Home > In Focus > A Simplicity Revolution : An Ecological and Ethical Imperative to Protect Life on Earth and Ensure Justice for all beings

By Dr Vandana Shiva

World Simplicity Day, 12th July 2020

Live simply so that others may simply live. Simplicity is the essence of universality”. Mahatma Gandhi

1. Simplicity helps protect the Planet and create Ecological and Economic Justice  

“The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.”   Lin Yutang

“Out of clutter find simplicity” Albert Einstein

The Covid19 crisis and lockdown has had very high social and human costs in terms of lives lost, and the deepening of the crises of hunger, loss of livelihoods and work.

But it is also a wakeup call that reminds us we are “One Humanity on One Planet”. The forced lockdown creates an opportunity to reduce our ecological footprint, live within ecological limits, and tread lightly into the future, embracing all life with awareness that, though diverse, we are interconnected.

The Corona lockdown has forced us to shed the clutter and the speed and become an invitation to humanity to differentiate between the essential and non-essential.

In making us stay home, the crisis creates the possibility of realising that no matter who we are, where we are, we are members of one Earth Family and share a common home, our beautiful Earth. We are part of Nature, not separate from it nor superior to it.

Living on the earth with other beings makes simplicity (shedding the clutter) an ethical and ecological obligation. By taking simply what we need to sustain our life, living within ecological and planetary boundaries, we leave vital ecological space for other beings.

All beings need their share of ecological space and the right to participate in the living processes which ensure food and water for all. By extracting more from the earth, we overstep the limits of our rightful share, disrupt planetary boundaries, ecological limits as well as the integrity of species. In the web of life species sustain each other. Sustainability and justice are interconnected, and robbing others of their rightful share deprives them of their basic needs with a deepening crises of food and water, poverty, hunger and starvation.

The earth is being brought to the brink by greed – of giant corporations making super profits at the cost of nature and people, and of ordinary citizens participating blindly as “consumers” in the economy of greed which has polluted the land and the atmosphere, contributing to destabilising the self-regulatory processes through which Gaia, the living earth, maintains the biosphere and the climate system.

Blindly taking more than one’s share, indifferent to the rights of others and the Rights of Nature is termed “Extractivism” – an ecological and ethical crime. Extractivism has been “naturalised”, the norm, over 500 years of colonialism, 300 years of fossil industrialism, and a few decades of corporate globalisation which is in effect recolonization.

As movements for justice and decolonisation spread worldwide during these times of the Corona virus, let us remember that the roots of the health emergency, of the ecological emergency, and the economic emergency of brutal inequality are the same – greed, power and extracting others’ share.

Poverty and hunger are a by-product of colonialism. The British appropriated $ 45 trillion from the peasants of India and transferred it to Britain, pushing more than 60 million Indians to famine.

Poverty and hunger are a result of exclusivity and selfish practices which enclose common land, forests and pastures, seeds and biodiversity for accumulating wealth.

Poverty and hunger results from an extractivist system of industrial globalised agriculture which extracts fertility from the soil, value from hard working farmers, leaving then indebted and dispossessed, pushing them to suicide. It extracts life from species which are being driven to extinction. And it extracts health.

The Corona crisis is a product of extractivism.

Poverty and hunger and chronic diseases are a consequence of the greed of corporations who push poisons and chemicals to grow food and to process it. There is now an attempt to make Fake Food and Artificial Food in labs and patent every step of the process which will contribute to new avenues of extractivism and aggravate the food and health crisis.

Every step towards more extraction, more manipulation, more concentration creates more demands on the Earth’s Resources, and denies the just share from other species and people. Gandhi reminds us that ‘The Earth has enough for everyone’s needs, but not for a few people’s greed’.

We should enjoy the gifts of the earth through renunciation, not through greed of possession and exploitation.

In ‘Less is More’, Jason Hickel shows us that in an ecologically interconnected world, ‘less is more’.

