Is “Anti-Science” a Fair Description of Vandana Shiva? If so, what does this mean for the University? Part I.


First, I want to start out by stating that the title of this series of posts is a bit inaccurate, as they are not primarily about Vandana Shiva–the Indian environmental writer-activist who has been involved with climate and food justice activism for decades and is noted for her commitment to traditional agricultural practices and opposition to the use of GMOs. My larger purpose here is to explore what I see as a problem facing academic institutions in the United States. That problem is an ideological clash between the sciences and the humanities. Because there is so little real intellectual engagement between the sciences and humanities (especially originating from the sciences side), I turn to Shiva to help explore what happens when sciences and humanities try to have a conversation in the twenty-first century. Vandana Shiva, then, is only a kind of intellectual prop to talk about this issue. Since she is an activist, she is arguably more well-known than the vast majority of university scholars who are cloistered in third-floor English department offices and seminar rooms. For this reason, scientists are more likely to engage with her ideas than with university humanities scholars, and so she is useful to illustrate what types of problems might arise when we pit humanities ideas about what needs to be done to solve the world’s food and climate injustices with those of the biotechnology sector.

One example of this “conversation” happening that I want to consider is Shiva’s talk In early 2020 at Stanford University. On the heels of the arrival of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic in the United States, Shiva gave an invited talk at Stanford titled “Soil not Oil: Biodiversity-Based Agriculture to Address the Climate Crisis.” Her talk went forward despite opposition from biotechnology experts, agricultural technology industry workers, journalists, and academics from various disciplines (including law and economics) who wrote an open letter published in European Scientist that circulated in December 2019. 39 signatures grace its closing. The student newspaper of Stanford University categorized those who signed as “scientists and bioengineers,” who, in their letter, appraised Shiva’s views not only as anti-science, but also prejudicial, unethical, and anti-social. Neither the criticism of the letter nor its display of ethos that touted its signers as those “who have published many scholarly papers and articles about agriculture, food, and related biotechnologies” resulted in cancellation of Shiva’s talk; Stanford University and the event’s sponsor, Students For A Sustainable Stanford, chose to go forward with her speaking engagement. 

Recently, European Scientist re-published an identical letter in response to University of Missouri-Kansas City’s (UMKC) scheduling of Shiva to give a lecture on October 7th, 2021, re-addressing it to UMKC leadership. Again, the open letter failed to get her talk canceled. UMKC Chancellor C. Mauli Agrawal responded to their questioning of the appropriateness of inviting Shiva to speak by simply emphasizing the commitment of the university to welcoming conversation and to a free exchange of ideas, however controversial. Of course, the university leadership was already aware that she was controversial and still wanted to book her as a speaker.

I want to pose a simple question stemming from the open letter to Stanford and UMKC. Is it fair for academics to categorize Vandana Shiva’s ideas as “anti-science?” And, if she is deserving of this label, what does it mean for the similar (if not identical) critiques of mainstream agricultural and economic practices that find their home in the humanities departments of universities across the United States and the globe?

What does Vandana Shiva have in common with trending Humanities and Social Sciences writing?

Let’s pause here to explore the similarities between Shiva’s philosophy and the core concepts of ecocriticism–defined by Oxford Bibliographies as “a catchall term for any aspect of the humanities (e.g., media, film, philosophy, and history) addressing ecological issues, but it primarily functions as a literary and cultural theory.” Ecocriticism is about understanding how culture interacts with and impacts the environment. Recently, scholars who write ecocriticism have emphasized the falsehood of the binary between nature and culture. Jason Moore and others call this the “Cartesian binary.” This trend in ecocriticism holds that humans and human societies are not separate from and above nature; the traditional (Western intellectual) distinction between the two is mostly arbitrary. Furthermore, the untrue distinction is at the root of ideologies that have allowed for illogical exploitation of the Earth’s resources, sometimes including its people.

