Heroes of Sustainability: Vandana Shiva

For Vandana Shiva, it all started with tree-hugging — literally. It was the 1970s, and the Chipko movement, in which women in the Himalayas stood around trees to keep them protected, sparked her passion for ecological sustainability.

Now a well-known environmental activist and philosopher, the Delhi-based Shiva has authored more than 20 books and 500-plus papers in leading scientific and technical journals, becoming a leader in such areas as preserving forests, organizing women, and protecting local biodiversity. She’s fought against genetic engineering and biopiracy (patenting an idea for profit that’s been long used by indigenous cultures), helped grassroots campaigns across the globe, and started an international college for sustainable living.

In 1991, she helped found Navdanya, an organization that promotes biodiversity conservation in India. To date, the group has conserved more than 5,000 crop varieties, including 3,000 types of rice, 95 types of wheat, 150 types of kidney beans, 15 types of millet, and much more.

On Navdanya’s site, Shiva explains: “Over the past three decades I have tried to be the change I want to see. When I found that dominant science and technology served the interests of powerful, I left academics to found the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, a participatory, public interest research organisation. When I found global corporations wanted to patent seeds, crops or life forms, I started Navdanya to protect biodiversity, defend farmers’ rights and promote organic farming.”

Born to Make a Difference
It’s not surprising that Shiva found her way to the forefront of sustainability issues, given her upbringing with a forest conservator father and farmer mother. She told Time magazine that growing up, she always wore clothes made of homespun cotton, but one day when she was 13, she came home from boarding school and asked for a fashionable nylon dress.

“If that is what you want, of course you shall have it,” she recalled her mother telling her. “But remember, your nylon frock will help a rich man buy a bigger car. And the cotton that you wear will buy a poor family at least one meal.” She didn’t get the dress.

She did, however, go on to get a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree at the University of Guelph, and a PhD at the University of Western Ontario, concentrating on physics, quantum theory, and the philosophy of science.

“My Very Essence”
For Shiva, issues of ecological sustainability and social justice are closely linked, and she’s devoted her life to tackling both.

“I’m a woman, born the daughter of a feminist and the granddaughter of a feminist grandfather. I don’t think I could have avoided working on women’s issues,” she said in an interview with Scott London. “I don’t do it as a career or profession; it’s my very essence as a human being. When I find too many puzzles about the way explanations are given about why there is inequality — why people who work the hardest in the world end up being the poorest — I can’t just sit back and not try to understand why the gaps between people are increasing, or why there are so many homeless and hungry people in the world. To me, all these issues — of justice, of ecology, of a scientific inquiry into nature through physics — come from the same source.”

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