Tag Archive: veganism

This is a much revised and updated version of an essay I first posted some ten years ago. In this essay (attached below) I introduce my concept of Homo sapiens as a failed species and my interpretation of humanity as a vast, sprawling empire, a dysfunctional and destructive totality — whatever its class or regional differences — that dominates all other species and earth’s interrelated ecosystems. The destructive and unsustainable nature of human existence has been manifest virtually since the dawn of Homo sapiens, some 100,000 years ago. Human numbers and impact have altered the planet to such an extent, humans have created a new geological epoch — commonly referred to as the “Anthropocene”– shattering the planetary stability of the last 12,000 years and ushering in a new epoch marked by the unfolding of the sixth mass extinction in earth history and catastrophic climate change. The furies of an earth now responding to the presence of a powerful and disruptive parasitic species are dramatically manifest in global warming, superstorms, mega-droughts, melting ice sheets, and rising sea-levels, as the planet moves to a state increasingly hostile to human survival. This essay is forthcoming in the Romanian Journal of Artistic Creativity, and will be further expanded in the form of a book that draws from anthropological studies, ecology, animal liberation, social theory, and philosophy.

“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



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…


Author’s Preface: What follows are notes I prepared to address the media in a press conference in South Africa, as I began the first of 3 three week-long speaking tours, talking about veganism, animal rights, and total liberation across that beautiful but deeply troubled nation in 2006. This essay was originally commissioned by, and published for, my friend Adam Powell, in his blog OccupyEassys. This is the first of two unusually personal posts I will make to my blog, the second one being a postscript to follow soon. This post is dedicated to all those who think they know me.



Ladies and Gentlemen, you are looking at one of the very last people who should be standing on this stage in front of you, in the capacity of being a scholar, writer, activist, and world citizen.

In my youth, I was seemingly headed toward blue-collar work at a factory, to prison, or to an early grave, but profound changes in my life set me in different directions. A major theme of my talk tonight is change, growth, development, and evolution. Indeed, as a species, if we are to avert total disaster, we need to take a quantum leap in our moral and social evolution, as the global crises in capitalism and ecology portend catastrophic change and a dystopian future.

The Lost Years

My life got off to a rocky start. As a young child, asthma almost killed me. My father died when I was five years old. My oldest brother, a father figure to me, died at age 24 in a plane crash that I also was involved in. Only 11 years old, I was not expected to survive, but I did, broken into pieces, but alive. Despite two remaining older brothers and one sister, I had no positive inspirations or mentorship whatsoever in my life. I was a latchkey kid; I grew up solely on my own devices, making mistake after mistake, barreling down the wrong road at the speed of light.

To quote Malcolm X, “I was born in trouble.” Beginning in kindergarten, I was kicked out of school more than I was allowed in. In high school, after playing on the basketball team my freshman year, I had gravitated to the habit of consuming copious amounts of mind-altering substances and the next three years of high school were passed in a perpetual fog. In my senior year, quite deservedly, I was expelled from school, and from there I graduated to stints in and out of local county jails. My biggest fuck up occurred at age 17, and almost earned me 2-4 years in the notorious Cook County Jail in Chicago, but with a good lawyer and a handsome fee, I got off on 5 years probation.

Looking back on it, that was the best thing that happened to me and it provided the wake-up call I needed to turn my life around. I was a train wreck waiting to happen. I will say I had some life experiences in these troubled times that added piss, fire, and depth to my character. I drove trucks, delivered newspapers, worked in factories, shot pool, drank beer and whiskey, fought in bars, and chased women. I was one step away from 4 divorces, 5 kids, 7 bad tattoos, and living in a two-bit trailer.

I found my first love – jazz and classical guitar – and practiced relentlessly and played open mike nights throughout the Chicago area. This lasted until I blew out the tendons in my right hand at age 21. In deep despair and confusion, the only identity and purpose I ever had stripped away from me with a frozen wrist, I decided to get my high school equivalency degree and begin anew by enrolling in a Chicago area community college. Almost 22, I told the student counselor I had no idea what to do and was not interested in anything but what I just lost. The man suggested I begin with humanities and liberal arts courses, and so I signed up for a plate full. After the first class, a switch turned on; I went to the library and checked out a 4 foot-high stack of books and began to read seriously for the first time in my life.

Quite unexpectedly, I fell in love with reading and learning. Working full-time as a bartender at night, during the day I took courses in film, television production, radio, theater, literature, history, art, and philosophy. I graduated with a degree in television production and film directing, and at age 24 I travelled south to the University of Illinois (Champaign-Urbana) to pursue a Masters of Arts degree in theater direction. The indifferent or hostile faculty I encountered there, however, led me to switch majors to philosophy, in which I subsequently earned my Bachelors of Arts (UICU, 1984), Master’s (University of Chicago, 1987) and Doctorate (University of Texas-Austin, 1993) degrees. Despite a standard paternalistic warning by faculty to reconsider pursuing advanced study in philosophy due to dismal job prospects, I lunged forward because by then I knew nothing but to pursue what I loved and the path of creative thinking. Ultimately, this also led me to study message therapy, meditation, and herbal medicine; to pursue a teaching certificate in yoga; and to earn a black belt in Tae-Kwon-Do while studying numerous other martial arts (including Judo, Tai-Chi, Aikido, and Filipino stick-fighting).

