Shiva the Destroyer?

By Thomas R. DeGregori

Postmodernist anti-science thought was once primarily associated with European and North American academics in the humanities. Now not only has its influence become international, but it has become integrally intertwined with a number of other issues such as anti-globalization, anti-transgenic technology in agriculture, and conservation. Nobody can fault the prevailing internationalism of postmodernists and their respect for different cultures and peoples (except for the culture of those who are committed to modern science/technology and its benefits). Nor can we fault their argument that all of us have biases, though they fail to comprehend the vital role that scientific method plays in helping to overcome the limitations which personal and cultural biases impose. Their belief in the worth and dignity of all human beings is unexceptionable. Some of us critics would suspect, however, that in going global, postmodernist thought does not necessarily impact on other political/cultural traditions in a way which upholds the worthy ideas that most postmodernists claim to espouse. To the extent that these postmodernist ideas have become part of the globalization debates, there is a legitimate issue of consistency if in fact what is being forcefully advocated produces adverse outcomes contrary to what its proponents claim for them.

None of us are totally consistent in all our beliefs, nor can we find total consistency in the various political or social movements we may be committed to. Life and the world of ideas are messy, and so we can take heart with Ralph Waldo Emerson's strictures against that foolish consistency which is the hobgoblin of petty minds. A little untidiness and a few gaps in our knowledge here and there are probably healthy, and facilitate the emergence of new ideas. However, the argument to be pursued here is that there is a basic inconsistency, or more accurately, a fundamental contradiction between what has been advocated by a type of postmodernist thought, and its practical outcome in developing countries. It is a contradiction that is often so blatant as to undermine whatever merit there may be in the avowed postmodernist respect for other cultures. Stated baldly, the respect for "local ways" of knowing, rather than promoting multi-culturalism, ends up instead promoting crass forms of cultural chauvinism and intolerance that can devolve into violence. In our internet/information age, there is no excuse for those who have entered various globalization debates without knowing the outcomes and implications of their advocacy.


Local knowledge and reactionary politics

Dr. Vandana Shiva is likely the world's most celebrated holistic ecofeminist, deep ecologist, postmodernist luddite, anti-globalizer, and spokesperson for those she claims are without a voice. Because she has advanced degrees in science, Shiva is useful for providing legitimacy to a range of anti-science views on the part of those who mistrust scientific inquiry (except where they think that it will promote their ideological agenda). Contemporary ecofeminist literature is almost unreadable, particularly on the Green Revolution, which ecofeminists deem to be a failure, and on "organic" agriculture, which they favor. Being able to cite Shiva as a presumed authority allows them to talk about global agriculture without any substantive knowledge of how peoples around the world raise crops and feed their families. One wonders how many academics obtained tenure on the basis of books and articles for which Shiva was a major source.

One leader does not fully define a movement, to be sure, but Shiva with her condemnation of "scientific reductionism" has become so preeminent in the global deep ecology/ecofeminist movement against modern science that raising serious questions about her does in many respects raise questions about the entire movement. Shiva's ideas, which are shared and promoted in the West by ecofeminists and others as radical and revolutionary, often turn out to have reactionary consequences where they are practiced in India.

This may come as a shock to the true believers, but for many the faith in the fundamental rightness of Shiva's message is so firm that it would be a near impossibility to convince them otherwise. The philosopher of science Meera Nanda shows that the much revered "holistic way of knowing ... lies at the very heart of caste and gender hierarchy in India" (Nanda 2002, 54)."The role that the goddesses and the idea of sacredness of nature have played (and still play) in perpetuating the oppression of actual women is not adequately understood by the enthusiasts for alternative sciences" (Nanda 2003a). It is the much venerated "local knowledge" of the Hindu cosmology of "Karma and caste" which was used to justify the repression of Dalits (the crushed or oppressed - untouchable). The liberation of women is "linked" to overcoming the "kind of cultural assumptions about sacredness and holism" that are promoted by Shiva (Nanda 2003c).

