Total Liberation In the Age of the Anthropocene And Climate Emergency

Steve Best[i]

The Global Crisis

I want to impress upon everyone just how serious the planetary crisis is at this moment in time, and what this likely means for the global struggle for animal liberation. We need to grasp the frightening novelty and uniqueness of the current era. There are two great facts with which we must reckon.

The Sixth Great Extinction Crisis

First, we are bringing about a sixth great extinction crisis: the last one 65 million years ago, caused by a huge asteroid strike in the Gulf of Mexico, which wiped out all the dinosaurs and 76% of all species. All the last 5 extinction events were caused by natural events, this one is being caused by human activity – by deforestation, agriculture, urbanization, road building, mining, poaching, overfishing, growth-based economies, and climate change. Now we are the asteroid striking the planet. But we keep smashing it, over and over again, with ever-greater force and accelerating speed, so that it never has a chance to recover, it just keeps reeling from our impact.

The roots of this extinction crisis go back 100,000 years ago, when humans migrated out of Africa to colonize every continent except Antarctica. Everywhere humans went species went extinct. From the marsupial lions and giant kangaroos of Australia the saber-toothed tigers and wooly mammoths in North America large, charismatic species died from causes attributable to human overhunting, not, as many argue, to climate change. After annihilating animal species, Homo sapiens turned on another Homo species, and likely slaughtered the Neanderthals within ten thousand years of first encountering them in Europe.

The past reveals our dark history of genocide, overkill, and boundless plunder, and we are now pushing countless other species to oblivion at an alarming rate. Since the 1970s, in just the last half-century, humans have reduced wild animal populations 60%, and within the next few decades we will obliterate an additional million plant and animal species. To indicate the extent to which one species has usurped the planet on its unending path of destruction, 96% of all mammals on earth are now humans and cattle.

It is not just the large charismatic animals such as the African elephant, the rhino, and whales who are threatened with extinction. Bees, ants, and beetles are vanishing eight times faster than mammals, birds or reptiles. Insect populations have declined by over 75% over the past 25 years. The “insect apocalypse” is enormously consequential as insects provide food sources for other animals such as birds, bats, reptiles, small mammals, and fish; they pollinate three-quarters of the world’s food crops; and they recycle wastes and replenish soils. Clearly, humans are systematically destroying the life support systems upon which they and other life forms depend. Clearly, our fates are intertwined, and what we do the animals, we do to ourselves. Because nature is in trouble, we are in trouble. The planetary ecosystem is breaking down.

A principle cause of extinction is a global meat-based agricultural system, which destroys habitats, consumes rainforests, creates monocultures, and spreads poisonous chemicals on land and sea. Climate change is another key driver of extinction, thereby linking the twin threats of species extinction and human-induced global warming.

Global Warming

In addition to a Sixth Great Extinction event unfolding before our eyes, we must appreciate the magnitude of a second great crisis, which of course is the current climate crisis.

Since the Industrial Revolution in the mid-nineteenth century, human beings – above all in the developed West, but increasingly only a global scale — have increased the average overall global temperature by 1 degrees Celsius (1.8F). That may not sound like much, but incremental differences yield enormous changes. Indeed, climate change is a problem for the present, not just the future, as we can clearly see – from the collapsing ice sheets of Antarctica to the destruction of the Bahamas, from the wildfires burning California to the heat waves baking Europe and the dying coral reefs of Australia. As early as the 19thcentury, scientists understood the Greenhouse Effect and the role of carbon dioxide in warming the planet. Since the 1950s, scientists have warned humanity of the risks of global warming. Should the average global temperature rise 2 degrees Celsius above that at the start of the Industrial Revolution, they warned, humans would experience runaway climate change and systemic crises in the natural and social worlds. We’re talking about a world of melted ice caps, flooded cities, superstorms and extreme rainfall, killer heat waves, surging disease rates, chronic drought and food shortages, mass migrations of hundreds of millions of people, resource wars, surges in terrorism, widespread social chaos, crushing economic costs, and mass extinction of life.

