Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Vandana Shiva on Resource Descent and Permaculture Politics

Vandana Shiva is a hero of mine, and together with a few other figures like Donna Haraway, David Holmgren, Wes Jackson, and other scholars and activists in Science and Technology Studies and Environmental Justice movements, my engagement with and teaching of Shiva's work has been indispensable to my emerging sense of what a technoscientifically literate technodevelopmentally democratic permaculture-polyculture politics should care about and should look like.

Earlier in 2007 the Soil Association organized an amazing conference, "One Planet Agriculture: Preparing for a Post Peak-Oil Food and Farming Future." Many talks from this conference are recorded and transcribed here, and I daresay if these are issues with which you are unfamiliar (or issues on which you are worse than unfamiliar because you have settled for mainstream mediated vacuities), devoting a lazy holiday afternoon to these marvelous talks might be a positively life-changing experience for you.

It is the Closing Address of the Conference delivered by Vandana Shiva that I want to draw particular attention to -- not because I think it is the best of them, but just because I hope it will be a point of entry into a deeper engagement with Shiva's work for some of my readers.

There are so many key themes registered in this short address that Shiva expands considerably in her writings elsewhere:
-- how high energy input industrial agriculture models create the superficial impression of surplus at the real cost of catastrophic depletion,

-- how imposed monocultures are simply not resilient enough to do the work of planetary agriculture to meet existing human needs and how we must redirect our thinking to local polycultures instead,

-- how enclosure of the commons -- whether geographic, genomic, or creative -- is always a matter of confiscation and exploitation,

-- how facile versions of "pro-technology" rhetoric are used by corporate-military incumbents to exacerbate precarity and consolidate structural dependency of vulnerable populations like local farmers,

-- how this precarity and dependence are the actual source of some social instability, terrorism, and "epidemics" of suicide that otherwise perplex social scientists as to their causes,

-- how there really is something schizophrenic about a culture which deplores the labor of self-sustaining farming while at once fetishizing gym work-outs,

and many more provocative ideas.

Given what sometimes seems the terribly undercritical and overgeneralized techno-fetishization and techno-philia of some who read Amor Mundi regularly and occasionally comment here (and of course all are emphatically welcome here!), I can already imagine the protests that Shiva is really just a "Luddite" (by the way, the historical Luddites were right to fear for their lives and lifeways and that should possibly matter in our assessments of them) that she is engaged in a shrill "anti-technology" discourse, and so on.

I want to stress in the most emphatic terms that it is my view that Shiva is offering up (or at any rate providing indispensable material from which can be formulated) a technoscientifically literate, technodevelopmentally democratizing advocacy of planetary permaculture-polyculture.

Advocating for appropriate technology is not "anti-technology," directing our attention to politically pernicious deployments of technodevelopment exploiting the vulnerable and profiting elite-incumbents is not "anti-technology," delineating the catastrophic impacts of false models and marketing hype is not "anti-technology."

As I keep on insisting, time and time again, "technology" doesn't exist at a level of generality that properly enables one to affirm a "pro-technology" or "anti-technology" stance in any kind of monolithic way. Technology is better conceived not as an idol to affirm or as an ethos with which to identify but as an interminable process of collective technodevelopmental social struggle in which a diversity of stakeholders (not all of them necessarily even human) are constantly contesting, collaborating, educating, agitating, organizing, appropriating, and coping with ongoing and proximately emerging technoscientific changes, costs, risks, and benefits.

Vandana Shiva redirects us to that level of specificity for the technodevelopmental outcomes with which she is most concerned (and of course there are others that are likely to matter just as much as these: p2p democratization, for one; consensualization and universalization of non-normalizing genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive medicine; weapons proliferation -- that is to say, all the key drivers of the Technodevelopmental Quartet), while at once opening us to the connections between permaculture politics and planetary democracy struggles.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

If we drop fractions
AtomicWeightC=6
AtomicWeightO=16
6+2*16=38
CarbonContentPerKgOfCO2=6/38=3/19~=16%

Now, if we consider food being mix of equal parts of starch and water (good enough approximation for this purpose)... Starch's emprical formula is (C6H10O5)n which makes carbon contents...
6*6/6*6+10+16*5=36/126=6/21=2/7~=30%, 15% when we consider water. This supports "10 times more carbon" claim although this isn't primary component of either as she implies.

