An annual event celebrated around the world on April 22, Earth Day began as a response to the devastating impact that industrial activity has had upon our natural world. It was specifically precipitated by the 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill which released more than three million gallons off the coast of California. After having seen the damage from the spill, US Senator Gaylord Nelson, environmentalists Selma Rubin, Denis Hayes, and others were moved to create an initiative that would raise awareness and push for advocacy surrounding broad environmental issues. In the five decades since Earth Day was created, the world has witnessed more disasters accompanied by growing consciousness around these issues; the relevance and magnitude of its observance has only increased.
With each published study that demonstrates the catastrophic state of our natural environment comes a subsequent blow for the hope of a world existing in harmony with nature. As the perception of hope for solutions diminishes so our inner psychological state answers in form with a kind of degradation of the outlook we hold for ourselves and our kin. No single person can know the fate of our civilization and confidently discard the possibility of a more gracious and reciprocal relationship with our planet, yet we often live as if it was so; many of us convinced that we have gone too far in the decimation of our environment.
Refuting a Hopeless Assessment
It is the loss of hope and instinctual refutation of any possibility of improvement that seems to be so dangerous, for as previously stated, it is highly unlikely that any one of us at any point in history could have the certainty over our entire civilizations denouement, yet this is precisely what we claim when we look at our current state and conclude with self-assurance that there is nothing to be done. As author Christian Schwägerl writes in his book The Anthropocene: The Human Era and How it Shapes our Planet, “it is important to move beyond the doomsdayism so typically associated with environmentalism…”
So it seems that if we are to act in accordance with a vision for better planetary stewardship, we must believe such a vision is plausible; that we are capable of doing so, and that we are not as many have felt “too late, and too flawed” to come up with some effective shift. There has been recent acknowledgment of ‘climate fatigue’, a term used to describe a typical response in today’s youth toward climate and environmental emergencies. It seems pressing to acknowledge that there is an inner psychological component to our circumstance that directly affects our capacity to strive for solutions. So, as our inner state is constantly fed a barrage of information confirming our most feared environmental dread, how can we distinguish the reality of our world and the hopeless one we project outward?
Climate Crisis as a Mirror
Perhaps some of our answers lie not only in collecting more accurate and representative data but in transforming our capacity to interpret it. We must find a way to avoid becoming dogmatic about the environment’s demise to the point where we think the possibility of change should be repudiated as dangerous because it distracts from the ‘unquestionable fact’ that we are headed toward extinction. And in order to transform our ability to interpret the world we need to come to terms with the attitudes, expectations and assumptions we hold about the world that are deeply embedded within our psyche. In some sense, what we need is to reconcile ourselves with our shadow self, the part of ourselves we obscure and that negatively informs our interpretation of the world, producing conclusions that are based on our preconceived notions of reality as opposed to on what is true or what is possible.
As Carl Jung pointed out a century ago, there is an inextricable link between the external and internal worlds, and a manifestation in one is often accompanied by a reflection in the other. Jung spoke of large scale events that occurred during his lifetime as having a deep-seated parallel existing in the collective unconscious (the part of the unconscious mind which is derived from ancestral memory/experience and is common to all humankind) of entire civilizations and there is something to be gleaned about our own predicament considering the magnitude of its scale. It is sometimes easier for someone who has lost hope, to believe that it is all unsalvageable precisely because the possibility of hope brings with it the possibility of its loss, and for some that is simply too much to bear.
Reciprocity and Responsibility: From Spectators to Participants
Much to our chagrin, our role is not one of mere spectators. We must take up our environment as something not separate from us, and certainly not something which we can take for granted as if it were some perpetual machine that will continue its rumbling without affecting us and without being affected by us. The global COVID-19 pandemic has made us all rethink how through our unchecked activity in industrialized meat production we might be creating a source of a number of novel pathogens.