Epiphany #1

Little did I realize that only the first few layers of change were peeling off my encrusted psyche and soul. At the University of Illinois, I studied radical thinkers like Nietzsche, as well as the revolutionary political traditions of Marxism, anarchism, and critical theory. I became intensely interested in politics, and I joined some left-wing campus groups. I was learning about capitalism and the injustices of imperialism and racism, about the lies I was spoon-fed regarding my “great” country and its mission of spreading “democracy and freedom” throughout the world. I wanted to smash the capitalist system and I became intimate with my hidden affinities for the oppressed and those who suffer injustice or pain in any way.

I immersed myself in organizing support for Central American nations then under relentless attack by Ronald Reagan and US-sponsored and trained juntas and death squads. I led action groups, helped provide shelter for illegal refugees from El Salvador, and organized film festivals to send medical funds to Nicaragua. I was also involved in the anti-apartheid struggle and with local environmental groups. With an appetite for creative writing and theatre still burning inside me, I was regularly writing and performing political-conceptual art, street theatre, experimenting with the political–artistic possibilities of Surrealism and Dadaism, and generally trying to foment subversive thinking and practices of multiple kinds.

Epiphany #2

My second epiphany happened at age 25, now more than 30 years ago, and it led me down the path of veganism and animal rights. I experienced something sacred within the bowels of the profane. I was in Chicago, driving about 2 am, half-drunk and goddamn hungry. I pulled into a White Castle fast food restaurant and ordered a double cheeseburger. As I always was content with a mere single cheeseburger, I found the double cheese and meat patties to be so excessive, so over the top, so gross, so saturated with blood and gore, that I was completely nauseated. For the first time in my carnivorous life, in a total vacuum of information, I made a concrete connection between the processed slop in my hands and the bones, tissues, muscles, tendons, blood, and life of an animal. I suddenly saw something that came from a slaughterhouse, not a supermarket.

With no prior knowledge of vegetarian issues – no contact with any book, video, speaker, or person of this persuasion – I spit the vile flesh out of my mouth in utter revulsion. I stumbled around in a dietary no-man’s-land for two months, not knowing what to eat, not wanting this consciousness but unable to shake it. I felt perhaps I had been abducted by aliens who rewired my thinking in mischievous ways. Fortuitously, I met some vegetarians who assured me of the value of my new consciousness, mentored me, and pointed me in the right direction.

From a Marxist-humanist-carnivore to a health-oriented vegetarian, I evolved to veganism, and doubled back to mediate these concerns with radical politics and social revolution “by any means necessary” as Malcolm so perfectly put it.

Although alert to the health impact of meat and dairy products, I had no clue about the innumerable barbaric ways human beings exploit animals. Even while researching the evils of juntas, death squads, genocide, fascism, and imperialism, my picture of humanity and the world was still too rosy.

Epiphany #3

That changed in the midst of a third stunning epiphany in 1987 when I read Peter Singer’s book, Animal Liberation. Like so many people, that book changed my life in an instant. I became ill from the emotional stress of what I was learning about the unconscionable exploitation of animals in factory farms, slaughterhouses, vivisection labs, and other human-manufactured hellholes.

Once I recovered from the shock, I morphed into a very different person. Realizing that animals suffered far more than human beings in the quantity and quality of their pain, suffering, and death, I shifted from human rights to animal rights activism. Whereas most human beings have at least some rights, no animals have the most basic right to life and bodily integrity and they needed representation and alliance more than any oppressed human group. When I studied the impact of meat production on world hunger and the environment, I realized that by promoting veganism and animal rights I would also be helping humans in the most productive way possible. I saw veganism and animal rights as the most radical, complete, and holistic forms of activism, having a powerful and positive impact on the crises in human health, world hunger, food shortages, environmental devastation, ubiquitous violence, and the deep and troubling alienation of humanity from the natural world and other life forms.

Many think, for instance, that people should help humans as our first priority and relegate animals to an afterthought at best. They think humans suffer more than animals, which is not true. They think that activism is a zero-sum game, such that one group (humans) gains only if another (all other animal species) loses, which is a capitalist ideology belied by the deep interconnectedness of all life and the natural world. One of the most profound truths I have learned in my life is that the fate of all species stands or falls together, that what we do to the animals we do to ourselves and to the earth, and that promoting animal rights and respect for all life has direct benefits to human society and the environment

Yet I also found my political commitments ridiculed far more than ever before, as animal rights provokes hostility from the arrogant people who enjoy power over animals, from the insecure who boost themselves by demeaning and exploiting animals, and from the guilty who do not want to confront their ignorance and implication in violence against animals. I took heart in the words of Emile Zola: “The fate of animals is of greater importance to me than the fear of appearing ridiculous; it is indissolubly connected with the fate of men.”