Many of those now promoting the virtues of "local ways of knowing" were, we hope, opponents of it in its pre-postmodernist manifestations. From 1948, with the election of the National Party in South Africa, to the early 1990s, a similar reverence for "local ways of knowing" appropriate to the culture was proclaimed and promoted as "Bantu education." It was called Apartheid and many of us spent most of our adult life in active opposition to it, as, undoubtedly, did many of today's activists who tout the special virtues of local knowledge.

Among the many reasons for opposition to Apartheid and its repressive policies, was that the so-called "Bantu education" would handicap the student even in a non-Apartheid society by not providing her or him with the knowledge necessary to survive economically. Today we have what is misnamed as "Science Studies" promoting a "Navajo way of knowing" (which is "assuredly more spiritual and holistic than European ways") in learning mathematics by "teaching calculus before fractions" (Olson 1999). Among many problems with this method of teaching is the "difficulty of expressing the slope of a line, one of the fundamentals of calculus, in any way other than by using a fraction or decimal" (Olson 1999). Thus, "while well-meaning teachers puzzle out such difficulties, Navajo children are ... to grow up without learning how to compute sales tax" (Olson 1999). From the elite precincts of Western universities, "multi-culturalism" has spread to other parts of the world. Across the border from where Shiva’s ecofeminism lends support to Hindu chauvinism, Pakistani proponents of "Islamic science" and "Islamic epistemology" have been:

citing the work of feminist science critics in their campaign to purge many Western ideas from the schools, and certain feminist professors in the West--perhaps caught up in the thrill of having their work cited half a world away--have favorably cited the Islamicists right back (Olson 1999).

Not to be outdone by Shiva's Indian advocacy, in the United States there are advocates of a mysterious entity called "feminist algebra" (Bookchin 1995, 212). When the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in Uttar Pradesh, India, in 1992, they sought to awaken "national pride" by making "Vedic mathematics compulsory for high school students" (Nanda 1996). "Hindu ways of knowing" involved government-approved texts replacing standard algebra and calculus with sixteen Sanskrit verses. Leading Indian mathematicians and historians examined the verses and found "nothing Vedic about them," thinking them merely a "set of clever formulas for quick computation" and not a "piece of ancient wisdom" (Nanda 1996). According to Meera Nanda (1996), "in the name of national pride, students are being deprived of conceptual tools that are crucial in solving real-world mathematical problems they will encounter as scientists and engineers."

Hinduization extends beyond mathematics to promoting the "Aryan race" together with a disdain for all "foreigners including Muslims." The BJP along with the VHP (Vishva Hindu Parishad or World Hindu Council) are offsprings of the RSS (Rashtirya Svyamsevak Sangh or Organization of National Volunteers) which has been actively promoting hatred of Muslims and Christians in India, and has been involved in the destruction of Muslim and Christian places of worship and fostering deadly riots against non-Hindus. Postmodernist/ecofeminist multi-culturalism might be a worthy idea in some ways, but when it is integrated with a "suspicion of modern science as a metanarrative of binary dualism, reductionism and consequently domination of nature, women and Third World people" it supports Hindu reactionary modernists who claim the "same holist, non-logocentric ways of knowing not as a standpoint of the oppressed but for the glory of the Hindu nation itself" (Nanda 2000, 2001a).


The Chipko "Movement"

Many activists like Shiva, who are promoted in the West by the anti-globalization Greens and who receive uncritical acclaim, are often the object of very severe criticism in their own countries, a fact which goes largely unreported. After an article in a Malaysian newspaper talked about Shiva in highly flattering terms, claiming that she was a leader of the famed Chipko (tree huggers) movement in India, the Chipko local activists sent a letter of protest to the editor, arguing that the interview was based on false claims and noting that it had angered many people. Those writing the letter saw themselves as being the "real activists," who do not understand why Shiva is "reportedly publishing wrong claims about Chipko in the foreign press."