In his book What Has Nature Ever Done For Us?, Tony Juniper takes a profound look at how it is that we depend on the natural systems around us in ways we are not even aware of. In fact, he points out a simple but often unacknowledged truth, “Natural capital sustains financial capital.” The unique crossroads at which we stand compels us to make a courageous gesture reflecting this interconnectedness, yet we frequently feel utterly deflated by the popularly held conception that there is simply no use in trying. In order to move forward, we must acknowledge that we cannot do so without bringing our own shadow with us and that if we continue with significant unconsciousness, this, in turn, has the potential of souring any step we take.
For the past decade, indigenous beekeeper Leydy Pech has been at the forefront of a battle protecting her homeland’s environment and way of life. She has been recognized in her efforts to protect the livelihoods, territories, and traditions of her community and standing up against the use of glyphosate and GMOs in the Mexican state of Campeche, located in the Yucatán peninsula.
Pech hails from the Maya community of Hopelchén, where the practice of traditional indigenous beekeeping has been preserved in its ancestral form, using the Melipona Beecheii species, a type of stingless bee native to the peninsula. The traditional practice, which Pech learned from her grandfather, consists of using hollow logs to keep hives and then harvesting honey, beeswax, and ‘royal jelly’ from them.
Maya beekeeping is a tradition more than two thousand years old and is the only type of apiculture that originated in a tropical climate. Bees hold a sacred and privileged position in the cosmology and mythology of the regions’ Maya people who call the bees xuna’an kab or colel-kab (“royal lady”) and recognize their vital role in nature’s equilibrium.
In addition to the honey’s use as a sweetener, the products harvested from the hives are used in many indigenous natural remedies as well as religious rituals and ceremonies. The products are also used to make balché, a mildly intoxicating drink used in ceremonies reverencing the bee’s role in the greater cycle of life. Such is the link between Maya culture and bees that the Maya language of that region has more than 150 terms related to the cultivating and keeping of hives.
Safeguarding the Commons
In 2012, genetically modified (GM) soybeans began to be planted in Campeche after the Mexican government allowed agrochemical giant Monsanto to move forward with large-scale operations in seven Mexican states. The practice of using GM crops for agricultural production resulted in damage to the region’s environmental health and spurred Pech and the Maya women’s collective she’s a part of. Concerned by the impact that these practices were having in her region, she led a coalition of beekeepers, NGO’s, and environmentalists in challenging Monsanto and the Mexican government, by placing a lawsuit to stop the planting of GMOs. The suit affirmed that since neither Monsanto nor the government had consulted the region’s indigenous communities, they had violated their rights protected by the Mexican constitution.
Three years after the suit was filed, the Mexican Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the broad coalition and declared that that indigenous communities must be consulted before the planting of GM crops. The victory marked a significant upset for the transnational agroindustrial corporations and represented a twist in the Green Revolution’s story which has continued to unfold in Mexico and around the world.
Consequences of the Green Revolution
The Green Revolution is the name given to a series of techniques developed in the field of agriculture which, by the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides along with high yield seed varieties, changed the way much of the food in our world is produced. In the 1950’s Mexico served as a guinea pig for the techniques being developed since it’s where Norman Borlaug (the “Father of the Green Revolution”), worked as a part of a joint venture between the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture. Ever since, Mexico has been on the front lines of its implementation as well as the resistance against its consequences.
Although the techniques developed in The Green Revolution serve to increase agricultural production, they are problematic in that their side effects are often devastating to the environment and to countless peoples’ way of life around the globe. Perhaps most importantly, the techniques of the Green Revolution require enormous amounts of water, calculated by some to be ten times the amount needed for traditional methods. Synthesized chemicals used as fertilizers are known to contribute to a host of environmental issues, including acidification of soil, contamination of surface and groundwater, and increasing the levels of nitrous oxide in our atmosphere, the third most prevalent greenhouse gas in our planet. Due to their high cost, the techniques are mainly used by large-scale operations that have the means to invest capital. Consequently, the immense majority of farmers around the world that work on a small scale are excluded from this model. When smaller farmers are able to purchase the equipment and the fertilizers/pesticides necessary for this kind of farming it is only by taking out enormous loans which saddle them with long-term debt.