We are already seeing such impacts of climate change happening at nearly 1 degree Celsius warming, imagine 2, or 4, or 7 degrees. To prevent these catastrophes, and keep global temperatures below this threshold to 1.5 degrees 197 nations joined together in 2015 to sign the Paris Agreement. And how are we doing in meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement and avoiding what some scientists are saying would be the end of civilization as we know it? In a word, disastrously.

No country is meeting these goals; in fact all are on target to far exceed them. Carbon emissions continue to climb, rising 2.7% in 2018 to hit an all-time high. Right now, the world is burning 80% more coal than it did in the year 2000. Two years ago, we exceeded the 350 parts per million of atmospheric carbon dioxide that was the limit to prevent social collapse. Since 2001, we have seen 18 of the 19 warmest years ever in human history. June 2019 was the hottest month ever recorded in Europe and the world. As the giant energy corporations spread disinformation about the reality of the climate emergency, they push to extract and burn all the coal and oil deposits still left. Moreover, they have developed new techniques for exploiting natural gas from rocks(fracking), but in the process release large amounts of methane gas – a greenhouse gas 30 times more harmful than carbon dioxide emissions.

World economies are growing, not shrinking, and emissions will therefore continue to rise. The world’s two most populous nations, China and India, are rapidly modernizing and creating ever-greater consumer-oriented middle classes, and thereby consuming ever-more energy. Industry giants such as ExxonMobil plan only to pump ever more oil and gas, as multiple European nations increase coal production plants. Globally, meat consumption continues to rise. Alternative energy technologies and the so-called “green revolution” have had no noticeable impact on climate emissions, and are quickly incorporated into the dominant paradigm. Finally, the Paris Agreement itself is highly flawed, given that is proposals for staying under the 2C threshold are based on speculative assumptions about carbon capture technologies that likely will not materialize, making its goals more compatible with 4 degrees warming, not 1.5.

More than half of all carbon emissions that we have ever put into the atmosphere have come in the last 30 years, in full awareness of what we were doing. Thus it is not a lack of science and understanding that perpetuates the climate emergency, but rather the profit-driven capitalist system, the economic might and political power of the fossil fuel industries, and the broken dysfunctional political systems of neoliberal societies. And from the US to the UK, from Italy to Australia, right-wing populist leaders promote nationalism and xenophobia, rather than the forms of international cooperation necessary to stop growing carbon emissions.

Catastrophic climate change is now inevitable, the question is only how truly terrible will it be. No matter what human societies now do, even if they miraculously ended all greenhouse gas emissions overnight, global warming is already baked into the future and we are almost certain to exceed two degrees warming. The reality is even worse than revealed by the scientific reports, given their biases toward caution, failure to account for feedback loops that accelerate climate change, and neglect of the impacts of other greenhouse gases, such as methane and nitrous oxide.

On our current path of apathy, denial, accelerating growth, and feeble resistance, we are, in fact, headed for a world of 4-7 degrees warming world by the end of the century. The world by then will not only be unrecognizable (denuded forests, melted icecaps), much of it will be uninhabitable due to flooding, drought, and heat. Once runaway climate change begins, with emissions, it will play out for thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of years.

To stay under the 1.5C warming and avert the worst consequences of climate crisis, global carbon emissions must be fall by 45% (from 2010 levels) by 2030 and be reduced to net zero by 2050. The window of opportunity – roughly a decade away – is rapidly closing. Indeed, in order to make the decisive political commitment so that carbon emissions can peak by 2020, the world has only about one year to make the necessary changes. Climate change is not a technological problem, it is a philosophical and political problem. If the problems stem ultimately from our delusional alienation from nature and our unsustainable capitalist economic systems addicted to growth and profits for the few, then the survival of life on the planet requires revolutionary changes in our worldviews, values, and socio-economic systems.

The Anthropocene Rupture

Both phenomena that I have described – the sixth great extinction crisis and runaway climate change — signal the arrival of an entirely new historical epoch in humanity and indeed in the natural history of the world. For the first time ever, human beings have become the driving force of change on the planet, bringing about a new era called the Anthropocene.

