Vandana Shiva on the Wisdom of Biodiversity

Vandana Shiva on the Wisdom of Biodiversity


words by vandana shivA

Photographs by Ashish Shah 

We are but one strand in the web of life. To keep the web whole, activist and author Vandana Shiva argues that we must honor the wisdom of biodiversity.

I am trained in particle physics and quantum theory, not biology. My quantum training helped me transcend the illusion of mechanistic separation at the scientific and philosophical level. But growing up in the Himalayan forests, biodiversity has been my biggest teacher. From seeds and plants, I learned ecology—the science of living systems and the ethics of life.


Biodiversity is autopoietic. Autopoiesis is derived from Greek: “auto” means “self” and “poiesis” means “production” or “creation.” Biodiversity is life in all of its self-organized complexity, collective agency, and evolutionary unfolding. Biodiversity is the self-formative, interactive, interconnected, dynamic change we call life.


As Erwin Schrödinger pointed out in his book What Is Life?, living systems have negative entropy: they self-organize to become less disordered. From molecules to cells to organisms to ecosystems to the planet as a whole, life is self-organized in resonance with other beings who are also self-organized. This is based on what is called non-separation and quantum coherence. Quanta—the smallest, most discrete units of matter—are both waves and particles. They are not objects fixed in space and time, as Newtonian physics teaches us. Quanta are interconnected waves and vibrations, they are non-localized and are therefore not separable. Scaling up, that means all matter (and therefore all of life) is not separable. Nature’s harmony and balance is quantum coherence and resonance. 

My dear friend the late Professor Mae-Wan Ho was a geneticist who worked on a quantum theory of biology. In a 2013 interview in Communicative and Integrative Biology, she explained that all living beings are both fixed in place as solid objects and delocalized as quantum wave functions that are distributed throughout the universe. 


“Hence all beings are mutually entangled and mutually constitutive. Thus harming others effectively harms ourselves, and the best way to benefit oneself may be to benefit others.”


We are interbeings. We are interconnected. When we poison the Earth, we poison our bodies. When we pollute the atmosphere, we create climate chaos. When we destroy biodiversity, we create hunger, disease, and climate imbalance. 


This is why I say biodiversity weaves the web of life, the infrastructure of life. Biodiversity is not an object, a thing, a number, or a resource to be exploited. Biodiversity is not a genetic mine to be exploited as raw material. Biodiversity is not a financial asset to be traded in the global financial casino.


Biodiversity is the interconnectedness through which all life flows: food and nutrition, water, oxygen and breath, endosomatic energy, the energy of living systems.


We are a strand in the web of life. Humans have been separated from nature through what I describe as eco-apartheid. Apartheid means apartness and separation in the Afrikaans language. Eco-apartheid is the belief that humans are separate from nature, acting as her conquerors, masters, owners. This separation is one of the major drivers of extinction and biodiversity loss.


Biodiversity is life and weaves the web of life, its patterns and relations, its intelligence and cognition. Life contains a diversity of intelligences, many of which were denied by the epistemic apartheid that has dominated during the colonial, industrial age. We have instead privileged human agency and the analytic, reductionist intelligence of the mechanical mind, the monoculture of the mind. The mechanical mind is a paradigm that is blind to Earth’s natural organization and sees life as a machine to be managed by man. The monoculture of the mind is blind to biodiversity, looks at the world through uniformity. 


The monoculture of the mind cannot coexist with biodiversity. A biodiversity of the mind is needed to care for biodiversity, to regenerate it for the sustenance of all beings. Two hundred species are going extinct every day. One million are threatened. Without a biodiversity of cultures, biodiversity will not be protected.

Biodiversity Shapes Cultural and Economic Diversity

Biodiversity and democracy go hand in hand. As the poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote, the unifying principle of diversity is the basis of democratic pluralism. 


Nature does not work on the principle of sameness, uniformity, and monocultures. The natural world is a constant striving for a diversity of expression. Diverse ecosystems give rise to diverse life-forms and to diverse cultures. Cultural diversity and biodiversity coevolve when societies and communities are free to take care of their ecosystems and resources, share them in the commons, and use them sustainably for the common good.


It was my engagement with grassroots movements that helped me learn about the centrality of biodiversity as an organizing principle of life.


Joining the Chipko movement as a volunteer in the early 1970s, I learned how vital the biodiversity of forests was to the health of people and ecosystems. Colonialism had created new dualisms and separations between ecology and economy, and the Chipko movement fought back with a nonviolent movement to conserve forests.