In Defense of Health, Habitat, and Culture
The problematic nature of these techniques is difficult to curb in part because they are highly lucrative for the extractivist companies that wish to implement them. The ruling in favor of Leydy Pech’s coalition has not stopped her from continuing to raise awareness for these issues and organizing her community to protect their territory and their traditional way of life. “Frankly, right now, all the programs destined for the countryside are not designed for the farmer or the indigenous Mayan, they are designed for the modernization of the fields, but this is for businessmen and their industrial agriculture.”
As 2020 came to a close Mexico’s government reaffirmed its stance against the use of glyphosate and made the decision to ban GMO corn in the country. These advances have been welcomed by environmentalist communities but advocates have also pointed out that the battle is far from over, with many agroindustrial farms continuing to use the GM soybeans and glyphosate in the region. Pech’s work serves as an inspiration for people around the world whose environment and way of life are in peril due to the destructive impact of unfettered, neoliberal agroindustry. For Pech, “Caring for our lands is caring for ourselves, and if we do not do so we will disappear.”
Vandana Shiva, the Indian scientist, and activist stands for social justice and uncompromising sustainability. The Alternative Nobel Prize winner gained worldwide attention through her fight against the agricultural giant Monsanto. But Vandana Shiva does not only want to fight patents on seeds and give the seeds back to the farmers who grow them. She is a well-known critic of globalization, speaks out publicly against the concentration of wealth, and fights for better coexistence on earth.
Vandana Shiva: From Physicist to Activist
A public lecture and press conference by Vandana Shiva and meeting with young farmers, NGOs and activists (2013)
Before Vandana Shiva became a world-renowned social activist, she studied physics in India and Canada. As early as the 1970s, she became involved in the first Indian environmental movement, the Chipko movement. It was mainly supported by Indian women who were fighting against commercial deforestation. In the 1980s, two major events finally led her to look into agriculture. Several tons of poisonous gas escaped into the atmosphere from a US pesticide factory in Bhopal, India. The worst chemical accident in history occurred, killing thousands of people. Also, riots broke out in Punjab, a predominantly agricultural area. Industrial fertilizer, pesticides, and new seeds from the USA promised higher yields for the local farmers, but at the same time led to dependence on large corporations and fatal environmental damage.
Fighting Patents on Seeds and Protecting Diversity
As a critic of globalization, Shiva was active against the monopoly position of transnational agricultural corporations like Monsanto, which were trying to exert increasing influence on Indian agriculture. In her home village of Dehadrun, she founded the institute “The Research Foundation for Science Technology and Ecology”, which observes the influence of the world market on Indian farmers. In 1991 Shiva founded the organization Navdanya, which stands for the protection of the biological diversity of seeds. Navdanya collects regional varieties and saves them from extinction. In addition, the organization promotes organic farming methods and protects farmers from dependence on patented seeds.
Seeds Belong to Those Who Grow Them
Shiva refers to what is happening in agriculture as “bio-imperialism“. Companies make seeds their property by making them easier to patent through the use of genetic engineering. Shiva’s life work has largely been devoted to fighting patents on seeds and she strongly criticizes this practice:
“Some Western companies remind me of a doctor who performs a c-section and claims he also made the child.”
The preservation of indigenous seeds in the hands of local communities and chemical-free agriculture with local markets are among Vandana Shiva’s most important goals. Her vision of ideal agriculture is based on fair trade and solidarity-based commerce, as well as on biodiversity and organic farming. For her commitment to environmental protection, women’s rights, and sustainability, she was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, considered the Alternative Nobel Prize.
Oneness vs the 1%
But Vandana Shiva’s activism is not only focused on agriculture: In 2019 she published her book “Oneness vs The 1%“. The 1%, is the symbol for the concentration of wealth according to the rules of neoliberal economies. She calls billionaires like Bill Gates bio-pirates, who act mainly in their own interests. Their engagement serves primarily to acquire resources and to collect and sell data. In an interview, she makes it clear:
“They cause all this destruction in the name of feeding the world, but has the world been fed? We need to take a step back to understand the true meaning of economy and ecology.”
