Decolonizing Stewardship: From Greed to Care

Vandana Shiva spoke at the Goetheanum in February of this year. Before her talk, Gerald Häfner interviewed her about changing the world.

You could have had a perfect career in physics, philosophy, economy, or academia, but you didn’t. Why not?

I gave up my academic path even though I was totally passionate about quantum theory. I chose to dedicate my life to ecological work and activism because I realized that, yes, I would have amazing mental challenges—I could have been busy with quantum puzzles for 100 years—but it would have been an indulgence. Small studies were actually saving valleys, rivers, and forests. I realized that my service must go to the earth and to people.

When did you know that you needed to do something for the earth?

It began visiting a forest before I went off to do my Ph.D in Canada. I just wanted to carry memories with me and the oak forest that I wanted to trek in had been destroyed. I felt it as a personal, physical pain. That’s when I heard about the Chipko movement, where women of my region decided, “We’re going to hug the trees.” Chipko means to hug. “You will have to kill us before you kill the trees.” So I said, “Okay, I’ll do my PhD, but every vacation I will volunteer for this movement.” It became my other university and that’s what I’ve done since then: being an activist in the Chipko style.

Then you did research on the death of the indigenous form of agriculture through industrialized agriculture.

Every question I’ve tried to answer has been related to unnecessary violence against the earth or against people. The destruction of the forests in my home region was the first, but the eruption of violence in Punjab, where the Green Revolution was first applied, was the second. The Green Revolution is the name for industrial agriculture in the Third World. In 1984, a pesticide plant in a city called Bhopal leaked and killed thousands. People are still dying, children are still born maimed—the disaster is not over. That year I decided to study this model of farming. I found out that to sell leftover war chemicals, the industry had changed our idea of farming, our relationship to the land, our relationship to food, and defined soil as an empty container and plants as machines run with fertilizer as fuel. The life of living systems disappeared and the amazing knowledge of farming communities was erased. I realized, “I’ve dedicated my life to ecological work, but agriculture is an orphan of the ecology movement.” So I said, “I will look for a nonviolent path for farming.”

You weren’t looking for money or power but asking, “What can I do?”

Absolutely. It came from a deep, deep compassion for the living earth and a deep, deep compassion for fellow human beings. I believe compassion is the real currency that flows between us. Words have been impoverished by colonialism, which reduced currency to money and investment to making money. Currency means flow. What flows between us is love and compassion. That flow is disrupted by the growth of fictitious currencies: money, profits, power.

One could say that life is compassion, that it’s a gift from the very first day.

You’re so right. I’ve just done a book called From Greed to Care. The economy of care begins with us coming into this world from our mother’s womb. If there wasn’t unconditional love, no child would be taken care of. The first economy is the gift economy.

But how is it then, Vandana, that we are destroying the earth, each other, and ourselves?

Well, in India, it’s extremely clear. It begins with colonialism—a handful of people in Europe deciding they want rich lands in other places. India was 30% of the world economy at that time. The British, overnight, declared that the soil of India belonged to England and started to collect rent. Adam Smith, who merely described how colonial commerce works and the biases in it, is called the father of modern economics. This is not economy. Economy is derived from oikos: our home. So the home disappeared, oikos disappeared, and with it, greed became not only dominant, but worse: it brutally declared that those who live with compassion and care are primitive and barbarian. In a way, I feel it’s our time to say, “If compassion is to be barbaric, I’d rather be barbaric.” I think it is time for us to shift our minds, to think in different ways.

Should we change the structures or should we change ourselves?

I don’t think it’s given to us to change structures because they’ve made themselves invisible. They’ve made themselves remote—distant and unaccountable. But we can change ourselves and structures will change in the process. You can either keep hammering on Monsanto’s and Bayer’s door saying, “Please don’t, please don’t”, or, you can just save a seed with love and create a seeds commons—and Monsanto’s project shrinks simultaneously. Begin with ourselves. As Gandhi said—and he is my teacher—”Be the change you want to see.”

I completely agree but when we say we should begin with ourselves, what are Monsanto or Bayer or these companies other than concepts created, organized, and run by humans?

