From Shiva to Dyson: a paradigm shift from radical ecology with soil-based low-tech food to rational ecology with air-based high-tech food

In the past decade, I made a paradigm shift in thinking about ecology and sustainable food production. I shifted from radical ecology to rational ecology. These two paradigms are represented by two women of color: Vandana Shiva and Lisa Dyson. When it comes to food production, this paradigm shift is a move upward: from Shiva’s low-tech, soil-based food to Dyson’s high-tech, air-based food.

Vandana Shiva and Lisa Dyson have three things in common. First, they are both women of color (not like me: I’m a white man). Second, they have a PhD in theoretical physics (just like me). Third, they are environmental activists focusing on sustainable food and agriculture (pretty much like me).

I considered Vandana Shiva as one of my environmental heroines, as I was fond of her ecofeminism. However, in later years, after changing my mind about GMOs, I became much more critical towards her views. I think Vandana Shiva has harmful beliefs.

Vandana Shiva is against GMOs, including golden rice and Bt-eggplant. However, these GMO crops are very beneficial in terms of improving health, economic welfare and sustainability. According to one estimate, the absence of Golden Rice in India causes a loss of more than 100.000 healthy life years every year. The use of Bt-eggplant in Bangladesh resulted in an almost 40% reduction in pesticide use, a more than 40% increase in yields and a $400 increase in yearly farmer profits per hectare. The health benefits due to the decreased pesticide use save a few million dollars per year.

Furthermore, Vandana Shiva made misleading claims about terminator genes and untrue statements about GMOs causing increased Indian farmer suicides. There is no evidence that GMOs are the cause of farmer suicides. The number of suicides has even decreased slightly after the introduction of Bt-cotton GMOs in India. There are indications that GMOs in India contribute to rural development and poverty reduction (also among the poorest farmers and women).

As a result of her GMO-opposition, which goes against the scientific consensus of GMO-safety, Shiva was against international food donations to Zambia (2001) and Orissa-India (1999) during mass-famine events. The opposition to such food aid can be considered as believing that unfounded GMO-risks are worse than people dying from starvation. Shiva’s pseudoscientific beliefs about GMOs can be very harmful.

Finally, Shiva’s ecofeminist views reflect a kind of essentialist thinking that I disagree with. For example, she states that current scientific-technological knowledge is too patriarchal or masculine. But science and technology are based on the laws of nature, and these laws are gender neutral. There is no such thing as male science. Being against science and technology because they are discovered and invented by men, is sexist.  

Considering the above, Vandana Shiva fell from grace. Interestingly, someone else became my new woman of color theoretical physicist environmental activist heroine: Lisa Dyson. When doing research on how to minimize harm, I learned about the importance of land-free food. Shiva’s solution to our food production problems, consists in buying local organic food. But the health and environmental sustainability of local organic food is very much in dispute. Most importantly, organic food is soil-based, requiring a lot of land. Taking the welfare and harms of wild animals also into consideration, land occupation generates many problems.

Lisa Dyson, on the other hand, is doing research on gas-based or air-based food production. Hydrogenotrophic bacteria can be genetically modified to produce all kinds of protein, oils, carbohydrates and other essential nutrients, made from air by using gases such as hydrogen and CO2 as inputs. Hence, this potential technology is carbon negative (having net negative greenhouse gas emissions) and requires almost no land, water, pesticides and soil fertilizers. It can even be applied in space stations. This space-age technology offers clear environmental benefits. Dyson founded the company Air Protein to develop air-based meat.

Shiva prefers local, low-tech food production, which includes soil-based organic food and permaculture, whereas Dyson looks for extremely resilient high-tech food production, which includes air-based and fermentation-enabled food. That food production is extremely resilient, because it can even help feeding the world population in situations of extreme climate catastrophes. That will not be feasible with Shiva’s soil-based, small-scale, organic, agro-ecological permaculture. The fact that Dyson is a woman also offers a nice counterexample to Shiva’s belief that high-tech science solutions are too masculine.

Shiva’s and Dyson’s different attitudes towards food production technologies reflect two different paradigms. Shiva is a representative of the radical ecology paradigm that includes my earlier position as an environmental activist: deep ecology, ecofeminism, low-tech, low consumption. Coincidentally, the word ‘radical’ comes from the Latin word ‘radix’, which means ‘root’. As roots are low and growing in the soil, Shiva’s low-tech soil-based food represents radical ecology. But after learning about effective altruism and rational (scientific) skepticism with its focus on rationality and critical thinking, I turned towards a new paradigm, of which Dyson is a representative. I could call this paradigm rational ecology, to contrast it with radical ecology. This rational ecology paradigm highlights the importance of high-tech solutions such as air-based food, and is common in circles of effective environmentalism and ecomodernism.

Lowering consumption (especially of luxury products), which is part of the radical ecology paradigm, remains important, but it is not sufficient. Improving production, which is part of the ecomodernist paradigm, is necessary as well. Using our limited resources, time and money to do scientific research to improve production is likely to be more effective than using those resources to convince people to lower their consumption. That is why the environmental movement has to shift upwards, from Shiva’s low-tech radical ecology paradigm with soil-based food, to Dyson’s high-tech rational ecology paradigm with air-based food.

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