Shiva uses Chipko as a model for Green ideologies from deep ecology to eco-feminism. Jayanta Bandyopadhyay, a distinguished scientist and environmentalist, examines each of these ideologies and deems them myths without any basis in fact (1999). He is an active supporter of the Chipko villages, in which he finds "a movement rooted in economic conflicts over mountain forests," and a "social movement based on gender collaboration" and not a "feminist movement based on gender conflicts" (Bandyopadhyay 1999).

Chipko is but one example where external activists, even those who may be well intentioned idealists, in effect hijack a movement and use it to promote an ideological agenda. The original motivation for "participating in Chipko protests" was to gain local control of forest resources in order to create a forest-based industry which offered the Himalayan villagers the possibility that their kinsmen who had to migrate to find work, might be employed closer to home. Further, increased local access to forest resources might "have offered women the possibility of adding to their meagre incomes and insuring themselves from potential crisis if remittances ceased or became intermittent" (Rangan 2000, 199-200).

Chipko is one of many cases of environmental groups in developed countries co-opting a cause like wildlife or habitat conservation, or a local movement with legitimate grievances, and then subverting them. In the case of Chipko, the co-option was initially by people from the urban elite in India, who received international acclaim as a result. As with other cases that I have examined, in places like Africa and the Americas, not only do local concerns get brushed aside, but often the locals are worse off because of the external "support." This is particularly true in case after case that I have examined for conservation projects, be they in Africa, Central America or India, where local interests are swept aside in favor of saving the environment from those who live there (DeGregori, 2004, Chapters 4, 10 & 11 and DeGregori 2002, Chapter 2).

One of Shiva's ‘Chipko women' from the Pindar Valley in Chamoli District, Gayatri Devi, bitterly states that the movement has made life worse in the valley:

Now they tell me that because of Chipko the road cannot be built [to her village], because everything has become parovarian [environment] ... We cannot get even wood to build a house ... our ha-haycock [rights and concessions] have been snatched away (Rangan 2000, 42).

This helps to answer the questions which Rangan raises:

Why do words like environment and ecology make so many people living in the Garhwal Himalayas see red? Why do so many of them make derisive comments when the Chipko movement figures in any discussion? Why is it that in most parts of Garhwal today, local populations are angry and resentful of being held hostage by Chipko, an environmental movement of their own making (Rangan 1993, 155)?

When the world community was ready to hear the claims of the Garhwal Himalayan villages,

their voice in the Chipko movement had all but ceased to exist. The brief love affair between Chipko's activists and the state had resulted in the romantic ideal that the Himalayan environment by itself mattered more than the people who eked out their existence within it.

Rangan adds that:

if some of the communities are ready to banish their axes today, it must be seen as yet another attempt to affirm themselves and give voice to the difficulties of sustaining livelihoods within their localities (174-175).

From Agarwal and Narain, we learn that the situation has driven some to advocate practices that violate laws which the urban conservationists have imposed. "Uttarkhand, the land which gave birth to the Chipko movement, now even has a Jungle Kato Andolan (cut the forest movement). Thanks to the ministry of environment, ‘environment' is no longer a nice word in Uttarkhand" (1991). Rangan argues that the Chipko today is a "fairy tale," a myth sustained and propagated by a few self-appointed spokespeople through conferences, books, and journal articles that eulogize it as a social movement, peasant movement, environmental movement, women's movement, Ghandian movement--in short, an all-encompassing movement (Rangan 1993, 158).


