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Conversing on the commons: An interview with Gustavo Esteva-part 2

Article  in  Community Development Journal · April 2015

DOI: 10.1093/cdj/bsv014


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Orla O'Donovan
University College Cork


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Conversing on the commons: an

interview with Gustavo
Esteva—part 2
Órla O’Donovan*

This is the second part of an edited transcript of an interview with Gustavo

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Esteva that took place during a Thinkery on the Commons held in Dublin in
June 2014, a full recording of which is available on the journal’s companion
website, CDJ Plus (
commons-sense-a-thinkery-on-the-commons). The first part is published
in the previous issue of the Community Development Journal (50(3)). One of
the contributors to the Community Development Journal’s Special Supplement
on the commons (Esteva, 2014), Gustavo Esteva is a Mexican commons activ-
ist, post-development theorist and ‘deprofessionalized intellectual’. Advo-
cating an understanding of the commons as first and foremost an activity,
a way of people relating to each other and the natural world, rather than a
thing or a natural resource, Gustavo asserts that certain kinds of contempor-
ary ‘commoning’ constitute the beginnings of a new post-capitalist society.
He has two key sources of inspiration: the ideas of the Austrian-born phil-
osopher and ascetic Ivan Illich (1926 – 2002), and the new way of living
and governing of the Mexican Zapatistas that has emerged since the 1994 up-
rising of indigenous people calling themselves the Zapatista National Liber-
ation Army. In the first part of the interview Gustavo explains some of the
conceptual tools offered by Ivan Illich, along with his rejection of the project
of development, and his commitment to interculturality, the possibility of
real dialogue between people with fundamentally different worldviews.
Emphasizing that social relationships are fundamental to any community
organizing and commoning, he explains the interactions with others and
technologies that Illich argued characterize a ‘convivial’ society. This second
part of the interview, which includes challenging questions and comments
from the floor, explores different traditions of thinking, speaking and acting
in the contemporary commons movement. This movement, which is flour-
ishing in various parts of the world today, includes highly diverse

*Address for correspondence: Órla O’Donovan, School of Applied Social Studies, University College
Cork, Ireland; email:

742 Community Development Journal Vol 50 No 4 October 2015 pp. 742 –752
An interview with Gustavo Esteva—part 2 743

perspectives on capitalism, democracy, the state, the community and the in-
dividual. Highlighting the importance of philosophical considerations for
debates about the commons, particularly the epistemological distinction be-
tween abstractions and realities, Gustavo argues that three entities frequent-
ly understood as realities – the state, the nation and democracy – are ghosts.
In a similar vein, he asserts we are constructed as individuals separated from
others and from the world, but we can never be individuals.

Celebrating and being wary of ‘the commons’

ÓO’D: In your article ‘Commoning in the new Society’ (Esteva, 2014) you
talk about commoners as austere people. This is very different to the under-

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standing of austerity we have now where it’s associated with the t-shirt slo-
gan ‘IMFed, U2?’! That’s the association we have with austerity. Last night
Eilish Dillon talked about how many years ago she read your entry in The De-
velopment Dictionary. I too remember reading it and really responding to it
because it helped me understand my irritation with the idea of Ireland being
a ‘late developer’. I understood and relished that argument. But the call to
celebrate the commons was one I did not understand. It is only through
working on the publication of Commons Sense (McDermott, O’Connell and
O’Donovan, 2014) that I have begun to understand it, and begun to ‘cleanse
my gaze’ as you call on us to do. You call on us to both celebrate the com-
mons, but also to be wary of this notion. Tell us about your reservations about
the term ‘the commons’ please.
GE: It was how I first started to use the conversations with Ivan Illich about
what it is to be beyond development. In the late 1980s when post-
development was already fashionable, there were conferences about what
is to be beyond development. We were well aware that development was a
total failure. When we decided to share our conversations that took place
over three years, we wanted to dismantle the semantic constellation of devel-
opment, and we wanted in everything we said to present a critique, and then
the way out. Okay, we were dismantling this word development, but then
what? My essay was about development itself. The way out was the com-
mons. But the meaning of the commons is puzzling for me because it is
next to impossible to find a word that is equivalent to ‘commons’ in Spanish.
I was fully aware of the enclosure of the commons, and the very pertinent
and appropriate description of the enclosure of the commons as the begin-
ning of capitalism by Marx. But the most important point was that in the
late 1980s we had already in the world a very important movement around
the commons. What we were seeing everywhere, beyond development, was
this movement: reclaiming the commons, or regenerating the commons. Peo-
ple reclaiming what they lost, during the enclosure, or those that were able to
744 Órla O’Donovan

