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Soil not oil

By Vandana Shiva
Published by Zed Books
Website: www.zedbooks.co.uk and Zed Books blog
2009, 145pp, ISBN 978 1 84813 315 0(Pb), £12.99

Irrepressible environmentalist Vandana Shiva is back, this time with less of a clarion call and more of a war cry. Soil not oil begins where a flood of recent books also start - how the global crises of peak oil, climate change and rising food prices are symptomatic of humankind's spiritual malaise and both economic and ecological bankruptcy.

Her India-centric analysis is fresh, informative and frightening. Armed with enough facts to make your blood run cold, her indictment of international development, economics, the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, neo-colonialism, consumerism - to name but a few of her bugbears - is hard-hitting and characteristically unapologetic. "The shopping mall and the supermarket are temples of consumerism through which global corporations seduce us into participating in the destruction of our productive capacities, our ecological rights, and our responsibilities as earth citizens," she writes.

According to Shiva, we need to go back to basics: "No matter how many songs on your iPod, how many cars in your garage, or books on your shelf, it's plants' ability to capture solar energy that is the root of it all," because "without fertile soil, what is life?" Soil, she argues, should therefore be protected as a national heritage and small farmers, as custodians, ought to be championed and supported rather than downtrodden and marginalised. And it's not just about embracing soil: when Shiva cries "soil not oil", it is a euphemism for shunning the status quo as a whole, and rejecting neo-liberalism, industrial farming and the international food system, and for establishing a new world order with the environment, climate, and organic farming at its core. In short, this book is a call to reinvent altogether "society, technology [and] economy" - a revolution, in other words.

While her often unsettling analysis is powerful, precise and inspired (her rebuttal of carbon trading is particularly strong), there is, however, one gaping hole in her message: how her new paradigm may be achieved. Organic principles are important she says, because they are based on "autopoetic" systems that recycle their own energy, and these will form the backbone of something called "Earth Democracy", which will protect the planet and safeguard mankind.

But how do we achieve this elusive form of society? Shiva makes it clear that it is urgently needed, writing that we will "either make a democratic transition from oil to soil or we will perish." So there's a clue - the changes need to be sanctioned by the people, but what should we do exactly? Write timely, polite and persuasive epistles to our parliamentarians? If things are as bad as Shiva suggests, surely we should be out on the highways en masse, beating drums and storming boardrooms the world over, demanding action now to save humanity from imminent catastrophe.

And what if the people don't demand it? For that matter, how can people in non-democratic countries go about establishing Earth Democracy? Should it be imposed on them from outside, perhaps, by other well-meaning countries? But that sounds very like the neo-colonialism she so passionately rejects. And how does she expect soil-free Gulf States, for example, to renounce oil, embrace economic localisation and organic farming and shun the international food system? For them, at least, it's simply not going to happen.

Readers of Soil not oil anticipating detailed instructions on dismantling the current world economic system and creating the next, will find themselves waiting for a Big Bang that never quite arrives. So, while Shiva the destroyer is very good at pulling apart the faults of the current system, the process of changing hearts, minds and the status quo and rebuilding a better world - all against a loudly ticking clock - is conspicuous by its disappointing absence.

Date published: March 2009

 

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