PCDForum Column #46, Release Date April 10, 1993
by Vandana Shiva
Often it is the voice of the people that calls attention to the
environmental costs of mal-development long before official agencies acknowledge
a problem. Peasant women were the first to voice concern over Himalayan
deforestation. Housewives at Love Canal first protested against the health
effects of dumping toxic waste. The green movement is a local movement based on
local awareness and local resistance to environmental degradation.
Yet as the environmental movement gains an increasingly powerful voice, we
see a growing effort by such institutions as multinational corporations and
multilateral development banks to coopt, redefine, and transform the language of
environmental dissent virtually writing local out of the discourse on
environmental concerns and casting all environmental problems as global problems
requiring global solutions.
The supposed "global" concern of the very institutions with the
pre-eminent role in environmental destruction does not arise out of a concern
for all humanity or for all life on earth. To the contrary, it reflects a
concern to protect particular local and parochial interests that through the
scope of their global reach have freed themselves from local, national and
international restraints. By projecting environmental degradation as a global
problem requiring global solutions, the globally powerful at once shift the
blame onto those communities that have no global political reach, disguise their
own roles and responsibilities in environmental destruction, and tighten their
claim over the environmental resources of other localities.
Consider the ozone depletion caused by CFCs. By casting ozone depletion as a
"global" environmental problem, it is conveniently forgotten that CFCs
are produced by specific transnational companies, like Du Pont, in specific
plants in specific locations and that the first (and most urgent) task in "solving"
the ozone crisis is to halt production of CFCs at those plants. Instead, the
problem is shifted to the future use of refrigerators and air-conditioners by
millions in India and China. Similarly, with regard to bio-diversity, "globalization"
is used to erode local rights and shift control over biological resources from
the gene-rich South to the gene-poor North. The "globalization" of
environmental concerns thus emerges as a principal weapon for the North to
extend still further its worldwide monopoly over natural resources, while
forcing the world to share the environmental costs.
Having screened out the global projection of special local interests as a
cause of environmental destruction worldwide, the World Bank and other dominant
institutions transform the many facets of environmental destruction rising
poverty, the growth of population, the polarization and conflict between genders
and ethnic communities from consequences to causes of environmental degradation.
With false causality comes false conclusions. Population growth, rather than an
irresponsible chemical company, becomes a cause of the explosive growth in the
use of toxic chemicals.
The ordinary Indian woman who worships the tulsi plant worships the cosmic
as symbolized in the plant. The peasant who treats seeds as sacred makes a
connection between the seed and the universe. In most sustainable traditional
cultures, the large and the small have been linked. The large exists in the
small, and hence every act has not just local, or even global, but even cosmic
implications. Treading gently on the earth becomes the natural way to be. Those
who have this sense of planetary consciousness made demands on the self-not on
By contrast, those with global reach have no such reciprocal relationship
with the planet or with people. "Global ecology" at this level is
empty of any ethics for planetary living.
The roots of the ecological crisis lie in the alienation of the right of
local communities to have a say in environmental decisions. The reversal of
ecological decline depends upon strengthening local rights. However, the trend
in global discussions and negotiations is to take rights further away, toward
higher, non-local centralization in agencies such as the World Bank.
Democratizing international interests is essential if democracy is to exist
at local and national levels. Multilateralism in a democratic system must mean a
lateral expansion of decision-making based on the protection of local community
rights where they exist, and the restitution of rights where they have been
The global must bend to the local, since the local exists with nature, while
the "global" exists only in offices of the World Bank and IMF and the
headquarters of multinational corporations. The local is everywhere. The
ecological space of global ecology is the integration of all locals. The "global"
in "global" reach is a political space, not an ecological one.
Vandana Shiva is director of the Research Foundation for Science,
Technology, and Natural Resource Policy, 105 Rajpur Road, Dehra Dun, Uttar
Pradesh 248001, India and a contributing editor of the People-Centered
Development Forum. This column was prepared and distributed by the PCDForum
based on her editorial in The Ecologist, Nov/Dec 1992.