By Vandana Shiva
Should the care of human beings be based on scientific knowledge? For many of us in the West, the answer must be “Yes.” For how else can everyone be fed, obtain shelter, and live with dignity? In Staying Alive
, however, Indian nuclear physicist, philosopher and feminist Vandana Shiva argues that the answer is “No,” that scientific “progress” can in fact be an enemy of our species. Shiva’s argument is that science has already led to multiple and continuing disasters — the destruction of forests, the displacement of people, the death of soil, the degradations of women. In contrast, local knowledge in village India provides a sustainable relationship with nature and with justice. Staying Alive
is a detailed account of this alternative knowledge. It shows us we need not accept science as the unquestionable way to organize our lives. The book is also a corrective to the environmental debate in Europe and North America. It shows that there has long been a network of resistance to the destruction of the environment in India. The network combines villagers displaced by forest destruction, dam construction and agricultural modernization with intellectuals of different persuasions: Marxists, Feminists, Hindu theologians. Together they have developed Gandhian forms of non-violent struggle to resist the destruction of the environment. Staying Alive
argues that science is intrinsically bound up with violence against both nature and people. To do this, the book draws upon works by such feminist scholars as Caroline Merchant (author of The Death of Nature
) and Evelyn Fox Keller (author of Reflections on Gender and Science
). The book uses the revolution in agricultural technology to illustrate its point. For example, farmers in India have for years used a multitude of local grains suited to local conditions. Science has, however, recently entered new genetically altered “supergrains” into the picture. With the introduction of these strains, a whole network of local product (humus, straw, grains, water) and people is rendered redundant. It is replaced by a transnational network of research agencies, aid agencies, and chemical companies. The result: local people and their knowledge are displaced, and the web of relations between people and nature is rent. The scientific response to these problems is, unsurprisingly, more science, and a resultant Biotechnology revolution to repeat previous mistakes. Shiva’s argument, then, is that the violence science does to the integrity of Nature — breaking nature up into experiments on each “bit” in the laboratory to obtain scientific laws — in practice negates the knowledge villagers have of nature as a web of relations including humanity. This negation has been critical to a larger cycle of violence based on ideas of modernization, and supported, according to the book, by State and Capital. The result: disaster. The book is full of tales of resistance. The Chipko women of the Henwal Ghati region, for example, came during broad daylight with lanterns to show forestry experts “the light”: that forests produce soil and water and not just timber and revenue. Their defiance thus represents a challenge to the monopoly on symbols of enlightenment by Western science. Women are consistently at the centre of the book’s drama. Their roles as food providers, fuel carriers, and farmers mean that they play the key role of integrating people’s relationships with nature with the maintenance of village society. This is the core of Shiva’s work, that science has been the instrument for the disempowerment, displacement, and degradation of women in village India. This analysis also explains why women have been at the centre of resistance to scientific violence. The book’s argument does have weaknesses. One problem is that it treats science as if it fit Shiva’s arguments. But there are other strands of science — ecology, for example — which do not. The book’s strength is that it shows the existence in India of a vibrant network of opposition to the destruction of the environment and the destruction of people, and that this network interweaves traditional knowledge with a sophisticated knowledge of feminism. Staying Alive
frees us of that poverty of imagination which dictates that we must make a choice between tradition and modernity.