My sisters saw the forests as the source of life, not raw materials for profits and revenue. They resisted logging, reminding the government that timber and profits were not the primary products of the forests. Forests produce soil, water, and pure air, which are the basis of life.


Over five decades I have learned that the true economy, oikonomia, is the art of living, our cocreation with biodiversity and nature’s economy. What we call the “economy” has nothing to do with oikos, our common home. Aristotle’s name for our “economy” was chrematistics, the art of money making. The money machine operates on an artificial intelligence disconnected from the intelligence of biodiversity. It operates on an artificial currency disconnected from the currencies of life.

Biodiversity of Knowledges: Biopiracy and the Patenting of Indigenous Knowledge

Epistemic apartheid is the knowledge-based component of eco-apartheid. It is founded on the illusion of a false exceptionalism that denies the intelligence of nonhuman species: plants, animals, and microbes. It also treats the knowledge of non-Western and Indigenous cultures as inferior non-knowledge. Knowing, says autopoietic theory, occurs through doing: “all knowing is doing and all doing is knowing.” 


Biopiracy is a contemporary example of the colonization of knowledge. Based on false claims of “invention,” Indigenous knowledge is appropriated without recognition and permission, monopolized as intellectual property, and commercialized. 


Over the past decade, through new intellectual property rights, corporations have gained control over the diversity of life on Earth and people’s Indigenous knowledge. There is no innovation involved in these cases; they are instruments of piracy and control over life itself. Life-forms have been redefined as “manufacture” and “machines,” robbing life of its integrity and self-organization. The pirating and patenting of traditional knowledge is unleashing an epidemic of “biopiracy.”


To address the growing threat of bio-imperialism and biopiracy, I started Navdanya, a conservation organization. Our goal is to protect seed freedom, the autonomy and intrinsic value of biodiversity, and Indigenous knowledge. There are many cases of biopiracy that we have fought and won. The longest and most significant was the case of neem biopiracy. Neem (Azadirachta indica) is a tree of a thousand uses, which Indians have employed for thousands of years for medicine, soap, contraceptives, cosmetics, and pest and disease control. In 1994, a U.S. corporation, W. R. Grace, and the USDA filed a joint patent (0436257 B1) on the fungicidal properties of neem. Working with the European Parliament’s Green Party and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture, I challenged W. R. Grace, pointing out that they had not invented or created neem’s ability to control fungal growth on plants—this had been known in India for over 2,000 years. The fight took us 11 years, but we successfully had the biopiracy of neem revoked.


The case of neem is not unique: U.S. corporations have filed patents on everything from basmati rice to turmeric’s medicinal properties and various strains of flood- or drought-tolerant crops. In fighting these biopiracy attempts, we are protecting the rights and traditions of people who have been creating and using these plants for centuries—the real stewards of diversity. 

Biodiversity is Food and Health

The domination of industrial agriculture was the forgetting of biodiversity, the erasure of diversity in our minds and on the Earth—the monoculture of the mind.


The erosion of biodiversity has serious ecological and social consequences as diversity is the basis of ecological and social stability. Social and material systems devoid of diversity have lower biological productivity and are vulnerable to collapse and breakdown.


Over the last few decades, industrial agriculture has promoted monocultures and led to major biodiversity loss. It has also promoted a distorted measure of productivity, creating the illusion that we are producing more food when, in reality, we are producing nutritionally empty commodities, which increasingly go to biofuels and animal feed.


An agriculture exclusively focused on selling agrochemicals as external inputs for commodity production has reduced the measure of productivity of agriculture to the reductionist category of “yield per acre.” But yield per acre leaves out the most important aspects of food and farming. Yield measures mass, the quantity of a commodity, not the nourishing quality of food. It is inadequate as a measure of food in the context of health. Yield does not measure the destruction of biodiversity. It does not measure the high financial costs of toxic inputs that trap farmers in debt and push them to suicide. Nor does it measure the cost of the disease burden due to toxins in our food. Yield per acre ignores the ecological cost of chemical monocultures.


We need to move away from measuring the yield per acre of nutritionally empty, toxic monocultures to measuring biodiversity-based productivity and nutrition per acre of a diversity of crops.


We at Navdanya have developed measures of “health per acre to assess nutrition rather than yield. If instead of the chemical and capital intensification of our agriculture, we intensified food production ecologically and in terms of biodiversity, the land currently cultivated in India could feed two Indias with healthy, balanced, nutritionally-rich food, as the Navdanya study Health per Acre shows.