The Anthropocene marks a rupture in geological and historical time. After two centuries of relentless growth, habitat destruction, and prodigious burning of fossil fuels, humans have acquired the power to destabilize and alter the entire Earth system, and they are doing so in rapid and destructive ways. We have brought about “the end of nature” in the sense that there are no natural phenomena – whether rain, wind, temperature, or tide flow – that have not been altered by human beings cutting rainforests and pouring greenhouse gases into the environment. There is no such thing as “natural disasters” anymore; they all are driven by human activity. The preceding geological epoch, the Holocene, is over; it was a period of climactic stability that began 10,000-12,000 years ago and allowed the rise of agricultural society and what we call civilizations.

Whereas the unconscious operations and blind forces of the planet have provoked turbulent changes over the last 4.5 billion years of earth’s evolutionary history, now change is being directed by a conscious and volitional agent – “humanity.” We cannot speak of humanity equally, to be sure, as the problem was caused by the industrialized capitalist West and the poorer nations who contributed least to climate crisis will be hit the hardest. But nations such as China, India, and Brazil are major contributors, and the cumulative impact of 7.5 billion people on the planet is causing extinction and collapse everywhere. The stability of the Holocene is now gone, changes are accelerating beyond our understanding and control, and chaos waits at our door.

Animal Rights in the Anthropocene

The concept of the Anthropocene is richly relevant to the animal rights movement, and has important theoretical and practical implications. First, it entails we must reject the biocentric and post-humanist conflation of human and nonhuman animals to the same level of agency. These views include the animal rights view that humans are just another species. Despite much talk about the “insignificance” of humanity in the big picture, it is unfortunately true that we are extremely significant. Humans have become a super-agent, a powerful force of nature in their own right. Whereas in Western worldviews they imagined themselves in a kind of war with nature, where the goal was to “conquer” or “master” nature and “bend her to our will,” we are now literally in a battle with the Earth. The destructive effects of two centuries of fossil fuel capitalism have awakened the terrifying powers of the planet, and now it is fighting back. It is a battle that human beings cannot win. For, despite our incredible power, the Earth is always much stronger, and always more complex than we can possibly understand. Now we see that nature will subdue humans, not the other way around.

Second, in terms of the practical implications of the concept of the Anthropocene, it helps us to emphasize just how radical the current environmental crisis is, and in turn how urgent and radical must be our response. It should, in the process, help strip the animal rights and vegan movements of the last vestiges of naiveté that afflict them, such as the delusion that we can save the planet “one plate at a time” and through vegan education and the vegan consumer movement. Of course the vegan and animal rights movements do constantly address the environmental impact of meat consumption on a vast industrial scale of production, and we do talk about the systemic consequences to natural and social worlds of human systems of animal exploitation, but I do not think that we have yet adequately absorbed the facts and meaning of the climate emergency and adjusted our views and actions accordingly.

One other thing to note is that defending the rights of animals is about to get much more difficult, as the human situation itself continues to deteriorate and unimaginable chaos and desperation are poised to overtake humanity in a global battle for survival. Climate change will bring untold human suffering in the form of drought, scarcity, resource wars, failed states, mass migration, and disease. The UN projects somewhere between 200 million and 1 billion climate refugees by 2050. It predicts a “climate apartheid” where humanity is divided into the rich who can afford to adapt to climate change and the poor who succumb to its multiple effects. The more desperate the plight of humanity becomes, the less attention people will give to animals, as shortsighted as this way of thinking is. If it’s true that the climate crisis is “likely to undermine not only basic rights to life, water, food, and housing for hundreds of millions of people, but also democracy and the rule of law,” how much less will people address the needs of animals? How much more shrill and desperate will the privileging of human over animal needs (“But, what about human needs?!”) become?

Moreover, if social chaos tends to breed authoritarianism, how much more difficult will it be to defend any concept of rights or democracy as social and ecological systems begin to collapse? We must be clear that the climate crisis can yield both progressive left-wing responses to link climate change to environmental justice, global equality, and universalism, or to right-wing, proto-fascist responses of nationalism, jingoism, and demonizing the global south to protects its own economy and way of life. From the US to the UK, from Italy to Australia, the rise of fascism is a transnational phenomenon. Globalization and human displacement are causing fear. To steal a line from the TV series Suburra, “When people fear, the Right wins.”