keep them, how they were resisting and regenerating them. My piece on de-
velopment ends saying this is a call to celebrate this movement, to see what is
happening. They are basically invisible, but let’s try and open our eyes to
celebrate them and to do some research about what this is. What is happen-
ing? What kind of world is emerging with the commons?
But I am convinced that we cannot really use the word. It is beautiful. Of
course, Nick Dyer-Witheford (2006) transformed the idea by saying we are
talking about commonism. Yes, that’s beautiful, we are really playing with
the word and are going beyond communism and trying to create common-
ism. But this is very clearly an Anglo-Saxon notion. The commons is not a
universal category. It is something that belongs to one specific tradition so
we need to have not just one word, not have this as the word that will be uni-

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versal, but accept from the very beginning that we will have a family of
words that includes different traditions.
We are saying that in modern society and capitalism you have the individ-
ual and the commodity as basic cells of the operation of society. The com-
modity includes use value, surplus value, change value and all these
different elements that define the social relations associated with capitalism.
We are saying that the commons is the cell of the new society. Going beyond
capitalism, there is this new cell that is the commons. But it is not one cell, it is
not one category, it is not the commons. It is a good clue to begin the explor-
ation to find the family of words that we will finally accept. This family of
words will celebrate the difference of many different cultures that have con-
structed different ways of being that are beyond capitalism.

Divisions in the commons

ÓO’D: One thing Mary, Tom and I became increasingly aware of when we
were working on this publication was the family of traditions of thinking
about the commons, and the many internal debates that are taking place
within the commons movement. In your piece you are very critical of one
tradition, the tradition associated with Elinor Ostrom (1990), who won the
Nobel Prize for Economics for her work on the commons. You say she is ig-
norant and naive and has a poor understanding of history, and that she still
operates within an economic mentality. Tell us more about that please.
GE: It is appalling to speak about Elinor in this way because she was really
a very sweet lady, very soft, very simple. She was not an economist, but she
was working with economic categories, using the words without knowing
their meaning and with amazing ignorance. She was very sure about what
she was doing, but she was lost in the forest. She was ignoring all the com-
plexity of the things she was working on and had a peculiar obsession
with efficiency. She loved the commons. She really loved them. She found
them marvellous. She wanted to care for them, but part of her inspiration
An interview with Gustavo Esteva—part 2 745

was Hardin (1968). She accepted, I think for many, many years, ‘the tragedy
of the commons’ and she was trying to work to prevent that tragedy. That is,
she thought if we leave the commons as they are, they will end tragically. She
thought that Hardin is right, that they will end that way. When I met her she
did not know, for example, that at the end of his life Hardin acknowledged
he was wrong. He wrote about the tragedy of the regime of free access, but
she did not know about that. She was challenging Hardin, but without
knowing that Hardin himself acknowledged his great mistake.
ÓO’D: You are particularly critical of the way she uses the word resource
and the way she talks about the commons as a resource. Many people think
of the commons in terms of natural resources, such as forests and the sea.
GE: Ivan was the first who said this, but Vandana Shiva (1992) expresses it