Emprical formula of diesel fuel is C12H24 with variations. 6*12+24=96, CarbonContentsPerKgDiesel=72/96~=70%.
So, this means that about 1.2 kg of theoretical diesel fuel is burnt per 1 kg of food. So, ok, 10 kg of CO2 per 1 kg of food. But this does not mean that 10x times fuel was burnt. No such thing was claimed, but misconstruals like that are possible. Now to the energy.


That theoretical fuel if burnt would produce circa 60 MJ of energy. Typically, only about 20 MJ of that are useful energy though. Our theoretical food would produce about 8MJ of energy, although less is useful (10-20%). Again, numbers more or less add up. (considering crudeness of assumptions and mental math).

Is this a bad or good result though? Frankly, I think it's not as bad as it might seem. Not great, and could be improved, but certainly not by means of abolishing "chemistry" (you see, horse manure is chemical too, and, unsurprisingly, horses consume energy, at an efficiency worse than that of modern industry. And we need the ways to return at least nitrogen consumed by plants back to the soil.) not by disregarding "genetics" (We have been doing "genetics" for millenia. Many kinds of wheat are heterohexaploid, meaning that ancient "geneticist" introduced not mere genes, but whole chromosomes of different species into genome.) and I suspect that not by sending all those combine-harvesters to junkyards.

What is needed is _responsible_ use of chemistry, free-as-in-freedom and throughly scrutinized before introduction genetical manipulations, and yes, whatever we can do about those harvesters... Biodiesel?

Dale Carrico said...

You really think she is advocating abolishing "chemistry"? You really think she is advocating disregarding "genetics"? You really think she doesn't grasp points this obvious? You really didn't understand the actual force of her point? Give me a break.

Frankly, I think it's not as bad as it might seem.

Well, then, that's a relief.

Anonymous said...

The atomic weight of carbon is 12, so CO2 is actually 27% carbon, starch 44%/22%, diesel 85%. [/nitpick]

Anonymous said...

The atomic weight of carbon is 12,
That's what happen when you don't check number you are absolutely sure in. Does not throw calculations too much off, thou, or so it seems at a glance. Thanks.

You really think she is advocating abolishing "chemistry"? You really think she is advocating disregarding "genetics"?

Well, check part of the speech stating at 20:30 to 21:28. It's as unambiguous call to just these things as it could be. This may not be the overall spirit of her speech, (and here I agree with you, it's really progressive.)

Monsanto's Bt cotton isn't the genetics. Overuse of fertilisers and pesticides is BAD agronomy, and so is overuse of water, BTW. But, people caught up in their rhetoric tend to forget about that. This creates absolutely false image of what organic faming ought to be. It should be simply reasonable agriculture, with all the latest tech used, not blind return to 500-years old practices (whose might be just as enviromentaly damaging, without the benefit of increased output, BTW. Just that low population back then masked the effect. People just went away, like Maya did. Now there's no place to go to.)

Anonymous said...

Well, then, that's a relief.
If you remember that first steam engines had 1% efficiency and that, if you trust Wikipedia figures, overall energy efficiency of mammals is in low 10s too, - this is really not bad result at all, cosidering that energy efficiency wasn't a consciously pursued goal.

That it is probably not good enough is another story.

Dale Carrico said...

I asked:

You really think she is advocating abolishing "chemistry"? You really think she is advocating disregarding "genetics"?

You responded:

Well, check part of the speech stating at 20:30 to 21:28. It's as unambiguous call to just these things as it could be.

Listening to the whole speech it's pretty unambiguous to me that she means no such thing, though. She is talking about high energy petro-chemical inputs in industrial model agriculture that yield the superficial appearance of surplus where a fuller accounting indicates depletion, sometimes catastrophically. Obviously, she is using the word "chemicals" as a shorthand for petro-chemical inputs in industrial agriculture. Hence, the bits about eating oil? How many times does she actually have to repeat that more complex formulation before she is extended the benefit of the doubt when telescoping points for a spoken address to a listening audience of organic farmers? Honestly, aren't you surreally picking nits here a bit?