Agribusiness and Veganism

We all know that global agribusiness is a disaster on all levels: it pollutes the air and water supplies of the planet; it wastes food and water resources and depletes topsoil; it is a primary cause of rainforest destruction and species extinction. If we examine the totality of its impacts, meat-based agriculture is a far greater contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change than is the entire transportation sector. Many major reports have stressed the importance of a global shift towards a vegan diet to save the world from hunger, poverty and the worst impacts of climate change. Most recently, in September 2019, the United Nations warned of the devastating impact of meat production on the world’s land, forests, and food security, while its carbon intensive footprint exacerbated the worst effects of climate change. Not for the first time, the UN urged a shift from a meat to a plant-based food system because the future is at risk. More and more, as the ravages of climate crisis accelerate, people are making the connections between climate change, agriculture, and meat-consumption. We cannot mitigate climate change without radically changing global agriculture, and thus without moving away from a meat-based diet.

Surely, one of the first lines of resistance to fossil capitalism is adopting a vegan diet and lifestyle. This is tremendously important, make no mistake, especially in the age of the Anthropocene. A bit of good news is that veganism and vegan food options are growing worldwide. Seeing the future, giant meat corporations like Tyson, Purdue, and Cargill, are creating their own vegan “meats,” fast food chains are rushing to incorporate vegan options, and suppliers like Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger cannot produce enough to sustain rapidly growing demand. Veganism has evolved from a sub-culture into a highly profitable enterprise and a hot stock option. But this is also to say that veganism is becoming integrated into capitalism and consumer growth industries.

But if veganism is a necessary condition for a viable future, it is far from a sufficient condition of change, and by itself is pathetically inadequate to address the accelerating crises of the Anthropocene. All too often, veganism is co-opted into an individualist, apolitical consumer lifestyle. This is what I meant when I wrote in my recent book (The Politics of Total Liberation: Revolution for the 21stCentury), paraphrasing Marx, that “veganism is the opiate of the masses,” due to the delusionary optimism and consumerist individualism so common to vegan subcultures.

While veganism continues its incremental growth, the human population continues to expand, biodiversity shrinks, rainforests disappear, ice caps melt, world economies grow, the populations of China and India swell and modernize, meat consumption spirals upward, and fossil fuel emissions surge with no end in sight. The entire world could go vegan overnight, and it would not stop runaway climate change and remove the greenhouse gas emissions locked into the atmosphere. The growing number of vegans in the developed countries cannot outweigh the impact of surging population growth and meat consumption levels in the underdeveloped countries, nor can it change the fact that greenhouse gas emissions are accelerating. Meat consumption, while a crucial problem, is not the only driving force of climate catastrophe.

Dietary changes are no substitute for social and policy changes. In this new epoch in the history of the Earth, we have to revolutionize not only our diets, but also our societies and economies, and move from growth-addicted capitalism models to truly sustainable lifeways. The only alternative is more aggressive policies, more radical action, and more intense and effective forms of activism. We’re in an emergency situation that requires radical responses.

The climate is changing faster than we are.  We are losing a football field size of the Amazon rainforest every minute. We do not have the time or luxury for long-term education or a slow walk through corrupt institutions down pathways that lead to dead-ends. This is no time for moderation. Radical change is demanded both within society generally and also within the animal liberation and vegan movements.

The political positions of “moderate” or “extreme” are not absolute judgments, but rather are relative to context. In conditions such as global climate emergency, in which all life on the planet is threatened, in a condition where the overwhelming majority of world scientists urge immediate and drastic changes, the “moderate” approach to climate change becomes an extreme response – extreme ignorance, apathy, and complacency, as climate deniers and moderates alike move to a radical fringe group that together cling to the status quo and the dominant paradigms that created the climate crisis. The proposal to reform pathological worldviews and an inherently destructive socio-economic system becomes an act of sheer lunacy. In contrast, calls for urgent  “radical” or “revolutionary” change are reasonable and entirely appropriate to the empirical realities.