Vandana Shiva’s philosophy shares much in common with the current scholarly consensus of ecocriticism scholars. I would not make the claim that they are identical, but there are enough similarities to raise an eyebrow and warrant further consideration of the relationship between the two. Both would agree that to start to address our complex web of social and ecological problems we need to consider the following points:

  • As ‪Nasrullah Mambrol‬ puts it, “Western thought has often held a more or less utilitarian attitude to nature —nature is for serving human needs. However, after the eighteenth century, there emerged many voices that demanded a revaluation of the relationship between man and environment, and man’s view of nature.” Both ecocriticism and Shiva criticize the continued prevalence of the belief that nature can be endlessly exploited to meet human needs and desires. Both argue that it is this belief-and the progressivism and economic systems that are tied up in it–has to change and be replaced with a philosophy that acknowledges humans and culture as in nature rather than above it.
  • Both Shiva and ecocriticism demand that we turn to indigenous voices and leadership- including those offering non-Western traditional cosmologies, religious, and beliefs–as a step in fixing the problems of climate injustice and climate change, as well as global injustice more generally.
  • Both Shiva and ecocriticism scholars agree that the expression of the ideology of endless progress in economic policies and practices are harming not only the earth, but humans. Again, since the binary separating nature and humans is a fabrication of philosophers and not reality, it makes sense that what has been causing climate change has also been killing humans and limiting the wellbeing of the world’s dispossessed and poor.
  • Both promote more consideration of non-human life (plants, animals, bacteria, and fungi) and non-living geological forces. This type of thinking is linked to what is called in University settings “post-humanism”. Oxford Research Encyclopedias defines the post-humanist approach as defining humans as “(a) physically, chemically, and biologically enmeshed and dependent on the environment; (b) moved to action through interactions that generate affects, habits, and reason; and (c) possessing no attribute that is uniquely human but is instead made up of a larger evolving ecosystem.” In other words, this approach holds that humans are not so autonomous, reasonable, and unique as was traditionally taught by Western philosophical and religious traditions.
  • Both critique specific technologies and economic policies. The historic and present effects of scientific and economic progress are scrutinized for their entanglements in climate and economic injustices in major popular ecocritical works, as well as in Shiva’s public appearances and writings.

Shiva’s most recent nonfiction, Oneness Vs. The 1% can serve as an example to illustrate the similarities between the core tenets of her philosophy and the central themes of ecocriticism scholarship. The book was first published in 2018 but was reprinted in early 2021 with a re-written epilogue that contextualizes Shiva’s critiques within the global response to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Central to Shiva’s economic appraisal is her emphasis on diversity (both cultural and biological) as opposed to monoculture. “Concern and care for seeds, our soil, our air and our water,” she writes, “are the real test of our commitment to our future. The processes that are killing our soil, our biodiversity, our air, water and climate balance are also killing our humanity” (p. 8).

Vandana Shiva’s “Oneness Vs. The 1%” with my overgrown tomato plants. The book was first published in 2018 but was republished with an epilogue that contextualizes Shiva’s critiques within the global response to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.

Shiva’s advocacy for biodiversity over monoculture shares much with two well-known scholars in ecocriticism academic circles, Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing. Both of these scholars have entered academic debates about the definition and parameters of the Anthropocene (the hotly-debated term for our most recent geologic epoch that marks humans as a geologic forces. You can read more about the Anthropocene the debates surrounding it here).

While scholars disagree about the proper definition of the Anthropocene (whether it should be defined as starting with European colonization of the Americas or with the detonation of the first atomic bombs, to offer one example), Haraway and Tsing offer an alternative concept, from a humanities/culture studies perspective, that works to replace one essential assumption of the word “Anthropocene.” It’s not all humans, they insist, that should be seen as geologic forces on par with a giant asteroid like what made the dinosaurs go extinct. Rather, it is a particular set of beliefs, assumptions, and ways of interacting with nature, that is at the heart of these climate woes. Haraway and Tsing offer the concept of the Plantationocene as a more fitting and accurate substitute for the Anthropocene and argue that it is monoculture and the underlying philosophical assumptions that are on the hook for climate disaster and climate injustice.

