Sunday, September 17, 2006

Living Economies

Today I sat on the porch, watching the sun poke through the trees. I finally finished the first chapter of Earth Democracy by Vandana Shiva and wanted to share a selection of quotes and reflections from this chapter, "Living Economies."

The globalized free market, which dominates our lives, is based on rules that extinguish and deny access to life and livelihoods by generating scarcity. This scarcity is created by the destruction of nature's economy and the sustenance economy, where life is nourished, maintained and renewed (pp.13-14).

What is nature's economy?

Nature's economy consists of the production of goods and services by nature--the water recycled and distributed through the hydrologic cycle, the soil fertility produced by microorganisms, the plants fertilized by pollinators (p. 16).

What is the sustenance economy?
In the sustenance economy, people work to directly provide the conditions necessary to maintain their lives . . . The sustenance economy is the economy of two-thirds of humanity engaged in craft production, peasant agriculture, artisanal fishing, and indigenous forest economies. The sustenance economy includes all spheres in which humans produce in balance with nature and reproduce society through partnerships, mutuality and reciprocity (p.17).
The poverty of the Third World has resulted from
centuries of the drain of resources from the sustenance economy
(p.17).
In my opinion, this is one of the most important things that Vandana Shiva has to say because she debunks a popular western myth that many people in the "Third World" are living in poverty because they are lazy and because they live inareas that do not have any natural resources.
If I am understanding Vandana Shiva correctly, these areas did indeed have natural resources. People were able to sustain themselves from the land they chose to live with. This changed when some economies changed from sustenance economies to market economies where capital became the resource that drove the economy.
In this type of economy, more resources are necessary to sustain people. European economies are an example of this. These economies eventually needed more natural resources than their land provided. Hence, colonization and later, globalization.
Enclosure of the Commons
Vandana Shiva uses the example of the enclosure of the British commons for sheepherding in the early 1600s as an example of what happens when people no longer share natural resources and only use what they need for sustenance.
While one acre of arable land on the commons could produce 670 pounds of bread, it could only maintain a few sheep. In terms of food and the sustenance economy this was a loss, since the sheep could only produce 176 pounds of mutton (p.19).

When people can no longer survive from their land, they are forced to work outside of the home or away from the land to sustain themselves and their families, and often as we know even today, people cannot sustain themselves through their work.

This is why many minimum wage workers here in the Unites States must work two jobs with at least one if not both being fulltime (40 hours a week).

This is why people are forced to cross borders under dangerous circumstances and live in other countries without documentation (or as they like to say in the U.S.A., "illegally").

In today's world, the privatization of our natural resources such as water or intellectual property laws claiming rights over peoples' ancestral seeds and medicinal plants are examples of the commons being enclosed.

And when the commons are enclosed, resources are developed and used by multinational businesses until they no longer yield any market benefit at which point they are discarded and left to the local population to unsuccessfully sustain themselves.

The introduction of unsustainable cash crops in large parts of Africa is among the main reasons for the ecological disaster in that continent. The destruction of the ecological balance of the rainforests of South America is the result of agribusiness and cattle ranching in the clearcut areas. And with no obligation to rehabilitate the ravaged land, agribusiness just moves on to consume other resources and other sectors to maintain and increase profits when the productivity of the land declines. The costs of the destruction of Africa's grazing lands and farmlands, and of Latin America's forests, have not been borne by multinational food corporations but by the local peasants and tribals. The costs of ecological destruction and damage to the sustenance economy are borne by the local populace alone (p.53).
I saw this in Guatemala. Coffee is not an indigenous crop, the Spanish introduced it and now the price of coffee is dropping and dropping. . .

Genocide and Overpopulation

Vandana Shiva believes that the fact that people cannot sustain themselves from eroded land and are subsequently starving contributes to genocide. The need for more land and natural resources for a select few to make a profit is another reason. Think about Rwanda, Guatemala, and many other countries. It makes sense.

Shiva also explains that overpopulation is the direct result of the scarcity of resources. This is another common misconception that I hear, that if people could only get affordable access to birth control, overpopulation would be solved. Access to family planning services is a human right, I agree. However, in many cases, impoverished "Third World" families are actually engaging in family planning, just with different goals and results. In some cases, in order for a family to survive they must "plan" for a certain number of children to contribute labor. In addition, with the absence of adequate health care and social security, "an Indian woman has to produce six children to ensure at least one son will survive to take care of her and her husband when she is 60." This is not unique to India.

There are Solutions

For Vandana Shiva and many others, Earth Democracy is the solution. "Earth Democracy movements are struggles of the disadvantaged and excluded at conserving nature's balance to preserve their survival." It is Earth Democracy that will actually ensure our survival as opposed to the democracy we do at the polls when we vote for someone just because they are not as bad as the other candidate even though they may vote for things that we do not believe in such as the war on Iraq or the attack on Lebanon. Businesses that depend on military spending such as Boeing sustain us afterall.

Shiva believes that Earth Democracy has to happen locally. She describes a group of women in India who began hugging trees-chipko to protest the destruction of forests. Finally, when the trees helped stave off a flood, the government understood why the forests were so important to the women and legislated their survival.

As I read through this book, I will have many more examples to share. At this point, I do want to make sure that my Western readers also consider Shiva's message of acting locally. Here are some ideas:
  • Support your local farmer's market.
  • Buy local produce and home products. Many farmers have programs where you can put a flat amount of money down when seeds are being planted and they will give you fresh fruit and vegetables throughout the season.
  • Shop at your local coop.
  • Find socially responsible e-businesses that sell produce and more.
  • Avoid buying fruits and vegetables that have been flown in from other parts of the country or world.
  • Explore the many sustainable opportunities in your community.
This is a very small list. I invite any readers of this blog, to contribute their ideas on how to create earth democracy in their community.
I leave you with a few websites that you may want to explore as you think through creating an earth democracy.

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