And so let us adjust our positions to current realities in the Anthropocene era, however much we may want to deny what is happening on the planet. In addition to becoming vegan, the second powerful choice a person can make is the political choice to broaden resistance and become part of a planetary justice and liberation movement. First, veganism has to be connected to broader social issues such as food justice, community empowerment, class, race, and sustainability. Second, we need to create a broader shift from veganism to anti-speciesism, which facilitates real political action. This creates a profound paradigm shift, for veganism has already been thoroughly co-opted and commodified by capitalist industries, media, and culture. The mainstreaming of veganism removes it from the sphere of inter-species justice and politics to the zone of human health and individual consumption, into a lifestyle practice that challenges neither consumer nor speciesist identities. In direct contrast, anti-speciesism assaults human supremacism and shifts the focus from products and markets to the animal holocaust and the need for political struggle. Unlike “veganism,” anti-speciesism is also anti-capitalism. Thus, third, we need to connect the anti-speciesist/animal liberation movement to other social and environmental movements, with an emphasis on the emergency and systemic consequences of climate change. This two-fold shift in focus transforms veganism from a domesticated, toothless, apolitical form of consumer capitalism to vital leg of a new total liberation movement.

Signs of Change

Globally, in the last year we have seen the inspiring examples of Greta Thunberg and the student strike movement, the Extinction Rebellion movement, and in the US the Sunrise Movement and action toward a New Green Deal. The mass protests on the streets of Hong Kong throughout the summer and fall of

2019, which forced the government to suspend its proposed extradition policies, show us what power determined people can mobilize against repressive and corrupt governments. The same is true in Puerto Rico, where in July 2019 mass uprisings forced the resignation of the nation’s governor. Major outbreaks have erupted in Iraq, Latin America, and elsewhere in 2019. Pressure forces change.

The level of visibility and determination of the Extinction Rebellion movement – now active in over 50 countries — would well serve the vegan and animal liberation movement. There is no reason why our movements cannot act as boldly as Extinction Rebellion, and indeed we should. We must ask: why do we not see vegans and animal rights advocates in the streets in such dramatic fashion? And why have our movements not fully engaged the climate crisis, apart from the usual mention of the environmental impact of the meat, dairy, and egg industries?

I suggest that the vegan and animal rights movements move to the front lines of struggle today and launch a direct attack on the fossil fuel industry, the prevailing capitalist economic system, and the political institutions supporting it. This way, we can directly engage the climate emergency and its impact on animals, biodiversity, the environment, and food security. The animal rights and vegan perspectives are crucial to develop, maintain, and advance in a politics of the 21stcentury, as climate change surely is going to center on human and environmental issues alone, while neglecting the suffering of animals and obscuring the connecting threads of animal rights and veganism to the world crisis. This crisis is so large, so complex, that we must intervene and assert the importance of our perspective.

But our perspective already seems at risk in the emergence of this new “movement of movements” that is the climate change resistance movement. Leading voices of Extinction Rebellion, such as Farhana Tarmin, are advocating a pluralistic model of struggle that integrates a strong environmental justice component into its approach (while building bridges of solidarity between Northern and Southern peoples) but one that leaves out an anti-speciesist component. “The struggle for climate justice is also the struggle for racial, gender, sexual and economic equality,” she says, notably leaving out the cause of anti-speciesism and animal liberation. She grasps the connection between humans dominating nature and humans dominating one another, but fails to underscore the consequential importance of humans dominating nonhumans. It is questionable just how diverse and inclusive Extinction Rebellion thus far is as a social movement, let alone engaging animal liberation.

And so is it an encouraging sign that an “animal rebellion” movement has arisen in June-July 2019. Avowedly anti-speciesist, their aim is to join the Extinction Rebellion movement, and use their tactics on nonviolent civil disobedience, decentralization, and economic disruption to move animal rights into the forefront of social-environmental change, and to build alliances with other movements. They seek to create a social tipping point for change, and to build a regenerative culture. This is an exciting and promising development, and time will tell how effective and visible this movement, and Extinction Rebellion, will be.

Of course rebellion is not enough, and street protests lacking a broader vision can always be contained. Our goals should be instead the more positive goals of transformation, of bringing revolutionary changes to world economic, political, and social systems, including a radical paradigm shift in the alienated, exploitative, and domineering mindsets of humanity.

The concept of the Anthropocene informs us that the Earth crisis is systemic, and so also must be our vision and politics. It is as obvious that our economic systems are addicted to growth and consumption as it is that our political systems are subservient to capitalism and antithetical to the kind of democratic structures and rational decision-making necessary for remaking society. Indeed, authoritarianism is on the rise, and climate crisis is a death knell to democracy unless democratic struggles and truly inclusive politics can avert the most severe forms of impending catastrophes.

