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Updated On: Monday, 19 March 2018

Q&A: Development is about complex systems, not beneficiaries

Current crises call for non-linear thinking and true partnership, says Indian scholar Vandana Shiva.
Today’s society can be understood in terms of probabilities and complex relationships, concepts that link with quantum mechanics, according to Indian physicist and environmental activist Vandana Shiva.
Shiva spoke at the Bond conference in London this week (February 26-27), taking the floor just after Penny Mordaunt, the new secretary of the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID). Mordaunt spoke about a “new development offer” the agency is due to put forward to help make the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) a reality, and made reference to increased cooperation with the UK armed forces, highlighting national security alongside poverty reduction as goals of UK foreign aid. However, Shiva emphasised the need for diversity. She pointed out that ecological and social crises are linked, for example, and technological developments shouldn’t interfere with a world where every living being has a role. Shiva, a trained physicist, spoke with SciDev.Net about her views and how scientific training has informed them.

Penny Mordaunt spoke about the need to “put aid beneficiaries first”, an idea that you alluded to as well. Do you see a commonality in your positions?

I would say we’ve got to put the Earth first; we’ve got to put people first. And we’ve got to put consideration of the future in our thinking — that’s what the SDGs are supposed to be. I think the idea that others are your beneficiaries already puts you in a certain position. I might think that, given that this is the land that colonised my land, it comes very naturally. But it doesn’t come very naturally to me. For me, the smallest microbe and the youngest child has potential capacity [for] self-organisation. So we should really be talking the language of partnership.

You co-founded an organisation [Navdanya] that’s separate from the aid industry. Do you think that partnership is possible?

Yes. I work a lot with development organisations. But I have chosen to stay free and independent — and that means also intellectually. My intellectual independence has allowed me to assess what are treated as dominant and inevitable systems, but are total constructions; and therefore, [to see] the need to make a paradigm shift. The partnership is not just possible, it’s necessary.

Can you explain the idea of constructions that you referred to?

My life has been spent dealing with Monsanto’s construct of intellectual property of seed: Monsanto doesn’t invent a seed. It adds one gene … but the seed makes itself. That’s the very science of living systems, that they’re self-organised, complex, reproducing systems. Or take GDP – it’s a construct that says ok, we won’t measure things that return: a drop of water evaporates, and then falls as rain – we won’t count that. But when we make a dam we count it, for growth. We will not count the work that’s done in the fields until it becomes a commodity, so that agriculture is being driven into commodity production. All agriculture of the South, including my country, is degrading [the environment]: the soils are dying, monocultures are growing, food is disappearing.

Is this what you meant [in your speech] when you mentioned a falsity of the figures used today?

Yes. We’re told that high-yielding varieties will solve the problem of hunger. High-yielding in what? Are they high-yielding in nourishment – no, they’re nutritionally empty. Are they more productive? No, they use more inputs. But then you select the input and forget the amount of land you’re putting into it, you forget the amount of water, you forget the amount of fossil fuels. On the other hand, when you do ecological farming, as we do on our farm at Navdanya in Doon Valley, our water level has gone up 70 feet, our pollinators have increased 6-fold. So, we’re counting wrong.

So you value something and you measure it — but also by choosing what you measure that drives what you do?

Yes. My PhD was in quantum theory. And it is very clear: basically, we create the context for what we measure. When you look for a wave you’ll find a wave, when you look for a particle you’ll find a particle. So what you measure comes from how you frame your world, and that then decides the world that you create.

Can you tell me about your science background and how it informs what you do?

I became passionate about doing physics because I got inspired by Einstein. I would have done nuclear physics, but my sister woke me up to the hazards and I went into theoretical physics. In theoretical physics I got really excited about the break from mechanical thinking with quantum thinking, and so I went into the conceptual foundations of quantum theory. How does it inform me? First, mechanistic thought [says] everything is separate: there’s one cause and one effect. No — the world is made of energy flux, and potential. With the idea that the world is billiard balls, you get predictability: I push a billiard ball in this direction and it’s going to go there. But the world is not [that way], it is very complex inter-relationships. That is why what you do to one part can affect another part. Systems causality, non-linear thinking, has to then replace linear and mechanistic thinking. The final issue related to all of this is the issue of uncertainty: that when any system can take more than one path – because it has multiple potentials and the context decides which potential will be exercised – you have probabilities. That’s when [in] quantum theory you don’t have determinate qualities, you have transition probabilities – that’s the unit. In the society of today, in a deep crisis, social and ecological, we have transition probabilities that we’ll destroy ourselves if things continue as usual — or we have the transition probability that humanity will reclaim its citizenship and choose another path. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.


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