The ridicule I received for defending veganism and animal rights was particularly harsh from the radical and Left communities. For leftists have completely assimilated the anthropocentric and speciesist ideologies of agricultural society, Greco-Roman culture, Christianity, modern science, the Enlightenment, and Marxist and anarchist humanism. I grew tired of the inconsistencies and hypocrisies. Over and over again, I listened to humanists, “progressives,” “radicals,” and “peace and justice” activists rail against capitalism, exploitation, and injustice, while devouring the tortured and dismembered bodies of cows, chickens, pigs, and other sentient beings and fellow animals who were brutally exploited and killed in the industrial capitalist institutions of factory farms and slaughterhouses. Champions of holistic theorizing and systemic analysis, one-dimensional leftists completely miss the origins of hierarchy, slavery, war, racism, environmental ruination, and other profound crises requiring urgent attention, all related to speciesism and interconnected by the hideous chains linking animal exploitation to human exploitation and environmental devastation.

Epiphany #4

I realized that the “radical” traditions in no way are a liberating philosophy or politics from the standpoint of animals and the environment. I saw Leftism as merely another form of Stalinism toward animals. The Left doesn’t grasp the deep roots of human power pathologies and would only replace capitalist anthropocentrism with socialist anthropocentrism, and could never resolve key social and ecological problems. They operate with pre-scientific, mechanistic models of understanding animal behavior, still cling to dualist oppositions separating humans and animals with an ontological chasm rather than evolutionary continuity, and to this day they are mired in the Dark Ages, the philosophical (animal rights) and scientific (cognitive ethology) revolutions having completely passed them by as new paradigms emerge vital for salvaging the wreckage of psychologically stunted humanity and the metastasizing cancer of “civilization.”

I came to the conclusion that a truly revolutionary social theory and movement will not just emancipate members of one species, but rather all species and the Earth itself. I rejected the humanist cliché — “We Are All One Race, the Human Race” – for a broader vision: “We Are One Community, the Biocommunity.” I saw that all forms of oppression were interrelated, that they were all facets of one odious system of hierarchy with deep roots in speciesism and the domestication of animals that commenced with agricultural society ten thousand years ago. From animal liberation, I evolved to a politics of total liberation, abandoning single-issue approaches in favor of linking human, animal, and earth liberation struggles. Total liberation involves a dialectical theory of interrelated oppression and an alliance politics deeper and more inclusive than anything yet imagines. Its ultimate goal is to revolutionize global capitalism, reconstruct society along anarchist lines, and harmonize the social world with the natural world and respect the autonomy and equal interests nonhuman animals share with us in freedom from exploitation and suffering and freedom to self-determination in their natural habitat and with their own families and communities.

Thus, I evolved from vegetarianism to veganism, and from animal welfarism to animal rights then to animal liberation to total liberation and to defense of militant direct action as a legitimate and necessary tactic in the larger struggle for revolutionary change. At this stop in my journey, I abandoned the baggage of pacifism and lent philosophical and political support to the most dynamic and threatening resistance movements of the last few decades, the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front. Parallel groups that emerged in the 1970s and 1990s respectively, both are organized in decentralized cells, operate underground and anonymous to the public and to one another, and carry out the mission of inflicting maximal harm on exploitative industries through destroying property and liberating animal slaves. Their actions were bold, constant, and effective enough to cost industries hundreds of millions of dollars, to liberate hundreds of animals at a time, and to shut down many operations altogether. After 9/11, the FBI elevated them to the nation’s top two “domestic terrorist” groups in the US.

The UTEP Years

I landed a tenure-track position in the philosophy department at the University of Texas, El Paso in 1993, and found myself stranded in a geographical and cultural desert. But I immediately set to work waking up the huge but sleepy and benighted town. I taught radical topics in my classes, involved my students in protests, and engaged in civil disobedience. For 15 intense years, I was Vice President of the Vegetarian Society of El Paso; I led a dynamic animal rights group that was the political epicenter of the area; and I was debating, speaking, and intervening on local radio, TV, and print media on a daily basis. I started my own animal rights radio show, managed it for 4 years, and it continues to this day. I spearheaded a successful drive to free a badly beaten elephant from the El Paso Zoo to a sanctuary in Tennessee. I fought for a new animal shelter, free spay and neutering for low-income families, and aggressive adoption practices. I lobbied the city council and successfully won a vote which made EL Paso the 300th city in the US to declare the USA PATRIOT Act unconstitutional — all the while fending off attacks from colleagues, cops, right-wing media, and politicians.

