A Wave of Change: Kevin J. Patel and Dr. Vandana Shiva

Photographs by Gauri Gill

 

Over the last few years, youth activists have taken on the climate crisis as the cause of their lives, largely because it will determine the course of them. And yet, as these leaders and organizers tell their environmental heroes—the ones who paved the way and inspired them to fight in the first place—they can’t do it alone. Here, environmental activists Kevin J. Patel and Dr. Vandana Shiva discuss the power of youth, the true meaning behind community, and how the crises of today are interconnected.

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Kevin J. Patel

When we talk about grassroots organizing, we are talking about community—and the people who are on the frontlines of the climate crisis. I come from a community, and my activism is a tool of survival. It’s not something that I’m passionate about; it’s something that I must do because my community is being faced with injustices. Community plays a huge role in climate activism and activism in general. Dr. Shiva, I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Vandana Shiva

The foundation of society is community. The state as the dominant structure has grown in proportion to commerce as the dominant activity. So, it’s really with colonialism that centralized state systems were created. Before that, everything was community in Indigenous cultures. Only community, no state. But then colonialism organized around commerce and commerce around the wealth of India—our spices and our textiles so important that Columbus thought he’d make another route to India. And that’s why all the Indigenous people of America are called Indians. But everyone wanted India and their pepper and their textiles.

 

They took over through all kinds of hideous means, including, in India, free trade agreements—people think it started with the WTO. No, no, no. The WTO was a second round of recolonization, but commerce as colonization and colonization as commerce created the domination of the colonial state. When we became free, sadly, we inherited it all. Community is what we fight for. Three reasons why community is at the heart: It is at the heart of human history and most of human organizing. It is at the heart of ecological existence. We are members of a community and the day we forget that, all the violence starts. And the third is, as systems collapse, as the pandemic shuts down so much, all you have is community—both the community of the Earth and your social human community.

 

So, community is at the center. The state is a superimposed structure, and commerce is bribing the state into being a corporate state. What are the big tech activities? There’s surveillance capitalism, but now, it is the state facilitating it. Now, there’s marketing as personalities, corporations as people, but they aren’t the same things. These are all constructions, the construct of corporations. Very often people name that “capitalism”: commerce with no ethics, commerce with no limits, no respect for ecological limits. And too much of the discussion and too much of the theorizing has been about the state and capitalism. The community has always been forgotten.

 

And what this has led to is the current discourse where they want to destroy what little there is of a welfare system, social security, healthcare, what was created by destroying the community. With the welfare state, now they say, “Well, we don’t want big government. We want governing, good governance.” And good governance now means handing over resources, forests, food, agriculture, soil, seeds to corporations. That’s the only rule for the state. And everywhere, people are standing up—everywhere in the Amazon, in India, in our tribal areas, the young people like you Kevin, like Fridays for Future. People are rising up. Part of the reason that they need a corporate surveillance state is to crush that uprising. And that’s why it’s so important to stand together in solidarity, as a community.

Kevin

When we’re thinking about community, we have to think about the communities that are being affected the most by this crisis, right? The environmental movement here in the United States has been so white-led and so white-focused. White people have been dominating the climate space for a long time—talking about saving national parks, saving anything that has to do with saving the mentality of white dominance.

 

So, when we talk about shifting away from these systems of oppression—colonialism, patriarchy, racism, discrimination—what we are talking about is needing intersectionality. We need to bring in the unique perspectives of people who are on the front lines of this crisis: Black people, Indigenous people, people of color, marginalized communities, low-income communities. We need to be bringing them in so that everyone has a seat at the table and can say, “This is what we need for our community.”

Vandana

Humanity, for most of its evolutionary history—not as one but as multiple expressions of different cultures—shared one principle: that we are part of the Earth. The names have been different: It was Pachamama, it was Gaia, it was Vasundhara and Bhūmi and Prithvi…the names were limitless, but the Earth is living. We are part of the Earth, and we depend on the Earth. Therefore, we don’t have hierarchy, just like a tree in a forest and a little shrub have the same rights to exist and live and help each other. The size of the tree doesn’t make it have a right to take away the ecological space of the little shrub. The rupture of this oneness with the Earth was a very deep construct of colonialism.