2. Simplicity Reduces our Ecological Footprint and Increases our Ecological Efficiency : In an Interconnected World “Less is More”

 “Simplicity is the Soul of Efficiency” Austin Freeman

Dictionary: efficient (adj.)  late 14c., “making, producing immediate effect, active, effective,” from Old French efficient and directly from Latin efficientem (nominative efficiens) “effective, efficient, producing, active,” … Meaning “productive, skilled” is from 1787.

Efficiency is derived from making, from being effective.  As Earth citizens we are effective when we cocreate with the earth, participate in her living cycles in accordance with her laws to provide for our needs without depriving others.

Simplicity is ecologically efficient because it allows us to produce more for more beings, using less resources and energy.

“Efficiency” is an overused and misused term in the context of the very clumsy and inefficient use of resources and energy in industrialism as a system of production. Industrial Agriculture that destroys small farms has been justified on grounds of “efficiency”. In a fragile and interconnected web of life, this is Pseudo Efficiency.

Replacing biodiverse, productive systems with monocultures in forests and farms is called efficient. Extracting more water than can be regenerated and renewed in our rivers and in the ground is defined as efficient. Destroying artisanal and craft economies producing high quality food and textiles, to produce inferior quality junk food and clothing, with workers on Assembly lines in giant energy and resource guzzling factories, has been justified on grounds of efficiency. Now Robotics and Artificial Intelligence are being promoted to displace workers in factories, teachers in schools. E-commerce is displacing the livelihoods of small shopkeepers and small retailers by industrialising distribution on grounds of efficiency.     

The linear extractive economy is based on limitless extraction, commodification, profits. By rupturing nature’s ecological cycles of renewal, it creates scarcity, waste and pollution. It has no place for the care of nature and community (the word ‘economy’ is derived from the Greek word for home, Oikos, and means care and management of our home). It has no room for the ethics of giving. This extractive economy leaves nature and society impoverished:  be it the extraction of minerals, or extraction of knowledge through Biopiracy, or extraction of “genes” through genetic mining, or extraction of personal data through “data mining”, or extraction of rents and royalties for seed, water, communication, privatised education and health care. It creates poverty, debt, and displacement. It creates waste – waste as pollution, wasted resources, wasted people, wasted lives. It creates a world without work, but imagines that people without work will all be “consumers “  of junk food, junk clothing, and junk communication. It is this extractive money machine which has led to the rise of the 1 % and disposability of the 99%.

Linear Extractivism creates an illusion of “more” in the reality of “less” for nature and society. Replacing the recycling of organic matter for soil fertility with artificial fertilisers  in this wanting more, has destroyed biodiversity, exhausted the soil and water, desertified the land, created dead zones in the ocean and contributed to greenhouse gases and Climate Change.

Industrialism, extractivism, and monocultures hide the true costs to the earth and society of industrial production systems. The heavy resource and energy footprint which has pushed ecosystems and communities to collapse is made invisible, the destruction of soil, water, biodiversity are left as externalities whose costs are born by other species and the poor. Pseudo efficiency creates scarcity. In nature this scarcity, created by extracting more than ecological limits allow, is at the root of the ecological crises.  In society, extractivism that robs people of resources and livelihoods, is at the root of the hunger, poverty and dispossession crises.

An illusionary metric which has been used to impose wasteful and inefficient Industrial Agriculture is “Yield per Acre”. “Yield per Acre” tells us nothing about the state of the land, of biodiversity, of water, the state of the farmer that an agriculture system leaves behind. Not does it measure the total biodiverse output, the quality of food, or the resources and energy that were used. It only measures the weight of nutritionally empty toxic commodities, even if most agriculture commodities are used as raw material for biofuel and animal feed. (Vandana Shiva, Who Really Feeds the World, Women Unlimited, North Atlantic, Feltrinelli, Capitan Spring)

The extractivist money machine guzzles real resources, sees real people as “inputs” and turns them into commodities for trade and waste to be dumped – wasted nature, wasted people.

And instead of taking into account the resources, the chemicals, the energy, the capital that are intensive inputs in industrial agriculture, it counts only “people”, “farmers”, “labour” as an input.