Take the first corporation that was created: East India Company. It was created by a few human beings, not all of humanity. I think it’s extremely important to not universalize the false constructions of the powerful and the privileged. They are the worst aspect of humanity. And yes, of course, we must begin with ourselves. We change in our minds and in our hearts, but we live in an interconnected world. In the quantum world, nothing can be separated: the ‘fact’ of separation is an illusion. It’s oneness that is the reality. Interconnection is reality. Therefore, the actions and thinking and values that you bring to the world in your life begin to become values and changes in the larger world.

I am creating the future constantly, with the way I think. It starts with the way I feel, with the way I act.

Absolutely. I think a big part of the colonial instinct is that the plunderers declare themselves as the creators. When I shoot a gene into the cell of a plant, I’m not creating that plant—it is not a creative act, it’s a warlike act. So this illusion of destruction being creation has blocked us from recognizing our own power and our own creativity. Our creativity is not separate from the creativity of the earth. The earth was declared dead: Terra nullius. That’s where all the violence against her is legitimized. But we are part of a living earth, a living universe, an intelligent, conscious universe. Playing our role within that universe, as an ordinary farmer will tell you, we uphold the universe by the right action.

Could we say that evil begins with the loss of relation?

I think reality is relation. Objectification is a violent illusion that gives permission to treat a seed, a plant, a river or a mountain, as if it was just an object. Then there is the deeper illusion that by destroying it, by bringing in bulldozers and spreading glyphosate, I am improving the land. The idea of improvement is part of an acceleration of violence.

We forgot about the divine, about other spiritual beings, and we took things just as mere matter to conquer, to reign. How can we overcome that?

Well, you know, we’re sitting in the Goetheanum. Goethe had another mind, right? I think that Europe needs to rediscover its other mind.

You spoke about the Green Revolution. I started a political organization called the Greens—we invented that name in the late seventies in Germany. We called it the Greens because we wanted to relate to nature, to hope, to the living, and then it was used as a concept to kill. How is this that good impulses are turned to evil?

The use of the word green for the industrial agriculture of killing precedes the use of the word green for the Green Party. There were two projects, two impulses for the Green Revolution. First, to contain the Red Revolution spreading from China—so, green rather than red. The second was to create a market for leftover war chemicals and technologies. The assumption was that by calling it green, no one would look at what it really was about. The first application was in my country in 1965-66. I was in high school at that time and it wasn’t in our consciousness. No one knew that this was happening until 1984 when the violence erupted. I realized that it’s not that good intentions turn to evil, it’s much more simple and crude—evil is always looking to co-opt good words, good values, and put them in the service of greed.

I still believe, even in this world of companies and governments that try to rule the world, that within every human being there is a self that is searching for relation, for resonance, for being equivalent with the other and the world. How can we set this free?

I think every crisis, as the Chinese say, has to be an opportunity. We are now living through a crisis where even ordinary people of the richer part of the world are suffering like the southern world has always suffered. Globalization was nothing but the destruction of local economies. Now it’s coming here [Europe], with the welfare state being dismantled. Any capacity for redistributing wealth and power in society is under attack. I think this is a moment for the common search of a life fulfilled, where all of us have our place on earth, both in terms of nourishing the earth and letting the earth nourish us. That is both a duty and a right. It’s Indian peasants saying, “We will not be pushed off the land. We will not allow laws to dispossess us.” But we need similar movements everywhere. Young people want to go back to the land, to live lives beyond consumerism, beyond the money machine of Wall Street.

If we open our imagination to the future, to what needs and wants to come, do you have ideas how to transform this economy we live in and with?

The first is to not allow it to be treated as inevitable that the 1% will own all the resources and wealth of the planet. That’s an illusion. We need ways to share the wealth, to stop taking more than is right from the earth. We need to shift from an extractive economy and measuring growth, to giving and the gift economy that Howard called the Law of Return. That means reclaiming the Earth’s gifts as a commons. What are the basic things we need? We need food and clothing; we need knowledge; we need culture. None of this requires the billions of the philanthrocapitalists. It requires compassion within society and a refusal to feel hopeless or afraid.

Should we rethink our concepts of land ownership?