Unlike the vast majority of academics, I believe that teaching and research should be linked to activism and the urgent issues of the day. It is appalling to me that in the midst of global social and environmental crisis, most academics pursue abstract, arcane, and opportunist lines of research, typically behind the facade of “neutrality” and with sublime detachment from a world spiraling out of control. Just as I believe scientists should commit positively to the politics of climate change (such as James Hansen admirably has), I think that academics and theorists ought to work as organic intellectuals in social movements and communities, using their skills to help understand and transform the dynamics and causes of domination, hierarchy, increasing concentrations of wealth and power among power elites, the ongoing animal holocaust, and planetary ecological meltdown.

As an educator and activist in numerous movements for over thirty years, I can say with confidence that there are few, if any, topics as heated and controversial as animal liberation and veganism, both of which push primordial buttons. Although I have taught radical subjects such as Marxism, anarchism, feminism, postmodernism, queer theory, anti-globalization, post-colonialism, critical race theory, and deep ecology, it was only my discussions of animal liberation and veganism that aroused the ire of colleagues and administrators and provoked intense student interest and debate.

The police chief wrote letters to the university president against my protest and demonstration actions. I was mocked on local right-wing radio. Resentful professors phoned in anonymous complaints based on lies and third-hand rumors. Senior colleagues and administrators admonished me that teaching animal rights was not appropriate (!) for humanities or philosophy. I shot them all down and pumped up the volume.

In 2005, things heated up considerably. In June, a notorious right-wing US Senator, James Inhofe (R-Okl.) sent letters to me, my department, the university president, and the entire Texas Board of Regents, pressuring me to testify before Senate eco-terrorism hearings due to my open support for and writings on the Animal Liberation Front. Almost subpoenaed, I refused to legitimate this McCarthyesque witch-hunt. The hearings went on without me and were broadcast on C-Span Live before an international audience and an audience packed with top lawmakers and FBI Brass. David Martosko of the Center for Consumer Freedom, a corporate and agribusiness front group, delivered a twenty-minute harangue that denounced me as “the leader of the Animal Liberation Front” and a “truly dangerous individual.” He went on to accuse me of recruiting students into the ALF. These were most amusing charges. For there is no leader in a decentralized movement and it certainly was not me. Moreover, I found it challenging to persuade students to attend vegan potluck dinners, let alone to risk a ten-year prison term to join me in alleged criminal underground adventures!

In July, after a series of speeches in England on animal liberation, the British Home Office banned me from the entire UK for life, deeming me a “threat to the public order.” My status was elevated from domestic terrorist to international terrorist, and I can never thank them enough for raising my profile. I subsequently suffered political repression from my own university, however, which inspired me to introduce and edit a 600 page volume history and analysis of academic repression and the corporatization of the university in the post-9/11 era. In Academic Repression: Reflections From the Academic-Industrial Complex (AK Press, 2010), I exposed the myth of free speech in “higher education” and featured numerous cases studies of repression, persecution, and firing professors for their political beliefs and activism. Despite having written over a dozen books and some two hundred articles and essays, despite excellent teaching evaluations, and despite intensive work in the community, I was denied promotion to full professor for clearly political reasons.

The Specter of Animal Liberation

But long before this turbulent time, I began to wonder: Why are people who show compassion to animals mocked and derided? Why are we considered psychologically abnormal or morally flawed? Why are we called everything from bunny huggers to misanthropes to terrorists? Why are the topics of veganism and animal rights so controversial? Why does animal liberation touch a primal and raw nerve in the human psyche and provoke resistance from others and fierce repression from the state? Why is it so threatening?

I concluded that animal rights is subversive and revolutionary on many levels, but to understand this point, one has to appreciate the difference between animal welfare – which every exploiter and speciesist claims to respect – and animal rights, which prohibits any exploitative use of animals and which all parties reject as extremist. Whereas welfarism never challenges the assumption that animals are resources and property for human use, animal rights explodes the prejudices underpinning the hierarchical system of speciesism to insist on equal consideration for the interests of all sentient life. Animal welfare doesn’t change the vast system of animal exploitation that slaughters over one hundred billion innocents every year, it only regulates minor technical and administrative details to “reduce suffering” and kill the endless procession of animals “humanely.” Enlightened people did not ask for a more “humane” Auschwitz, nor did the 19th century abolitionist movement ask for better treatment of the slaves. One does not regulate evil, one abolishes it completely, and the only “humane” way to treat a slave is to free it!

Because animal rights is abolitionist rather than welfarist in logic, it poses two different threats to humans and their societies: first a material or economic threat, and second a psychological threat. Animal rights is a potentially serious economic threat in its goal to eliminate every form of animal exploitation it can bring down, and thereby to end the vast system of animal slavery which is crucial to the growth of the global capitalist machine. In the UK, for instance, where pharmaceutical corporations are the third most important contributor to the economy, activists have shut down numerous breeders, liberated thousands of research animals, attacked multiple laboratories, stopped production of a biomedical facility at Cambridge University, and seriously thwarted plans to build a research complex at Oxford University.