Real farmers are engaged in agriculture in its original meaning – “care for the land”. When they practice ecological, biodiverse organic farming, they produce living nourishing biodiverse food which is necessary for health, they also regenerate the health of the earth, of the soil, of biodiversity.  Nature and ecological farmers are cocreators in a real food system. They are not inert, dead inputs.

The pseudo efficiency and pseudo productivity measures and metrics are blind to alternatives to industrial agriculture, making inevitable a war against the earth and farmers.

But alternatives do exist, and they are ecologically efficient.

Navdanya, replaced “Yield per Acre” with “Health per Acre” and “Nutrition per Acre”. With the change in one false, deceptive metric of industrial agriculture, it became possible to see that conservation of biodiversity is the basis of food security.  Chemical monocultures produce less nourishment in the soil for humans, and other beings. If we change the paradigm and the metric we can see that protecting nature, reducing our demands for resources and energy, is the only way to produce enough nourishment for all.[1]  

80% of the food we eat even today comes from small farms. From gardens and small farms we can ensure 100% of real healthy food. Not only would everyone get access to good food, no one needs to go hungry when we produce more nourishment per acre. 75% of the land that is being degraded by industrial agriculture to produce only 20% of bad quality food can go back to regeneration of forests, ecosystems, grasslands. The invasions into the Amazon and the Indonesian rainforests by global agribusiness to produce commodities must stop so that forests can be left to indigenous people, and other species whose homes they are.

Because ecological agricultural systems work with nature, and not against her laws, they regenerate the earth’s capacity to nourish us and increase ecological efficiency. Using 1 unit of external energy input we produce ten units of healthy and good food.

On the other hand, industrial agriculture which is called “efficient” uses 10 units of energy to produce one unit of food. Factory Farming which is called ‘Efficient” needs 100 units of protein to produce 1 unit of animal protein.  Animals are cramped in a small space, but this hides the shadow acres to grow the GMO soya to feed the animals in factory farming systems. The same applies to acquaculture.

Amory Lovins has used the term “Energy slaves” for the hidden energy used in inefficient industrial systems and industrial societies which displace people-centred production. According to him an average American in 1975 had 250 times more energy slaves than a Nigerian. “In terms of workforce therefore the population of the Earth is not 4 billion but about 200 billion, the important point being that about 98% of them do not eat conventional food”. (Amory Lovins, World Energy Strategies, London, 1975 )

With the current population of 7.7 billion people living under forced industrialisation and energy intensive digitalisation, the population of “energy slaves” is more than 3.35 trillion  Every step in displacing real people and substituting them with 250 energy slaves is driving the climate crisis, destruction of forests and biodiversity, the unemployment crisis, destitution of farmers, and disposability of people. The Earth and society cannot continue to carry this unbearable burden of pseudo efficiency of industrial systems.

Pseudo Efficiency hides the full ecological footprint of a production system. It hides true costs through externalities and subsidies.  It picks a tiny technology fragment of an entire system and presents it as more efficient, even though the system as a whole is crude, violent, inefficient, destructive.  (Vandana Shiva, Violence of the Green Revolution. Vandana Shiva et al, Ecology and the Politics of Survival.)

As Navdanya has shown over 3 decades of practise and research, “Less is More” in food systems.

We can, we must, reduce our ecological foot print and increase our heart, head and hand print to provide for our needs by regenerating the earth.

In an ecologically interconnected world, the less we take and the more we give to nature and community, the more we have.

3. Simplicity allows the Transition from Extractivism to Circular Solidarity Economies based on Care, Compassion and Giving

“For it is in giving we receive”. St Francis 

A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same   measure as I have received and am still receiving”. Albert Einstein

The consciousness that we are members of one interdependent Earth Family, related to each other and dependent on each makes compassion natural.  When we do not see others as objects and as  raw material to be exploited, but as our relations, as living members of our family, our first urge is to care, to share, to give.

