Category: Ecology


Note: This is the REVISED version  (June 23, 2020) of an essay written for an international cyber-conference on the COVID-19 global pandemic. 

How To Destroy Civilization: COVID-19 and the Exploitation of Animals and the Earth

Steve Best

“Imagine the amazing good fortune of the generation that gets to see the end of the world. This is as marvelous as being there in the beginning.”  ― Jean Baudrillard

  1. Apocalypse

Many past cultures have thought that they lived in apocalyptic times and expressed a foreboding sense of doom and ending. From the Book of Revelations to cyberpunk, apocalyptic visions have been a mainstay of human culture. In contemporary 21st century conditions, the signs of apocalypse are everywhere, from collapsing ice shelves in the Arctic to wildfires raging in California, Australia, and Brazil; from superstorms pummeling coastal towns and island communities to millions of refugees fleeing the ravages of drought, poverty, famine, and conflict; from lingering specters of nuclear annihilation and (bio)terrorist attacks to species extinction and runaway climate change. And now, on the heels of numerous recent viral outbreaks, we are witness to the scourge of a global pandemic inflicting suffering and death around the globe, a massive economic meltdown, and cities turned into ghost towns or petri dishes when not in flames over systemic racism and police brutality. All the while, authoritarianism rises, democracy wanes, and power concentrates into ever fewer hands, as promising signs of resistance emerge.

Whereas all past apocalyptic visions were rooted in fear, paranoia, fantasy, and superstition, visions of chaos and collapse today find grounding in mathematical projections and scientific facts. In our current era, apocalypse is an immanently unfolding objective reality that we are accelerating toward at breakneck speed. For the last 50 years or so, postmodern forms of culture and theory have articulated pronounced feelings of exhaustion and endings. We have heard much about the death of metanarratives; the end of history; the disappearance of the social; the demise of truth, reality, and the subject; and of course, the passing of postmodernism itself.[1] Postmodernism arises amidst paradigm shifts that register across the disciplines. but these changes barely scratched the surface of seismic changes unfolding in society and the objective world that had allegedly disappeared into the text or impenetrable fog of hyperreality. For what we are witnessing is not the end of modernism or modernity, but rather the immanent collapse of the expansionistic, growth-oriented enterprise we call civilization — the dominant institutional structures and ideologies that human beings have built over the last 10,000 years during the Holocene epoch.

Our present moment is so radically novel and extreme we have to think of it in geological, not merely historical terms, for we have created a new geological epoch — we are transitioning from the Holocene to the Anthropocene.[2] Humans have expanded their technological and world-altering prowess to such an extent they have disrupted every living system on the planet – most evidently in the emergence of a sixth (human-caused) mass extinction (right now, 150 species go extinct every day) and with the rise of fossil capitalism and its causal effect in global warming and climate change, thus creating  a radical break in the history of humanity and the earth itself. 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.[3] To indicate the extent to which one species has usurped the planet on its unending path of destruction, humans have hitherto destroyed 83% of all wild animals and half of all plant species, such that 96% of all mammals on earth are now humans and their cattle.[4] Only 15% of the planet’s forests remain intact, the rest have been cut down, fragmented, and degraded, as grasslands and wetlands suffer a similar fate. Continue reading

The essay below is a draft prepared for a forthcoming volume edited by Natalie Khazaal and Núria Almiron, entitled, Like an Animal: Critical Animal Studies Approaches to Borders, Displacement, and Othering (Brill Publishers 2020).