This is very serious indeed, but the psychological threat is deeper. People throughout society are threatened by animal liberation, whether or not they have a direct economic interest in exploiting animals, because it means profound changes in their identities, values, interpersonal relations, and everyday lives. Animal liberation transgresses an inviolable boundary, as deeply rooted and universal as the prohibition against incest. It is considered taboo to challenge the distinction between human and non-human nature. Throughout the entire history of Western civilization, thinkers have built an elaborate lie that reduces animals to machines or things, falsely separates us from the animal kingdom, and arrogantly establishes us as the end to which all other beings are mere means. Animal rights forces us to confront the lies we have told about animals and ourselves.

Whereas prior liberation movements addressed sectors of humanity who were specific oppressors dominating distinct oppressed groups, animal liberation sees all humanity as oppressors; it attacks not just white supremacy or male supremacy, but the larger phenomenon of human supremacy, a universal ideology and everyday practice that cuts across class, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, nation, and other boundaries. Nobel Prize winning author, Isaac Bashevis Singer, stated that, in relation to animals, “all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.”

Animal liberation is revolutionary in that it demands a complete reorganization of our social and psychological realities. It demands a fundamentally different economy, mode of science, worldview, culture, rituals, social practices, and identities. It rejects the conceptual map humanity (Western society in particular) has developed over the last ten thousand years throughout the reign of “civilization.” Indeed, the identities and traditions animal liberation challenges go back over two million years, with the emergence of the Homo genus and the coeval rise in meat consumption and development of the tools and fire used to hunt, kill, and consume animals.

Animal liberation is the next necessary and logical development in moral evolution and political struggle, whereby humans learn that animals deserve fundamental rights, grant them these rights, and change their social institutions, practices, and mentalities accordingly. Animal liberation builds on the most progressive ethical and political advances human beings have made in the last 200 years and carries them to their logical conclusions. It takes the struggle for rights, equality, and nonviolence to the next level, beyond the artificial moral and legal boundaries of humanism, in order to challenge all prejudices and hierarchies including speciesism. Martin Luther King’s paradigmatic humanist vision of a “worldhouse” devoid of violence and divisions, however laudable, remains a blood-soaked slaughterhouse until the values of peace and equality are extended to all animal species.

Thus, the revolutionary implications of animal liberation explain the intense resistance to it on all fronts.

Animal liberation is not a sufficient condition for avoiding the impending nightmare of ecological catastrophe, for it needs to be articulated with social justice, peace, rights, autonomy, and ecological movements. But it is a necessary condition of revolutionary change, and our attitudes toward animals stand as a litmus test to whether or not we ourselves will survive in viable and desirable form.

Let’s be clear: we are fighting for a revolution, not for reforms, for the end of slavery, not for humane slavemasters. Animal liberation advances the most radical idea to ever land on human ears: animals are not our food, clothing, resources, or objects of entertainment; they exist for their own purposes, not ours.  Although humanists scorn and reject the concept of animal rights on grounds such as that they allegedly lack reason, language, and culture; that only beings who can enter into social contracts can have rights and the responsibilities that go alone with them — all these objections are completely beside the main point. Animals have rights not in relation to one another, but against human beings and their violent and predatory actions.

Every justice struggle up to now was has been relatively easy. Now it gets hard. Speciesism is primordial and universal; it is arguably the first of any form of domination or hierarchy and it has spread like a deadly virus throughout the entire planet and all of human history. The problem is not limited to Western culture or to the modern world, such that there is some significant utopian past or radical alternative to recover. The problem is the human species itself, which but for rare exceptions is violent, destructive, and imperialistic. Universally, humans have vested interests in exploiting animals and think they have a God-given right to do so. To change these attitudes is to change the very nerve center of human consciousness.

That is the task of the worldwide animal liberation movement – no more and no less.

The Aftermath

The net result of my unrestrained passions, relentless critiques, and highly controversial activism is that my academic career is over, frozen at the level of Associate Professor and blacklisted on the national hiring market. But there are no apologies and no regrets. I am one of those rare academics whose primary ambition was never to obey, conform, and promote careerist goals, but rather to make philosophy dangerous again, to be a controversial public intellectual, and to use critical theory and political engagement toward a revolutionary transformation of all psychological, social, and economic structures which have brought us to this critical crossroads in human evolution and the history of the earth itself.

In a world of environmental ruination, species extinction, human overpopulation, predatory global capitalism, resource scarcity, runaway climate change, and an ever-growing animal Holocaust, academics should not have the luxury to pursue abstract issues unrelated to the urgent need for systemic change at all levels. They ought, rather, to abandon petty ego obsessions and narcissistic careerism in order to help clarify and change the causes of social and ecological breakdown, which demands a break from the ten thousand-year reign of dominator cultures and the much longer tyranny of Homo rapiens.

My life is the story of principled commitment, endless self-overcoming, and ceaseless struggle: the struggle for truth, enlightenment, justice, and peace; a struggle to bring change to myself, to others, and to this world. The struggle goes on, it will never stop. It provides the continuity and coherence for my ever-changing life.