Vandana Shiva: “The earth belongs to all of us, not to corporations like Monsanto”
On the occasion of Earth Day 2020, her organization Navdanya called for making peace with the earth. A global economy based on the myth of limitless growth and appetite for the earth’s resources, as corporations like Monsanto practice, is at the root of the current health crisis and future crises. It is important to learn to adequately protect the rights and ecological spaces of different species and peoples again. We must move from an economy of greed, competition, and violence to an economy of care: for the earth, for the people, and for all living species.
In an online interview with Right Livelihood College, Vandana Shiva talks about her visions for the future. In her opinion, one of the many reasons for the current crisis is our lack of respect for the environment. People should stop focusing on consumption in order to become true earth-citizens. When Vandana Shiva was asked about long-term changes for the time after the crisis, she says:
“We have to realize that we are not alone on this planet and that we have a responsibility towards others. We have a duty not to take more than our share, because when we are all connected, we all have a share.”
On January 28, 1969, crude oil and gas erupted from a platform off the coast of Santa Barbara, spilling out into the Pacific waters. It blackened over 800 square miles of ocean, killing thousands of seabirds, marine mammals, and fish. At the time, it was the largest oil spill in history. Today, it is topped by only twoother oil spills and remains the worst California’s waters have seen.
1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill, Earth Day 2020 | Synergetic Press
The devastating event’s one silver lining was that it served as a catalyst for a widespread and enduring campaign promoting environmental awareness. After the spill, Gaylord Nelson, an environmentally-conscious Wisconsin senator, realized that public awareness around industrial technology’s impact on the planet needed a serious boost. Harnessing the anti-war protest energy of the 60s, he, along with a Republican congressman, a young Harvard graduate, and a team of 85 people, organized a national “teach-in” to take place on April 22, 1970.
It was the first official Earth Day. Twenty million people took to the streets to protest humanity’s destructive behavior towards the environment. In the 50 years since its inception, Earth Day has served as a celebration of our planet and raises public awareness around pollution with events and activist initiatives coordinated worldwide.
Our Collective Carbon Footprint
For Earth Day 2020, activists planned to celebrate the theme of “Climate Action” by organizing The Great Global Cleanup, a day dedicated to removing trash from green space and urban centers. But since the outbreak of COVID-19, and the ensuing government mandates to socially distance and stay indoors, Earth Day convergences are going digital (much like everything else).
The pandemic is a tragedy. However, like the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, there is a silver lining to this devastating global crisis. While modern society stumbles over itself after coming to a screeching halt, the earth has a chance to breathe again. With non-essential establishments closing their doors, major airports “eerily silent,” and most people self-confining at home, our collective carbon footprint has significantly decreased.
Clear waters in Venice canals. Photo by Marco Capovilla. Earth Day 2020 | Synergetic Press
The Guardian reports that “global carbon emission could fall by 2.5bn tonnes this year, a reduction of 5%, as the coronavirus pandemic triggers the biggest drop in demand for fossil fuels on record.” Satellites detect a drop in nitrogen-oxide emissions in China, and lower air pollution in Italy. And for the first time in recent history, the normally smog-battered skies of Los Angeles are clear and bright. An interactive map created by Earther provides a staggering visual of how much air pollution has dropped across the globe from December 2019 to March 2020. One YouTuber, PLANET NOW, posted a video showing before-and-after shots of Venice canals – once murky and green, now a limpid blue – suggesting we can maintain these conditions by reducing tourism and working from home more.
The Pandemic Slows Down Industrial Society
Things aren’t just cleaner – they’re quieter too. For those living in industrial society, slowed-down living may revitalize their relationship to the planet. Rebecca Franks, an American living in Wuhan, posted to Facebook about life in quarantine, saying: “Right now I hear birds outside my window. I used to think there weren’t really birds in Wuhan because you rarely saw them and never heard them. I now know they were just muted and crowded out by the traffic and people.”
