Women, Ecology and Survival in India Vandana Shiva


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Two kinds of facts

The conventional model of science, technology and society locates sources of violence in politics and ethics, in the application of science and technology, not in scientific knowledge itself. The assumed dichotomy between values and facts underlying this model implies a dichotomy between the world of values and the world of facts. In this view, sources of violence are located in the world of values while scientific knowledge inhabits the world of facts.

The fact value dichotomy is a creation of modern reductionist science which, while being an epistemic response to a particular set of values, posits itself as independent of values. By splitting the world into facts vs. values, it conceals the real difference between two kinds of value laden facts. Modern reductionist science is characterized in the received view as the discovery of the proper­ties and laws of nature in accordance with a 'scientific' method which generates claims of being 'objective,' 'neutral' and 'univer­sal'. This view of reductionist science as being a description of reality as it is, unprejudiced by value, is being rejected increasingly on historical and philosophical grounds. It has been historically established that all knowledge, including modern scientific knowledge, is built on the use of a plurality of methodologies, and reductionism itself is only one of the scientific options available.

There is no 'scientific method'; there is no single proce­dure, or set of rules that underlies every piece of research and guarantees that it is scientific and, therefore, trust­worthy. The idea of a universal and stable method that is an unchanging measure of adequacy and even the idea of a universal and stable rationality is as unrealistic as the idea of a universal and stable measuring instrument that measures any magnitude, no matter what the circumstances. Scientists revise their standards, their procedures, their criteria of rationality as they move along and enter new domains of research just as they revise and perhaps entirely replace their theories and their instruments as they move along and enter new domains of research.23

The assumption that science deals purely with facts has no sup­port from the practise of science itself. The 'facts' of reductionist science are socially constructed categories which have the cultural markings of the western bourgeois, patriarchal system which is their context of discovery and justification. Carolyn Merchant has shown how, until the sixteenth century in the west, organic meta­phors were considered scientific and sane. 'An organically oriented mentality in which female principles played an important role was undermined and replaced by a mechanically oriented mentality that either eliminated or used female principles in an exploitative manner. As western culture became increasingly mechanized in the 1600s, the female earth and virgin earth spirit were subdued by the machine.'24 The subjugation of other traditions of knowledge is similarly a displacement of one set of culturally constituted facts of nature by another, riot the substitution of 'superstition' by 'fact'. The cultural categories of scientific knowledge are not merely cognitive, they are also ethical.

Whereas the nurturing earth image can be viewed as a cultural constraint restricting the types of socially and morally sanctioned human actions allowable with respect to the earth, the new images of mastery and domination functioned as cultural sanctions for the denudation of nature. Controlling images which construct facts also operate as ethical restraints or sanctions as subtle 'oughts' and ought nots'.

In the Third World, the conflict between reductionist and eco­logical perceptions of the world are a contemporary and everyday reality, in which western trained male scientists and experts epi­tomise reductionist knowledge. The political struggle for the femi­nist and ecology movements involves an epistemological shift in the criteria of assessment of the rationality of knowledge. The worth and validity of reductionist claims and beliefs need to be measured against ecological criteria when the crisis of sustainabil­ity and survival is the primary intellectual challenge. The view of reductionist scientific knowledge as a purely factual description of nature, superior to competing alternatives, is found to be ecologi­cally unfounded. Ecology perceives relationships between differ­ent elements of an ecosystem: what propel ties will be selected for a particular resource element will depend on what relationships are taken as the context defining the properties. The context is fixed by priorities and values guiding the perception of nature. Selection of the context is a value determined process and the selection in turn determines what properties are seen. There is nothing like a neutral fact about nature independent of the value determined by human cognitive and economic activity. Properties perceived in nature will depend on how one looks and how one looks depends on the economic interest one has in the resources of nature. The value of profit maximization is thus linked to reduc­tionist systems, while the value of life and the maintenance of life is linked to holistic and ecological systems.

Two kinds of rationality

The ontological and epistemological components of the reduction­ist world view provide the framework for a particular practice of science. According to Descartes, 'Method consists entirely in the order as a disposition of the objects towards which our mental vision must be directed if we would find out any truth. We shall comply with it exactly if we reduce involved and obscure proposi­tions step by step to those that are simpler, and then starting with the intuitive apprehension of all those that are absolutely simple, attempt to ascend to the knowledge of all others by precisely sim­ilar steps.'25 This method was, in Descartes' view, the method to ‘render ourselves the masters and possessors of nature'. Yet it sin­gularly fails to lead to a perception of reality (truth) in the case of living organisms such as nature (including man), in which the whole is not merely the sum of parts, because parts are so cohe­sively inter related that isolating any one distorts the whole.

Kuhn, Feyerband, Polanyi and others have convincingly argued that modern science is not practised according to a well defined and stable scientific method; all that can be granted it is that it is a single mode of thought, among many.