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well in The Development Dictionary by saying when you destroy the com-
mons, the commons becomes resources. Resources are clearly the opposite
of the commons. If you see the commons as resources, you are really destroy-
ing them. And that is why Elinor is our enemy. She used the expression used
by many other people of ‘common pool resources’. For her, this was the per-
tinent term. They were seeing this as a collection of resources that were admi-
nistered by a group of people. It is more or less in the co-operative tradition
that she loved. One of her fundamental concerns was that in capitalism you
need competition so how will we bring competition into the administration
of common pool resources? If we bring in competition, then they will com-
pete with each other and destroy the whole idea and it will be the tragedy
of the commons. How can we accept competition, because competition is
very important, it is very good. You must not avoid competition, but try to
control it and organize competition in such a way that will not destroy the
administration of the common pool of resources. I think that she got the
Nobel Prize in economics because she was trying to economize the com-
mons. But the nature of the commons is that it is beyond economy. What
she was doing was trying to perceive the commons, to construct the
commons, to organize the commons in an economic way, with a premise
of scarcity.
ÓO’D: One of the other controversies within the commons movement cen-
tres around the state and the role of the nation state. Your approach calls for a
radical refusal to engage in the reform process. You see the nation state as a
lost cause and talk about democratic despotism. For many people involved
in efforts to salvage elements of the welfare state they see it as defending
hard-won victories.
GE: First some introduction about that concern as it is an epistemological
question. We all know about the value of abstraction, but from the very be-
ginning Plato warned us about the problem with abstraction. Abstraction
means to take something away from reality: here is the reality, and I take
746 Órla O’Donovan

something from reality and put it in my mind. In that operation, warns Plato,
we need to be very careful. He does not use this word, but you need to put
this abstraction within brackets, to establish a clear difference between real-
ity and what you have in the mind, because abstraction is not reality. It is
something that you took away from reality. What happened particularly in
the West is that we lost the brackets. That was the first stage. We started to
confuse abstraction and reality. But the next step was terrible. The next
step was we started to believe that the abstraction is the reality. But what
we are perceiving is an optical illusion. This can be confusing because you
are not really perceiving the reality but the abstraction from that reality. Per-
haps the worst example is that magnificent contribution of Marx about class
struggle. It is a magnificent light to see reality and to see what is happening in

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capitalism, but then people assumed that you have classes in reality.
Class is a very powerful abstraction. In the real world, it is people strug-
gling, not classes. You cannot see and touch class struggle. People try to con-
struct class organizations, for example, but that is terrible and is clearly
counter-productive. We are educated in a way we take abstract entities for
real, something that can be very convenient for a conversation. For example
I can say I live in Mexico and you live in Ireland. It is convenient, it is a point
of reference, but it is not real. We cannot live in abstract entities. We cannot
live in Ireland. We cannot live on planet Earth because planet Earth is an
All this is a prelude to talk about three ghosts, the state, the nation and
democracy. These are really very vague notions. You cannot find a really
good definition, a standard definition of any of these three things. The typ-
ical definition of democracy, to our eternal shame, is the political regime now
existing in the United States. You can find that in many textbooks because,
yes, modern democracy was invented and created in the United States.
That one part of the story is very clear. When you see the creation of the Uni-
ted States and the process of its invention, there was a discussion among the
federalists and Hamilton and Madison and all of them in which terrible
things were said against democracy. They created the illusion of democracy
but not democracy. And then the nation state was created as a specific polit-
ical regime, created for the administration of capitalism and for the control
and domination of the people. The administration of capital was the basic
element in the design of the nation state. And then you apply to that nation
state the notion of democracy, but it is a system of control of the people, not of
participation of the people. If you accept as a definition of democracy this
idea that people really participate in the decisions affecting their lives, and
that people can remove, can change, can control the people administering
their decisions, then you really do not have democracy in any country on
Earth: it has never existed.
An interview with Gustavo Esteva—part 2 747

The most important point is that all nation states have been constructed, in
their constitutions, in their legal systems, to prevent the people from interfer-
ing with the regime of operation of the decision-makers. The decision-makers
are protected from the people. The people cannot really interfere with them.
If you see the mandate of your representatives in a democracy it is supposed-
ly as your representatives, but they are protected from you. Supposedly, they
are servants of ‘the nation’. Of what? What is that lady? Where is she? The
nation? They are accountable to the nation? The representatives are not ac-
countable to the people, the people electing them. All the laws protect
them from the interference of the people. The people have the sacred right
to ask. This is the First Amendment in the American constitution. The people
can come together to ask. That is the fundamental civil right. But if the people