And they too give to us. Our needs are received as a gift.  Such gift economies and economies of care are the basis of nature’s economy. They are the basis of all indigenous economies. And they are the basis of new economies of care and solidarity that are everywhere.

Extractivism has made us imagine that making profits is the economy. Aristotle called this “Chrematistics”, the Art of Money Making.  He differentiated it from Oikonomia, the Art of Living. The Art of Living is about nourishing life –  the life of all beings on the Earth, including our human family. The Art of Living is creating and participating in living economies that sustain life. Life creates living economies which are based on the ethics of St Francis that “it is in giving that we receive “.

In organic farming and ecological farming we refer to this give and take principle as “the law of return”. We are participating in the cycle of life.

Living economies are therefore circular economies that are based on consciousness nature’s cycles, and our duty to give back to the earth to maintain and regenerate her cycles. The earth gives us food. When we give back part of her organic gifts to the soil, we act according to the law of return and create a circular economy of the nutrition cycle, we sustain the food web which is the web of life. When we give organic matter back to nature, as food for her soil organisms, she continues to give us food. The work in giving back is our work, our gratitude, our oneness. Giving us food is nature’s complex work -through her soil food web, her biodiversity, her water, the sun, the air.

The Earth gives us seeds. Our ancestors have cocreated with her to multiple her diversity. When we save seeds, and to sow a seed as a gift to the Earth, she reproduces and multiples the seed manifold. When we share seeds in the commons, seed sovereignty grows, food sovereignty grows.

The earth gives us water. When we act to conserve water, we are engaging in the oikonomia of giving and create the circular economy of the hydrological cycle, the water cycle. When we share water in the commons, we are creating economies of giving and sharing.

All ecological crises are the rupture of nature’s cycles-of nutrition, of water, of life – and the transgression of planetary boundaries.

In the circular economy we give back to society. Wealth is shared. Wealth circulates. In circular economies wealth does not concentrate in a few hands. Wealth is not extracted, creating the polarization of the 1% and 99%.

And the precariousness of the living conditions of the 99% has created a new class which Guy Standing calls the “Precariate”. If the Industrial Revolution gave us the industrial working class, the proletariat, globalization and the “free market” which is destroying the livelihoods of peasants in India and China through land grabs, or the chances of economic security for the young in what were the rich industrialized countries, has created a global class of the precarious. With lockdown we may well be creating a very large class of disposable people.

The circular economy replenishes nature and society. It creates enoughness and wellbeing for all. In the care of the Earth and society, diversity of meaningful and creative work is possible. It is based on nature’s law of return. In nature, there is no waste, no pollution.

When economies are circular, every living being, every place, is the centre of the economy, and nature and society evolve and emerge from multiple self-organised systems, like the trillions of cells in our body.

Circular economies as living economies are by their very nature biodiverse, spanning from the intimate and local, to the global and planetary.

4. Simplicity Contributes to Well Being and Happiness for all through growing “Oneness” and “Enoughness”

“Simplicity, Simplicity, Simplicity! We are happy in proportion to the things we can do without”. Henry David Thoreau

Buddhism teaches that joy and happiness arise from letting go…There are things you have been hanging on to that really are not useful and deprive you of your freedom. Find the courage to let them go”. Thich Nhat Hanh

Happiness does not lie in the possession of things: happiness lies in contentment of the heart. When we know that enough is enough, we always have enough; and when we don’t know enough is enough, however much we have, it is never enough. Satish Kumar

Extractivism and consumerism have created the illusion that the more we use resources for limitless production and consumption, the more we accumulate, the more we have, the happier we will be. Many years ago, I saw a billboard saying “Happiness for Sale” in front of the new malls that were coming up in Gurgaon.

But happiness cannot be bought. Wellbeing is not a commodity.

The dominant economic model based on limitless growth on a limited planet is leading to an overshoot of the human use of the earth’s resources. This is leading to an ecological catastrophe.

