Raquel Luna – This article reviews the notion of “earth democracy” 2 advocated by the Indian scholar and environmentalist activist, Dr. Vandana Shiva.
The definition of earth democracy is “the freedom for all species to evolve within the web of life, and the freedom and responsibility of humans, as members of the Earth family, to recognize, protect, and respect the rights of other species. Earth Democracy is a shift from anthropocentrism to ecocentrism.”3
This notion is old and new at the same time. It is old in the sense that many indigenous peoples4 have stories of origin with deep connections with the sentient and insentient beings of their world. Divinity is not exclusive to human qualities and aims, nor is God represented necessarily and solely as a man. The Earth that the indigenous peoples inhabit is part of their community. The Earth appears as a mother, Terra Madre.
According to Dr. Shiva, the ancient Vedic text Isha Upanishad expresses such spirit in its first verse (quoted above). She explains, “this universe is for all beings and their happiness… enjoy the gifts without greed. Shun greed… Remember at every point in enjoying these gifts of the world that others have a share. Do not take their share. Do not steal from others… Other species. Other humans and generations to come.”5
This notion is new and disconnected from our capitalistic lifestyles in the developed world. The definition of earth democracy or the first verse of the Isha Upanishad seems unfathomable. As to deem the notion of earth democracy accessible, Dr. Shiva points to some delusions of our mainstream capitalistic understanding of the world. We will review three of those delusions.
First delusion: man as separate and master of nature
Dr. Shiva traces back the delusion that man is separate from nature in two parallel developments: the foundation of modern science and the quest of colonization of the imperialist Western world.
Francis Bacon, one of the founding fathers of modern science, considered science as the establishment of man’s empire on the earth. He said that science and technology do not “merely exert a gentle guidance over nature’s course; they have the power to conquer and subdue her, to shake her to her foundations.”6
With such philosophy, science became a technique to discover the world with the aim of progress. Progress is defined by its capacity to dominate everything everywhere. God became portrayed as a man, one who used their human capacities with a very particular aim: to control, profit, and exploit the world at all costs. Modern science baptized all other humans and ways of being in the world as subhuman… if human at all.
With the sense of belonging broken, the spirits of the trees, insects, animals (including fellow humans), running rivers, rocks and soil vanished from the landscape. So were their divinity and the complex interconnections in the network that brings life to existence. They were reduced to timber, coal, meat, labor, and barren land. The Earth became dead. The inferior civilizations, the indigenous peoples, were part of the empty landscape, Terra Nullius. This delusion of modern science supported the colonization quest. The Earth was up for grabs.
Such delusion is pervasive and established today in our thoughts and daily actions. The five-minute culture of instant pleasure and the throwaway culture are clear examples. From a microeconomic perspective, the satisfaction of the needs of those that have enough currency is priority to everything everywhere independently of any costs. From a macroeconomic perspective, the simplistic measurement of “progress” based on the economic growth of GDP is a stark reminder of the shortcoming of modern science. This progress measures the exploitation of resources for currency with no account of social, political, or environmental impacts. The “hard” science of economics is unable to account for it. Those impacts are called externalities and they represent, many times, degradation and pollution.
Contrastingly, growth in life depends on the increase of connections and life processes, according to Dr. Shiva. The current micro and macro perspectives systematically distort and decrease the connections and life processes. Ultimately, the networks of life collapse, as we are witnessing today.
Second delusion: big is better
For those at the top of the capitalistic and imperialist system, the solutions to our existential crises focus on big technological solutions, big constructions, and big projects. This idea that “big is better” is another delusion, according to Dr. Shiva.
From the top of the pyramid-scheme-system, private-public partnerships push big technological solutions (based on the same failed values of modern science) aiming at the next frontier of progress: from bombing the skies with pollutants to fix the climate, to feeding the world with industrial-laboratory food as proposed at the Great Reset of WEF in Davos, to the creation of so-called-green-casino-like-financial markets (zero-sum games) to reduce CO2 emissions. They still commodify nature.
The richest people on Earth race for the colonization of other planets (count Elon Musk, Jeffrey Bezos, Richard Branson, Paul Allen, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg): another big “solution”. They recognize the ongoing collapse of the Earth’s life.
The big solutions from the top perpetuate the worlds and sub-worlds of privilege. They silence most voices, silence democratic processes, and boil injustice at all levels.
The third delusion: corporations parading as beings
According to Dr. Shiva, “the biggest construction of non-beings claiming rights are corporations”. That is, non-beings who claim special extensive rights over the rights of real sentient and insentient beings.
Corporations have the right to free speech in the United States so they can invest in elections. They can even sue people and societies. For example, corporations can sue countries for interfering with their future (imaginary) profits. That is, corporations’ “rights” over imaginary profits stand above the livelihoods of ecosystems (including its people). The “rights” to investment and profits are being enshrined as some sort of basic unalienable right even above actual life. These fictions even claim property rights on life on Earth!
