Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Vandana Shiva and Monocultures of the Mind

I'm so excited Vandana Shiva is coming to New Zealand for the food conference in February. I absolutely love her work. One of my supervisors asked me to write a bit about Shiva as I'm looking at using her writing as theory in my thesis. This is what I wrote:

Vandana Shiva is both a geneticist and an environmental activist and thinker. Her work is particularly focussed on threats to biodiversity and the impacts of biotechnology (Shiva 2005, 2012).  In Earth Democracy (2005) Shiva is outspoken against corporate globalisation which destroys grassroots democracy through “new enclosures of the commons” which are based on violence:
Instead of a culture of abundance, profit-driven profit driven globalization creates cultures of exclusion, dispossession and scarcity. In fact, globalization’s of all beings and resources into commodities robs diverse species and people of their rightful share of ecological, cultural and political space. The “ownership” of the rich is based on the “dispossession” of the poor. It is the common public resources of the poor which are privatised, and the poor who are disowned economically, politically and culturally (2005, 2).

Shiva is particularly critical of the patenting of genetics and the concept of ‘ownership’ of life and the rhetoric of ‘ownership society’ which she describes as ‘anti-life’. She argues that from this perspective living things have no intrinsic value and no integrity.  She argues that the commons are the “highest expressions of economic democracy” (2005, 3). She also describes the movement against corporate globalisation as one toward ‘Earth Democracy’ the fate of which concerns the wellbeing of all living beings on earth. She describes an intentional shift from “vicious cycles of violence in which suicidal cultures, suicidal economies and the politics of suicide feed on each other to virtuous cycles of creative non-violence in which living cultures nourish living democracies and living economies (sharing resources equitably to create meaningful livelihoods)” (2005, 5). 

Earth Democracy, then is not just a concept but incorporates diverse practice reclaiming commons, resources, livelihoods, freedoms, dignity, identity and peace – rooted locally but also interconnected with the world and universe (2005, 5).   Shiva argues that ecological security and ecological identities are our most basic and fundamental: “We are the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe. And reclaiming democratic control over our food and water and our ecological survival is the necessary project for our freedom (2005, 5). Earth Democracy enables us to create living democracies of participation in decisions regarding our food, water and air, systems which are based on intrinsic worth of all aspects of the environment, including people.  It includes the “ancient wisdom and tradition of non-severability and interconnectedness” along with “the values, worldviews and actions of diverse movements working for peace, justice and sustainability” (2005, 7).

In Monocultures of the mind (2012), Shiva discusses the importance of local knowledge systems which are disappearing and being colonised by dominant Western knowledge and the globalising system. She argues that although  Western knowledge has been constructed as universal, it is actually just a globalised version of a local parochial system based in a particular culture, gender and class (2012, 9). Therefore, the common dichotomy between universal and local is misplaced when applied to Western and indigenous traditions because what is perceived as ‘universal’ is actually a local system “which has spread world wide through intellectual colonisation” (Shiva 2012, 10). Shiva argues that a genuine universal knowledge system would spread through openness, whereas the globalising system spreads through violence and misrepresentation, the first level of which is “not to see them (local/indigenous) as knowledge,” but as ‘primitive’ and unscientific (2012, 10).  This undermines local epistemologies, making them invisible and vulnerable to collapse against the force of the uniquely ‘scientific’ and universal Western.  Shiva argues this is actually less connected with knowledge than it is with power:
The models of modern science which have encouraged these perceptions were derived less from familiarity with actual scientific practice and more from familiarity with idealised versions which gave science a special epistemological status. Positivism, verificationism, falsificationism were all based on the assumption that unlike traditional, local beliefs of the world, which are socially constructed, modern scientific knowledge was thought to be determined without social mediation. (2012, 11)

This notion that Western science is somehow objective and devoid of social influence, is something Shiva is highly critical of, along with the conception that the broader Western knowledge paradigm is superior. That Western knowledge is fashioned as scientific “assigns a kind of sacredness or social immunity to the Western system,” which is above the indigenous traditions that it excludes.
Just as intensive corporate farming practices create unsustainable biological monocultures which erode diversity, the dominant scientific paradigm “breeds a monoculture of the mind” (2012, 12) It makes local alternative knowledge systems disappear by destroying the possible conditions required for alternatives to exist.  It does this through its ‘superior’ exclusivity and through a violent separation which destroys diverse local meaning.  Shiva states that in local knowledge systems there is no artificially imposed separation between ‘resources’: “the forest and the field are in ecological continuum” and local agriculture is modelled on forest ecology and both supply food (2012, 14). In contrast the supposedly ‘scientific’ system segregates forestry from agriculture. Forestry is reduced to resources like timber and is no longer connected to food. “Knowledge giving systems which have emerged from the food giving capacities of the forest are therefore eclipsed and finally destroyed, both through neglect and aggression” (2012, 14).  Shiva uses the examples of ‘scientific management’ based on narrow commercial interests and enforced through legislation in India to illustrate her arguments on the destruction of diverse knowledge systems (2012, 18).
The existing principles of scientific forest management leads to the destruction of the tropical forest ecosystem because it is based on the objective modelling of the diversity of the living forest on the uniformity of the assembly line. Instead of society being modelled on the forest, as it is in the case of forest cultures, the forest is modelled on the factory... which transforms the forest from a renewable to a non-renewable resource. (Shiva 2012, 19)

Shiva argues that the dominant knowledge system is inherently colonising and culturally fragmenting in its effects. It alienates knowledge from wisdom.  The political implications of such a system system are fundamentally inconsistent with sustainability, equality and social justice. For these reasons it is a particularly dangevous, violent and destructive monoculture of the mind.  In the face of this reality, Shiva advocates for the democratisation of knowledge as “a central precondition for human liberation because the contemporary knowledge system excludes the humane by its very structure” (2012, 60). She envisions this democratisation involving the redefining of knowledge so that local and diverse become legitimate and indispensable, and globalisation and universalisation are conceived as abstractions which have violated this reality. This shift, according to Shiva, is:
…important to the project of human freedom because it frees knowledge from the dependency on established regimes of thought, making it simultaneously more autonomous and more authentic. Democratisation based on such an ‘insurrection of subjugated knowledge’ is both a viable and necessary component of the larger processes of democratisation because the earlier paradigm is in crisis and in spite of its power to manipulate, is unable to protect both nature and human survival. (2012, 62)

Shiva, V. 2012. Monocultures of the mind: perspectives on biodiversity and biotechnology. New Delhi: Natraj.

Shiva, V. 2005. Earth democracy: justice, sustainability and peace. Brooklyn: South End Press