It is also leading to intense and violent resource grab of the remaining resources of the earth by the rich from the poor. The resource grab is an adjustment by the rich and powerful to a shrinking resource base – land, biodiversity, water – without adjusting the old resource intensive, limitless growth paradigm to the new reality. Its only outcome can be ecological scarcity for the poor in the short term, with deepening poverty and deprivation. In the long run it means the extinction of our species, as climate catastrophe and extinction of other species makes the planet un-inhabitable for human societies. Failure to make an ecological adjustment to planetary limits and ecological justice is a threat to human survival.

Adjustment is an imperative.  However, there are different paths that are being proposed. There is a Structural Adjustment imposed by the rich which is referred to as “austerity”. Forced austerity based on the old extractivist paradigm allows the 1% super rich, the oligarchs,the billionaires, to grab the planet’s resources while pushing out the 99% from access to resources, livelihoods, jobs and any form of freedom, democracy and economic security.

The rich, the billionaires, the corporations and institutions they control are trying to impose an adjustment which makes the earth and poor and working people pay. They want to dismantle workers’ rights, human rights and laws that protect the environment. They want deregulation of commerce and greed. They want to privatise public goods, and commodify, patent, financialise nature and human beings.

This will push the world to an ecological and economic meltdown.

There is another paradigm emerging which is shared by some Governments and new movements of the 99%, the paradigm of voluntary simplicity, of reducing our ecological footprint while increasing human wellbeing for all. Instead of forced austerity that helps the rich become super rich, the powerful become totalitarian, chosen simplicity enables us all to adjust ecologically, to reduce over  consumption of the planet’s resources, and share resources equitably as a commons, so no one is denied basic needs of food and water. Chosen simplicity allows us to adjust socially and politically to enhance democracy and defend our indivisible life and freedom. Simplicity as a conscious ecological, economic and social choice creates a path for economic adjustment based on respecting planetary boundaries and ecological limits, based on justice and equity, based on reclaiming the commons and resisting enclosures.

People are seeking Earth Democracy, based on freedom and wellbeing for all beings. People are defending regulations to prevent the robbery of natural resources and public goods. They are demanding the rich pay taxes. That those causing harm to Nature are held guilty of Ecocide-Crimes against Nature and Humanity.[2]

People want an end to the Enclosures of Commons and collection of rents from people for the public goods that belong to people.

People are reclaiming and regenerating the commons of biodiversity, water, land, food, health, knowledge, community, democracy.

Forced austerity makes the poor and working families pay for the excesses of limitless greed and accumulation by the super-rich. Chosen simplicity stops these excesses and allow us to flower into an Earth Democracy where the rights and freedoms of all species and all people are protected and respected.

Simplicity contributes to regeneration of the Earth, her soil, her water, her biodiversity, thus conserving nature and leaving more for future generations. Simplicity in production is self-provisioning, self-reliance, and self-making by people (Swadeshi). By regenerating living systems and biodiversity, simplicity contributes to freedom from external inputs and external control. Not depending on external inputs of capital, chemicals, resources and energy it does not waste resources, it does not pollute, it does not destroy nature’s regenerative capacity or people’s creative potential. And it does not trap people in cycles of debt and dispossession. It creates the possibility of emergence of local, living, circular, solidarity economies

Simplicity is the basis of freedom, from the personal to the political, from the local to the planetary. It creates freedom from dependence and control through self-organisation, self-rule, self-determination (Swaraj). It allows us to grow living, participatory democracies which are the Foundation of Earth Democracy.

The industrial fossil fuel chemical-based food system which is based on the illusion of limitless growth and no limits in nature or society is playing a major role in the planetary emergency. It is also failing to feed people. I billion people are hungry. 2 million are sick because of industrial food related chronic diseases. This system is also destroying forests and creating new infectious diseases life Corona, Sars, Mers, Ebola …

In Hind Swaraj Gandhi critiqued fossil fuel based industrial civilisation stating that “This civilisation seeks to increase bodily comfort, and it fails miserably even in doing so”.

The rapid explosion of industrial food based chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes, cancers are the failure of industrial agriculture to provide bodily comfort, health and wellbeing.