The controlled experiment and the laboratory are a central ele­ment of the methodology of reductionist science. The object of study s arbitrarily isolated from its natural surroundings, from its relationship with other objects and the observer(s). The context (the value framework) so provided determines what properties are perceived, and leads to a particular set of beliefs. The Baconian programme of domination over nature was centrally based on the controlled experiment which was formulated and conceived in the language and metaphor of rape, torture and the inquisition. The ‘controlled' experiment was therefore a political choice, aimed at control of nature and exclusion of other ways of knowing. It was assumed that the truth of nature was more accessible through violence, and it was recognised that this truth is a basis of power. In this way, ‘human knowledge and human power meet as one’.26 Sandra Harding has characterised this as the contemporary 'alliance of perverse knowledge claims with the perversity of dominating power'.

The knowledge and power nexus is inherent to the reductionist system because the mechanistic order, as a conceptual framework, was associated with a set of values based on power which were compatible with the needs of commercial capitalism. It generates inequalities and domination by the way knowledge is generated and structured, the way it is legitimised, and by the way in which such knowledge transforms nature and society. The domination of the South by the North, of women by men, of nature by wester­nised man are now being identified as being rooted in the domina­tion inherent to the world view created by western man over the last three centuries through which he could subjugate or exclude the rest of humanity on grounds of humanity. As Harding observes,

We can now discern the effects of these cultural markings in the discrepancies between the methods of knowing and the interpretations of the world provided by the creators of modern western culture and those characteristic of the rest of us. Western culture's favoured beliefs mirror in some­times clear and sometimes distorting ways not the world as it is or as we might want it to be, but the social projects of their historically identifiable creators.27

Exclusion of other traditions of knowledge by reductionist science is threefold : (i) ontological, in that other properties are just not taken note of, (ii) epistemological, in that other ways of perceiving and knowing are not recognized; and (iii) sociological, in that the non specialist and non expert is deprived of the right both to access to knowledge and to judging claims made on its behalf. All this is the stuff of politics, not science. Picking one group of people (the specialists), who adopt one way of knowing the physical world (the reductionist), to find one set of properties in nature (the mechanistic) is a political, not a scientific mode. Knowledge so obtained is presented as 'the laws of nature', wholly 1 objective 'and altogether universal. Feyerband is therefore right in saying: 'The appearance of objectivity that is attached to some value judgements comes from the fact that a particular tradition is used but not recognised. Absence of the impression of subjectivity is not proof of objectivity, but an oversight,’ The 'controlled' exper­iment which was assumed to be a mode for 'neutral' observation was, in effect, a political tool for exclusion such that people's experimentation in their daily lives was denied access to the status of the scientific.

It is argued in defence of modern science that it is not science itself but the political misuse and unethical technological applica­tion of it that lead to violence. The speciousness of this argument was always clear, but it is totally untenable today, when science and technology have become cognitively inseparable and the amalgam has been incorporated into the scientific military­ industrial complex of capitalist patriarchy. The fragmentation of science into a variety of specializations and sub specializations is used as a smoke screen to blur the perception of this linkage between science and a particular model of social organisation, that is, a particular ideology. Science claims that since scientific truths are verifiable and neutral, they are justified beliefs and therefore universal, regardless of the social context. Yet from the perspective of subjugated traditions, the 'truths' of reductionism are falsehoods for the subjugated. Why should we regard the emergence of modern science as a great advance for humanity when it was achieved only at the cost of a deterioration in social status for most of humanity including women and non western cultures? Sandra Harding, locating the culture of destruction and domination in science as usual, not in bad science, asks,

Could the uses of science to create ecological disaster, sup­port militarism, turn human labour into physically and men­tally mutilating work, develop ways of controlling 'others'   the colonised, the women, the poor   be just misuses of applied science? Or does this kind of conceptualisation of the character and purposes of experimental method ensure that what is called bad science or misused science will be a distinctively masculinist science as usual? 28

Modern science and ecological crises

The supernatural natural divide. It was not so long ago that most philosophers, sociologists and anthropologists, both western and non western, relegated all traditional thought to the realm of the supernatural, the mystical and the irrational. Modern science, in contrast, was uniquely posed as natural, material, empirical, rational. Scientists, in accordance with an abstract scientific method, were viewed as putting forward statements corresponding to the realities of a directly observable world. The theoretical con­cepts in their discourse were in principle seen as reducible to directly verifiable observational claims. Of course, an elementary investigation into the nature of scientific theories showed that such a reduction was not possible and, instead, it was pervasive theoret­ical presuppositions which determined observation and facts. Further, the lack of existence of a theoretically neutral observa­tional vocabulary excluded the possibility of definite and conclu­sive verification of theoretical claims. Scientific claims, like all oth­ers, were slowly recognised as arising not in accordance with a verificationist model but from the commitment of a specialist community of scientists to presupposed metaphors and paradigms which determined the meaning of constituent terms, concepts and the status of observation and facts. Meaning and validity were con­trolled, by the social world of scientists and not by the natural world. These new accounts of modern science left no criteria to distinguish between the myths of traditional thought and the meta­phors of modern science, between supernatural entities presup­posed by traditional communities and theoretical entities presup­posed by modem scientists.