 

My new book—which is an old book updated and has just come out in the US and UK from Synergetic Press—is called Reclaiming the Commons because commons and communities go together. How do we develop an ecological mindset? By first shedding all the colonial violence that has been fed into our heads. I arrived at all this late in life because in my student life, I was reading physics. And then I did my PhD in the foundations of quantum theory and hidden variables and nonlocality in quantum theory. I mean, I had a very innocent mind, and quantum theory gave me the training of an ecological mindset because in quantum theory, non-separability, non-separation is the very foundation. With that understanding, you have to have ecological thought and relationships.

 

The most important part of decolonization is shedding mechanistic thought, which goes hand in hand with the belief of superiority and goes hand in hand with the fact that if it’s a white man speaking nonsense, it is somehow true. And if it is anyone else—who has sustained their lives for 60,000 years, 40,000 years—then it is not true. And people think, Oh, that’s history. That’s no longer how we think. No, no, no. Read the literature of Google, read the literature of Microsoft. Google’s new lifestyle: They’re now jumping from being IT giants and tech giants into controlling our food and our bodies and our minds. The chief of life sciences at a Google subsidiary says, “We’ve got to defeat Mother Nature.” Poor things, they’re at war with the very source of life. And therefore, they’ll never succeed. And therefore, our work in cultivating the ecological mindset is about community, it is about confidence, and it is about courage.

Photograph by Etienne Laurent/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Photograph by Amanda Sweikow

Kevin

Definitely. The current crisis, the ecological crisis, the climate crisis—every single thing is connected. I think the reason why there’s such a revolution right now is because we’re seeing during the COVID-19 pandemic that the systems we have in place are failing. They are not only failing the people, but they were already failing the planet. People are waking up.

 

We’ve had these systems in place that were not working for BIPOC communities, marginalized communities, and low-income communities, but now, they’re starting to not work for all these other big groups, including the fossil fuel industry. We saw that during the beginning of the pandemic, when the stock market went down. And that just showed that our communities no longer rely on fossil fuels. So, BP announced that they’re going to be cutting 40 percent of their oil production.

 

I think this is an intergenerational issue. Young people are fighting for their future, but older generations have been fighting for longer. And so bringing that perspective and that experience is very much needed, especially since I’m still learning and growing. I don’t know everything in the world. But seeing in my lifetime—seeing this awakening but also seeing the disasters that have happened, it’s quite something.

Vandana

Kevin, I’ve been doing this work for five decades as an activist and as a researcher. I’m still learning. Because I think the illusion of learning by getting a degree is you think once you’ve gone through a training to serve Empire that you are somehow superior to everyone else and can bully everyone else and can freeze your brain. I always said the mechanistic mind, the rise of coal and then oil, it fossilized the brain. What we have are these fossilized brains with PhDs walking around and trashing the evolution of ecological thought, trashing the fact that this body is an intelligent body. We have a gut that teaches us whether food is good or bad, and it’s called the second brain. Racism did to human beings what it did to the Earth: took away the life, the autonomy, the sovereign entity, the intelligence, and defined the Earth as empty of life and our bodies as empty of life.

 

Why is this revolution happening now? Locally, it’s been happening since the ecological destruction started, really since the ’70s. Once the World Bank started to give loans to force governments to do the wrong thing, put them in debt. And then, of course, the WTO and the global market. So, if you remember, actually, even before the youth climate movement was the youth finance movement—it was the young people who occupied Wall Street. The Occupy Wall Street movement was started by young people. They defined the terms the 1 percent and the 99 percent, and the FBI undermined that movement. My new book Oneness vs the 1% is very much inspired by their naming of this elite, the new Columbuses, as the 1 percent.