Dr. Shiva describes corporations as “non-beings parading as beings and non-beings destroying beings”7. This is the creation myth today enabled by the undemocratic and secretly negotiated free trade agreements between democratically elected politicians, real lawyers and economists, and the people heading such corporations.
While the non-beings of corporations became global, societies still dwell in national political systems. The fictional beings establish a global corporate rule and stretch their control across the planet without democratic processes taking place (without dialogue, assessment and accountability).
The implications of such delusions: the case of landgrabbing in the urban north
Landgrabbing – large-scale acquisition of lands – was key to the colonization project. In recent history, it became sanitized, and legalized in the south through free trade agreements. Although landgrabbing is not a term used in the north or urban cities, I will extend its meaning to such context.
Today more and more people can’t afford to rent or buy a home in or near cities and infrastructure. It has become unviable even in countries with the highest GDP per capita, like Luxembourg. This is not an accident. This is the new face of landgrabbing.
The dynamic, extended to the urban north, is that a small number of wealthy people purchase more and more real state (ultimately land) to secure the value of their wealth. Land, as real state, is one of the safest investments, as surely all people need shelter and will pay the price. When few people own most of the real estate, it becomes scarce and they can define the price. They push the prices up. This is a game of speculation that creates housing bubbles such as the one we see in Luxembourg.
The interpretation of Dr. Shiva’s three delusions in this case can be explained as follows. First, “landowners” are separated and masters of nature as they create “wealth”. They do not; they exploit the land, the nature and the people who can’t afford a home. Second, “landowners” provide big solutions to the housing crisis when they are actually the cause of it (as landgrabbing is not a natural phenomenon but product of governmental inaction to provide the right to shelter). Third, do the “rights” to profit/investment of corporations, in which “landowners” hide, are above human rights such as the right to shelter? From Dr. Shiva’s perspective, the whole logic becomes mind-boggling.
In that same logic, policies for the protection of ecosystems and policies for affordable homes are being deemed a threat to progress. We might consider to stop our progress towards devastation. The delusions conclude that that which is not commodified is an enemy. Every insect and animal and person that is not exploited and commodified is expendable: can be wiped out, dispensed of, and ultimately and indirectly, killed.
Back to earth democracy
The idea of earth democracy becomes graspable after one recognizes that humans are not separate from nature (less so its master, checking the overlapping multiple existential crises), that big is not better nor democratic, and that corporations do not have supreme rights over life.
If we aim for any justice… at its largest level, it is about ecological justice (according to Dr. Shiva). Such ecological justice needs a radical compassion that implies relieving our identities (men, white race, western civilization, etc.) of their connotation of birth-born superiority. It recognizes the importance of the small. Dr. Shiva describes that the small, like the potential of the seed, can grow and reproduce millions of times. The key is this diversity (and easy adaptation and reproduction) of small. The small exists as democratic, cooperative and autonomous solutions.
Dr. Shiva recognizes that the frontlines for life are largely taking place in our closest relation to Earth: agriculture. She states “the peasant is the last remaining human community who works with the Earth in freedom”8. The small-scale farmers are co-creators that recognize the Earth’s agency and rights. Some examples of such connection to the Earth are: the establishment of the rights of nature in the constitution of Ecuador, the current small farmers struggle in India, the resistance of the Zapatistas in Mexico, the farmers’ communities in the Philippines defending the threats to food security and sovereignty, people’s lawsuits for climate inaction in several European countries, South Africa’s civil society’s advocacy for the rights of nature, among many others.
Earth democracy involves how we grow our food, and how eat, dress, work, breath, and every action in our daily life. Everyone can join, but are we able and willing?
P.S.1 The seventh generation principle of the Native Americans gives a rule of thumb for our actions: if it harms seven generations after ourselves, one should not take such action. For us today, that means, that I, and you, should consider the impact of our actions on the children living in the year 2261. How is our current way of life in any way sustainable or advanced when our governments think in terms of electoral cycles (4 years), corporations in quarterly financial reports (3 months) and us, in instant pleasure (5 minutes)? Who cares, not for the seventh generation, who cares for our children’s present and future?
P.S.2 Keep it in the ground! The trees, the fossil fuels, the animals, the weeds, the seeds, the beings because “so hum”, “I am that” in Sanskrit.
- An ancient vedic text dated back to more than 2.000 years old.
- Shiva, Vandana (2005). Earth democracy: justice, sustainability, and peace. Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press. Available at CITIM in German and English.
- 2019. https://www.yesmagazine.org/issue/nature/2019/05/03/vandana-shiva-seed-saving-forest-biodiversity
- Indigenous people are “those who have survived and have been affected by colonization, acknowledging the diversity and self-determination among these groups”. Smith, Linda Tuhiwai (1999). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous People. London: Zed Books.
- 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ePCqDOLUTvU
- Bacon was one of the first to introduce the metaphor of nature as a woman to conquer. Keller, Evelyn Fox (1995). Reflections on gender and science. New Haven: Yale University Press.
- Source footnote 5.
- 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ORXIGWEnF5Y