“We need a culture of less”

For half a century, activist and author Vandana Shiva has been criticising the excesses of the global economy and arguing for a simple life. A conversation about false abundance and the necessity of downsizing

Vandana Shiva wears a green Sari. She is standing in front of a shelf with many tins and looks calmly into the camera

Vandana Shiva has been active as an environmentalist, feminist and civil rights activist since the 1970s

Vandana Shiva, whether it’s because of the climate crisis, gas shortages after the Russian invasion of Ukraine or simply the realization that we have pushed the boundaries of economic growth to their limits: In Europe, there are increasing discussions around cutting back on resources and the excesses of modern life. Do you believe that we are we in the midst of entering an age of less – or is this just the usual chatter that bubbles up in times of recession?

Certainly, there has been talk like this before. Think of the Club of Rome’s first report in 1972 on the limits to growth. However, back then it was exactly that: a club.

What we see today is different in my opinion, because the rising cost of living and the growing pain inflicted by our economic system is starting to become everybody’s pain.

In a way, with rising energy prices and a war on its doorstep, prosperous Europe is suddenly finding itself in the shoes of the third world in that people are waking up to the shortcomings of the globalized economy.

Suddenly, it is their livelihoods which are being threatened – and truths that have been self-evident in the Global South for a long time are starting to seep in. One of those truths is that we might have to cut back in a few places. I don’t think that this would necessarily be a bad thing.

“Just because something costs little doesn't mean it won't cost us dearly as a human race"

Living with less money, living in colder apartments, living with less stuff: Don’t you think that this will be viewed as a step backwards by a majority of people, particularly in the Global North, where the right to consume has been linked with the idea of individual freedom?

I think to assume that a reduction of our current lifestyle is synonymous with scarcity would be to assume that the present standard of living in the Global North is normal or healthy. However, that is an illusion.

The idea at the heart of our economic system – or let’s say of corporate globalization – has been that we can constantly produce more and more products and offer them at a cheaper and cheaper price, thereby raising the standard of living. While this might be true if you look at it through a very narrow monetary lens, it certainly isn’t true in a wider perspective.

About 90 percent of the products consumed in the United States of America are made in China, for example. These products may be cheap when looking at the price tag, but they aren’t cheap in any other way.

The horrendous costs attached to them have just been externalized and are being paid elsewhere: by people in China who live in polluted industrial cities, by Chinese workers who work in slave-like conditions, by Chinese rivers that are being polluted.

In this sense, cheap t-shirts, cheap hamburgers, cheap gas, cheap oil aren’t actually cheap at all. On the contrary, they have come at tremendous costs which are now coming back to bite us.

Therefore, the supposed abundance that many of us are living in, is artificial, because it exploits our planet, it exploits people and it destroys local economies. Just take the example of Africa, which is now suffering because of the disruption of grain shipments due to the war in Ukraine. How is it that Africa – a continent that has many excellent farmers and abundant lands – can’t feed itself?

It is because African markets have been flooded by subsidized European agricultural imports for years and are now completely dependent upon them. So, the “more” that our economy supposedly generates, is only a “more” for a limited number of people in specific parts of the world. 

Enough must no longer be a foreign word in the future"

Still, many of those people have gotten very used to this artificial abundance, as you call it, and are getting rather upset, when they are personally asked to cut back on things. Go slower on the motorway to save the climate, stay inside and wear a mask to protect your fellow citizens from a deadly virus: Some of us get very angry, when being asked to curtail their lifestyle for the benefit of the community, let alone the planet.

Sure, and I can tell you why: This mentality is a result of our current economic system, an extension of Adam Smith’s idea of the marketplace if you will, in which every individual supposedly benefits the collective economy most by following his or her own self-interest.

In combination with rapid industrialization and corporate globalization, this idea has evolved into a sort of dogma of maximizing personal wealth and therefore of limitless taking. And this is how we became trapped in our current consumer culture and enamored with the idea that “it can never be enough”.

Now, many people’s lives simply hinge on buying the next dress, eating the next fast-food meal or planning their next vacation. What I am proposing though is that we can break with this cycle – and that many people are already waking up to the fact that our current system, while maximizing economic growth, is not maximizing human well-being. 

“Just because something costs little doesn't mean it won't cost us dearly as a human race”

But isn’t planning the next vacation and buying the next dress also part of human well-being?