 

So, here were young people with student loans and no jobs. And there was the economic closure that the young people were experiencing, along with the dismantling of the welfare system and everything public. And everything common is privatized. Then, you have the idea that we’ll only need 1 percent of you—99 percent of you, you will be useless. And now, you’ve got the climate crisis, you’ve got the extinction crisis, you’ve got the disposability crisis, you’ve got the Corona epidemic. I’ve done a lot of work in India, which didn’t have diabetes on the scale it does now or cancer on the scale it does now. I started to research and found out it’s very linked to toxics and food. But it was the Corona epidemic that forced me to think of how this development model and agribusiness model was invading forests. And from the forest, we are getting new diseases, 300 new infectious diseases.

 

What the pandemic has done is make people understand for the first time that we are connected to the forest. We are connected to our food, to our health, and it is really one interconnected whole. You might think that every rupture is done to one space in isolation from another, but because you’re part of an interconnected whole, it comes back and hits you. And the pandemic is a big lesson for anyone who’s thinking. When the crisis was one-dimensional, like the GMO issue—there were a few of us questioning GMOs, and Monsanto unleashed paid scientists and paid journalists. It’s all in the Monsanto papers, the cases around Roundup causing cancer. And Monsanto had to pay up, it’s all evidence in court. Every one of those people attacked me because I was among the very early people to start doing impact assessment of GMOs.

 

At the time, it was very easy for them to spin, spin, spin, but now, they’ve caused so many multidimensional crises that it’s no longer easy. I think that’s one reason people are rising up and awakening now. They try every trick to divide and rule, they try everything. And I think the two things that we can hold onto are that we are part of the Earth and that we are one humanity. We are diverse, our diversities are precious to us, but they’re not reasons for cleavages and divisions. They’re reasons for seeking justice and seeking equality, not separation.

Community is what we fight for. It is at the heart of human history and most of human organizing. It is at the heart of ecological existence. We are members of a community and the day we forget that, all the violence starts. As systems collapse, as the pandemic shuts down so much, all you have is community.

Dr. Vandana Shiva

Kevin

I really love that. It just goes back to how everything is connected. I remember watching a video of you saying that we all stemmed from seeds, that we ourselves are seeds, and that everything starts with a seed. That analogy was so impactful for me. Because that taught me that it is so important that we conserve and we protect biodiversity. It’s still astonishing that we as humans are so greedy that we’re choosing these things we are creating over what Mother Earth has created, these biodiverse species that have been here for so long.

Vandana

But Kevin, it’s not the case that we are making the choice. Because I remember in 1998, it was the very poor women from the slums of Delhi who called me up and said, “You talk so much about food. And now, they’re dumping GM oil on us. And they’ve banned mustard oil [which was the favorite oil of northern India]. You’ve got to bring our mustard back.” So, I did a quick study through the Navdanya movement I started for saving seeds, working with farmers to grow organic food from native seeds with their own processes. I told the farmers, “Bring the mustard. Let’s make a little oil mill. Call the chief minister. We will break this law.”

 

And now, Bill Gates is talking of Ag One. He wants a high tech ag. He doesn’t want farmers. He doesn’t want food. He is investing in fake food like the Impossible Burger. This is not about nourishing the world and it is not cheap, as my books have shown. It is very costly for the Earth. It’s very costly for the farmers who are committing suicide in India, committing suicide in the United States, committing suicide in Europe. Farmers in India have among the highest rates of suicides of any country, much higher than the average of the country.

 

And species are disappearing. You know why species are disappearing? Because you’re using agrochemicals. Rachel Carson warned us about this in the ’70s with Silent Spring. And yet, we continue to use them. Will you be surprised if the insects disappear? Will you be surprised if your biodiversity goes and the monarch butterfly goes? But most importantly, when you start putting fake ingredients into food, will you be surprised when your health and your metabolic systems are collapsing? And the two collapses are the same collapse: The metabolism of the earth organizes climate. When a body’s metabolic system collapses, you have all the metabolic diseases: diabetes, obesity, everything else.