Haraway argues that the plantation–the agricultural and economic model for which she hopes to implicate man-made climate change– is a “radical simplification; substitution of peoples, crops, microbes, and life forms; forced labor; and, crucially, the disordering of times of generation across species, including human beings.” (Remember earlier when I mentioned the “Cartesian binary” that sees nature and humans as separate? This binary is also under attack in Haraway and Tsing’s concept of the Plantationocene, because it is this separation that is foundational to seeing nature as something to be disciplined, controlled, and fixed.) Similarly, Tsing also emphasizes that monocultures are not only about control of plants, but of people: “In designing systems for coerced labor, ecological simplifications entered agriculture. The plantation was precisely the conjuncture between ecological simplifications, the discipline of plants in particular, and the discipline of humans to work on those. That legacy, which I think is very much with us today, is so naturalized that many people believe that that is the meaning of the term agriculture; we forget that there are other ways to farm.” You can read more on this topic in Reflections on the Plantationocene: a conversation with Donna Haraway & Anna Tsing moderated by Gregg Mitman, linked here.

These influential scholars– especially Haraway, who has a particularly important place in feminist and post-humanist scholarship history–share with Shiva an intense critique of the disciplining logic of capitalism and its favored agricultural and social models. But where Tsing and Haraway tend to present their ideas as theorization against “plantation logics,” Shiva takes aim at something more concrete: “the crisis of corporate control over our food.” I argue that this is no small thing that they share a distrust of monoculture in common. While some science-based programs are researching polyculture as an avenue towards sustainability (for example, some projects funded through the University of Illinois’s Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment and the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas), a road trip across the United States will show you that monoculture is still more than the norm. Critiquing conventional agriculture practices is so politically charged that on YouTube today, a critique of the Green Revolution evidently requires making a preliminary disclaimer that you are anti-famine and anti-starvation in spite of the fact that you are pointing out the flaws of high-yielding, pesticide-dependent monocropping farming practices. To me, this is pretty strong evidence of its continued dominance. Conventional, chemical fertilizer-driven monoculture will be the golden child of modern agriculture until the evidence is overwhelming that there is a viable and necessary alternative.

In her emphasis on corporations as a concrete enemy of diversity and climate justice, Shiva may be guilty of a kind of essentialism. But it is a useful essentialism. What I mean is that where Tsing and Haraway take aim at “plantation logic” because their rhetorical context as academic writers rewards such extravagantly high levels of abstraction, Shiva targets one of the central mantle-bearers of this logic (corporations) who have a continued and vested interest in monocultures of humans, animals, and earth. Shiva’s radical ideas are harder to hide in theoretical language, because she is an activist writing nonfiction books rather than academic books. It’s difficult to imagine protest against a scheduled talk by Dr. Anna Tsing for her skepticism of “Sustainability” with a capital S, and for her lack of trust in experts dedicated to solving the world’s food problems through biotechnology, despite the fact that she writes with immense skepticism of the goodness of the progressive thinking that still underpins the work of her colleagues in biotechnology at UC Santa Cruz. “Despite talk of sustainability,” Tsing writes, “how much change do we have for passing a habitable environment to our multispecies descendants?” (see Tsing’s 2016 book The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, p. 3) Tsing argues for “noticing other temporal patterns” besides progress and for a posture of “curiosity.” These are valuable theoretical suggestions for graduate seminars, certainly, but Shiva leads protests and continues to amass social media hits both disseminating and critiquing her ideas. So, even if they are arguably more “essentializing,” at least they are visible and able to be registered and used by a general audience. The scientific critique of Shiva in European Scientist (more on this in the next post) is a relatively rare scientific engagement with a critic of mainstream agriculture coming from a theoretical, humanities perspective. It is Shiva’s status as a writer-activist, and the fact that she moves alternative ways of thinking about the relationship between humans and environment from theory into practice, and doing so in less academic and more popular terms, that allows this interaction to take place.

