The seeds of alumna Vandana Shiva’s future were planted four decades ago in the thinning forests of the Garhwal Himalayas in Uttarakhand, India.
On March 24, 1974, generations of frustration over resource pillaging in that region culminated in a grassroots effort to save both trees and a way of life from disappearing. On that day, the women simply linked arms and refused to let go.
“This movement, called Chipko, which basically means ‘to embrace’ and ‘to hug,’ was started by village women, totally spontaneously against the massive logging and deforestation that was taking place,” Shiva says. “They said, ‘We’re going to hug the tree and you’ll have to kill us before you kill the trees. We’re going to put Gandhi into action.’”
The women were successful, sparking change in government policy as well as inspiring generations of environmental activists across the globe. “I was born in that region of the Himalayas; I had seen the forests go,” says Shiva, who was among those first ‘treehuggers,’ as they were branded. “When this happened, I started to volunteer with this movement.”
Today, Shiva, PhD’79, LLD ’02, remains a revolutionary of the highest order. Although not as well known in the Western hemisphere, her exploits are iconic in India garnering her praise as a leader of both the modern global environmental and women’s movements.
But if not for The University of Western Ontario, Shiva – and the planet – might have a different future. Already the daughter of a forest conservator, her mother, who became a refugee upon the creation of Pakistan, shed her former government bureaucratic role and became a farmer. “We spent time between her farm and my dad’s job in the forest,” she says. “And both shaped us in a very important, very complementary way.”
She admits still carrying with her those early lessons from home. “They never told us, ‘Do this, don’t do this.’ But they did tell us to follow our conscience and be fearless,” Shiva remembers. “The highest power is your own conscience. No power outside. Of course, I have been brought up in Indian philosophy which tells you ultimately what counts is that you did the right thing, not that you were successful.
“How can you live a life doing the wrong thing because you might not be successful?”
Her initial training was in nuclear science, but she abandoned the pursuit after a conversation with her sister, a medical doctor. “She would ask me basic questions on the health issues and I would have no answer. I would say, ‘They don’t teach me that.’ I felt I was being half educated, half trained,” Shiva says. “Every time I would ask a deeper question, I would be told by my guides, ‘No, you just compute, just calculate. Don’t ask questions,’” Shiva laughs. “I got into physics to understand the world and how it works, and if I can’t ask questions then I am not doing what I want to do.”So she turned to theoretical physics, where she found answers in questions. Shiva started to read on the foundations of physics and quantum theory, and then wrote to numerous young scientists from around the world. “Every one of them said we are going to Western, because The University of Western Ontario, at that period had created what they called a Colloquium of Quantum Theory, and brought people from around the world, the best minds – the best logicians, the best mathematicians, the best physicists, the best philosophers – and basically the foundations of the quantum theory community was all at Western in the philosophy department,” Shiva says.
She completed a master’s in philosophy at Guelph, and then joined Western for her PhD work. She completed her thesis, Hidden Variable and Locality in Quantum Theory, in 1979.
Today, she credits her quantum theory training – and Western – with her positive outlook on the world. “When people say, ‘When you know so much about the destruction, when you live it every day, how can you be hopeful?’ I say you don’t have to give deterministic outcomes to the destructive forces because it could be different.”
The 58-year-old remains part inspired, part haunted by the Punjab riots and India Bhopal disaster, both in 1984. “Most people think of 9/11 as when terrorism began, but Punjab, India, the land of the ‘Green Revolution,’ had such extremism in the early 1980s that 33,000 people had been killed. That’s six 9/11s,” she says.
“And even though my training was physics, my passion was ecology.” That led to a book, Violence of the Green Revolution, work with the United Nations and a new passion. “That threw me into agriculture in a big way,” she says.
In 1987, she was invited to a conference on new biotechnologies where corporations were first outlining a desire to patent crops and seeds. “I thought this sounded like a terrible dictatorship. We need to have some kind of freedom.” From there grew Navdanya International, Shiva’s organization focused on saving and distributing native seeds to local farmers as well as advocating for the use of traditional farming practices and against the use of biotechnology, such as genetically modified seeds. Through this organization, and its work, Shiva fuels activism around the globe.
Despite the uphill climb, she remains resolved to the mission and the possibility of saving the world from itself. “We behave according to the context. Unfortunately, globalization has created the rule of greed – as the film says, greed is good. But even in today’s context there are enough people working to create abundance, share abundance and give dignity to all life on Earth. I think as a species not only are we capable of it, it is the only way we have a future.”
Shiva remains a powerful voice in the media, publishing and speaking with great frequency as well as appearing in dozens of award-winning documentaries. She has been honoured with the Global 500 Roll of Honour from the United Nations Environment Programme (1993), Earth Day International Award (1993), Right to Livelihood Award/Alternative Nobel Prize (1993), Sydney Peace Prize from Sydney University (2010) and Calgary Peace Prize from the Consortium of Peace Studies at the University of Calgary (2011).
Accolades are fine, Shiva says, but she realizes her fight goes on. And like those early days, linked around a tree in the Garhwal Himalayas, she knows small, local change can make a massive, global impact.
WEB ONLY - Vandana Shiva's advice to young women at university:
Vandana Shiva is counting on the younger generation to create a newer, wiser world. More specifically, she is counting every young woman walking The University of Western Ontario campus to lead the way. The environmental and social activist, long associated with the eco-feminist movement, offers the following advice to them.
“Ecofeminism is basically the recognition of the creative power of the Earth, the creative power of women which has been denied in capitalist patriarchy. So, recognizing the two powers, the two energies together are the real source of abundance, are the real source of transcending scarcity. For any woman – in Canada, in India, anywhere – the real empowerment is not trying to climb the careerist ladder to nowhere. We can see Wall Street was supposed to be the best thing you could do to your life, and look at what happened in 2008. So that is not the part we need to be mimicking. The part we need to be mimicking is the part nature has created. Not in the essentialist sense of us being biologically close to nature. But us being politically in a position, because our minds were not colonized, because our lives were not that deeply colonized by the destructive economy, the destructive politics, that we can lead society to another path. I realize around the world there is an amazing awaking among the young, among women particularly, who realize they have the power to create another world.”
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