The Green Revolution

Dr. Vandana Shiva, in a book length diatribe against the Green Revolution, frequently refers to its voracious demand for chemical fertilizers and indicates that there are alternative ways, more benign, of achieving these outputs (Shiva 1991). Plants need ingredients (nutrients) in order to grow. If a molecule is in the plant, it or its constituent elements must come from somewhere. Except for carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, plants derive their nutrients from the soil, or in the case of nitrogen from atmospheric nitrogen mediated by cyanobacteria (other than that from fertilizer). More plant output means more nutrient input. The often repeated claim that Green Revolution plants need more fertilizer has about as much meaning as saying that it takes more food to raise three children than it does to raise one. If sufficient nutrient is not in the soil, it must be added. Shiva's argument in essence is that one can grow plants without nutrients or that one can achieve the same output as Green Revolution seeds yield without providing nutrient input other than available "organic" sources. This is patently nonsensical and violates our fundamental knowledge of physics.

Shiva has made a number preposterous statements over the years about yields in traditional Indian agriculture or traditional agriculture elsewhere such as among the Maya. Even before the Green Revolution dramatically increased the demand for and use of synthetic fertilizer, there was a large difference between the nutrients extracted from the soil in India and the "organic" nutrients available to be returned to it. In fact, nearly twice as much nutrient was being withdrawn from the soil as was being returned. Contrary to Shiva's assertions, this process was not sustainable. Given the dramatic increases in Indian agricultural output over the last four decades (which more than accommodated a doubling of the population), the deficit in "organic" nutrient must be vastly greater today. Shiva cites Sir Albert Howard, whose vitalist ideas on "organic" agriculture were developed in colonial India (Howard 1940). But though he was a strong proponent of composting ("Indore method"), Howard recognized the need for additional synthetic fertilizer and improved seeds, which means he might have favored GM crops if he were alive today.

Shiva has a belief that "food crops for local needs" are "water prudent" (Shiva 2000). For the Green Revolution grains, the primary output is a larger percentage of the plant (harvest index) and therefore requires less nutrient input per unit of output. These gains in agricultural efficiency and in yields per hectare, particularly for the Green Revolution grains, has accommodated a doubling of the world's population, with about a 30% increase in per capita food consumption with only a slight increase in land under cultivation (about 4% for grains). For rice, the gains in water use efficiency have been nothing less than astounding. According to a recent FAO (UN Food and Agriculture Organization) report, "the modern rice varieties have about a threefold increase in water productivity compared with traditional varieties" (FAO 2003, 28). Overall, for water use in agriculture, "water productivity increased by at least 100 percent between 1961 and 2001" while water use per capita was falling about in half (FAO 2003, 25-26). What the FAO is primarily describing is the yield increases and greater plant efficiency of the Green Revolution technologies so sharply criticized by Shiva.

Biotechnologists are working to create even more efficient plants, a goal which is opposed by Shiva and her followers. In her paeans in praise of cow dung, Shiva's pre-Green Revolution Indian agriculture is one of a healthy, self-sufficient, calorically adequate, nutritious food supply produced in an ecologically sustainable manner (Avery 2000; for a critique of Shiva by an Indian scholar, see Nanda 1991, 1997 & 1998.). Why hundreds of millions of peasant agriculturalists in India and around the world have forsaken this utopian existence and adopted the Green Revolution's crops and modern agricultural technologies is never explained. Maybe those actually raising crops and feeding their families know something about agriculture that Shiva and her fellow activists don't?

Equally unexplained is why, if, as Shiva argues, modern technology is pauperizing populations and in many cases driving people to suicide, life expectancies have risen so dramatically throughout Asia for both rural and urban populations. Even more difficult to explain is why those in developed countries, who are presumed to be educated and informed, uncritically accept her musings and pay her homage, including selecting her to give prestigious presentations such as the Reith Lecture (Shiva 2000 and Scruton 2000).


Contradictions, Mistakes and Double Standards

Contradictions and mistakes are all too prevalent in the work of Shiva and those who revere her. For example, in a public lecture in Toronto, Canada, she claimed both that the price level of food in India was doubling and that it was falling. Arguing that the technologies of the Green Revolution have failed, she has the price of food in India doubling so that consumers can no longer afford it. But when she wishes to criticize the United States for "dumping" food on the Indian market, pushing Indian farmers to commit suicide, she claims that subsidized foreign food is "driving down prices" (O'Hara 2000 and Oakley 2000).

