Review: ‘Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Survival in India’ by Vandana Shiva

Staying Alive

Analogized the violence to ‘nature’

‘Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Survival in India’ is inspired by women’s struggle of protecting the environment for sustainability and survival. Vandana Shiva, an environmental activist, and eco-feminist, originally published this book in 1988 to highlight women’s roles, predominantly tribal and rural women in traditional knowledge, agricultural practices, and ecological movements.

She analogized the violence to ‘nature’ in modern technological and economic development to the ferocity that women faced in society. Henceforth, the oppression of the patriarchal nature of modern reductionist science and technology on nature is paralleled to the subjugation of women in her work.

The book has seven chapters that address the dynamic relations and interactions of women and nature. Each chapter takes over the readers along the myriad tangents of interdependence and inter-relations of nature with tribal and rural women. Shiva opened up with an introduction where she questioned the very universality of modern science and economic development.

Co-existence of nature with human

She argued how essential the co-existence of nature with human and how nature is directly attached to the question of survival in third world countries. She further demonstrated the impact of the ‘scientific revolution’ on nature. The so-called homogenous scientific thinking has transformed how we perceived nature from ‘terra matter,’ i.e., the notion of ‘Mother Earth’ to merely a source of raw material. The author claimed that the history and conceptual roots of ongoing development as ‘maldevelopment’ and thoroughly analyzed in the first chapter, titled ‘Development, Ecology, and Women’.

She brought up the consequences of maldevelopment on ecological sustainability and social justice. She also called out how ‘maldevelopment led to the death of the feminine principle’ (Page 4, chapter 1). The concept of modern development is a new source of gender inequality—the development based on indigenous technologies perceived as backward and unproductive. Shiva challenged the conventional believes of contemporary science and tries to bring out how the fragmented, reductionist, and dual perspective violates man’s integrity and harmony in nature.

Women and Nature, the relationships.

In the second chapter, ‘Science, Nature, and Women’, she explained the relations of reductionism, violence, and profits and argued that their relationship was inbuilt into the genesis of masculinizing modern science. She argued how the ‘demothering of nature’ (Page 18, chapter 2) occurred through modern science. Furthermore ‘the violence of reductionism’ (Page 19, chapter 2) subjugated and dispossessed women from their full productivity, power, and potential.

The next chapter ‘Women and Nature’ elaborated on the reciprocal relation between Shakti (the dynamic energy) and Prakriti (nature) and engrossed the difference between Indian cosmology and the cartesian concept of nature. She argued that ‘nature and women as a producer of life’ (Page 41, chapter 3) not merely biologically, but also through their social role of sustenance. In the fourth chapter, women and forests have a very close relation, titled ‘Women in the Forest’, brought a multitude of dimensions to this relationship and the effect of colonialization on forests.

All religions and cultures in the South Asian region are rooted in woods. Women’s work is not confined to only food gathering and fodder collection but also extended to a spectacular role in managing and renewing forests’ diversity. Moreover, indigenous forest management is a women’s domain for producing sustenance. One of the most successful forest conservation movements in the Indian environmental movement’s history was the women’s movement.

The Chipko movement is an epitome of ecological insights and the political and moral strength of women. These struggles are not always against deforestation of forests and the plantation of ecologically appropriate trees and biodiversity conservation. This chapter also focused on the importance of traditional agricultural practices and how one could not see agriculture without forestry.

Women’s role in the food chain.

In the fifth chapter, ‘Women in Food Chain’, Shiva expanded on women’s role in agricultural practices and how the shift from traditional to modern agriculture displaced women from their productive work. The feminine principles of food production, which are based on the intimate links between trees (forest), animals (livestock), and crop (agriculture), these links are maintained and sustained by women. The author took cognizance of the Green Revolution and White Revolution’s violence as the reductionism of modern science and technology on women and nature.

The masculinized shift from terra matter to merely soil, from self-sustenance to generating profit (surplus production), has completely altered the nature of women’s work from productive to non-productive and also shifted women from the core to periphery of the food chain. ‘Women and the Vanishing Water’, the penultimate chapter brought the water scarcity instances from most of India’s states. It illustrated how different anthropogenic activities exacerbated the crisis of drinking water and women were ultimate victims of such crisis.

The author considered ‘dams as the violence against river’ (Shiva, Page 175, chapter 6) and impugned the dominant approach of water utilization and management based on the reductionist and maldevelopment of modern science and technology. In the last chapter, Shiva explained how developed nations’ economies, i.e., first-world countries affected third-world countries’ growth and productivity. The gender dichotomy created between productive and non-productive work based on market criteria is the maldevelopment’s product. Women in the third world are still embedded in nature and questioned the ‘rational’ men of modernist.

The verdict

I appreciate Shiva’s effort for underscoring how the women in the third world, especially in India, grappled with modern and reductionist science which is generally ignored in the literature of the first world. The never-ending struggle of women for the conservation of nature and the interdependence of women and nature for their sustainability is vividly illustrated in the book. This book also justifies its title as the women in tribal and rural India use their indigenous and traditional knowledge to stay alive with the support of nature or sometimes against the harassed nature.

However, I don’t necessarily agree with the author at all points. In the name of ecofeminism, Shiva denies the validity of modern science and technology outright and confines various dimensions of environmental destruction and exploitation only to violate the patriarchal model of modern science.

Some ideas in the book are repetitive and over-emphasized due to which other aspects are ignored. However, the book has some limitations, still, it successfully brings women’s salience in the context of nature or vice-versa. This book can help its readers to understand the idea of ecofeminism and the struggle of women in the third world to stay alive.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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Ritika Rajput

Ritika is an Urban Fellow at Indian Institute for Human Settlement, Bengaluru. She loves to learn about small towns, water, sustainability, and climate change. She wants to explore the urbanization of small towns of India that remain under-studied in urban literature.

1 thought on “Review: ‘Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Survival in India’ by Vandana Shiva”

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    You can disagree what the author as your prospective is based on model of modern science and technology of your time as now things are diffrent and technology is uniform and its not entirely correct but thy trying to save too.
    But earlier at her time, tht was an industrial era and people were exploiting nature in the name of development and technologies.
    Now you can say technology is not baised and harmful but at tht time it was.

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