Again, these ideas of private property were created by colonialism. Land in India could not be bought and sold. As we used to say, the creator created the land and owns the land—we are merely custodians. Custodians don’t have ownership rights—they have a duty to care. I feel grateful that I’ve had an opportunity to prevent the privatization of seed: before they could do it, we stopped them. How many movements have I worked with in India to not allow the privatization of water? The women of Plachimada who fought Coca-Cola; the citizens across the beautiful Ganges who joined hands—I remember the petition to the World Bank: “our mother Ganga is not for sale”. Land, seed, water and food are commons. Knowledge is too. Think of the Vedas and the Upanishads of India—brilliant people never said, “written and authored by so-and-so…” Mr. Gates, who constantly patents things, said “I have invented the flood tolerance gene.” You cannot pretend that you have created what nature creates or that you have created what other people create through their collective creativity.

We started a movement in Germany that we call responsible ownership—Verantwortungseigentum—which asserts that companies are not commodities. If you look behind the curtain when Bayer “bought” Monsanto, the main owner of Bayer at that time was BlackRock, Vanguard, and Capital St, and the main owner of Monsanto was Capital St, BlackRock and Vanguard—the same. This idea of global capitalism, where you can buy and sell everything—you buy and sell a company, you buy and sell people with all their knowledge and their capacities—it’s completely crazy. Now most young entrepreneurs who want to build up companies say, “We don’t want private ownership: we want to work with others, we want the company to belong to all of us.”

I wrote the book Oneness Vs. the 1% precisely because we found out how Monsanto was being bought by Bayer, and we found exactly what you’re saying: Blackrock and Vanguard. Who are they? Asset management companies, managing the financial assets of billionaires. The land, the minerals, the forests, and the rivers have been privatized, and that’s why we are in a crisis. Those who created the economy of illusion now want to own the last drop of water, the last inch of land, the last capacity for carbon sequestering on the planet. But I know a river can only be looked after by the people around the river; the soil can only be taken care of by the farmer who works it. Trading on Wall Street is not care. Trading on Wall Street is not stewardship.

Who could be the agent of this change that is needed?

I don’t think we are in the kind of times when a Gandhi or a Marx or a Mandela will emerge. What we should look for is catalytic leadership from everywhere: from soil organisms that make land flourish again; from plants that are elders on this planet, that have lived much longer and can teach us how to belong, how to grow, and how to give in generosity. Young people and children can be our teachers, elders can be our teachers. And indigenous people, for sure.

What can we in Europe learn from indigenous people?

First that the earth is sacred. Second, that their first identity is common identity. Third, that your purpose on earth is to take care of the Earth and of community. Indigenous people have amazing cultures of constantly engaging in gifting. When I saw a ceremony where the seed was brought by the tribes to be shared, I realized this idea of the commons was a reality as an organizing principle in indigenous cultures.

Live lightly. Increase your creative articulations through the homes you build, the music you create, and the way you nourish young children. Don’t follow the idea that if you can extract more and dominate more, you’re somehow superior.

I think there are two really serious problems. One is anthropocentrism, that humans are superior to other beings. Indigenous people teach us that we are members of the Earth family and all other beings are our relatives. The second is that there is no intelligence beyond a few people’s minds. But intelligence is everywhere—intelligence is life. New research on intelligence and the indigenous peoples’ knowledge of everything being conscious are now converging.

Does this mean that indigenous people are wiser than today’s academics?

Well, you know, academics have a particular way of knowing the world, by not knowing it. The epistemology of mechanistic reductionism that permeates every field began with how physics and natural sciences were thought about by Mr. Bacon. But the way natural sciences are done is also the way social sciences are done. Mechanistic reductionism basically says that the world is full of objects that are separate from each other To recognize that there is no separation and the world is not populated by objects but beings—that, for sure, is wisdom that indigenous people have and those groomed in mechanistic thought have lost.

Is there anything that academics, or we Western and European people, can contribute?

I think everyone can contribute, as long as it is with humility, without superiority or thinking that other beings or other cultures are less. Huge advances have been made in Western science that can be put to the service of the earth and society. All the work being done on ecology, epigenetics, evolutionary biology, symbiosis, all of those amazing streams of knowledge actually have total coherence with indigenous paradigms. I work on soil. I work with farmers and their knowledge, but we have a lab where we dialogue with the soil microorganisms, which we could not see without the microscope.