Thus, awareness of and familiarity with the theorising and prac­tise of both modern science and traditional thought forces a col­lapse in the distinction between the supernatural and natural, the irrational and rational, the social and scientific. It removes modem science from its presumed privileged epistemological status, and elevates traditional thought to the status of ethno  science, because it constitutes legitimate ways of knowing and because its claims are expressed in the everyday languages of the people and are influ­enced by the structures of their languages. To that extent they are particular to each society and its people. However, though theoret­ical explanation in traditional thought is now recognised as being about the natural and not the supernatural domain, and is of the same epistemological status as explanation in modern scientific thought, its cognitive power is seen as inferior to that of the latter. There are, however, a number of problems in holding on to such a perspective on the cognitive superiority of modem science while conceding epistemological status to traditional and modern belief systems.

Firstly, as Kuhn29 has shown, scientists are not in practice typi­cally and consistently aware of the existence of alternatives in any case. Science is not nearly as open as has been popularly thought. Scientific inquiry does not range freely amongst boundless alterna­tives as the popular image suggests, but at any given time is con­strained by the currently dominant paradigm. On the other hand, one knows so little about traditional beliefs, especially in the diachronic perspective, that claims about their stagnation, lack of creativity etc., can only be speculation. Thus one cannot legitimately talk of the 'open' and 'closed' predicament but merely of rapidly versus slowly changing belief systems.

Why should more change in thinking per se amount to more rational and cognitively superior theorising? Popper's falsification­ism seems to identify the willingness to give up beliefs with a critical spirit, and hence rapidly changing belief systems are viewed as evolving towards more rational and objective claims. However, this view of progress through  revolution again faces problems. If, following Kuhn, scientific change is guided by social and political factors and not by purely logical and empirical criteria provided by an abstract scientific method, it becomes difficult to conceive how change in itself ensures progress. Even in Popper's unworldly third world of ideas and knowledge, it is therefore not possible to defend the claim that the higher the turnover of beliefs, the more rational one's beliefs will be. In the real world, however, where ideas and beliefs act as guides to action, and play a transformative as well as an interpretive role, too rapid a change in belief systems at times becomes a sign of irrationality and irresponsibility rather than rationality and a critical spirit. The most glaring example of such irrationality and irresponsibility is the situation of contem­porary ecological crises. While traditional belief systems did, in rare cases, lead to material transformation of the environment that led to ecological disasters, in most cases ethno sciences have proved to be adequate in maintaining societies and nature. On the other hand, threatening the conditions of natural and human sustenance through human intervention seems to be the rule rather than the exception in modern scientific thought and the practise it gives rise to, especially in fields dealing with health, food production and food consumption.

The new philosophies of science which have broken down the supernatural natural divide and the society science dualism, and have established epistemological equivalence between ethno­ science and modern science, have however created models which do not allow one to discuss the status of beliefs about nature in the materialist perspective of the ecological crises. Kuhn's conclusion about nature fitting into the inelastic boxes of paradigms leaves no room to introduce those material situations when nature boome­rangs. His view thus leads to material vacuity. Knowledge about nature can be materially assessed only when the dualism separat­ing thought from action and belief from practice is broken.

This materialist criterion allows one to view belief systems as weak when the unanticipated and unpredicted change in the mate­rial environment is far more extensive and intensive than the pre­dicted transformation. When antibiotics create super infection and flood control measures accentuate floods and fertilizers rob soil of its fertility, the problem is not merely between use and misuse of technology. It is rooted in the very process of knowledge creation in modern science, a process which is increasingly turning out to be more preoccupied with the material problems created by intervention through scientific beliefs, than material problems posed by nature itself.

The natural unnatural divide

The belief action and theory practise unity that provides the unit of assessment in a materialist epistemology can be interpreted at two different levels in modern science. At the first level, the activity or practise that involves material transformation can be res­tricted to the scientist's practice in his specialised environment of a laboratory. This level however does not create conditions in which ecological instabilities arising from mistaken beliefs about natural processes can be seen. For an ecological evaluation of the material­ist adequacy of theories it therefore becomes essential to consider a more general level of practise in which the material transforma­tion is in the wider natural setting and not in the manipulated setting of a laboratory. Quite obviously, certain types of scientific theorising do not reach the second level of practise. Examples of this are theories in astrophysics or particle physics which, in their contemporary state, stop at the material transformation required to create an experimental situation and do not spill over into the larger environment. However, such theorising is uninteresting in the context of a comparison with ethno science and an evaluation in an ecological perspective, though for a dualist philosophy of science restricted to the analysis of ideas alone it is just these fields which are most interesting since they are the most advanced in the reductionist positivist scheme of thought. For our task, the scien­tific theory and practise that is of relevance is the type that does have ecological implications and involves scientific practise in a wider natural setting.