Conclusion: Total Revolution

The Earth is refuting millennia of alienated worldviews and lifeways that human beings have cultivated throughout the course of its “civilization.” Climate change dispels multiple mythologies that have informed human societies over the last ten thousand years. This includes the anthropocentric delusion that human beings exist apart from nature, that the earth and its life forms exist for human use, that humans stand at the center of all reality, and that human beings can control and master nature for its own purposes. The myth of progress falls as well, as clearly the implementation of this worldview, in conjunction with modern technologies and global capitalism, has led to planetary disaster, and not to social improvement, peace, happiness, or human “perfectibility.” To this list we might easily add the myth of capitalist sustainability. Capitalism is a cancerous, predatory, all-devouring economic system based on endless growth, and the solutions to the climate crisis involve de-growth, not continued expansion of the production and consumption sectors.

The environmental and biodiversity crises are at root social crises. They are caused by profound problems in the social world, by the hierarchical control of decision-making and allocation of resources in profit-driven, ecocidal capitalist societies. As social problems, these crises require social solutions, namely radical political change that creates just, democratic, and sustainable societies. What we today call “natural disasters,” are at root social disasters that must be addressed if we are to solve the global emergency.

The kind of revolutionary change necessary for overcoming the extinction and climate crises of the 21st century I have called total revolution. Total revolution calls for radical change in all systems, and for an entire paradigm shift in our worldviews, values, and lifeways. As increasingly obvious in the Age of the Anthropocene, human, animal, and Earth liberation movements are unthinkable apart from one another. A struggle for one is impossible without a struggle for all. The global meat-and-dairy complex, for instance, contributes to environmental ruination and climate change on various levels, which in turn has disastrous results on human society, security, and health. Meat production directly contributes to sufferings brought about by heat, drought, flooding, forced migration, and disease, as it leads to the annihilation of biodiversity.

If the problems are interrelated, so too are the solutions, and no humanist social-environmental approach can address the ancient roots of human hierarchies and pathologies. The project of human liberation and environmental sustainability will fail without giving equal importance to anti-speciesism and animal liberation. We cannot leave intact the predatory and violent mentalities that inform our exploitative relations with animals and inform our exploitation of other humans and natural world. And to make these connections, we must all fight the Right and the rise of fascism, which has appropriated ecology for its own political purposes.

We now confront the greatest challenge in human history, and we have precious little time to break the death grip of fossil-fuel addiction, capitalist domination, and predatory humanism. We have three decades to create net-zero societies, and perhaps only one decade to forge the necessary political alliances, international treaties, and mass movements. And yet, around the globe, alliances are unraveling, nations are retreating into isolationist bases guarded by xenophobic ideologies, and the world moves closer to a system of climate apartheid dividing north and south.

We need to end fossil fuel energy and global agribusiness in favor of new energy and food production systems. We need to radically reduce human populations and consumption to repair ecosystems and restore wildlife populations. We need new ethics, new value, new worldviews, and a completely new socio-economic system.

Of course there are no guarantees that we as a species are up to this challenge, and thus we might fail and succumb to a nightmarish world of totalitarian capitalism and an earth in ruins. We have to face the possibility that whatever we may do may be too little, too late, and that there can be a catastrophic collapse of social and ecological systems. Climate change is happening at an incredibly rapid rate, shocking even to scientists. It is sobering to compare the magnitude of the threat posed to life on earth as we know it to our feeble response. It is imperative to grasp both the magnitude of change needed, and the little time left to accomplish it. We confront not the death of the planet – which will continue to evolve and mutate into new forms – but of biotic diversity and civilization as we know it.

And yet, there are signs of hope in growing awareness and forms of resistance, and stopping global warming by fractions of a degree are worth fighting for. We know that a determined minority is more powerful than a complacent majority. We know that force, pressure, and disruption bring change. Let us move to take our rightful place at the forefront of struggle, and redesign our politics for this new era of the Anthropocene and climate emergency.

[i] This text was the basis for a talk I gave in Europe in September 2019; it is a short version of a longer study in progress, and excludes references.