Gandhi also predicted that “This civilisation is such that one has only to be patient and it will be self-destroyed”.

We are living through a period of accelerated sell destruction of fossil fuel based industrial civilisation through the ecological destruction of the planet.

The IPCC has warned that we have ten years to limit climate change catastrophe

As my book Soil, not Oil and other reports show, 50% of the Greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate chaos come from an industrial food system based on fossil, fuels and chemicals and driven by greed. (Vandana Shiva, Soil Not Oil)

And the same careless and violent technologies that are polluting the atmosphere are also degrading the land and driving species to extinction.

According to the Inter-Governmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history.[3]

200 species are being pushed to extinction every day

Insects and birds are fast disappearing. We are living through the sixth mass extinction. And we could be among the millions of species that disappear if we do not shift extractivism, and a heavy and clumsy ecological footprint, to economies of care, from greed to sharing, from violence to nonviolence in our minds and our practices.

The warning scientists are giving today, Gandhi gave a century ago

Illusions such as GDP have been ruthlessly and thoughtlessly imposed on humanity propelling us to violate the earth’s ecological limits and social and ethical limits set by human dignity and human equality.

GDP is a mismeasure.

GDP measures what is extracted and traded for profit, not what is produced and consumed for essential basic needs, and not what nourishment and water, resources and energy circulate in Nature to sustain ecological cycles and systems. An illusion and construct clothed as a number does not make it “neutral”. GDP has a one-way extractive relationship with nature and society, with nature’s economy and the economy of sustenance and care.

“Growth” as is driving ecological destruction and poverty creation, which is not measured in GDP.[4]

In real economies, life grows and flourishes, biodiversity grows, plants grow, soil organisms grow, communities grow, children grow, wellbeing and happiness grows.

Across the world there is a questioning of GDP as a measure.

Bhutan has shifted from Gross National Product to Gross National Happiness and Well Being.

A Commission Chaired by Joe Stiglitz and advised by Amartya Sen was set up by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to examine the limits of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The final report of the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress called for better information and richer measures than GDP to guide economic policy, assess social progress  and consider what other measures should be used to assess quality of life.[5]

New Zealand has created a “wellbeing budget” prioritising wellbeing over economic growth.[6] [7]

We can as Earth Citizens walk away from the prisons of the misleading constructs of the powerful such as GDP which hide limitless greed. We can Return to Earth, and through our Earth, being live our full human potential with other beings.

In an interconnected living world, simplicity shows us the path to satisfaction, happiness and wellbeing without violating the rights of others. Our meaning and satisfaction in life comes from “being”, not “having”, from relationships or care, compassion and mutuality, not accumulation of “things” and violent appropriation of wealth from others.

Simplicity is the consciousness and awareness of “Oneness” and “Enoughness”.

“Enoughness” is experiencing a freedom that is inclusive of the freedom of all beings and all people.

“Enoughness” creates the conditions of peace, both peace with nature and peace between people. Greed drives resource conflicts, wars with the Earth and wars against people.

“Enoughness” is caring for the Earth and society which creates the imperative of sharing, of recovering the commons. Sharing is a culture of peace.

“Enoughness” is the basis of Earth Democracy and earth citizenship.

[1] https://www.navdanya.org/attachments/Health%20Per%20Acre.pdf

[2] https://www.stopecocide.earth/press-releases-summary/french-citizens-assembly-votes-to-make-ecocide-a-crime-

[3] https://ipbes.net/news/how-did-ipbes-estimate-1-million-species-risk-extinction-globalassessment-report

[4] http://www.kontext-tv.de/en/broadcasts/vandana-shiva-how-growth-creates-poverty-and-climate-chaos

[5] https://ophi.org.uk/sarkozy-commission-appeals-for-better-data-and-stronger-measures/

[6] https://theconversation.com/new-zealands-well-being-budget-how-it-hopes-to-improve-peoples-lives-118052

[7] https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesellsmoor/2019/07/11/new-zealand-ditches-gdp-for-happiness-and-wellbeing/#35fbb2221942