That depends on your definition of well-being. Don’t you witness a certain sense of unease in people with what this current mode of living has to offer with respect to well-being? I do. And I have witnessed this sense of unease already as far back as the 1970s, when I moved from India to Canada for my studies.

Back then, I was amazed by the fact that the campus of my university was always completely empty on the weekends.

All the students got into their cars and left the city as soon as they had a chance. I stayed behind and wondered: Why don’t people like to stay where they live? Why do they always run away?

Somehow, this seemed like a symbol to me back then: Students getting into their getaway cars, their metal prisons, to leave their lives behind for a couple of days.

Years later, when I wrote my book “Soil, Not Oil”, I read the work of German researcher and writer Wolfgang Sachs and his book “For Love of the Automobile”, in which he explained how the construction of the Autobahn, which cut through forests and fields and created a new sense of speed, created a certain disconnect in the world. And in what ways our enchantment with speed has reconfigured our sense of being and belonging.

That summed up the question on my mind: What does it say about the places that we live in, that we are so eager to leave them behind? Is the “faster, better, stronger” mentality of our time just a way of trying to leave behind an unsatisfying reality?

If you look at it like that, then an economy that centers on “less” and tries to reconfigure our sense of belonging might actually be a step forward, instead of a step backwards for humanity.

“If prosperity means cutting down the rainforest to produce animal feed, then I don't want prosperity”

So, what you are suggesting is that the benchmarks ­­of what constitutes a good life have been twisted by our economy. What then should be the indicators for a good life? 

If you look at our current economic model than it operates with a whole series of meaningless indicators. Just look at how economic growth is measured for example: If I plant a tropical forest that is not considered growth. It only becomes growth once I harvest the timber. Only at that point am I “benefiting” the economy.

But what about everything else? What about the life that is taking place in my forest? What about the carbon dioxide that the forest stores? What about the work that I have put into planting the forest and the joy it gives to me and others? All of these factors are null and void in our current economy.

The abundance of life in the forest is meaningless when compared to the abundance of wealth I could generate by extracting the timber. Isn’t that a perverse take on the idea of abundance?

If abundance means cutting down the rainforest to produce animal feed and biofuel, then I don’t want abundance. If abundance means, buying a dress today and throwing it away tomorrow, then I don’t want abundance.

Why don’t we start growing the things that matter? Why don’t we grow clean rivers and clean air instead of money? If you think deeply scientifically and ecologically about our system, then you realize that it is based on a bunch of nonsensical ideas.

And if you accept that supposition, then cutting back does not necessarily mean living with less, but living with less nonsense. 

“We ourselves must be the target of our economy, not the money, the goods and the services”

So, in a way, we also have to radically reconfigure our idea of progress and growth?

Sure. In India, our national poet and Nobel prize winner Rabindranath Tagore has summed this idea up quite beautifully in the past, when he remarked that if a train travels from station to station, one may ask: Is it progressing well from point A to point B?

But if you watch a tree growing, then this question is meaningless. You cannot ask, whether the tree is progressing to some destination other than itself.

This is the exact way in which we should also think about or own progress: We are the destination, not money or goods or services.

And in this sense, the opposite of an economy that has no respect for limits and that is moving mindlessly at high speed, is not an economy of scarcity but what I like to call an economy of enoughness.

Because only through enoughness can we really be satisfied and say: I’ve eaten enough, I’ve traveled enough, I met enough people for today.

In economic terms it means being conscious not only of ourselves, but also of others and of the share of the Earth. A great example of this is organic farming, where there is a constant sense of taking and giving.

How many nutrients do we need to return to the soil? How much water can be extracted without making the ground less fertile? How much food does the community really need?

Can we cut back on things we don’t need, like chemical fertilizers and genetically modified crops?

Those are the important questions. If we just keep extracting resources on an industrial scale, however, then we might produce more food in the short run, but we will not feed people better.

On the contrary: We will produce more chemicals, more toxins and more nutritionally empty commodities at the expense of the planet and ourselves.

“Nature-based cultures have a profound understanding of when something can be taken from the earth and when it needs to recover”

When it comes to the economy of enoughness that you are sketching out in contrast to the extractive economy: What can the Global North learn from the Global South in this respect?

I think there are plenty of things that the Global South can offer in this respect. For example, different strands of Indian philosophy have long offered insights into enoughness and promoted a sense of mutual respect between human beings and the environment – of using the Earth and enjoying it, but avoiding greed.

