It has now been 50 years since a human being first glimpsed the whole of Planet Earth, shimmering alone in the blackness of space. “The earth is blue. How wonderful. It is amazing,” reported Yuri Gagarin as the planet appeared in his porthole for the first time on 12 April 1961. Environmentalists subsequently argued that seeing the Earth as small and fragile, rather than large and unfathomable, would transform humanity’s relationship with our common home and give renewed impetus to the movement to save nature – and for some it did.
Paradoxically, though, for others the image of the whole Earth, now small enough to fit in an astronaut’s hand, suggested other possibilities for a new human relationship to a planet that some felt we were now able to grasp and alter. “We are as Gods and we might as well get good at it,” quipped Stewart Brand, editor of The Whole Earth catalogue, who first lobbied for NASA to release the photo of Earth from space and today advocates a package of nuclear power, GM crops, geoengineering and synthetic chemicals to steward that blue–green pearl.
The year after Gagarin’s historic flight into orbit, the head of US meteorological research, Harry Wexler, reported on proposals that might allow a single nation to transform the climate of that “whole earth” at one stroke, heating or cooling the atmosphere by deploying dust or ice into the sky. It was an early call for geoengineering – the idea of taking direct control of planetary systems. In Wexler’s imagination, at least, the Earth was now a small and tractable enough object to credibly consider altering it. In the years that followed more and more proposals to “manage,” “colonize” and “re-engineer” the planet came thick and fast. Where men seeking to grab power once looked to acquire territories and slaves, now the entire globe and its productive capacity was up for grabs if only we could imagine and invent the tools.
Those of us who have resisted corporate power while trying to protect the natural world are all too familiar with the arsenal of economic and technological tools that have since been developed to carry out ever-more fundamental grabs on this global commons: grabs on land, water, seeds and our cultural stories; patent grabs on the genetic parts of life; and, through nanotechnology, even grabs on the basic elements and atomic structures. There is a proper name for this process: piracy. The term “biopiracy” describes how applying monopoly claims and high technologies to the stuff of life is a profoundly unjust seizure of common goods. In these pages writers from the ETC Group have given us a new term, “geopiracy”, to describe the attempt by a few technocrats to hijack the functioning of our entire planet – whether by polluting the skies, changing the chemistry of the oceans or appropriating the fields, forests and algal blooms that regulate the biosphere.
These three groundbreaking reports pull back the curtain on disturbing technological and corporate trends that are already reshaping our world and that will become crucial battlegrounds for civil society in the years ahead.
Part 1, “Geopiracy,” raises the alarm that geoengineering proposals – once the preserve of mad scientists and sci-fi authors – are moving to the centre of political struggles to address the deepening climate crisis. Geopiracy describes how the world’s richest governments and industrialists are cynically using the siren call of a quick fix to sideline an equitable multilateral response – strengthening their geopolitical power in an already unequal world. Geoengineering is not only dangerous in the future because it might not work as expected, wreaking havoc on ecosystems and peoples lives, it is dangerous right now as an icon for a techno-fix approach, diverting political will and resources away from the real solutions at hand: peasant-based, soil-based agriculture and re- localised economies.
Geoengineering may be in vogue in the North but it is the people of the global South who will suffer the consequences if and when the climate engineers get their hands on the planetary thermostat. Turning down the heat in northern Europe might cause Africa and the Indian subcontinent to plunge into drought. Mixing biochar into the soil will require clearing the lands of the poor for the new charcoal plantations. Seeding the tropical oceans with nutrients ecologically disrupts a source of sustenance for fisherfolk.
It is the South also that is firmly in the sights of the new Biomassters, as described in Part 2 of this book. Once again the illusion of a technological fix – switching our petroleum-fuelled economy to a plant-based one – is music to the ears of northern technocrats searching for a way to resolve planetary crises to their advantage. Yet the plants themselves – now recast as lumpen “biomass” – are mostly in the global South. “The New Biomassters” details clearly why any shift to a biomass economy amounts to an assault on the peoples, cultures and ecosystems of the South that already depend on those plants. It links the current wave of land grabs in Africa, Asia and Latin America with this new bioeconomy agenda. It explains how the (again sci-fi sounding) new technology of synthetic biology in which geneticists reprogram living organisms to behave as microbial factories will facilitate the liquidation of ecosystems and the theft of livelihoods that the world’s poorest people depend upon. Capturing the planet’s plant life without tipping us deeper into ecological crises will require geoengineering of another kind – the formation of vast synthetic ecosystems that maximize biomass production to the detriment of everything else.
This last report, which makes up Part 3 of the book, “Capturing Climate Genes,” explores one strategy by which the Biomassters hope to secure that biomass production. The world’s largest agribusiness players, including Monsanto, BASF, DuPont and Syngenta, are pouring billions of dollars and claiming hundreds of patents on what they euphemistically call “climate-ready crops” – plants genetically engineered to withstand salty soils, hotter weather, flooded fields and other environmental stresses. Far from helping small farmers adjust to a warming world (something peasant farmers can organize to achieve by themselves), these crops will enable industrial agriculture to expand its plantation monocultures into lands currently not considered productive enough for that economic model – lowlands, wetlands, savannah lands and more. Such lands are not empty of people or nature. They are exactly the places where the world’s peasants, pastoralists and fisherfolk now survive, thrive and steward biodiversity. In truth these are not climate-ready crops – they are biomass-ready, land-grabbing crops. And in this case the grab goes deep. Amid the 261 families of patent claims made by the biomassters over “abiotic stress tolerance” are ownership claims that cut across all crop species, including claims on the very biomass itself. My own organization, Navdanya, has documented how farmers have already developed their own salt-resistant, drought-resistant and resilient traits in traditional crops. It is these traits and the farmers’ knowledge that the gene giants are endeavoring to steal. Piracy, once again, is actively underway.
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* Vandana Shiva is a philosopher, environmental activist, and eco feminist.
* ‘Earth Grab: Geopiracy, The New Biomassters and Capturing Climate Genes’ by Diana Bronson, Hope Shand, Jim Thomas, Kathy Jo Wetter is published by Pambazuka Press (ISBN 0-85749-044-3).
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.