A new approach to democracy – with old roots

A new approach to democracy – with old roots

According to Vandana Shiva we must shift from representative democracy, in which corporations rule, to ‘Earth Democracy’ to deal with our current crises – to end conflict and bring peace. It means including the excluded into our conception of the economy.

In the Netherlands a majority of seats in parliament can usually only be reached when several parties join together to form a government. At the moment four parties are involved in this process. When they succeed, this government will have to make a lot of decisions based on compromise. In the UK half the population did not want a Brexit. In the US Trump won the election although more than half the population did not vote for him. To what extent do these governments still represent their citizens? In a sense, representing only half the population is still true to the original Athenian conception of democracy, which – as is well-known – excluded all women and slaves!

Earth Democracy

Do we actually dare to question the system of representative democracy as a whole? The Indian activist and physicist Vandana Shiva has been doing this for decades now, and even offers an alternative that should be taken seriously. In her book Earth Democracy she points out that ‘representative democracy is increasingly inadequate at defending our fundamental freedoms’ and that ‘no matter which party holds office (…) in reality, corporations rule’. To deal with the resulting crisis ‘we must broaden democracy to include the excluded – disfranchised communities, children, prisoners, the elderly, and the diverse species of earth. (…) We need Earth Democracy to protect our freedoms, to maintain the earth’s life support system, to ensure justice and sustainability, to end conflict and bring peace.’
The kind of freedom that she is talking about is very different from the prevalent notion of freedom based on Cartesian ‘separation and independence’, in which our dependence on ‘women, farmers, workers and other cultures and species’ is ignored. She is convinced that in a genuine sense of freedom diversity plays a central role, which entails, ‘above all, a commitment to let alternatives flourish in society and nature, in economic systems, and in knowledge systems.’

The three economies

For Shiva the rule of corporations must be seen in the light of our ideas about the economy. In a representative democracy the market economy is considered to be the only economy, which has paved the way for the rule of corporations. She points out that in Earth Democracy, however, not one but three economies must be distinguished. The first one is nature’s economy, which ‘consists of the production of goods and services by nature – the water recycled and distributed through the hydrologic cycle, the soil fertility produced by micro-organisms, the plants fertilized by pollinators.’ Second is the sustenance economy, which ’is the economy of two-thirds of humanity engaged in craft production, peasant agriculture, artisanal fishing, and indigenous forest economies.’ And the last one is the market economy, which depends entirely on the first two. The practice of including the excluded, of conserving diversity in Earth Democracy, means that the economy should not just include all people, but also the non-human species and the living land in which they are all embedded. It means considerably enlarging the context. You could even say that the living land is the context.

The historical dimension

Shiva emphasises that with the concept of Earth Democracy she is not introducing a new idea, but reviving a very old one: indigenous people all over the world have been aware of this larger context, of our dependence on the earth, its cycles and on other species. Additionally, she shows that there is an important historical dimension to our ideas about the economy as well. According to her, the market economy could grow to today’s dominant position, because of the ‘closure of the commons’ – a colonisation process which started in Europe and later spread to the other continents, displacing and uprooting the lives of the original inhabitants. First the commons were turned into private properties, then the corporations gradually increased and spread their power, and were given legal rights, culminating eventually in corporate globalisation. So in fact there has been a process of narrowing the original context to our modern conception. We are to bring it back to its original proportions.

Terra nullius or terra mater

An important factor in this process has been the different ways in which the earth was viewed and dealt with. Shiva points out that ‘most sustainable cultures, in all their diversity, view the earth as terra mater (mother earth). They gratefully receive nature’s gifts and return the debt through ecologically sustainable life styles and earth-centered cosmologies.’ The colonial view was one of earth as ‘terra nullius, of an empty land, a passive earth, which denied the existence and prior rights of the original inhabitants and (…) obscured the regenerative capacity and processes of the earth.’ The dominant view today in our representative democracy is still one of terra nullius, but more and more people today are rediscovering terra mater.


Interestingly, Shiva also relates the rise of fundamentalism and terrorism to the dominance of the market economy and subsequent corporate globalisation: fundamentalists have been pushed in that direction by ‘the indignity of being treated as disposable’ and are basically driven to ‘retrieve a sense of self, of meaning, of significance.’ This is very different from the widespread (and populist) notion that fundamentalism is a phenomenon that is confronting the Western world from the outside. By showing that we must (also) acknowledge the Western contribution to it (as Karen Armstrong has also done), she brings it very close to us, perhaps even uncomfortably close.

Of course in this blog I can’t do full justice to the wealth of Vandana Shiva’s ideas. It’s important to know that they are very much founded in her practical life as an activist. I can’t help thinking that the struggle to create a new government in the Netherlands would be eased a lot if the politicians involved could find some time to take in the larger context as well. Perhaps the break for the summer holidays would be a perfect time for this kind of reflection. I’m sure in the end this will also be beneficial to the people they represent.


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