The following excerpt from a news item on Shiva's visit to Houston in the October of 2000 is indicative. Shiva appears not to know the difference between a field of rice and one of weeds.

Shiva walked across the road and looked out into a shaggy field.
"They look unhappy," she said. "The rice plants. Ours at home look very happy."
"That," RiceTec reports, "is because it's not rice. That's our test field, it was harvested in August. That's weeds" (Tyer 2000).

Shiva inspired anti-technology criticism reached its true nadir when humanitarian aid for people in need was attacked because of the technology used to produce it. In India, following a "super-cyclone," a team from Vandana, Shiva's "research foundation", gathered samples of donated grain while involved in "relief work" and had them tested in the United States to see if they were genetically modified. Claiming that they were genetically modified, Diverse Women for Diversity then demanded that the government of India "immediately withdraw the corn-soya blend from Orissa," seemingly preferring starvation for the cyclone victims to a presumed but unproven contamination from GM food (RFSTE 2000, Devraj 2000, Lean 2000 and Jayarsman 2000c).

Possibly, Shiva could arrange for "organic" agriculturalists like Prince Charles to provide famine relief using funds from Greenpeace and other environmental groups with annual budgets into the tens of millions of dollars. And once again, it is appropriate to ask how many poor farmers have Shiva's Diverse Women for Diversity or The Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology helped to grow more food? How many of those in need have they helped to feed? And in the name of transparency, what are the sources of its funding?

These questions are legitimate because too many groups that raise and spend significant amounts of money and help feed no one, demand transparency from others and criticize groups and individuals who have assisted those in need by helping them to grow more food or by providing relief food that modern agricultural surpluses facilitate. Many "Civil Society" groups in developing countries are largely and in some cases fully funded by developed country NGOs, so one can legitimately ask questions about the independence of their judgements in much the same way that one would question the independence of a statement by a developing country employee of a multinational corporation (see DeGregori 2002c).

Nanda accuses "populist intellectuals like Shiva" of being "guilty of hypocrisy and double standards" for failing to recognize that "their own growth as intellectuals and activists owes a tremendous debt" to the very ideas that they disparage (Nanda 1991, 55). It has not gone unobserved that those like Shiva who are most critical of modern science have gained favor in Western universities and have often benefited greatly as a result.

Furthermore, the jet-setting, globe-trotting neopopulist intellectuals' propensity to project the life style of the poor as being morally superior and socially richer than that of the Western oppressors is hypocritical to say the least ... (and) fails to offer a progressive and feasible program for change (Nanda 1991, 39).


Local Knowledge versus Modern Knowledge

We talked earlier about the Chipko movement in the Himalayan Garhwal region of Uttar Pradesh, India for whom Shiva presumes to speak and for which she has won international acclaim. When the Chipko movement's battle for local control of vital forest resources was taken up by Shiva and other "deep ecologists," the local struggles for resources and development were sacrificed to global environmental concerns by groups that "tacitly support coercive conservation tactics that weaken local claims to resource access for sustaining livelihoods" (Rangan 2000, 239, see also Peluso, N. 1993).

Those who champion local wisdom too often respect it only so long as it is in line with their ideological agenda. Ideas that are presumed to liberate end up being instruments of oppression. Their advocates in developed countries seem to live in a virtual Potemkin village, blissfully unaware that local knowledge and control privileges traditional elites who tend to be dominating upper class males who find the rhetoric of ecofeminism useful, but not its desire for equality of classes, races and genders. Anyone who has been involved in economic development is aware of the importance of local knowledge and the need to use it along with any other available knowledge. But there is a very big difference between using local knowledge and being dominated by it. And it is important to distinguish between local knowledge and local myth, particularly myths of domination that deny some people access to productive resources.