There is a third category of knowledge in modem science, which unlike particle physics, transcends the material context of the experimental laboratory and, unlike knowledge of fields related to health and food and agriculture does not create ecological imbalances. Electronics and its background specializations are such an example. Such scientific domains are characterised by both the levels of practise taking place in materially artificial and man made environments. The artifacts created as part of the transformative activity arising from such beliefs do not interfere with natural processes and relationships in nature. Though derived from nature, they continue to exist independent of it after creation. However, the creation of such artifacts does not replace the natural processes ensuring human survival; they merely supplement the natural material world and do not provide a substitute for it. What could be a better indication of man's continued dependence on nature than the fact that today's so called post industrial societies satisfy most of their food needs through imports from so called underdeve­loped countries? It is in the context of the continued central role of nature in human survival that the material inadequacy of scientific thought in the ecological perspective becomes essential.

For those who have internalised linearity in history and nature, 'taking guidance from ethno science will seem like 'going backwards'. For others, who see plurality as the stable order for natural ecosystems and human societies, being enlightened by ethno-science will amount to returning to the appropriate path after hav­ing gone astray for a while on the reductionist road. Nature is, after all diverse and authentic knowledge of nature should account for this diversity. Ethno sciences are not less reliable because they are pluralistic, and reductionist science universalised does not provide a more reliable account of nature because it is singular. Objectivity cannot, after all, be equated with a singular inappropriate answer that destroys its very object.

Recent history has shown that in certain areas of human activity a return to ecological thought and action is possible and desirable. The primitive practise of breast feeding had been discredited by the advertising and reductionist claims of the baby food industry. The ecology of breast feeding has, however, become appreciated once again, and the 'primitive' practise is enlightened practise today. Chemicalisation of health care seemed to be the only way to develop in the reductionist paradigm. Work in ethno medicine is again bringing back wholesome drugs and treatment. Sustainable organic farming which created 'farmers of forty centuries' is on its way back, in all the diversity and plurality of its traditional base. Each of these steps towards ecological thought and action has been possible because contact was made with an ethno scientific tradi­tion. If the world is to be conserved for survival, the human poten­tial for conservation must be conserved first. It is the only resource we have to foresee and forestall the destruction of our ecosystems.

Contemporary women's ecological struggles are new attempts to establish that steadiness and stability are not stagnation, and bal­ance with nature's essential ecological processes is not technolog­ical backwardness but technological sophistication. At a time when a quarter of the world's population is threatened by starvation due to erosion of soil, water and genetic diversity of living resources, chasing the mirage of unending growth, by spreading resource destructive technologies, becomes a major source of genocide. The killing of people by the murder of nature is an invisible form of violence which is today the biggest threat to justice and peace.

The emerging feminist and ecological critiques of reductionist science extend the domain of the testing of scientific beliefs into the wider physical world. Socially, the world of scientific experi­ments and beliefs has to be extended beyond the so called experts and specialists into the worrld of all those who have systematically been excluded from it   women, peasants, tribals. The verification and validation of a scientific system would then be validation in practise, where practise and experimentation is real life activity in society and nature. Harding says:

Neither God nor tradition is privileged with the same credi­bility as scientific rationality in modern cultures. . . The project that science's sacredness makes taboo is the examination of science in just the ways any other institution or set of social practises can be examined. If we are not willing to try and see the favoured intellectual structures and practises of science as cultural artifacts rather than as sacred com­mandments handed down to humanity at the birth of mod­ern science, then it will be hard to understand how gender symbolism, the gendered social structure of science, and the masculine identities and behaviours of individual scientists have left their marks on the problematics, con­cepts, theories, methods, interpretation, ethics, meanings and goals of science.30

The intellectual recovery of the feminine principle creates new conditions for women and non western cultures to become prin­cipal actors in establishing a democracy of all life, as countervailing forces to the intellectual culture of death and dispensability that reductionism creates.

Ecology movements are political movements for a non violent world order in which nature is conserved for conserving the options for survival. These movements are small, but they are growing. They are local, but their success lies in non local impact. They demand only the right to survival yet with that minimal demand is associated the right to live in a peaceful and just world. With the success of these grassroots movements is linked the glo­bal issue of survival. Unless the world is restructured ecologically at the level of world views and life styles, peace and justice will continue to be violated and ultimately the very survival of human­ity will be threatened.

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