Vandana Shiva “Soil Not Oil”

ISBN 978-1-84813-315-0. “Soil Not Oil: Climate Change, Peak Oil and Food Insecurity” by Vandana Shiva was published by Zed Books in 2008. The paperback has 144 pages consisting of introduction, four chapters and a conclusion but no notes, index or bibliography. Foot notes can be followed up here so that saves some paper! The author was one of India’s foremost Nuclear Physicists before giving it up for moral reasons to focus of sustainable development issues. She has become Director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy as well as a leader in the International Forum on Globalisation. As rough guide you can consider Shiva to be at the opposite end of the scale from Nicholas Stern and Ted Nordhaus. Not for her the fixes of the free market. She is more closely aligned with the writings of Richard Heinberg and Rob Hopkins whom she quotes. The reason for this is clear – she sees the world through the eyes of developing nations of the majority south. If you expressed the sort of views that Shiva does in the western sphere then you would be dismissed as being out-of-touch and patronising. Many would argue that there is no way that all those wealthy westerners could go back to some agrarian existence. However this is almost exactly what Shiva proposes – at least for India.

Shiva praises the traditional Indian way of life, ie, a simplistic low-carbon way of life personified by the life of Gandhi. When those in the western liberal elite write about “poor” people they are often described as people in urgent need of ‘development’. We are told that the poor can only care about Climate Change when they are as rich as Americans. It is thus assumed that they must have roads and cars. If they do not then they are “backward”. This paradigm is so ingrained into everyone’s way of thinking that even Indian Governments perpetuate this myth. It must comes as a hideous shock to find one the majority world’s leading intellects contradicting them flatly. Maybe that does make her a romantic but she is far better placed to speak for a billion of her fellow country men & women than anyone in the north. Shiva quotes Gandhi who said “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West. [..] If an entire nation of 300 million (India) took to similar economic exploitation (as that of Britain) it would strip the world bare like locusts.”

In Soil Not Oil Shiva lumps together what she views as the three crises of the modern world: Peak Oil, Climate Change and Food. Through western eyes we tend to define these slightly differently. We assume the triple crunch is Oil, Climate and Money. Food is often relegated to becoming a victim of the crises in the other three areas. Shiva promotes food up as front runner in her vision for a sustainable, “people-centred”, fossil-fuel-free world. This is because she tends to focus on food production as an area of unequal globalisation which exploits the poor and dispossess them of their land. Transnational Corporations are accused of dumping commodities onto Indian domestic markets and destroying them. The profits of Cargill and Monsanto climb while in India thousands of poor farmers kill themselves. The solution is to reclaim food sovereignty. We get a swingeing critique of what Shiva dismissively calls “development”. Trade liberalisation isn’t the solution, it is the problem. She condemns western thinkers and their pseudo solutions of ‘markets’ and bio-fuels. To her these only perpetuate both the problem but also the inequality. Instead she calls for radical relocalisation and a return to local small scale food production. She argues passionately that bio-diverse farming is the only way to solve her triple crunch as they store carbon, produce crops resistant to disease and deliver a livelihood resilient in the face of drought and flood.

The author knows her stuff and gives good concrete examples of where so much ‘development’ is simply not working. She levels her guns at the “Clean Development Mechanism” (CDM) that she demonstrates is subsidising polluting industries such as ‘sponge iron plants’. Why is it (she asks) that the CDM doesn’t offer support to the humble farmer in the field who is genuinely working to sequester carbon and generate wealth? “A shift to ecological, non-industrial agriculture from industrial agriculture leads to a two- to seven-fold energy savings and a 5 to 15 percent global fossil fuel emissions offset through the sequestration of carbon in organically managed soil. Up to four tons of CO2 per hectare can be sequestered in organic soils each year.” claims Shiva (page 98). If true then you can see what she means. Is it that we do not define food production as even part of the “modern” economy? Is it that we only understand that “modern” means “fossil-fuelled”. Farming is clean development. “For farmers, soil is not a prison from which they need to escape to an industrial job.” writes the author on page 38. Farmers are in peril because their traditional methods have been undermined by the green revolution and the transnational corporations and their GM Seeds and agrochemicals. The solution to climate change is not an energy shift, it is a paradigm shift. Indians do not need roads, they need soil. Shiva has no time for roads and accuses the World Bank and Indian Governments of promoting road and cars in the same manner that Adolf Hitler did in Nazi Germany in the 1930’s. Likewise she destroys the case for biofuels with some carefully cherry-picked statistics that no doubt would cause uproar and much debunking in western circles.

There is much here that could be considered controversial. Indeed you must ask yourself how many of us can survive on organic food produced on the small/local scale? Certainly all of us if we eat lower down the food chain. However Shiva has the answer and produces figures showing how bio-diverse organic farms in India produce much higher gross yields than do their mono-culture cousins. The missing element is labour-saving fossil fuel machines. Wouldn’t more people be required to work the land? Undoubtedly. Would this lead to a revolution in the ‘over-developed’ nations where the people are used to watching TV and driving to work? Undoubtedly. This will be a paradigm shift. The green revolution is over. Petrochemicals have poisoned the land and produce no longer term benefits. They poison the micro-organisms in the soil and suck the environment free of essential minerals and (more importantly) water. “We have been made to believe that industrialisation of agriculture is necessary to produce more food. That is not at all true.” claims Shiva (page 131). There is a cost to the green revolution. It was never sustainable. However it produces short term profits for the few hence it is in their interests to perpetuate it even in the face of its failure. The rising cost of oil must surely put paid to that fantasy. Food trade is largely counter-productive. “Spice are a perfect candidate for long distance trade” writes Shiva on page 128 “Tiny quantities are needed to add flavour to food. Spices grow in very specific ecosystems.” What is more “Global trade […] destroys the biodiversity of fruits and vegetables.” Trade makes us more vulnerable not more resilient.

“Diversity and decentralisation are the dual principles needed to build economies beyond oil and to deal with the climate vulnerability that is the legacy of the age of oil.” says Shiva (page 110). Biodiverse farms suffer less due to extreme weather events. However, does this translate into the western word without revolution? “Monocultures and uniformity are recipes for breakdown. […] Monopolies and concentration of ownership of resources enhance vulnerability in periods of chaos.” (page 121). There is page after page of this sort of analysis and opinion. You find yourself agreeing with almost everything. Shiva goes onto write “Authentic organic farming is based upon biodiversity, small family farms, local markets and fair trade.” “Socially, self-organisation is encapsulated in Gandhi’s swaraj (self rule, self-governance, self-organisation). It is the basis of food sovereignty – the right to produce in freedom.” (page 125). It is all music to the ears of any western transition town member. “We want a post-oil world but do not have the courage to envisage a post-industrial world. As a result, we cling to the infrastructure of the energy-intensive fossil fuel economy and try to run it on substitutes such as nuclear power and biofuels.” Perfect. It is easy to dismiss this world view but you cannot argue about the details.

About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.

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