Duty is a celebration. Duty is revolutionary. Duty is an inner spring of passion and creativity. The one thing it never is – in the eyes of Indian author, activist, scientific adviser and mother Dr Vandana Shiva – is a burden.
“I’ve never seen duty as a burden,” says Dr Shiva. “I’ve seen it as defining who you are.”
Who we are is part of a complex web of relationships that make up life, she says.
“For me, the word ‘duty’ conjures up a sense of relationships that I have, that create a duty in me to take care of all those relationships. This includes my parents, those who come after me, it includes the pollinators and the sun and the soil. And that’s why I choose to do what I do, because of that multi-dimensional sense of duty.”
How Dr Shiva fulfills that duty is nothing short of astonishing. She has degrees in physics and quantum theory from two continents. She founded the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology in Dehra Dun, India, which works closely with local communities and social movements as well as Navdanya, a movement to protect the diversity and integrity of living resources and to promote organic farming and fair trade. Navdanya has helped more than 500,000 farmers, saved more than 3,000 varieties of rice and established 60 seed banks across India.
Dr Shiva also started Bija Vidyapeeth, a college for sustainable living in Doon Valley, in collaboration with the UK’s Schumacher College, which was itself inspired by economist and environmentalist E.F. Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful: A study of Economics As If People Mattered.
She has written many books challenging the practice and paradigms of agriculture and food and examining the costs of corporate-led globalisation and has reaped a string of plaudits – from being named a Time magazine ‘environmental hero’ to one of Forbes magazine’s Seven Most Powerful Women on the Globe. She has taken the fight to corporations who claim intellectual property ownership of neem, basmati and wheat, advised governments on biodiversity and intellectual property rights, campaigned internationally against genetically modified food and started women’s organisations around the world.
During our half-hour chat, which ranged over the nature of duty in relation to democracy, consumerism, economics, sustainability, rights, relationships, people, species, the planet and generations past and future, she quoted Archimedes, Gandhi, yoga philosophy and economic theory. Equally passionate and poetic, she combines a formidable intellect with her love for the planet and fellow beings (all 300 million species) and a mother’s fierce protectiveness.
“Our duty is first and foremost to the earth and all the beings,” Dr Shiva says.
“That’s the first condition of our being alive on the planet and that’s a duty totally erased in the fossilised world view … because it created the illusion that we are free of the earth, that you can burn up the coal and pretend you’re getting more efficient by having fossil-fuel burning replace the loving work of people. And that basically has erased both our sense of earth-being, of being earth citizens and with it the duty to care.
“The second duty, of course, comes to humanity in an amazing circle … when you get up and say the suryanamaskar to the sun, your prayer is basically saying ‘Let all beings be happy.’ ‘Let all beings be happy’ then creates the duty.”
If we each consider our role in making others happy, we might then choose to spend our time differently, as a mother does with her child. “I’m a mother and the amount of time you have to give to a child when your baby is born and growing up is huge compared to the time you give to any other relationship.”
Yet, we don’t seem to share that same connection and sense of duty to the earth and other living beings. “In my view if we don’t reclaim that sense of connection, sustainability stays an empty word.”
Taking responsibility for the earth and all its beings, humanity itself, might seem a monumental task – perhaps even a paralysing thought – but there are simple things we each can do and we can start by looking at what’s on our plate.
Dr Shiva says 75 per cent of the damage to the planet’s soil, water and diversity, or 50 per cent of the damage to the planet from climate change comes from a model of agriculture that grew out of fossil fuels.
“You have a duty to protect life and therefore destructive forces must be resisted. That’s why Gandhi said satyagraha, “the force of truth” and that’s how I live my life.”
“It rests on a militarised mindset, it rests basically on fertilisers that come from fossil fuels, pesticides that come from fossil fuels, giant farm machinery that comes from fossil fuels. All of this is the biggest single force of destruction on the planet.