It is no coincidence, for example, that Indian yoga has an entire posture for the sun. It comes from the understanding that the sun’s energy is what runs our planet and from a deep sense of ecological sustainability.

Likewise, indigenous cultures have long cultivated ideas of enoughness that have been hugely beneficial to people and their surroundings.

That is also why even though they only comprise less of five percent of the world population, indigenous peoples protect eighty percent of the Earth's biodiversity in the forests, deserts, grasslands, and marine environments in which they have lived for centuries.

Rules of enoughness are at the heart of this: Don’t harvest a certain medicinal plant when it needs renewal, don’t go fishing in spawning season.

There is a deep understanding of a need for regulation and limiting extraction. And lastly, I think the Global South can also teach the world a lesson in resilience. 

“We ourselves must be the target of our economy, not the money, the goods and the services"

How so?

When I look at people who are already being displaced today by floods and storms as a result of climate change in India and elsewhere, I see a lot of suffering, but also an amazing resourcefulness: Making a new house out of nothing but branches and leaves, feeding yourself and others with no money.

In India there are still some villages in which they ring a bell in the evening to call upon all the people who haven’t eaten yet, and the families who ring the bell will only eat after the last person was fed.

That is how you get rid of hunger, that’s how you get rid of scarcity and that’s how you create a sense of solidarity that the Global North has been lacking for quite a while.

How to build a home, how to grow your own food, how to teach your children, those are the things that haven’t been on people’s minds in Europe and the United States for a long time, because they’ve had it very comfortable and peaceful after the Second World War.

I can see that there is great interest in these questions already, now that the crises are returning: At the Bija Vidyapeeth, the so-called Earth University that I have started in India in 2001, we are constantly receiving new students from around the world and specifically students who have worked in finance or business and have given up their jobs.

They increasingly realize that the economy that they are living and working in is devoid of any meaning and they want to learn about how to live a good life beyond that.

Would you say that younger generations have already settled into the idea of “living with less” better than their parents? In a way it seems that the youth is increasingly realizing that getting rid of certain things can also be liberating. Many young adults in Germany, for example, don’t want to own cars anymore, they don’t aspire to buy a family home and they pass when it comes to longer working hours for more money.

I do agree that there is a certain awakening in that respect, especially with younger people and I am energized by it.

However, I would say that this is a very geographically and socially limited view as it does not hold true in other parts of the world necessarily.

In India, for example, where economic globalization has only hit with full force about ten to fifteen years ago, the opposite is true: Here, it is the younger generation that is driving consumption. 

“In India, one can follow how big companies succeed in cultivating immoderateness”

And that does not only pertain to the privileged few in the urban centers but also and especially to the youth in the villages, who want those Nike shoes because the advertisements are so aggressive.

There you can really see how the big businesses are managing to create the opposite of enoughness – and how they colonize the mind: They instill a sense of inferiority in people, the sense that what you have and even you yourself and your culture are not enough.

They want you to buy happiness instead. So here it is rather the older people who are still adhering to a sense of simplicity. I am, for example, still wearing my mother’s sari. And when she passed away forty years ago, that sari was already twenty years old.

Would you say that you are proving your own theory then, the idea that simplicity and reduction can truly make people happier in the long run?

At least I can say that most of what I believe in has been proven to be true in my own life. I grew up in a very simple family, where “wanting” was never really on our minds.

We kids never wanted new clothes, for example, except one time, when nylon frocks had just come to India and we asked our mum to fetch us some.

But she just said: I will get you some, but always remember that if you get handwoven clothes instead, the women who made them can feed her child. And that was that (laughs).

Today, enoughness for me is especially about slowing down and being careful as to what I say yes to. 

“For me, being frugal also means going back to my roots.”

I do much less international traveling, for example, and when people ask me to give a talk halfway around the world, I increasingly tell them to do it digitally or I send them a link.

My office is now in my family’s old renovated cowshed and I spend most of my time here among the Lychee trees and Mango trees that my mom has planted.

I also increasingly find enoughness through the appreciation of my roots. Isn’t that a good idea, just like the idea of Rabindranath Tagore’s tree? I am becoming more plant-like. Plants don’t run around, they stay in place.

They put out nourishing roots and they grow – but they never take more than they need.

Interview by Kai Schnier