Still Staying Alive


Dr Vandana Shiva is living proof that life in the global village isn’t completely crazy. On 10 May she won the 2010 Sydney Peace Prize for her "courageous leadership of movements for social justice". Once a physicist, and in recent decades a philosopher, activist, feminist, and world leader for peace, Dr Shiva’s intellectual activism is founded upon her incisive analyses of the deep and disastrous connections between globalised development and ruination. 

The award was announced just as Shiva’s great book Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Survival in India was re-released by Spinifex Press with a new introduction.

When Staying Alive was first published in 1988 it was a brilliant bombshell of a book. We were past the crest of feminist social analysis, and at the edge of the wave of environmental analysis known as ecofeminism. We were well aware of critiques of development, and we were under no illusions about the false promise of the idea that Westernisation would lead to universal prosperity.

Prior to this time no one had brought all of this together — along with analysis of seeds, soils, water systems, forests, activism, biodiversity, and small-scale economies of household, community and farm. Certainly no one had done it with such authority, insight, and rigour. No one had shown us the gendered side of the green revolution: how globalised monoculture is ruining lives and livelihoods, and how the burdens of pain fall so harshly upon the women of the world.

The seven incisive chapters of Staying Alive lay out a manifesto for the diversity, sustainability, and nourishing beauty of the ecological world, a diversity that throughout large parts of the world is in the hands and care of women.

The book’s new introduction performs Shiva’s special magic of clarifying, connecting, condensing and persuading. "Women," she reminds us, "were the world’s original food producers, and continue to be central to food production systems in the global South." Day by day, the lives of billions of people depend on women’s knowledge of plant diversity, seeds and medicines, water and herbs, as they select, plant, cultivate, harvest, process, store, cook and share food. To destroy this system is a gendered tragedy, a human tragedy, an ecosystem tragedy, and in the end will probably be a tragedy for all of us — as the soils and water disappear, as the diversity of seeds and plants disappear, as we become ever more dependent on unsustainable global monocultures.

Shiva’s work on the politics and patriarchal control of seeds, so insightful in 1988, is enhanced by her more recent work on biopiracy. Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) claimed over seeds and other flora take the benefits of knowledge and biotic material developed and held by local peoples and convert these gifts into private property. Basmati rice, for example, for which Shiva’s home region is famous, is now claimed as an "invention of a novel rice line" by a corporation known as Rice Tec.

Water, too, is being transformed into property. In 1988 Shiva was writing of water scarcity as an accelerating man-made problem. She developed this analysis further in her book Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution, and Profit published in 2002.

In the new introduction to Staying Alive she returns to water issues, adding to the analysis the fact that the accelerating up-take of land for the big three global commercial crops — maize, soya, and canola — uses unsustainably large amounts of water to produce unsustainably large amounts of seed which are displacing food crops in favour of biofuels. Starvation and fast cars are two by-products of these insatiable industries. Another consequence is the fact that these fuels, in their production and consumption, increase global warming. They prompt the melting of glaciers and thus the reduction of the capacity of the great rivers of south and east Asia to continue to nourish life.

My favourite Vandana Shiva essay (titled "The Impoverishment of the Environment: Women and Children Last") was published in the 1993 book Ecofeminism. She uses the image of the Titanic to think about gender, class, choices for life and death — and about a "lifeboat mentality" that is willing to throw billions of human beings overboard in order to enhance the profits and power of relatively few people.

In 2010, it is clear that along with women and children, more and more is being thrown overboard. The number of animal and plant species and populations already extinct or now facing extinction is so great that we find ourselves in the middle of what scientists like E.O. Wilson consider to be the sixth great mass extinction event on earth. This one is unlike the previous five: it is caused by a single species.

The effect of extinctions, like so much else in this time of rapacious squalor, falls disproportionately on the defenceless: on women and children, and their men, on animals and their habitats, on plants and their life-giving transpiration, on the whole Earth system of life that has been making itself so beautifully for billions of years and is now being unravelled.

We need peace activists like Shiva because the global industrial monocultural corporations are conducting a war against nature that threatens to drag us all into a pit of destruction. The rhetoric of agribusiness promises salvation: how industrial agriculture will feed the world, how biofuels will save the environment, how new genetically modified seeds will enable agriculture to continue on lands wrecked by monoculture.

But according to Shiva, this is what’s happening: "Five Gene Giants and Five Food Giants have replaced billions of women producers and processors, creating new risks for food security and food safety … More than one billion people are denied access to food, and another two billion are cursed with obesity and related diseases due to eating industrial junk food."

The accelerating dynamics of destruction often push us into accelerating dynamics of despair. Vandana Shiva inspires love and offers an implicit philosophy of hope. Staying Alive, for all the terrible stories it tells, is also a book about resistance, alternatives, and the richly diverse worlds that survive outside the rhetoric of power. She offers both passion and inspiration in her commitment to diversity, equity, and flourishing life.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.