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The Costs of a Wall: The Impact of Pseudo-Security Policies on Communities, Wildlife, and Ecosystems

Steve Best

 As the world moves into the third decade of the twenty-first century, some of the most contentious global politics involve the issues of migration, refugees, borders, nationalism, racism, and xenophobia. These issues deeply affect Europe, for instance, and threaten to divide nations, pull apart the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and facilitate the rise of toxic nationalism and neo-fascism. There are also intense ideological and political struggles over these issues in the US, which is now possibly more divided than any time since the days of slavery and the civil war (Fredrick 2019). The question of whether to seal US borders from the flow of immigrants both illegal and legal has polarized the country, sharply splitting conservatives and liberals into warring camps. It was decisive in electing a notoriously racist and xenophobic president, Donald Trump, who has in turn inflamed and exploited fear of the Other for his own political agenda and to appeal to a white nationalist and Republican base.[1] A shocking mass murder targeting Latinx in El Paso Texas, in August 2019, put the issues of migration, borders, and race into stark relief.

The desperate and tragic migration of oppressed people throughout the world, involves not only a humanitarian crisis testing the moral resolve of developed nations, but also a calamity for wildlife and ecological systems. The most simplistic response to immigration is to seal borders, while never addressing the root causes of human movement. But barriers, fences, and walls not only thwart human traffic, they impede the natural flow of nonhuman animals and plants and directly affect their migration routes and reproduction.[2] This threatens the survival of nonhuman communities and contributes to the growing problems of habitat destruction and species extinction. This in turn affects human interests in crucial ways, and the erection of barriers along borders has a systemic impact on all communities of life – humans, animals, and ecosystems.

To a large degree, under the all-absolving rubric of “national security,” the US-Mexico border wall is being erected for the purpose of stopping our neighbors from seeking a better way of life, but it doesn’t even accomplish that.[3] While no deterrent to desperate people, the wall does impede animal migration and degrade the environment, becoming a contributing factor to the sixth great extinction crisis unfolding on the planet (Kolbert 2014). Already, the southern border wall has had a severe impact on wildlife and ecosystems and its proposed completion will be a death blow to numerous animal and plant species. While real in its effects, the wall also stands as a symbol of division and a totem to appease racism, white supremacism, and xenophobia, while draconian security policies, intensive surveillance, and policing of the borders create a vast migrant detention-industrial complex that commodifies human suffering.[4]

The wall is a pseudo-solution to much bigger problems than migration and security fears. US border policy for the last few decades – from Clinton to Trump – has been an unmitigated disaster for human beings, nonhuman animals, and the environment alike. Yet the border crisis usefully underscores the interconnectedness of interests among humans, animals, and the earth, in ways to which refugee/border studies are normally oblivious. To illustrate the full array of intersecting problems that arise with militarizing the border, I will discuss the impacts of building walls and barriers in areas such as the Lower Rio Grande Valley and the El Paso, Texas-Juarez, Mexico border. In contradistinction to the faulty model of “security” that has informed US policy for the last few decades, I contrast a more holistic and ecological model of security that emphasizes the crucial importance of flourishing wildlife and ecological systems to human societies. Against prevailing humanist biases that inform academic studies as well as the state and everyday life, I foreground the impact of security policies and the migrant-industrial complex on nonhuman animals and stress the rights of animals to lives and habitat free of human interference. We begin with relevant historical context.

Continue reading

In recent years, I worked in close collaboration with my friend and colleague, Takis Fotopoulos, who without question is one of the leading anarchist theories today, and is the founder of Inclusive Democracy and the journal, The International Journal for Inclusive Democracy, in which I published numerous articles. About this radical project, Takis says:

“This is the project for direct political democracy, economic democracy (beyond the confines of the market economy and state planning), as well as democracy in the social realm and ecological democracy. In short, Inclusive Democracy is a form of social organisation which re-integrates society with economy, polity and nature.

The concept of Inclusive Democracy is derived from a synthesis of two major historical traditions: the classical democratic and the socialist. It also encompasses radical green, feminist, indigenous and liberation movements in the South.

From the Inclusive Democracy perspective the world is in a multidimensional crisis, caused by the concentration of power in the hands of various elites, as a result of the establishment of the system of market/growth economy, representative democracy and the related forms of hierarchical structures. Inclusive Democracy is therefore not seen as a utopia but as probably the only way out of the present crisis.”

