affairs so that the larger good of society is ensured. In the last 20 years the process that’s called globalization has been a process of corporate takeover not just of the rest of the economy but the political process."

The flaws of GDP: "The measure has to be the Earth and her capacity to support our lives and our duty towards the Earth to ensure that we don’t wipe out other species and wipe out the possibility of future generations to enjoy a planet that we have had. The economic measures and paradigms have just become so ill-fitted both to the Earth’s processes and the laws of the Earth and to human processes and human rights. So when your yardstick is wrong you don’t keep breaking living processes to fit into that yardstick. You throw that yardstick away and bring in a better one."

Global warming: "The reality is showing that the climate is changing. It’s changing in unpredictable ways. You can find the same pattern in the issues of GMOs. GMOs are failing superweeds and superpests are being created but they’re running with the fake promise that they’re going to solve the problems of food in the world."

Climate change skeptics: "The climate skeptics and the people supporting GMOs have the same style and narrative. They are anti-science but they plead science. It’s one aspect of globalization as corporate rule and the takeover of our governments and the transformation of public states into corporate states."

Why she has hope: "I get so many young visitors to our farm from around the world. Not one of them comes and does not transform that learning into a life practice. It could be in the prairies of Canada or it could be in the Brazilian Amazon. The overall view is all you have is these giant agribusiness farms dependent on corporate seeds – GMOs – but the reality is that there are all these amazing niches of local initiatives growing food saving seeds creating new food systems creating deeper links between cities and rural areas We have to start taking those initiatives into account because they are like a seed itself. When you see a seed you think ‘oh it’s so small.’ But you grow it and it gives you 50000 or 100000 or one million seeds. One seed does that for you. Each of the initiatives of today is like a seed for the future."

Pessimism: "When people ask me ‘are you a pessimist?’ I say ‘if I look at the brutal recklessness of corporations of course I should be a pessimist.’ But that’s not what preoccupies me. I’m aware of Monsanto but Monsanto is not running my head. What’s running my head and my heart is the abundance of the Earth and the creativity of young people against all odds."

Retirement: "When I started this work I said ‘in 10 years.’ Because I thought 10 years would finish off this silly project of patenting seed and pushing GMOs against people’s will. But it has carried on a little longer. Of course I will never ever abandon this work because it’s not the kind of work you can retire from – it’s about life. I am already in the process of ensuring that there are lots of younger people equipped to take on these challenges at the institutional organizational scientific and movement level. I can see in a few years time I will do what I’d love to much more: just be on the farm and garden and maybe write on the side."