Indeed after 40 years of non-stop intensive work, a new crossroads and novel challenges lay before me, once again, right now.

To be continued……

I have blogged often against fatuous “Vegan Victory” celebrations and parades to remind everyone that while meat consumption is temporarily down in the US, it is growing at staggering rates on a global level (see, for instance here and here). Particularly, I have tried to warn people that the world’s most populous and rapidly modernizing nations — such as China, India, and Indonesia — continue to expand their economies, develop Western-capitalist social-economic models, enlarge their populations, and dramatically increase their production and consumption of meat.

China continues to lead the way in posing grave ecological threats to the world and slaughter ever-more animals for consumption. I have emphasized the ambiguity of China, which is that as animal advocacy grows, so too does meat consumption.

In a major new and foreboding development, on May 29, meat producer Shuanghui International bought Virginia-based Smithfield Foods for nearly $5 billion dollars, in what many consider to be the largest Chinese acquisition of a US corporation in history.


Smithfield Foods, founded in 1936, was a major meat producing corporation particularly of pork. The transaction was beneficial to both parties, for while pork consumption has declined in the US, it is steadily rising in China. The US slaughters 100 million hogs for food consumption annually, whereas China butchers 470 million hogs per year. Thus, in a classic case of demand stimulating supply, Smithfield Foods is now part of Shuanghui International. China — with a population of 1.6 billion compared to 300 million people living in the US — is the world’s leading producer and consumer of pork.


As if US meat production methods were ever safe, or there is a thing as safe pork or healthy meat, some members of Congress are voicing hypocritical health concerns voiced. “I have deep doubts, said  Representative Rose DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut, “about whether this merger best serves American consumers and urge federal regulators to put their concerns first.” But this is China, after all, and such “safety” concerns are not without merit: “Demand for U.S. meat in China has risen tenfold over the past decade, fueled in part by a series of embarrassing food safety scandals, from rat meat passed off as pork to thousands of pig carcasses floating on a river.Demand for U.S. meat in China has risen tenfold over the past decade, fueled in part by a series of embarrassing food safety scandals, from rat meat passed off as pork to thousands of pig carcasses floating on a river.”


China produces nearly six times as much pork per person as the rest of the world

Apart from underscoring the oxymoron of “safe” or “healthy” meat of any kind, the more important issues are not sickened consumers foolish enough to consume animal “products,” but rather the ethical issue of a growing global animal holocaust and the catastrophic environmental impact of factory farming and the global rise of agribusiness and appetites for flesh, especially in the large, rapidly modernizing nations such as China.


Chinese Pork Industry

Despite foreign ownership, USA Today notes:

“Shuanghui has 13 facilities that produce more than 2.7 million tons of meat per year. Under the agreement, there will be no closures at Smithfield’s facilities and locations, including its Smithfield, Va., headquarters in the historic southeastern Virginia town of about 8,100 where it was founded in 1936, the companies said.

Smithfield’s existing management team will remain in place, and Shuanghui also will honor the collective bargaining agreements with Smithfield workers. The company has about 46,000 employees.

“This transaction preserves the same old Smithfield, only with more opportunities and new markets and new frontiers,” Smithfield CEO Larry Pope said in a conference call. “This is not a strategy to import Chinese pork into the United States … this is exporting America to the world.”

Sadly, this statement is true, and when US carnivorous culture influences global markets and massively populated nations such as China, it is the perfect storm for ecological collapse.


Also see: “14 Facts About The Staggeringly Huge Chinese Pork Industry”

This lecture was given at a former-slaughterhouse of Aprilia, Italy (now a cultural center) on September 6th, 2012. This talk was videotaped by the Veggie Channel and uploaded to their videopage and to You Tube.

Photos of the talk


Italian Facebook Steve Best Rome Lecture Tour Event Page

Per Animalia Veritas Steve Best Event Page

“Interview with Steve Best,” Asinus Novus

“Steve Best in Italy: From Philosophy to Action,” by the blog (and more), Asinus Novus. The writers provided a nice summary of my talks and main ideas.

A Key Meeting,” Arielvegangfashinblogspot.com; a refreshingly intelligent, fair, and incisive essay on my work, thank you Ariel.

“Now Enough,” Barbara Balsalmo



I wish to thank everyone in Italy for inviting me to speak again this year, and for being such gracious hosts, fantastic activists. and amazing people. There are dozens, perhaps over a hundred of people who made this tour possible and joyful. I cannot possibly name them all. I do however, wish to offer a very special thank you to:

Kostia Troinia and Barbara Balsamo for inviting me and being the principal organizers of my talks in Rome. You are the best!

Marcos Aragao for your excellent photos.

VeggieChannel.com for your tremendous effort in interviewing me, taping my lectures in Turin, Rome, and Latina, and for having the courage to post my talks on your channel.

