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Environment

Sustainability Debate is Distracted by Eco-Babble

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Bill Moyers has asked an array of luminaries to play speechwriter for tonight's State of the Union Address. Everybody has their own pet cause or issue, of course. So here's what Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva wishes President Obama might say (my emphasis):

For the sake of the Earth, our family farms and our children’s health, we must send a signal across America and the world that organic is the future. Every child must have access to healthy and safe food. We’ve started an organic garden at the White House, and I will work to create a system to ensure that healthy and safe food is a reality worldwide. I have realized that neither genetic modification nor chemicals help to produce more food. Gardens and small ecological farms are the basis of food security. Currently, 90 percent of all food commodities grown become biofuel or animal feed; this is a crime when 1 billion people go hungry. So I will work on a transitional plan for phasing out subsidies to a wasteful and unjust agriculture system. I had promised in my first election campaign that I would ensure that genetically-modified foods be labeled as such. I apologize to my fellow citizens and to citizens of the world that I did not keep my promise. The right to know what you are eating is fundamental to any democracy.

Vandana Shiva has long been treated by environmentalists---and far too many environmental writers--as a font of green wisdom. She's got an eco-schtick that many otherwise smart people find irresistible. This speaks to the nature-centric environmentalism that still holds powerful sway in public discourse, which is reinforced by media influentials, such as Bill Moyers, who delight in Shiva's eco-babble. Because she is a liberal eco-saint fighting the earth's multinational overlords, liberals and enviros never question anything Shiva says, even when she endlessly repeats the urban myth about the thousands of Indian farmers who have supposedly committed suicide because of Monsanto. A rare case in which Shiva did raise some eyebrows occurred recently, when she compared GMOs to rape. People in the food movement and environmental community who bemoan the simplistic, fear-based GM food narratives should take their complaints to popular activists like Shiva, whose high profile media appearances shape the GMO discourse. Even better, they could challenge some of the easily refutable statements she makes, like these (highlighted above): Organic is the future. Really? Maybe in Portlandia, but not in the real world. Gardens and small ecological farms are the basis of food security. Sounds quaint. But will that suffice for the billions of urban dwellers living in cities today? Here's a nice reality check by an eco-pragmatist blogger:

The movement underpinning small farms, organics and permaculture is underpinned by an ideology rooted more in nostalgia for a non-existent past where everyone lived on Happy Farms that provided nothing but abundance and joy, rather than in anything resembling reason and science...the obvious facts are that we cannot feed the world without industrial agriculture, and the hope is that genetic engineering may be one tool that will help this become more sustainable.

If we are to have serious debates about what true sustainability means in the age of the Anthropocene, there is no place for the indulgent eco-babble spouted by Vandana Shiva and like-minded environmentalists. UPDATE: Linus Blomqvist, the director of the Breakthrough Institute's Conservation and Development program, has sent this response via email:

The idea that small-scale farming is the best solution for food security is very dangerous - it really is the total opposite. If everyone just grows their own food, then any local disruption will be catastrophic for those involved. Bad harvest, and you're screwed. Instead, if we all rely on global markets, as long as we have the purchasing power, we can be pretty damn sure to get food from somewhere. The entire harvest in Australia can go to waste and none would starve, either in Australia or elsewhere. Particularly in a world where climate change might change the capacity of different regions to grow food, international trade is absolutely necessary to increase food security. The problem then becomes mostly one of poverty. Shiva's future is one of hugely expanded croplands at the expense of forests, and increased vulnerability. Not what I wish for the Anthropocene.

UPDATE: For more on Vandana Shiva's background and PR-made image, this post is a must-read.

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