Michelle Fournet, a marine ecologist studying acoustic environments, tells The Atlantic that since the suspension of the cruise ship industry, “we’re experiencing an unprecedented pause in ocean noise that probably hasn’t been experienced in decades.” According to research, maritime activity (including military sonar, seismic surveys, oil drilling, dredging and ship engines) causes stress and physical damage to sea animals, altering their behavior and communication systems.
Meanwhile, pictures and videos of wild animals traversing empty towns and cities are circulating widely on social media. Mountain goats blithely stroll the streets of Wales. A deer in Japan curiously peeks inside a restaurant window. A family of geese waltz down the center of Las Vegas Boulevard. Could the popularity of these kinds of posts speak to an underlying, collective yearning to witness mother nature “reboot” herself, as two Twitter users put it?
The pandemic has stirred the whole world into unified action in the way that other very real threats to humanity have not – namely, climate change. Decades of activist efforts to influence human activity have not been able to match COVID-19’s galvanizing effect. Now that humanity’s impact on the planet is more tangible than ever, it may be the perfect time to emphasize environmental awareness. While the usual celebration is not in order for this year’s Earth Day, we can observe its theme of “Climate Action” by reflecting on how, and why, our planet feels a little brighter, and what we might do to sustain that going forward.
Celebrating Earth Day 2020 Online
Join the Earth Day Network this April 22nd for Earth Day Live (starting at 9:00 AM ET-8:00 PM ET). Earth Day Live will flood the digital landscape with global conversations, calls to action, performances, and video teach-ins with the goal of mobilizing a stop to the climate emergency.
At 2:00 PM ET Dr. Silvia Earle, marine biologist, explorer, and writer of the foreword to Life Under Glass: will be speaking, followed by a virtual Q&A featuring biospherians Mark Nelson, Linda Leigh, and Spaceship Earth director Matt Wolfe.
Earth Day 2020 preview of the new documentary film, Spaceship Earth
The film Spaceship Earth chronicles the true, stranger-than-fiction adventure of eight visionaries who in 1991 spent two years quarantined inside of a self-engineered replica of Earth’s ecosystem called BIOSPHERE 2. As the current pandemic forces us to confront the fact that the narratives that inform our modern-day existence do not serve us, this tale of dreamers reimagining a new world may inspire our own vision of the future.
Spaceship Earth will be released on May 8. Watch the trailer above.
Since the early 20th century, multinational corporations have repeatedly claimed ownership of nature and indigenous knowledge systems from developing countries by means of patents, turning the biodiversity of the commons into private, commercialized property. This appropriation of indigenous resources for financial gain, with scarcely any recognition or compensation, is just one of the latest forms of colonialism, the centuries-old practice of affluent, technologically advanced nations exerting economic dominance over poorer, resource-rich countries.
Vandana Shiva at a 1993 rally protesting GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) in Bangalore
What is biopiracy?
Biopiracy is when a corporation patents seeds and/or indigenous knowledge, gaining exclusive control over those materials.
Through intellectual property laws created by Western nations, they can legally lay claim on plants and traditional applications of knowledge, despite the fact they have not innovated or invented anything. The burden of proof then lies on the affected community, which often does not possess the resources or legal knowledge to contest the claims.
One glaring example of biopiracy the case of the neem tree, which has been an invaluable, “cure-all” resource in India for centuries, and can be sourced back to a number of ancient texts. One of its applications was agricultural – a potent insecticide, neem was fed to livestock to increase soil fertility.
In the 20th century, the general American public became increasingly skeptical towards synthetic pesticides. Naturally, this sparked a corporate interest in neem, with the industry seeing lucrative potential in its natural appeal for American consumers. Since 1985, over a dozen US patents have been taken out on neem-based solutions and emulsions. As a result, prices skyrocketed, depriving local farmers of access to their traditional plant material, and making them dependent on the company owning the patent.
Another example of biopiracy: a poster by Navdanya, an Indian-based non-governmental organization that promotes biodiversity conservation cofounded by Vandana Shiva, protesting corporations’ patent of rice.