You then admit:

This may not be the overall spirit of her speech

Indeed. So, if you concede this key context, then why offer up all the crapola suggesting she doesn't understand that not all chemistry is petro-chemistry, why make the insinuation that she doesn't grasp the elementary fact that traditional agriculture and animal husbandry already constituted a kind of genetic manipulation? I don't get it.

Overuse of fertilisers and pesticides is BAD agronomy, and so is overuse of water, BTW. But, people caught up in their rhetoric tend to forget about that.

What is the insinuation here? Are you claiming that industrial agriculture can be indulged without the nonselective pesticide use, the high-energy inputs that yield diminishing returns, the wasteful irrigation, the devotion to monoculture, etc? You know, the practices that pretty much define the model?

I think the historical record demands more skepticism, to say the least. Indeed, I find myself suspected that Shiva is hardly the one here forgetting reality in consequence of a prior investment in a particular rhetoric!

But the truth is I don't want to put words in your mouth, or to jump to conclusions about your assumptions. You wouldn't believe some of the techno-utopian denialists and corporate apologists I sometimes get in my comments section!

Anonymous said...

You wouldn't believe some of the techno-utopian denialists and corporate apologists I sometimes get in my comments section!
I bet. :)

Looks like I indeed was a bit caught up in rhetioric as well, since I agree with most of the speech's cotents, yet you percieve my comments quite differently.

But, for better or worse I too often had clashes with other kind of denialists. Ones that state that any kind of progres in agriculture is The Evil, and if we just return to tried and true methods of our ancestors all problems will vanish.

But, as I said, most of problems of industrial agriculture started much earlier than many seem to think. Over-irrigation? Here it was Monoculture? 10 000 years old. Foreign trade putting local farmers at a disadvantage? XVI century. Even overuse of petrochemicals has historic parallels. So return to "tried and true" methods is not an answer, exactly because "Green "revolution"" is in fact little more than these tried and true methods, only bigger.(And Vandana Shiva's argument that all the increase in production can be explained by more land & more water is supporting that, although I'd like to see actual study.)

Yet, many, too many people interpret calls to "organic farming" as that same return, and would easily har what they want to hear in that speech. Damn, I once had read paper where XIX century Russian agriculture was proposed as "the way to the future". Yeah, without even single yeld figure or explaination of why most of the population was systematicaly starving throughout several centuries. (Answer: So-called "free" trade.)

Again, I don't say Vandana Shiva advocates those things. I just tried to understand how her take on the problem is different from the usual "green scare". And I'm impressed. Figures add up. Except for some rhetoric, most of what she says is difficult to deny. There's positive program other than "to use tried and true methods of Founding Fathers". Maybe I'm just not ready for an idea of organic farming advocate who knows what she's doing, and that's why my thoughts on the speech look like attacks, but I do not mean such things.

What is the insinuation here? Are you claiming that industrial agriculture can be indulged without the nonselective pesticide use, the high-energy inputs that yield diminishing returns, the wasteful irrigation, the devotion to monoculture, etc?
No. In fact I make different claim altogether. Neither industrial, nor preindustrial agriculture were really sustainable. But now there is a hope that really proper techniques for agriculture could be devised, _limiting_or_eliminating_ nonselective pesticide use, the high-energy inputs that yield diminishing returns, the wasteful irrigation, the devotion to monoculture, etc.
Abolition of any IP rights on genes. and promotion of polyculture. are certainly steps in right direction.

Dale Carrico said...

Neither industrial, nor preindustrial agriculture were really sustainable. But now there is a hope that really proper techniques for agriculture could be devised

Right on. I think Shiva, Jackson, Holmgren are advocating precisely this kind of new direction. They are definitely not advocating Zerzanian primitivism, for example (not to demonize Zerzan either, btw -- I have benefited from reading him, even if I disagree with many of his more notorious theses).