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have the right to ask, the authorities have the right to say no, to refuse, to ig-
nore the people.
Our struggle is not against the state. Our struggle is not against democracy.
Our struggle is not against the nation. These are ghosts and you cannot fight
against ghosts. This is not our fight. When you say ‘I am against the nation’,
what are you talking about? You are fighting against what? ‘I am against the
state’, you are fighting against what? As Marx could say in the study of the
Paris Commune, yes, we need to dismantle all this apparatus created in
the name of the state and the nation. Yes, we need to dismantle these kinds
of things. To dismantle these kinds of things, you need to destroy the need for
this apparatus. It is not New Ludditism. It is not saying let us destroy
the machines. It is not about destroying the social security system, or the
army, or destroying all these kinds of institutions. Let us try to destroy the
need for them. That is something you can dismantle very easily. Any com-
munity, any group of people can destroy the need for that kind of thing.
ÓO’D: Before we open the floor to questions, can I ask you one more thing
returning to your comments just now on the idea of class, but also about how
we conceive of the struggle. Just before we started this conversation you
mentioned that in the various contributions to the Supplement which reflect,
we hope, different traditions of commoning, the one you feel furthest
removed from is the ‘anti-capitalist commons’ as discussed in the article
by George Caffentzis and Silvia Federici (2014). Tell us about how you see
the common effort with them to understand the struggle, but also the points
where you feel a difference with what they are saying?
GE: Firstly, Silvia and George are my friends. We are very close in many
different ways, and I love the way Silvia has been struggling for women
for example, addressing the question of gender. She knows that she was
wrong at some time in what she was asking, but basically the struggle of Sil-
via is marvellous. By the way, how George is now dealing with the question
of debt can be very interesting for Ireland. If someone asked me, are you
748 Órla O’Donovan

ready to sign a manifesto of Silvia and George without seeing it, I would sign
it without seeing it because I really trust them. But I am clearly in a very rad-
ically contrasting position to almost everything they are saying in their art-
icle ‘Commons against and beyond capitalism’. The way they are talking
about the commons and the anti-capitalist commons, the words they are
using, how they approach the whole thing, is completely different to my
own experience, to my own perception. What I would like to ask is – how
we can accept in our discussion these divergent views? It is about saying,
perhaps we have very different views, and both of us are right. Perhaps
the question is about how they see the world in USA. How, in that specific
world, you see the world in a certain way and perceive the commons in re-
flection of that specific world. Of course the world in USA is radically differ-

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ent to the world in Chiapas and the Zapatistas and the indigenous people
and the movements in Latin America. It is a different planet. If you are dis-
cussing these kind of things in these different worlds you have different per-
ÓO’D: Which returns us to the idea of hospitality and embracing the
otherness of the other.
GE: That is it. Ivan was saying time and again through arguments you get
conclusions, but only stories make sense. That is the point. If you see this art-
icle by Silvia and George not as a collection of arguments but as a story, a
story they are telling about their own reality, then that is a story that makes
sense for them. But, it may not make sense to us. This is not the commons or
the commoning we are talking about.
ÓOD: Okay. Thank you. This is good point at which to open up this
Audience Question: Some years ago I was at university in Galway doing a
philosophy course. I came across an idea from Aristotle where he was de-
scribing the method of rule of the people. He was saying there are two types
of rule, rule for the common good, and rule based on self-interest. Rule for
the common good defines one individual, a male, as the king, whereas
rule based on self-interest defines one individual, a male, as the tyrant. He
worked down the line and said if everyone has equal participation in society,
and everybody rules for the common good, it is called politic. But if everyone
rules based on self-interest, it is called democracy. The logical consequence is
that democracy creates nested aristocracies, people whose mutualised self-
interest for the control of the people around them creates the structures of
power that we are familiar with still to this time. So democracy has always
been a farce. I don’t know if I believe this myself. I cannot figure out if I ac-
tually really liked this, but I think there is something in it.
GE: It is not your invention, but it is your distortion. In one specific sense,
there is something like that in Aristotle, but we need to remember that many
An interview with Gustavo Esteva—part 2 749

times we colonize the past with our categories. The individual as we know it
did not exist in the time of Aristotle. He was not talking about the self-
interest of an individual because he could not conceive that possibility. He
could not imagine the individual in the modern meaning of the term. Illich
clearly demonstrated that the individual was born in the twelfth century
with the invention of the text and many other things. When we talk about
the idea of politics in the time of Aristotle, that was the original meaning
of the word politics. It is not about parties, it is the common good of the
whole city. Aristotle was very explicitly against the idea of democracy be-
cause of the danger of demagoguery. Democratic society is the worst kind
of political regime said Aristotle. When he talks about self-interest, it is not
the self-interest of the individual self. We would need a whole day to discuss

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that point. It is a clue to the kind of inspiration you can continue with after this.