My most significant work with Takis and associates was assembling a collection of essays on the nature and application of the Inclusive Democracy perspective, which was published in both Greek and English in, respectively, 2008 and 2009. The book, which I edited and introduced, is entitled Global Capitalism and the Demise of the Left: Renewing Radicalism Through Inclusive Democracy.

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I include here the link to the entire manuscript, which offers much to anyone interested in direct democracy, anarchism, social ecology, education, and capitalist crisis theories. Hard copies of the book are available here.

I also enthusiastically recommend other books by Takis, including Towards an Inclusive Democracy: The Crisis of the Growth Economy and the Need for a New Liberatory Project (1998), and The New World Order in Action: Globalization, The Brexit Revolution, and the “Left” (2016).

 

Attached is the complete manuscript to the groundbreaking anthology I co-edited and introduced, Igniting a Revolution: Voices in Defense of the Earth (AK Press: 2006). Read and disseminate widely. Hardcopies are available here.

IAR

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. Continue reading

I recently sat down with Sybelle Foxcroft of Cee4Life to talk about my forthcoming book, The Politics of Total Liberation: Revolution for the 21st Century. Here is that video interview:

 

 

This is the second talk I gave at the International Animal Rights Conference in Luxembourg, on September 14 2013, regarding the need for an alliance politics that transcends the rigid divisions among the animal/human/environmental liberation movements.

This is the first of two talks I gave at the International Conference for Animal Rights in Luxembourg, on September 12 2013, and the first of seven talks I gave on my Fall 2013 speaking tour in Luxembourg, Germany, and Italy.

“Why are we here on Earth, except to grow?” — Robert Browning

“For a long time it seemed to me that life was about to begin — real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way. Something to be got through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid. Then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life.” — Alfred d’ Souza

Seedlings

Seedlings

As I recently described, I have been working on many levels intensively and non-stop for the last 40 years. In February of this year, I completed a new essay and a new book (entitled Total Liberation: Revolution for the 21st Century, to be published in German, Italian, and English). And then I stopped. I was, and am, exhausted and spent. Every cell of my body told me what burnout is and means. For the last few months, I have not written anything and I have hardly been able even to read. My mind and body won’t let me. I had to find something new, healing, and regenerative for my soul, something radically different from reading and writing, and I found it – in gardening. I have become the constant gardener.

I reside in Anthony, New Mexico, just over the El Paso Texas border. With my family of rescue cats, I live in a ranch house, set on an acre and a half of land, surrounded by alfalfa fields and pecan groves. I have massive front and back yards, and the front yard spills into the green fields and I see the majestic Franklin Mountain range on the horizon. The sun rises over those mountains like a catapulted fireball every morning and pours light into my house. Too many times, working through the night, I have witnessed its fiery climb, as it throws a spotlight on a life out of balance.

New Fruit Trees and Franklin Mountains

New Fruit Trees, Alfalfa Fields, and the Franklin Mountains

In the obtuse, punishing loads of work I imposed on myself, such that I can now count 13 books and over 200 essays and reviews, and the first seven years in which I resided in my peaceful rural ambience, my land was completely neglected, nothing but fields of weeds as tall as summer corn stalks. After finishing my last book, in need of new stimulation, I decided to clear these fields. After a arduous month of chopping and burning forests of weeds, I beheld the clear ground, and saw that it was good. I then decided to start planting vegetables, flowers, bushes, and trees, and to learn how to garden. And not just on a small scale, but rather on a massive scale, to transform the land into something living and beautiful.

Grape Vines

Grape Vines

And thus I threw myself solely into planting and growing. I planted and transplanted a cornucopia of seeds (peas, beans, beets, corn, carrots, peppers, herbs, watermelon, squash, pumpkin, and more). I dug up massive patches of hard, sandy ground, enriched the soil, and planted vegetables into the ground. With awe I watched the seedlings grow and begin to bear fruit.