Effects of biopiracy
Thanks to Western intellectual property right systems (IPRs), corporations (mostly pharmaceutical and agrochemical companies) have been able to scour biodiversity-rich countries for their resources and traditional knowledge, and gain exclusive monopoly rights to anything with commercial value via patent laws. This effectively restricts those communities from access to biological resources that have been part of their cultural heritage for centuries.
Biopiracy has drastically affected the livelihood of farmers, who are cut off from the seeds they’ve relied on for centuries. Farmers are no longer allowed to exchange seed as they used to since that is now a crime under intellectual property laws. They are forced to buy seed from these corporations, rather than saving it, and generate profits for them. According to Shiva, most of the 300,000 farmer suicides in India happened as a result of Monsanto’s falsely claiming patents on cotton, and trapping farmers in debt through cotton royalties.
It also has a destructive effect on the environment. Often, the biodiversity of the affected regions become eroded due to practices like monocropping, the practice of growing large amounts of a single crop on the same land. While this may be economically fruitful, it does not provide the diversity needed for a healthy diet or ecosystem.
Hierarchy of knowledge systems
Throughout the long history of colonialism, and into the present day, Westerners have regarded indigenous knowledge systems of medicine and agriculture as primitive and inferior. Hundreds of years of rich and diverse traditional medicine systems, like Ayurveda, homeopathy, and Traditional Chinese Medicine, are dismissed as unscientific – unless, of course, their knowledge is found to be useful, in which case they are appropriated and legitimized without credit.
There also exists a fundamental tension between Western and indigenous ideas around ownership. Private property is a keystone of Western society. Traditional IPRs, which are shaped by major Western nations, reflect this individualistic value system and work in favor of corporations that seek to monopolize and control any resource that turns a profit. In contrast, indigenous perspectives are more communally oriented, recognizing the land and water to be a sacred heritage shared by everyone.
The national sovereignty and basic needs of these regions are compromised in the name of free trade and commerce. The World Trade Organization, an intergovernmental organization that regulates international trade, has created systems of law that benefit the multinational corporations, and harm small communities.
The trade-related intellectual property rights (Trips) agreement is the most far-reaching of all the WTO agreements and threatens to hurt us most. It has changed the law related to patents, copyright, design, and trademarks from national to global levels and redefined vital issues of farmers’ rights to seeds and citizens’ rights to medicine as trade issues. It has also expanded patentability to cover life forms, even though living organisms are not invention. For the US, which forced the changes through, these were matters of commerce. For us, intellectual property rights are matters of national sovereignty and basic needs.
Defending against biopiracy
There have been some positive steps made towards defending against biopiracy.
The Convention on Biological Diversity, a multilateral treaty signed in 1993, was created with the goal of “conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources.”
Since then, there have been two supplementary agreements made to the convention. One is the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, effective 2003, which “aims to ensure the safe handling, transport and use of living modified organisms (LMOs) resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on biological diversity.” The other is the Nagoya Protocol, effective 2014, which “aims at sharing the benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources in a fair and equitable way.”
There have also been legal cases between corporations and indigenous people in which the latter were ruled in favor.
In 2019, PepsiCo sued 4 farmers for 10 million rupees each for growing a variety of potatoes registered by the company. They claimed their intellectual property rights were being infringed upon under the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Act, 2001. However, according to the actual details of the act, the farmers were well within their rights to harvest the seed. Pepsico used false claims and intimidation tactics to nearly ruin the lives of farmers who earned a fraction of what they were being sued for annually.
Reclaiming the Commons
Dr. Vandana Shiva has dedicated her life to protecting biodiversity, farmers, and small communities. Since the mid-90s, she has promoted traditional knowledge and livelihoods, sustainable agriculture, and biodiversity conservation. She is the founder of Navdanya, a network of seed keepers and organic producers that provide training in sustainable agriculture.
Reclaiming the Commons is the latest in over 20 books authored by Shiva on biopiracy and environmental justice. It presents details on the specific attempts made by corporations to secure patents on nature, and the legal action taken against them. It is the first detailed legal history of the international and national laws related to biodiversity and international property rights.