The impossibility of being an individual

ÓO’D: We have had a lot of discussion over the last two days about the idea
of the individual. Last night in a conversation you were talking about the
limitations of the notion of a collective because it is a collection of indivi-
duals, and that commonism goes beyond that.
GE: This is one of the more challenging elements of the commons, how can
we accept that we are constructed as individuals, we see and experience the
world as individuals but we cannot be individuals. We cease to be humans
the very moment we try to be individuals. It is a specific and very strong so-
cial construction that is very destructive, that is destroying us, destroying
our possibilities of being. A story can illustrate the point better than a com-
plex argument. Perhaps you have heard about Dr Spock who produced a
very solid book for people who do not have the experience of raising a child.
He wrote this magnificent book with an amazing index. When you do not
know what to do with the baby, you go to the index and it says oh, the shit
is a little yellow with a little green, this is the meaning of the yellow and
the green shit, that kind of thing. The first editions have the ten command-
ments of Dr Spock which are really amazing. The first three commandments
are the important points. The first commandment is that the parents’ bed is
forbidden to the baby. The second commandment is that it is very good for
children that they have their own room as soon as possible. The third is that it
is best for the physical and psychological development of children to cry for
half an hour a day, alone. Many children were constructed like that. It is the
construction of an individual, separated from the others and from the world.
According to Spock this is very good for them, for their physical and mental
development. Now we have the technology in almost every house with chil-
dren in the United States, the technology to hear the baby crying in every
750 Órla O’Donovan

If you go to Mexico or India you can see the magnificent tool of the shawl,
the rebozo in our case. Babies are next to the body of the mother for the whole
day and for many months. They are not only symbiotically attached to the
mother, they are participating in all the activities in the community, because
the mother is going here and there. I have seen in the Zapatista communities
how their children play football with a baby on their back and the babies
enjoy that madness. Raimon Panikkar said this very beautifully, we are knots
in a net of relationships. We all are carrying that net of relations. Sometimes
this net is very poor, it is only a few people. In these communities it is incred-
ibly rich. You are a knot in a net of many different kinds of relations and you
are carrying these relations all the time. In the modern world we are always
treated as individuals, not as persons with all the richness of our relations.

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We are separated, classified, treated as individuals. But in thinking in the
‘we’, and again this is connected with Ivan, we need to see ‘we’ as a verb.
In the real world of these communities and for our commoning, we can
see that the basic idea is we-ing, we are we-ing all the time. Communities
in one of the Mayan states do not have any word for ‘I’ and ‘you’. If Órla
and I are talking, that is one we. If we include Tom, that is a different we.
If we include the rest of the people in this room, that is a different we.
They have dozens of ‘wes’. Every we is we-ing. It is an active verb. It is
not that I am talking, but I am involved with you in a conversation. It is
not Gustavo Esteva addressing Órla O’Donovan. It is we-ing. I in the mo-
ment I am talking becomes we.
Audience Question: You were talking about class politics as struggle and
how very impressive Marx’s analysis was as an abstraction, but in the intent
to turn it into a reality that awful things were done. Was that roughly what
you were saying? What I was thinking about was in contexts that you are de-
scribing in Mexico where maybe the notion of community is more immediate
to people, where it is more easily understood, that talk about commoning or
community seems less of an abstraction, less of a movement between the
reality and the intellectual idea. But in the context I’m more familiar with,
the notion of community cannot be taken for granted at all. People are quite
atomized and would have to actively enter into some kind of creation of com-
munity. How could you avoid having some kind of an abstraction to work
towards? How would it be better or worse than what Marx is talking about
in terms of class struggle? Why is ‘community’ better than ‘class’ in terms of
an identifier? What is the inherent value of community over class? And sec-
ondly, how can you, when you are living in imperfect circumstances ever
avoid some level of abstraction?
GE: This is a magnificent understanding of the point. It allows me to clar-
ify that I am of course not against abstractions. Class struggle is a good ab-
straction, a powerful abstraction, a pertinent abstraction, a powerful light
An interview with Gustavo Esteva—part 2 751