Biodiversity-rich agriculture produces more nutrition per acre. Diversity in our farms and on our plates is the answer to malnutrition, hunger, and disease. When compared to conventional mono-cropping, organic mixed cropping produces on average 106% more copper, 61% more manganese, 243% more molybdenum, 64% more zinc, 120% more chromium, and 72% more of all trace elements when taken together.

Healthy soils are full of biodiversity, protecting the planet’s health by participating in and maintaining the carbon and nitrogen cycles. One gram of soil contains nearly one billion bacteria, up to 200 million fungi, and countless mites, nematodes, and earthworms. Soils can have as much as 500 earthworms per yard according to the USDA, which is about 2,420,000 per acre. Organic soils can have even more, when they are cultivated to increase biodiversity.


One cubic meter of healthy soil can have 25,000 kilometers of mycorrhizal fungi. The fungi are living, intelligent systems that select and discriminate, and give and take nutrients in mutuality. They are intelligent filters that seek out essential nutrients, absorbing them and sharing them with plants. Moreover, they exclude harmful substances. The ability of living organisms to discriminate between essential and harmful substances—and to encourage exchange of the beneficial through the protective membranes—is what makes life and health possible in living systems, from the tiniest cells and microbes, to the organs in our bodies and our bodies as a whole.


A Navdanya study comparing soils under chemical and organic conditions over 20 years showed a dramatic decline in soil nutrients under chemical farming and a significant increase in diverse nutrients under organic farming. Organic farms have dramatically increased beneficial soil organisms as well. The fungi population increased 6 to 36 fold in organic farms compared to chemical farms. The bacteria population was 50% to 241% higher in organic soils. 


Through caring for the health of the living soil, we cultivate our own health. Organic farming is a public health system. That is why some doctors are moving their practices to organic farms. We are connected to the soil. When soils are healthy, societies are healthy. When soils are sick and desertified, societies become sick and people’s hearts and guts become desertified. Our health is one with the health of the planet. The soil, the gut, and the brain are one interconnected biome—violence to one part triggers violence in the entire system.


Our gut is being recognized as our second brain, regulating our health through the biodiversity of 100 trillion microbes, which need a diversity of food that is rich in a diversity of nutrients. The soil is not an empty container for pouring synthetic chemical fertilizers. Plants are not machines, running on nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium from factories and mines. Our bodies are not machines, food is not fuel. Food is life, woven through biodiversity in the soil and in our gut.


The health emergency to which the coronavirus is awakening us is connected to the climate emergency and to the emergency of species extinction. All these emergencies are rooted in eco-apartheid and an economic model based on the illusion of limitless growth, which systematically violates planetary boundaries and ecosystem integrity.


As forests are destroyed, as our farms become industrial monocultures that produce toxic, nutritionally empty commodities, as our diets become degraded through industrial processing with synthetic chemicals and genetic engineering in labs, we get connected through disease—instead of being connected through biodiversity within and outside us.

Regenerating Biodiversity Is Climate Action

Gaia, Tierra Madre, Mother Earth—she is a whole, self-organized, self-regulating living system. The Earth evolved her biodiversity and biosphere over four billion years. Around 200,000 years ago, the living Earth created the conditions for our species to evolve, with biodiversity regulating the climate. We are among the youngest siblings in the Earth’s family and—with the dawn of the Industrial Age a mere 200 years ago—have disrupted the Earth’s ability to regulate her climate. 


Around 3.5 billion years ago, the Earth’s biodiversity reduced the carbon-rich atmosphere of the planet from 4,000 ppm to 250 ppm. The process of photosynthesis allowed living organisms, first microbes and later plants, to capture sunlight and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This is nature’s sophisticated “carbon capture” technology that permits carbon recycling through the limitless energy from the sun, transforming CO2 to O2. Replacing the heat-trapping carbon dioxide with oxygen allows us and so many other organisms to breathe. 


Thus, the same process that cooled the planet is a living process that sustains and regenerates life. 


A century of oil has led to the neglect of the richness of biodiversity. Drilling for the oil that the Earth has fossilized over 600 million years and transforming that oil into petrochemicals, agrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, and plastics is the cause of so much pollution: atmospheric pollution, which causes climate change; toxic pollution, which is driving insects and plants to extinction; and plastic pollution, which has now entered our blood.


Technical solutions like geoengineering, industrial carbon capture, and fake lab food are false solutions that will intensify unsustainability and injustice. The Earth is living. Climate change is a disruption of her self-regulatory processes. Real climate solutions lie in working nonviolently with her rich biodiversity.


