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SOIL NOT OIL: ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE IN AN AGE OF CLIMATE CRISIS by Vandana Shiva. South End Press: October 2008. Paperback. 200 pages. $15.00.
Four years ago, Tom Friedman celebrated globalization with his best-selling The World is Flat. While seeming to upend the status quo (after all, the world is round), Friedman emphasized the importance of multinational companies and their market-based economics. Indeed, he updated his Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention (“people in McDonald’s countries didn’t like to fight wars anymore”) to a high-tech “Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention” (“global supply chains in the flat world are an even greater restraint on geopolitical adventurism”). Last year, in Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Friedman acknowledged the problems of global warming, rising expectations, and population growth, but he continued to promote the free market, causing us to recall Einstein’s quote: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
An antidote to this monocultural thinking is Vandana Shiva’s Soil Not Oil, a little book that questions conventional wisdom and demands environmental justice. Whereas Friedman views globalization as an ameliorative process, one that makes life less Hobbesian—less “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”—Shiva is a realistic utilitarian who believes the globalized world is not “phat,” not at all cool: not only is the earth heating up due to careless fossil-fuel addiction, but this addiction has also exacerbated the inequity between the haves and the have-nots.
Shiva is a scientist, activist, feminist, philosopher, and community organizer who champions the rights of those whose lives are nasty, brutish, and short—those without a seat in corporate boardrooms. The seat-less include the billions who go hungry every day, small-plot food producers who sustain themselves and their communities with local farming, the earth which organically provides this food, and future generations to whom we owe a healthy Gaia. The narrative which emerges in Soil Not Oil is of a world headed toward catastrophe. Food insecurity, peak oil prices, and climate change are the result of hubris, and because the lifestyle of global elites is neither scalable nor sustainable, cultures of violence will emerge locally and spread back to the center. For example, the automobile and highway culture of the West has found its way to India: “6 million people will die and 60 million will be injured over the next 10 years in developing countries, with India experiencing 30 percent of those accidents.”
As the “landscape [is] transformed from being centered on the sacred cow to being centered on the sacred car,” the earth is seen as a source of food for cars, not people. Shiva suggests that those with seats in big oil, big agriculture, and big automobile boardrooms have a vested interest in maintaining a centralized model which enables profitable economies of scale based on standardization. Even when they seem to promote change, they are offering “false solutions,” as in the case of ethanol. Shiva argues that it takes 1.5 gallons of gasoline and 1,700 gallons of water to produce one gallon of ethanol. Shiva’s distress and disdain is palpable as she advocates change: “Agribusiness and the oil and auto industries … will use the climate crisis they have created to increase their market opportunities, even if it comes at the expense of the starving poor and pushes the planet into climate disaster.” Because the book was published before the current global financial meltdown, its author’s impatience with the carbon-cum-capitalist world system feels prescient.
Soil Not Oil brings a revolutionary perspective to the debate on how best to address the concurrent food, oil, and climate crises; indeed, some might view Shiva’s earth justice activism as a poster child for South End Press’s “read, write, revolt” tagline. This activism pushes for grass-roots change: local agriculture, and independence from big corporations. Readers looking for a balanced assessment of soil and oil should look elsewhere; Shiva (who uses contemptuous phrases such as “corporate dictatorship” and “food fascism”) is either unable or unwilling to concede that corporate innovation has improved our standard of living through advances in healthcare, nutrition, education, transportation, communication, and entertainment. Perhaps because of this imbalance, the reader is required to re-think who the “our” is in “our standard of living.” For example, although the Green Revolution introduced drought-resistant and pest-resistant high-yield-variety seeds which have mitigated starvation in South Asia, it also has been inextricably linked to a business model that benefits oil and agriculture oligopolies. Shiva’s belief in bottom-up change reflects a faith in individuals to be the change they wish to see, rather than continuing the top-down structure that enables us to maintain our Anglo-American standard of living.
In many ways, Shiva is one of Gandhi’s modern-day apostles of satyagraha. Like the Mahatma, she holds fast to the truth as she sees it: championing the village scale rather than the global, embracing the time-tested elegance of simplicity, and encouraging nonviolence. Over the past two decades, she has established in India an organic-farming movement called “Navdanya.” This movement is based on two principles of Earth Democracy: diversity and decentralization. The diverse seeds allow the farmers to be independent of corporations which have built profitable businesses from non-renewable seeds. And local production reduces the carbon footprint of food production and consumption. A compelling common-sense argument is made for this model, which grows more food and provides higher incomes to farmers. We suspect that Shiva would agree with Einstein that “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction.”
SRO, a sophomore majoring in Earth Systems, is a Stanford in Government Fellow who will intern this summer with State Senator Joe Simitian, chair of California’s Environmental Quality Committee. Siddhartha’s father, RCO, has consulted in the alternative energy space.