 

So, this is a moment of awakening to our full potential as humans. And it does mean organizing for resistance. There’s no way out. This is not going to be easy because greed has reached its limit. It’s limitless greed or limitless growth, and they’ve already envisioned an empire where only they exist while they’re destroying the Earth, then they fly off to Mars. Did you see what Elon Musk was doing? And then Amazon, Mr. Jeff Bezos was saying, “I have made so much money. There’s no other place to invest except space travel.” So, what will the economy be like? They’ll take money from the public sector, they’ll get a billionaire to buy a ticket to Mars. And that will be the economy. That’s not economy. Economy is the art of living. And the art of living is being part of nature.

Kevin

I love your book Soil Not Oil. I definitely think that it encompasses the things that are happening in my community. With air, it’s about pollution, but also we have the oil infrastructure here surrounding South Los Angeles. On top of that, we’re also facing food insecurity. And in my climate journey, I started in food and food security and teaching my peers that food doesn’t just come from fast food chains. It comes from a farm. You can grow your own food. Seeing that my community didn’t have access to non-GMO, organic, vegan foods—the nutritious foods that we need—I got involved with teaching my peers about food prisons.

 

One of the questions that I really wanted to ask is: Do you imagine that we can have a just and equitable 2030, because I know a lot of organizations like the UN and governments around the world are saying that our target goal is to take action on the climate by 2030. Do you believe that we can achieve that? We have 10 years left to really make sure that this is actually happening. And so my question is: Are we able to have a just and equitable future in 2030?

Photograph by Gauri Gill

Vandana

I think so, because life is at stake. And because I have seen that in two years, barren lands can start to flourish if you take care. If you save the seed, you plant it out, you follow organic methods, you take care. I see it as very possible if everyone starts to engage in recovering their food sovereignty and reclaiming community through food. For some, it will mean if you have a garden, you can grow at least a large part of your food yourself.

 

My vision is that we turn this world from the war zone it has become into a garden. When I say that, that’s not an empty idea; we’ve done it. We’ve done it with farmers. There are entire valleys that are fully organic, where people have reclaimed sovereignty, where they created living economies, living democracies. And sowed the seeds of democracy, as I call it. It’s doable, but we all have to be engaged. We can’t leave it to the powerful to do it. They will try and find the next way to make money from a collapsing system. And we can’t leave it to the state, which is collapsing anyway. Look at the situation in the United States, look at the situation in England. I mean, these are not governed systems.

 

So, we have to do it. And we’ll have to do it as a community. We’ll have to do it through recognizing that the colonization of nature, the colonization of women, and the colonization of the future is one colonization. Therefore, we all have to put our energies towards working together to take care of the earth, which is the soil and not the oil. You can literally stop the emissions and regenerate the Earth. You can do both and get back your food security and get back your health and get back your freedom. Why wouldn’t we do it?

Kevin

Definitely. And I love the fact that you used the word regenerate. I think the word sustainability is just sustaining the current systems that we’re in. We need to get away from that word and start using regenerative because we’re trying to come into a regenerative future. How do you think young people are uniquely equipped to fight the climate crisis?

Vandana

Well, when I started my journey, I was a young person, and young people have the advantage of youth. Not that you get old and get tired. I’m not tired. Not yet. But I think that one, the youth have energy; two, the youth have dreams; and three, the youth of today are seeing the different doors closed and they will find the windows through which the future can be seen. A relationship with nature is not a relationship of privilege. The revolution of our times—for young people, for old people, for Indigenous people, for everyone—is to take care of the Earth. Find a way, find your little piece of Earth to take care of. And together we can. And together we must.

Shop Atmos Volume 04: Cascade

Shop Atmos Volume 04: Cascade

In our fourth volume we explore the notion that every action is a choice—and each choice we make has a series of consequences, cascading across time. Water can conform to its container, or it can gather in force as whelming as a wave. What will you choose?

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