Vandana Shiva’s powerful Soil Not Oil
Edible Mediatakes an occasional look at interesting or deplorable food journalism.
In a recent essay in The Nation, the critic William Deresiewicz made a pungent observation about the U.S. cultural scene:
An iron law of American life decrees that the provinces of thought be limited in the collective consciousness to a single representative. Like a poor man’s Noah, we take one of each. One physicist: Stephen Hawking. One literary theorist: Harold Bloom. One radical social critic: Noam Chomsky. Before her death, we had one intellectual, Susan Sontag, and one only. (Now we’ve dispensed with the category altogether.) We are great anointers in this country, a habit that obviates the need for scrutiny. We don’t want to have to go into the ins and outs of a thing — weigh merits, examine histories, enter debates. We just want to put a face on it — the logic of celebrity culture — and move on.
For food politics, the Anointed One is Michael Pollan. The year opened with publication of Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. Half critical history of “nutritionism” half diet-advice book, Defense outperformed this year’s pack of food-politics books by a wide margin, both in critical and popular terms.
Yet intellectual life, like agriculture, needs biodiversity to thrive. Pollan is a formidable food-politics writer, but others exist, too. A number of worthy food-politics books emerged this year, and over the next week I’ll be posting reviews of the year’s top ten. Today’s is Vandana Shiva’s Soil Not Oil: Environmental Justice in an Age of Climate Crisis.
In Deresiewicz’s terms, Shiva is our Global South Environmental Activist. Fierce and uncompromising, she uses her outsider’s perspective to form withering critiques of the Western-led global economic order.
Yet it’s a mistake to box her in as an angry polemicist. Trained as a physicist, Shiva brings a holistic perspective to the debate around food and energy. She’s a kind of vintage scientist — a throwback to the age before the Enlightenment capriciously divided science from moral philosophy.
Shiva sweeps aside the wreckage of this false debate and cuts to the heart of the matter. Fittingly, her latest book, Soil Not Oil, is a kind of totalizing manifesto. She plucks the global south’s precarious situation with regard to food from the margin of the conversation and moves it to the center.
By the end of Soil Not Oil, you’ll see the fate of India’s smallholding farmers as a proxy not just for that huge nation’s prospects, but also for humanity’s fate in an era of rapid climate change and fossil-fuel scarcity.
One of my favorite chapters poses the question: “Sacred Cows or Sacred Cars.” Shiva writes:
During the enclosure of the commons in Britain, Sir Thomas more wrote, “sheep eat men.” He was referring to the diversion of land from providing for human needs and sustenance to providing wool as a raw material for factories and profits for the landlords and factory owners. The peasants were uprooted; a new poverty was created. Land that fed people was now to feed the factories.
From there, she details how fertile Indian land is now being swallowed for highways and car factories — even as climate change accelerates and food insecurity grows.
Here in the West, it is no longer fashionable among environmentalists to critique the car. It’s too ingrained in American culture; by attacking the car, we lose the public and relegate ourselves to the margins. Thus, rather than push mass transit, we dream of technologies (plug-in hybrids, the fantasia of ethanol) that can keep our little private pods motoring down the road.
I’m glad we have Shiva to question our dangerous devotions. This book needs to be read, not just by food fanatics but by environmentalists of all stripes.