The kind women at Asinus Novus for showing enough interest in my work to summarize my talks and interview me; it was a pleasure, thank you.

Per Animalia Veritas; thank you for your activism, support, and bold defense of militant direct action!

The ReWild Cruelty Free Club; you guys rock and make the best vegan food!

Paolo Trono and his club, Vegan Città di Latina (a former abattoir transformed into a space for music, lectures, and culture!) in which I gave my final speech in the Rome area before moving north to Brescia; thank you for your kindness, the great audience, and the great free food and beer!

Piercarlo Paderno for inviting and hosting me in Brescia. You are a great new friend and did amazing work to help liberate the Greenhill dogs.

The Occupy Greenhill movement (see here and here) for their bold act of liberation that will go down in history as one of the most important actions of this century. In their post-Greenhill reorganization, the group is now called Animal Amnesty, and will keep opening chained fences and locked doors!

This is a two-part video, recorded at the Turin, Italy Animal Rights Film Festival, in July 2010. It was recently broadcast on Veggie Channel.Com. The first part is an improvised talk and second is a Q&A session. My thanks to my hosts in Turin and to the excellent Veggie Channel in Italy.

Part I: Talk

Part II: Question and Answer Session

This talk was given to a packed house in the great vegan restaurant, the “Rewild Cruelty-Free Club” in Rome, Italy, on September 4, 2012. The talk was organized by Per Animalia Veritas, an organization that promotes anti-speciesism, veganism, and militant direct action tactics as necessary conditions for creating revolutionary change worth fighting for. This is a video was shot and made available on the web by Veggie Channel.com.

Photos of the talk

A long analysis, but well worth the read. Williams makes the connections between the ongoing, mutually reinforcing crises in the social and natural worlds, as brought about by capitalism, class society, corporate globalization, and animal agriculture — by which of course I mean the industrialized, profit-driven, chemicalized system designed principally to produce feed (for animals) not food (for humans), and which unconscionably treats animals as flesh/dairy/egg machines and spares them no discomfort in the use of intensive confinement and violent murder. This piece demonstrates how market anarchy leads to social struggle and chaos, how the impersonal profit imperative results in mass suffering and death, and how veganism and animal liberation are central to any sane, humane, and ecologically sustainable future — a future I personally have an increasingly difficult time imagining systemic change is possible, given the indifference of social movements to veganism and animal liberation and the insular, marginalized, elitist, single-issue, consumerist, and corporatized and/or paralyzed state of vegan and animal advocacy “movements” worldwide. The combination of increasingly aggressive corporate plunder policies, the growing crisis of climate change, and the inability of various social movements to grasp the big picture and unite to overturn corporate hegemony, global agribusiness, and slaughtering hundreds of billions of land and sea animals to feed seven billion people (often barely for two billion of these) portends utter disaster for humanity, animals, biodiversity, and an inhabitable planet.


Chris Williams, Counterpunch, August 3-5, 2012

More than 50% of counties in the United States are now officially designated “disaster” zones.  The reason given in 90% of cases is due to the continent-wide drought that has been devastating crop production.  48% of the US corn crop is rated as “poor to very poor”, along with 37% of soy; 73% of cattle acreage is suffering drought, along with 66% of land given to the production of hay.

The ramifications of the drought go far beyond what happens to food prices in the United States.  With the US producing half of all world corn exports, as corn and soy crops wilt from the heat, without coordinated governmental action we can expect a replay of the disastrous rise in food prices of 2008, which caused desperate, hungry people to riot in 28 countries.  In that instance, food was available, but hundreds of millions of people couldn’t afford to buy it.  Should food prices increase to anywhere near the levels of four years ago, it will be a catastrophe for the two billion people who are forced to scrape by on less than $2/day.

The poor in developing countries spend 80% of their income on food, much of it directly as grain, rather than as manufactured products like bread or cereal, and so any increase in the price of basic necessities immediately puts them in dire food distress.  In the US, prices for a loaf of bread or a corn muffin are unlikely to see major increases because, in a nod to capitalist priorities, the cost of those products is largely determined by packaging, advertizing, transportation and storage costs – and ultimately the labor that is embodied in those activities, not the cost of growing the corn or other natural base material.

However, because about one third of corn in the US goes to feed animals, the US dept. of agriculture predicts that the price of animal products such as beef, dairy products, chicken, eggs and turkey will increase by 4.5% or more, depending on just how bad the harvest turns out to be.  There will be a similar impact on vegetable oil due to the dire predictions on soy production, though these effects will likely not be felt until early 2013.  The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) publishes its monthly Food Price Index figures on August 9th.  Abdolreza Abbassian, a senior economist at the FAO commented, “It will be up…How much up is anyone’s guess”, ominously, he adds; “It would really surprise me if we didn’t see a significant increase.” Continue reading

Steven Best

 “We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shore of  the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.” Carl Sagan

 All inquiries carry with them some element of risk. There is no guarantee that the universe will conform to our predispositions” Carl Sagan