The first time we met was 1992, in Münich, where I co-organized The Other Economic Summit—the summit against the World Economic Summit. Now we sit here, 30 years later, and I’m listening to you tell me about spiritual science. You’re aware of the Goetheanum and the background behind biodynamics and anthroposophy. Do you have any relation to them?

Not in the deep way that you all do, but of course I’ve heard and read about Goethe. I don’t know the details of Steiner’s thinking, but I know Waldorf schools. In a way, that thinking is exactly the same as Tagore’s thinking about learning and Gandhi’s thinking about what education should be. There are amazing convergences.

It’s such a pity that Goethe and this whole stream was forgotten or broken through German history. Steiner took it up and tried to evolve it for all realms of knowledge and practice. When I listen to you, I have the feeling that you might have never heard or read about it, but you have found it another way, through another door.

When you talk about how that stream of Goethean thought was put underground, my mind is going to 1484, eight years before the papal bull which legalized the doctrine of taking over the land of other people. But eight years before that was the papal bull on the Inquisition and the witch hunts, targeting anyone who thought differently, who had their own knowledge of healing plants, most of them women healers. I believe we are living under witch hunts again. When we think of the power of those who control Big Pharma, they basically see any free thinking, any independent, sovereign path, as something to be afraid of—to extinguish like a swatted fly.

It’s about relation and resonance, but it’s also about freedom, about developing one’s own thinking in a way that we flee this imprisoned kind of thinking.

Change begins with you, and it begins with enlarging your capacity, your own potential. That potential gets enlarged through your relationships. The wider and deeper our relationships become, the more we ourselves get enhanced. That’s our freedom.

I wrote the book Earth Democracy in terms of freedom for the Earth and ourselves as part of the Earth, because we were defined as the anti-globalization movement. I said, “No, we are an Earth democracy movement.” Every time they said, “Oh, you know what you’re against, but you don’t know what you’re for,” I said, “No, we are for life. We are for love. We are for community. We are for the commons. That’s why we are against privatization and seed patents, against corporations controlling our food supply, against the idea that one World Trade Organization sitting in Geneva can set the rules of how we live.”

We had a beautiful moment. I think 6,000 communities in India got organized on the 5th of June 1999, because I told them what’s happening with the WTO, etc. I said, “Tell them. Tell Mike Moore,” who was the Director-General of WTO, “tell him what you think.” And they sent postcards. They said, “We understand that you want to own the seed, you want to own the plants. Even in our society we have people who steal. Usually there’s a desperation: a child will steal because the mother is ill, a mother will steal because a child is hungry. And if they explain, then we clearly do not treat them as criminals—we ensure that they get medicine, that they get the food that they need, as part of our community. Come and sit under the banyan tree in our village and explain to us: what is your desperation that makes you want to steal the last seed from the poorest farmer of the world?”

It’s those kinds of creative actions that came from the people themselves, that then shifted the discussion and the imagination. Just like it’s wrong to say that some plants are weeds and should be killed by herbicides, it is wrong to say that people are useless. Every plant, every insect, every human being has a contribution to make and society collectively has a duty to defend their space and let them evolve on their terms.

Many young people are afraid about whether there will be a future at all and whether we still have the time to make this deep transformation. Vandana, do we still have time?

Well, life is a process, and in this process, there’s never a moment that says, “there is no time.” So I think we need to get out of the mechanistic idea of time and the idea that urgency means now, and switch to the recognition that time is the flow through which life evolves and recycles. Urgency means importance, not speed. It means doing the right thing, finding the right niche for us to occupy as human beings, not another wave of mastery of the kind that’s being planned: geoengineering and changing the climate even more, or engineering lab food and cellular meat. As Einstein said, to do the same thing again and again and expect a solution is a clear sign of insanity.

I think part of it is that children are being made afraid. But I have seen what happens when I bring children to the Navdanya farm and I work with them on the carbon cycle. I work with them on the power of the soil and the power of the green leaf of the plant to draw down carbon dioxide. And suddenly the child’s mind, instead of being the mind preoccupied by fear, becomes the creative mind to become one with the earth, to say, “I am here to serve you. You show me the way.”

I think there’s hope. As long as there’s life. As long as there’s potential for life, there’s hope.

Image Gerald Häfner (on the right) interviewing Vandana Shiva (on the left) at the Goetheanum in 2023, Photo: Ariane Totzke

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