Intellectual elites in some developing countries such as Mexico promote local use and custom (usos y costumbres) with the same outcome of male domination. The modernism which opened up society and allowed racial and other minorities to demand equal rights and women to challenge male domination is being denied those who are most in need of change in poorer countries. "The oppressed Others do not need patronizing affirmations of their ways of knowing, as much as they need ways to challenge these ways of knowing" (Nanda 1996 and Nanda 2003b).

Modern knowledge allowed Nanda to escape from such practices as forced marriage and other forms of domination but still allowed her to retain a sense of shared identity with the culture of her origin. It is the rationality of the Enlightenment, science and modernity that were instrumental in the creation of more tolerant multi-cultural societies. As Nanda states it, "We Are All Hybrids Now" (Nanda 2001). I would add that we have been hybrids for some time. Over 60 years ago, the anthropologist Ralph Linton had a sketch of a "solid American citizen" awakening in a "bed built on a pattern which originated in the Near East" traversing the day taking for granted the diverse global origins of the items of his daily routine, ending it by thanking a "Hebrew deity in an Indo-European language that he is 100% American (Linton 1963, 326-327).

More important, modernity allows one the freedom to participate fully in modernity while still being able to retain a more localized personal identity. This is a tolerance for diversity which is rare in the traditional societies that Shiva seeks to promote. Modern science and technology are central to this hybridity. As many of us (including Nanda) have long argued, calling science and technology "Western" is to accept the 19th century claim of exclusive authorship to what has been and remains a universal endeavor to which all peoples have contributed just as they contributed to the artifacts of Linton's 100% American.

Shiva and others can call modern science logophallocentric reductionism and any number of other pejorative slogans in contrast to Prakriti or the feminine principle, but, in fact, modern knowledge is liberating. Shiva and her cohorts may feel "victimized" by "alien" ideas, but it is doubtful that this is the case for many throughout the world who have benefited from it, whether by a larger crop or lives saved by immunization or antibiotics. Nanda suggests that it would be "interesting" to see the reaction of "untouchables" to the "knowledge that DNA material ... has the same composition in all living beings, be it brahmin or bacterium. Or what would a women do with the knowledge that it is the chromosome in sperm that determines the sex of the new born?" (1991, 38).

May we add that over 99.9% of the human genome is shared by all human beings and that of the less than 0.1% that differentiate us, only about 3 to 5% of it is between groups, with about 95% being intra group variation (Rosenberg et al. 2002). If Shiva wishes to help women and those in need in India, she should be promoting an understanding of DNA and molecular biology and its liberating implications rather than fostering false fears of its use for human betterment. Not only is the genome that unites us as humans vastly greater than that which differentiates us, but the portion of the genome that defines our individual biological differences within our culture is vastly greater than the minuscule portion of the genome, 0.05%, that defines differences between groups (Rosenberg et al. 2002, King et al. 2002 and Wade 2002).

We can argue as to how far we have come on the road to a more just society or how much farther we have to go, but it is undeniable that in countries like the United States, the rights of minorities and women have been greatly expanded over the last decades. Shiva has been promoting a road to a past that never existed and to a future where nobody really wants to go, including those who blindly follow her.


*(The article is largely drawn from the author's book manuscript, Origins of the Organic Debate: Vitalist Junkscience vs. Scientific Inquiry. Ames: Iowa State Press, A Blackwell Scientific Publisher (in press). Additional material is taken from two recently published books, Thomas R. DeGregori, The Environment, Our Natural Resources, and Modern Technology. Ames: Iowa State Press, A Blackwell Scientific Publisher and Thomas R. DeGregori, Bountiful Harvest: Technology, Food Safety, And The Environment. Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, which was originally published as Agriculture and Modern Technology: A Defense, Ames: Iowa State University Press. Author's homepage is



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[This article was originally published on the Web at

May 27, 2003]