Jalepenos and Tomatoes

Jalepenos and Tomatoes

I planted hedges and rows of bushes. I created two large groves of fruit trees (apple, pear, orange, tangerine, lemon, lime, peach, plum, and cherry). I approached it all as a massive sculpture of form and function, of color and soil.

Apple Trees

Apple Trees

The labor was as satisfying as it was backbreaking. You can find me on any given day working in the yard from dawn to dusk. Everything I plant and grow is veganic – no synthetic chemicals and no manure (few people including vegans ever think about the animal shit in their food, even if “organic”!).

Vegetable Beds

Vegetable Beds

It is amazing how ignorant I was, and still am, about the food I eat, the basic elements of nature, and the process of life and growth. I never grew a seedling, never ate anything I myself nourished and cultivated until this late in my life. I knew nothing about the basics – seeds, soil, fertilizer, mulching, sunlight, and water – until I was forced to grow myself in new ways. I am learning a lot now, but am certainly no Picasso of plants. Yet the mistakes I have made this year will not be repeated next year.

To Plant ...

To Plant …

It is hard to avoid the easy clichés inherent in the rich metaphor of gardening. Yes, one is “getting back to the land” and “getting in touch with nature,” but it is not as romantic as it sounds. It is sweat-pouring, back-breaking labor, especially in the hot spring and summer of the American Southwest. A lot of what I am “getting in touch” with are blisters, sore muscles, sunburn, and insect bites.

Sun Parasol Climbers

Sun Parasols Climbing the Cat Cage

That said, I have found it to be true that gardening is soul-enriching, life-nourishing, and spiritually satisfying. In cultivating the sun-baked fields, I am cultivating myself in new ways; in planting seeds that will sprout into nourishing foods, I am also seeding a new future for myself.

Herb Garden

Herb Garden

I can hear the critics mock this as a retreat from politics into a new-age lifestyle parochialism. But that is hardly fair or accurate. After 4 decades of compulsive, pedal-to-the-metal work, I am finally allowing my body and soul the rest and balance I long denied myself. When we reach a crisis point of deep burnout we have to stop and rest, or we will never return. Burnout is not just fatigue, it is losing the will and motivation to pursue the projects and causes that propel our lives and give them meaning. We are no good to others if we are no good to ourselves, and the personal and political are deeply intermeshed in many ways.

I doubt that when French existentialist Jean Paul-Sartre urged the politicization of knowledge, imploring intellectuals to acquire “dirty hands,” or when Italian Marxist theorist emphasized the important role of “organic intellectuals” in a revolutionary movement, they had community gardening, food sharing, veganics, and sustainable agriculture in mind. But these concepts — and the knowledge and practice — must become part of the radical politics relevant to the impending crises of the 21st century. And where, in the ending of his satirical masterpiece, Candide,  Voltaire writes, “let us tend to our own garden,” these words, properly framed, can be seen as sage advice not merely a satirical barb aimed at fatuous idealism or bourgeois individualism.

I am easing back into reading, writing, and speaking (I will undertake a short European speaking tour this fall). I am feeling the urge to return to old hobbies and passions, including jazz guitar, martial arts, and yoga. But for now, I am gardening, mostly gardening, constantly gardening.

Asian Jack Lillies

Asian Jack Lilies

Though I am currently anything but, I may aspire to the level of “master gardener,” for which one can become schooled and certified in Texas. If I become skilled enough, the surplus food I could produce would be donated to food banks for the needy, along with vegan recipes.

In the past, I have advocated a concept of “deep veganism,” which involves a much more effective type of “vegan outreach” than currently practiced today. Among other things, deep veganism involves community projects of producing and sharing nourishing plant foods, and politically organizing in many directions — human rights, animal rights, veganism, health, and ecology — from this basis. And producing one’s own food from seeds without chemicals is not only profoundly important for physical health, emancipating oneself from synthetic chemicals, genetic engineering, and global agribusiness, it is directly connected to the project of autonomy.