illuminating the reality. If I use this category of Marx I can illuminate the real-
ity, the social reality in which we are. I can see better what is happening here
in the reality thanks to this light. Yes, I think we cannot avoid abstractions.
We cannot live without these kinds of abstractions. But it is important not
to confuse them with reality. Clearly, I will say that class struggle is a very
powerful light in a capitalist society.
People in the communities I have been speaking about never use the word
‘community’. For them it is not an abstraction, it is a way of being. It is not
that they live in a ‘community’, it is not that they are part of a ‘community’,
because if you say ‘I am part of a community, I belong to a community’, then
you are an individual part of that whole. The community in their case is not
an abstraction but is the first layer of their being. Before being a person, a sin-

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gular person, you are the community. And even in the conversation with
them you hear that: ‘who are you?’ ‘I am San Pablo Etla’. They react naming
the first layer of their being. That is how they can have migration and can
live twenty years out of the community but are still connected with it.
They come back to the community because they have this first layer of their
being, they are the community.
It is not about me reconnecting with nature, but seeing that I am nature. We
can illustrate this by asking if the air you have in your lungs right now, is it
yours or you? Is it nature or is it you? No, it is the same, we cannot be sepa-
rated. This idea of separation is an absurd construction. Yes, we are using
abstractions but I think we can classify the abstractions, those that are power-
ful lights illuminating reality, and those that are incarnated abstractions.
Take the example of a peasant selecting seeds for the next crop. What is this
operation? It is thousands of years of experience, deposited in his practice.
He is selecting this seed because it belongs to the category ‘in case of
drought’. Or this other seed is ‘in case of that specific pest’. The collection
of abstractions down through the experiences of millennia are deposited
in this guy in which every seed he selects represents a category of seeds.
But these abstractions are incarnated, in that operation, that connection of
this guy with the seeds. Then you do not have this difference between just
class struggle as a light on the reality and incarnated abstractions, when
through the experience of abstraction you have now a specific wisdom
and a specific knowledge. Foucault has a very beautiful expression to talk
about what we are talking about in this moment, when he said we can juxta-
pose and combine erudite knowledge, formalized knowledge, abstract
knowledge with empirical knowledge, that is practice, what you learn
from practice. When you combine these two elements you have historical
wisdom of the struggle, says Foucault. Yes, we need that combination. We
need to combine these, to create the kind of wisdom, the kind of knowledge
we need for the struggle. We cannot say this well in English because in
752 Órla O’Donovan

French and Spanish we have a clear difference between conocimiento and

saber, the empirical skills, the empirical knowledge. In English you
only have knowledge. You don’t have this distinction. Saber, empirical
knowledge, is connected with saber, that is, taste. These skills, this practical
wisdom has a taste, has a flavour. It is connected with reality whereas the
other is abstraction.


Caffentzis, G. and Federici, S. (2014) Commons against and beyond capitalism,

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Community Development Journal, 49 (S1), i92– i105.
Dyer-Witheford, N. (2006) Species-being and the new communism. Notes on an
interrupted cycle of struggles, The Commoner, 11, 15 –32.
Esteva, G. (2014) Commoning in the new society, Community Development Journal, 49
(S1), i144– i159.
Hardin, G. (1968) The tragedy of the commons, Science, 162 (3859), 1243 – 1248.
McDermott, M., O’Connell and T.O’Donovan, Ó. (eds) (2014) Commons senses. New
thinking about an old idea, Community Development Journal, 49 (S1), i1– i159.
Ostrom, E. (1990) Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action,
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Shiva, V. (1992). Resources, in W. Sachs, ed., The Development Dictionary: A Guide to
Knowledge as Power, Palgrave Macmillan, London.

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