I already mentioned the Green Revolution–an umbrella term used to describe a set of agricultural practices and technologies that was exported from Western research contexts to economically less-developed countries that leads to increased yields of crops and which uses pesticides, fertilizers, and genetically-modified/enhanced seeds. Although the biotechnology experts who wrote the open letter published in European Scientist might not realize it (because they probably do not have their finger on the pulse of humanities scholarship curriculum), skepticism of the inherent goodness of the Green Revolution is not an uncommon idea in humanities college classrooms. Critical assessments of the Green Revolution have made their way into books common to required undergraduate survey courses, such as Raj Patel and Jason Moore’s A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, which is a harsh critique of the economic exploitation of humans, other species, and the Earth, and of monoculture. Or, as Tsing and Haraway would say, it reveals the warped “plantation logic” that underpins these exploitations.

The chapter of Patel and Moore’s book titled “Cheap Food” attempts to debunk the success of the Green Revolution along the same lines as Shiva. Patel and Moore even pit their observations in opposition to “the orthodox narrative,” and instead suggest that the Green Revolution’s greatest legacy should be “the effective quieting of peasant demands for land reform and urban demands for political change,” since “the Green Revolution’s prodigious output achievements did not reduce hunger” (p. 151). They, like Shiva, aim to expose the ironic shallowness of the plans of powerful philanthropists to introduce “nutrition” back into the diets of the dispossessed and poor, since “industrialization and the Green Revolution bred nutrition out of many of the staples in the food system. Those nutrients were casualties of the drive to maximize the yield, shelf life, and consumer acceptability of a standardized commodity. Reintroducing them is a means of increasing the profitability of ultraprocessed food substance” (p. 157). What Shiva shares with Patel and Moore, and so many other scholars of humanities-based ecocriticism, is an acknowledgement that we cannot get ourselves out of the mess of climate change and the gross inequalities facing earth beings with the same logic of exploitation (that is tied up with the logic of economic progress) which caused them to occur. And that logic of exploitation, enabled by the belief that humankind and nature are separate, is tied up with science and technology.

More Questions

First, what is it that makes Shiva the target of critique from the scientific community, whereas Patel and Moore, Anna Tsing, and others who represent some of the core ideas of ecocriticism which dominates humanities studies, escape most true interdisciplinary engagement? Patel and Moore can say, without backlash, that a central problem with Western thought is the theoretical divorce of humans from nature and seek to demonstrate the immeasurable harm that this has done to Earth people and Earth. The difference between Shiva and academic ecocritics crystalizes in several ways that I want to explore: Shiva is putting the ideas into practice–or suggested practice–and offering a tangible implication for what alternative practices could look like if we re-route away from the traditional thought division between of humans and nature. In her status as public intellectual and writer/activist, Shiva begs us to find a way to get out of the system. She offers some concrete alternatives where the vast majority of humanities scholars (perhaps Indigenous Studies, American Indian Studies, and Black Studies offer some notable exceptions) can only offer theoretical alternatives. 

Second, I want to discuss the implications of my argument that Shiva and popular humanities scholars share much (but not every point) in common. Should we be concerned about a drastic contrast between the assumptions being made by the sciences and the humanities? Can “the scientific community” (an admittedly unclear stand-in term I am using to refer to those working in academic and industry positions in and adjacent to biotechnology) accept that their colleagues in English, Comparative Literature, Sociology and Anthropology departments across the country are teaching in philosophical directions that are much closer to Vandana Shiva’s than those of the conventional, market-centric concept of “Sustainability” that is about solar panels, electric vehicles, and expanded technology applications for agriculture? Are Shiva’s ideas about how humans can have a more just relationship with the earth that leads to wellbeing for humans, animals, and the Earth really dangerous anti-science nonsense, and are they really incompatible with the commitment to technological progress of biotechnology scholars and industries?  

Stay tuned for my next posts where I explore how Shiva’s case represents a festering problem for the relationship between humanities and sciences in American Universities. In my next post, I’ll take a closer look at the arguments against Shiva in the open letter published in European Scientist to discuss what is arguably an unavoidable and worsening clash in ideology between humanities and sciences.


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