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Students Explore “Earth Democracy” with Vandana Shiva

On the night of February 13th, Graham Chapel was packed with students anticipating the words of speaker Dr. Vandana Shiva, world-renowned environmental activist focused on GMOs, intellectual property rights, bioethics, women’s rights, and agriculture worker conditions in India and around the world. The talk came as a part of the Trending Topics series and brought to us by Student Union (SU) and Student Environmental Council (SEC).

Coming from India, Vandana Shiva opened her talk by explaining that in her culture, people use the terms of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam to self-identify, which means “the Earth Family”. The talk, titled “Earth Democracy,” proposed an alternative worldview in which humans are embedded in the Earth Family, where there is no separation between human beings and the rest of nature. As Shiva explained, the “Earth Democracy” movement originated in reaction to the shift of our representative democratic systems towards being “of the corporations by the corporations for the corporations”, and advocates for restoring a democracy “of the people by the people for the people,” in which justice is made for humans as much as for nature.

In 1991, Vandana Shiva founded Navdanya, an Indian NGO dedicated to promoting biodiversity, organic farming, and seed preservation. One way the organization pursues its mission is through the rejuvenation of indigenous knowledge and culture. Shiva treasures earth’s seeds immensely, for the potential they hold to become giant trees. Showing to the crowd an acorn seed she received from an indigenous person, she said, “It’s built into the intelligence of the seed to become an oak,” before joking, “It doesn’t need policing by Monsanto to say: ‘Don’t become a coconut’.” She invited the public to recognize our connection with the world around us—from the smallest microbes to the largest forests—as a daily practice of freedom.

Seniors Sydney Welter, president of SEC, and Hannah Schanzer, SEC executive board member for internal operations, co-organized Dr. Shiva’s talk with Student Union. Welter said she found that students received Shiva’s talk well and found her to be an engaging speaker. “Many students have told me they think her ideas are great, but still have questions about the practicality of implementing some of her ideas,” said Welter.

Senior Alexis Vidaurreta was also eager to attend Shiva’s talk and was pleased with the attendance, stating that it demonstrated the topic of environmental justice as becoming a mainstream part of our environmental discourse. “Dr. Shiva made light of the “anthropocentrism” at the root of our dominant social and economic systems, a valuable takeaway which got me thinking about all the ways I unconsciously exercise features of an anthropocentric worldview. At times I felt that her categorical rejection of working within capitalism and accepting some forms of biotechnology verged on being unhelpful in our modern neoliberal context, but her ideas definitely serve to pull us in the right direction for both people and planet,” said Vidaurreta.

Described by the Time Magazine as an environmental “hero” and by Forbes Magazine as one of the “Seven Most Powerful Women on the Globe”, Dr. Vandana Shiva’s philosophy has sparked students’ critical thinking and debates around the role of our modern democracy in environmental and social injustices. As members of the St. Louis community—Monsanto’s home—it is salient that we continue to learn about this topic, among others. Dr. Shiva’s talk has acted as a catalyst, not an end, for these necessary conversations.

For more details about the event and quotes from Vandana Shiva and students, read the Student Life article on this topic.

This article was written by Selaam Dollisso, Communication Associate with the Office of Sustainability.