The Earth reduced her temperature from 554 degrees without life to 55 degrees Fahrenheit with biodiversity. We can cocreate biodiverse economies that provide for people’s needs while cooling the planet.

Biodiversity Is the Basis of Life, Not a Financial Asset

Declaring nature as an “asset” to be traded in financial markets is about absorbing nature and her functions into the greed economy. It greenwashes the current extractive economy in order to appropriate Indigenous-protected biodiversity as a tradable good and service. Instead, we should incorporate the human economy as a subset of nature’s economy. The financialization of nature is the latest step in colonization.


The Dasgupta Review of Biodiversity, a global report on the economics of biodiversity, is an attempt to undo the basic ethical, ecological, and economic foundations of the Convention on Biological Diversity, and shift the paradigm and worldview to biodiversity as an asset class for the financial giants like Blackrock and Vanguard instead of the very basis of life.


The Dasgupta Review is enabling chrematistics (wealth as measured by money) by putting a financial value on nature so that it can be counted. In Partha Dasgupta’s worldview, there is only one economy, the economy of colonial commerce glorified in Adam Smith’s “free market capitalism.” Everything is about maximizing profits, leaving conservation and the protection of biodiversity to the mysterious “invisible hand” of the market. For Dasgupta, biodiversity does not matter except for its potential for capital accumulation. 


Markets have not protected biodiversity. Today, 80% of the world’s biodiversity resides in the 22% of land that is stewarded by Indigenous people. Their economies of care have outperformed economies of greed and markets, which have promoted deforestation, monocultures, and biodiversity loss. Applying the concepts, tools, measurements, and language of finance to the living world of biodiversity continues the denial of the living Earth. It risks colonial ideas displacing the very people who have conserved biodiversity, replacing their communities of care with new “green economies” and “blue economies” that retain the mechanistic reductionism and industrial technologies of the economies of greed.


Just a month before the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26) in Glasgow, the New York Stock Exchange and other financial institutions launched a new asset class: Natural Asset Management Companies (NACs). The stated goal of the NACs are “to preserve and restore the natural assets that ultimately underpin the ability for there to be life on Earth.”


The NACs would hold rights to ecosystem services (carbon sequestration or water, for example) on a tract of land, cultivating them with the goal of maximizing profit. Managing ecosystems to grow the most profitable commodities is how biodiverse forests and farms were turned into monocultures in the first place.


The disease is now being offered as the cure. Economic growth is merely a measure of how much was extracted from nature to convert to capital. It cannot be a solution to the ecological crises that extractivist money-making caused. The increased availability of financial resources cannot regenerate the life lost in nature through ecological destruction.


New proposals to address the ecological emergencies are neither sustainable nor just. They deny the rights of Mother Earth and of Indigenous people, farmers, fisherfolk, women, working people and the poor, the children and future generations.


Wall Street and the financial asset companies oversee a $4,000 trillion fictitious economy of finance by extracting profits from goods and services from “Nature’s assets.” This commodification is an enclosure of the commons of life. When the last river, forest, and land is enclosed as an asset, the custodians will be displaced people, without access to land, forests, water, and their Earth-centered livelihoods. It is misleading to call the latest stage of colonial commerce “Nature’s Economy” as nature’s economy is self-organizing and autopoetic.


Biodiversity is nature’s economy. Biodiversity teaches us the art of living oikonomia. The mechanistic and market-dominated age is driving biodiversity loss and extinction. Since we live in an entangled web of life, the extinction of other species threatens our extinction. But there is another path. It involves a shift from the monoculture of the mind to a biodiversity of the mind that allows us to see our interconnections with other beings. It allows us to see that instead of being biodiversity destroyers, we can be biodiversity regenerators. Conserving and regenerating biodiversity holds a promise for humanity to sow the seeds of a livable future in harmony with other species who make us.

This article first appeared in Atmos Volume 07: Prism with the headline “Biodiveristy Is Life.”

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A prism is a multidimensional body that refracts, disperses, or in some cases, distorts light. Atmos Volume 07: Prism is a study of light, color, dimension, and perspective. It asks such questions as: How do we find the light in a world that can feel so dark? How do our identities shape the lenses through which we experience reality? How do we move past binary thinking and embrace a more prismatic or nuanced view of the world? How do ideas disseminate and refract? What role does transparency play in that process? What symbolism do specific colors hold, in both the human and natural world?

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