Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Vandana Shiva - Soil Not Oil: Climate Change, Peak Oil and Food Insecurity

I found Vandana Shiva's Soil Not Oil a frustrating read. On the one hand it has some extremely clear, and eloquent explanations of what climate change means to the people of the world, and how the domination of big-business is destroying peoples' lives together with the planet. It also is a important contribution to the debate about climate change because it is written by a leading activist from India, and all too often people from the Global South are seen as being passive victims of environmental disasters, rather than agents for solving the problem.

But on the other hand I found Shiva's explanations weak and unconvincing. On occasion the book descends into unnecessary mysticism, but more frustratingly, Shiva is unable to offer any sort of road-map for getting where we need to be. For instance the author as absolutely right to argue that
the transition from oil to soil is a political transition. It is a transition from undemocratic political structures - which impose globalization and a fossil fuel infrastructure on society and force the large-scale uprooting of peasants and indigenous peoples - to a decentralized democracy in which local communities have a say in what happens to their land and their lives.
But Shiva fails to offer any argument for how this transition might come about.

She quotes the a chief minister of West Bengal, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, saying "That 63 percent of the population continues to depend on agriculture for its livelihood is a sign of backwardness... From agriculture to industry, from villages to cities - this is what civilization is."

As Shiva points out, there is nothing inevitable, natural or evolutionary about people moving from rural areas to cities, it is a product of economic and political, as well as historical processes. Nor is it, as the chief minister suggests, necessarily progressive. But there is a danger of fetishising the peasant lifestyle, or even, in the case of her discussion about urban areas, low technological solutions. As she concludes:

India can lead the world to a post-oil future of low carbon dioxide emissions because it is still primarily an agrarian economy based on peasants and small farmers.
This is a dangerous proposition, because it suggests the only alternatives are the highly unsustainable economies of the developed world, or the rapidly disappearing localised, small scale agrarian economy.

Peasant lifestyles are dominated by human and animal labour, long, backbreaking work that often offers little reward, particularly because it cannot be separated from the wider economy. A genuinely sustainable and socially just society has to offer more than simply what exists today. So while Shiva's examples about sustainable agriculture, particularly her Navdanya network, demonstrate the real benefits and potential of multi-cropped, organic, low carbon agriculture, they are limited because she fails to address the question of how we get that in a way that offers more than what exists at the moment.

Shiva is right to argue that adopting "an obsolete, outmoded, unsustainable model of development imported from the West" would be a disaster, but the alternative is extremely nebulous. At one point she suggests that what is needed is to "rewrite the rules of trade to favor the local". While this would indeed be a good idea when contrasted to what the IMF and WTO do to economies in the Global South, it is a limited answer when we consider the power of the multinationals and their governments and what they will do to protect the status-quo. In addition, I remain skeptical that a purely local economy is the way forward? Why can't we have a globally integrated economy, but built in the interests of people and planet, not profits.

Part of the problem, I felt, was that Shiva argues that what is taking place in India is the destruction of an already existing sustainable agrarian economy. Rightly, she wants to protect that from the ravages of the IMF and neo-liberalism, but she then falls into the trap of seeing this in idealistic terms. We have to have something more than this.

Ultimately I think the weakness of the book lies in the failure to identify capitalism as the problem. Shiva discusses globalisation, but not capitalism. It is the nature of the capitalist system itself that has left the Global South in poverty at the expense of the profits of the multinationals. Thus it is wrong to argue that what humanity needs to do is "make a choice". What we need to do is end capitalism and replace it with a socially just, democratic, sustainable world.

This review has focused on the disagreements I have with Shiva's book, partly because of other work that I have been engaged in. But this is not to dismiss the work entirely. There is much here of interest to those discussing agriculture and sustainability, as well as questions of economic development. Vandana Shiva is an eloquent and passionate campaigner for a better world and readers will find here much of interest, but it needs to be seen as part of a much wider debate.

Related Reviews

Patnaik and Moyo - The Agrarian Question in the Neo-Liberal Era
Bernstein - Class Dynamics of Agrarian Change
McMahon - Feeding Frenzy
Bello - The Food Wars

1 comment:

Murray Reiss said...

The notion of a "decentralized democracy in which local communities have a say in what happens to their land and their lives" is, I'm afraid, out of touch with reality. I live in a small island community of about 10,000 people, the largest of British Columbia's Gulf Islands, within a political entity called the Islands Trust whose mandate is to "preserve and protect" the islands' amenities and environment, which has led to no end of pitched battles between members of the community who want to do just that and members of the community who don't, to the point where we've had pitched battles about turning the island into a municipality to loosen some of what some see as protection and others as unnecessary fetters. Yes, local communities should have a say in what happens to their land and their lives. Just don't expect them to say with anything like one voice.