Abolition of any IP rights on genes and promotion of polyculture are certainly steps in right direction.

Right on.

To be fair, it is possible that Shiva and Holmgren occasionally drift into a more New Agey kind of rhetoric than one might like, and one sometimes has to bracket gestures like that to the side if it isn't your cup of tea to focus on the truly promising and substantive case many permaculture advocates and designers are making (in my view). I think this rhetorical tic -- which I believe tends to be over-emphasized by facile critics in any case -- has something to do with trying to articulate their message in a way that will resonate with the terminology and concerns of many of the actual folks in their audience here and now, the folks actually doing the work of experimental permaculture practice.

But, whatever one thinks of these stylistic questions and cultural appeals, they are easily separable from the key arguments they are making in my view, which tend to emphasize the application of better science and more sensible design principles to the demands of an agriculture to feed burgeoning populations in a sustainable way, and to spotlight the anti-democratizing corporatist politics of industrial agriculture, and demand we apply permaculture.

Anonymous said...

This is nothing new probably, but it just ocurred to me that there are numerous analogies to IP issues in genetics and software.

There are enormous fixed expediture needed in both cases, and what's interesting either actually writing code or introducing new gene (or causing a bunch of random mutations) aren't the most difficult and expensive parts of the process. Planning, testing and fixing problems are.

Again, once that work is done, we place product in an environment which may replicate it practically indefinitely, as a part of its normal use. This isn't completely true for every variety of seed (think F1 hybrids) and every kind of sowtware (think firmware), but close enough.

Although technically all you need to do selection is arable land (and little more than that for genetics in fact), only minority of people have necessary skills and inclination to participate. More or less the same with the software.

There are two major differences too: Mishap with genetics/selection may be much more dangerous as certainly is biologic "malware". The secnd one is that varieties are patented, while programs are copyrighted.

That these similarities and differences mean, that OSG (Open Source Genetics) may be completely viable, maybe not right now, but quite soon. Those same biotech corporations create better, cheaper equipment, better protocols and cadre of specialists needed, whether they want it or not, at least for time being.

But unlike OSS OSG absolutely requires some kind of regulating authority to be set up, and most probably won't be able to start up until at least some key patents either expire naturally or are made void by other means. In other words, it would be much less hip :), and legal battles would start much sooner, but other than that, these could be quite similar.

Dale Carrico said...

Crucial text for me, James Boyle's Enclosing the Genome.

Also, a bit outdated, but still quite fun, Annalee Newitz's Genome Liberation.

You may be interested in the BiOS Initiative.

On the Commons is an interesting blog/information portal stressing the inter-implication of geographic, genomic, and creative commons you might enjoy as well.

Greg in Portland said...

My thoughts on agriculture are these

1) Farming, whether industrial/long-distance or "organic/local" isn't "natural" in any useful sense and IS destructive of habitat. If some combination of nanotech, hydroponics and solar power eventually lets us grow our food in "skyfarms" http://nymag.com/news/features/30020/ or underground under lights or whatever we can probably make most of the planet into something a national park while not starving. This would be about as "natural" as a kidney transplant and so would not satisfy the hard core deep-ecologists but the rest of us would be OK with it I think.

2) "Localist" farming is a great idea - except when it isn't. Like in the winter in Russia or the northern US, when the closest thing to fresh local produce is the onions that accidentally sprout in the bin in your kitchen. This is where the very unnatural skyfarms and such can come into play, providing local produce in places where the climate doesn't want to play nice for a large part of the year. As oil prices rise these things might eventually come to be competitive pricewise with the sunbelt megafarms which rely on long distance trucking

3) Advocates of improved diet with an emphasis on vegetables and even caloric restriction for longevity as an integral part of health care need to address the skyrocketing cost of fresh produce on the one hand and the social inequities associated with their production. Every time I have driven past an irrigated megafarm here out west and seen the migrant workers tramping the roads from one vast hacienda to another I thought to myself "where do those guys get their vegetables". Then I though - "Right, they don't get them, they can't afford them, they work to provide our vegetables".