And thus, I have had to hit the pause and reset button on my life. I have been forced to stop, change, diversify, and reinvent myself yet again. At this existential crossroads I now stand before, I haven’t a clue what the future holds for me and I can again feel the angst of uncertainly and the challenge of self-overcoming.

I know one thing for certain, though: as I persist in struggle, I continue to grow…

photoCAJ13YLV

 Steven Best

(This piece was originally written for my good friend Adam, and earlier published on his blog, OccupyEssays)

“I’d like to share with you a revelation I’ve had, during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you aren’t actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with its surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply, and multiply until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You are a plague.” Agent Smith, The Matrix (1999)

This essay tells a story. It is more than a little story, it is one of the biggest stories of all — the story of how humans evolved from one of the weakest to the most dangerous animal on the planet, from hunted to hunter, from vulnerable prey to top predator. This is the amazing saga of how one species became the first and only global species and in a very short time built a vast empire that has colonized the planet for need and greed, has created a new geological epoch – the human-dominated Anthropocene Era — and is threatening to bring down the planetary house.

Like all empires, the human empire rose, had glorious triumphs, but ultimately was a decadent and unsustainable colossus; and thus it also dies, ebbs, declines, and falls like the rest. But much more is at stake in this drama than an imperialist state and its colonies, for here we are talking about the entire species of Homo sapiens and its impact on biodiversity and the ecological dynamics of the planet as a whole.

 There is no scientific consensus to this story; there are, rather, a thousand narratives of the origins of Homo sapiens and the proper taxonomical tables and nomenclature. The prevailing cacophony of dispute arises partly for the empirical reasons (the science is uncertain and always changing), and also for political reasons (scientists, researchers, and historians have vested interests in challenging competing narratives and validating their own discoveries and narratives). Uncertainties aside, grasping the outlines of the human past are critical for understanding what kind of animal we are, illuminating the causes of current social and ecological crises, and creating viable future societies — if indeed such a project is still possible in a significant sense.

 Out of Africa and Out of Control

Our earliest ancestors evolved from an independent branch of the primate tree some 5-7 million years ago. Pressured by climate changes, they moved out of the Eastern and Southern forests of Africa and into the savannas where for various reasons they stood up on two legs and evolved into bipedal animals. These Australopithecines were 3 feet tall, hairy, ape-men — like apes in their relatively small brain size, and like humans in walking upright. After 2-3 million years, various australopithecine types evolved into diverse variations of the Homo genus, including species such as Homo habilis, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis, and Homo sapiens, and Homo sapiens sapiens (behaviorally modern, language-speaking humans). Along this dynamic, variegated evolutionary path, hominid brains grew increasingly large; their technologies and cultures became ever more sophisticated; and their populations continuously expanded in size and geographical reach as their ecological impact became more and more severe.

 There is no consensus on key questions, such as: What is the proper taxonomical language to characterize humans in relation to other primates? What alleged Homo types were true species rather than sub-species? What Homo species co-existed, and when? Did they evolve as one species in a linear fashion, as the “Out of Africa” thesis argues, or did various Homo types co-evolve and leave Africa at different times and in many migrations, as the “Multiregional” theory claims?[1]

 Whatever the diversity of human types and subsequent migration patterns, about 100,000 years ago (there is no consensus on this date either) Homo sapiens left the African continent to explore a vast, unknown world in which continents were conjoined by ice sheets. They migrated to Europe, Asia, Australia, Siberia, Indonesia, and into the Americas, establishing their empire throughout the globe. All the time multiplying, diversifying, and scattering across the continents, humans wasted no time in colonizing the world from north to south and from east to west.

Just one among tens of millions of existing animal species – many already dispatched to oblivion, thousands currently poised on the end, and thousands yet on the brink of extinction and some yet to be discovered – Homo sapiens has risen from humble mammalian and primate origins to become the most dominant, violent, predatory, and destructive animal on the planet. Nearly everywhere it journeyed and lived, Homo sapiens wrought social and ecological devastation, extinction crises, and chronic warfare.  Continue reading

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