 A fascinating part of the postmodern adventure – the dynamic changes wrought by science, technology, and capitalism that bring mutations in modern thought and society of the last few centuries — is the longing for contact with other planets and extraterrestrial life.[1] As is clear from events at Roswell, New Mexico, during 1947; from a surfeit of books and movies about aliens and UFO conspiracies; from the craze over films like ET (1982) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977); from the popularity of TV shows such as The X-Files; from fascination with “ET Highway” and the mysterious Area 51 in Nevada; and from UFOphilic cult groups like Heaven’s Gate, people are weary of lackluster positivism and blockbuster films. Sometimes, when people want real adventure, only aliens will do. Space aliens are the ultimate spectacle, one that an increasing number of people generate for themselves in their inspired longings and imaginations, and there is endless fascination with UFO sightings, alien abductions, and the possibility of life on Mars and other planets. The entertainment industries and mass media feed off and perpetuate this frenzy through movies such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Alien (1979), Prometheus (2012) and shows like Unsolved Mysteries and Sightings.

Space aliens are the ultimate “Others,” and thereby prompt reflection on the nature of Homo sapiens. Since H.G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds (1898), its frightening radio adaptation by Orson Wells (1938) that sent the nation scurrying in panic, and its popular movie translations (1953, 2005), sci-fi representations have depicted aliens as either benign beings who come to rescue us from social and ecological disaster, as one finds in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), or as malicious monsters whose goal is to enslave humanity or destroy the earth, as represented in Independence Day (1996). These antithetical attitudes stem from a psychological ambivalence human beings have relating to alterity of any kind, earthly or otherwise, and also to their repressed guilt over their own violent and destructive past.[2]

Independence Day, for example, puts human guilt and anxiety on blatant display, as a hoard of malevolent, super-intelligent aliens arrive to colonize the earth to sustain their bloated populations and energy-sucking technologies. If the scenario sounds familiar, it should, for Independence Day is an allegory of what human beings have done to other animal species and the earth for the last ten thousand years, by colonizing land, exterminating species, and devouring natural resources to fuel its ever-expanding empire, population growth, and energy addiction. Independence Day is a veiled anthropomorphic projection of our own murderous, ravaging, and destructive lifeways from our existence onto other-worldly creatures who live to kill and kill to live. In fact, we (humankind generally, but mostly western capitalist cultures) are the parasites who wantonly consume and kill to support our Promethean, growth-oriented, fossil-fuel addicted societies. We are the butchers and bloodsuckers who slice apart billions of bodies and drain the marrow from the earth to support unsustainable lifestyles. We are the aliens estranged from our fellow species and earthly home, We are the parasites drowning in our own wastes and toxic chemicals, as we bulldoze rainforests to feed cattle and replace natural environments with synthetic worlds of glass, steel, and concrete. We are the destroyers, but we have nowhere to run and cannot escape from the collapsing carapace of industrial capitalism and runaway climate change.

In many ways, aliens are the new opiate of the people, fantasies of the gullible who leap from any seeming shred of evidence to a devout belief in the existence of extraterrestrial life. The belief in aliens is not necessarily irrational, however; as scientists like Stephen Hawking, Stuart Kaufmann, and Carl Sagan accept the possibility or even likelihood of cosmic intelligence, and astronomer Frank Drake worked out a formula to estimate the number of detectable civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy. “Drake’s equation” inspired the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Project that began in the 1960s, lured Sagan’s enthusiastic support first in 1980, and ultimately can be traced back to the Nikola Testla’s pioneering use of radio signals to contact extraterrestrial life in 1899.[3] Whether UFOs are real or not, much of the present craze is fuelled by distrust of the US government and a predilection toward conspiracy theories, such that any official denial of UFOS and alien abductions only encourages some people to believe that it must be true.

For scientists like Carl Sagan, however, contact has been a lifelong desire and no one has done more than he to popularize science and to promote extraterrestrial research. Sagan sought both to advance astronomy through technical means and to communicate with a popular audience with cosmic poetry and by awakening wonder. Where most of his peers would not deign to speak to the lay audience, wrote in execrable technical jargon, and rigidly divorced facts from values as they raked in cash from corporate grants and affirmed the technical mastery of nature, Sagan was a public intellectual who explained astronomy in stimulating terms and made general concepts of science interesting and assessable to the public through his popular books and films.[4]


Sailing the Stars

 “We have heard so far the voice of life on one small world only. But we have at last begun to listen for other voices in the cosmic fugue.” Carl Sagan

Sagan does not use postmodern discourse that we have made sharp breaks in thought, culture, and history from the classical modern period of the eighteenth through the mid or late twentieth century, but clearly he sees the post-1960s era of space travel era as a qualitatively different stage in the modern project of discovery, exploration, and adventure, since “this is the epoch in which we began our journey to the stars.”[5] I myself see space travel as part of the postmodern, rather than modern, adventure, in that, for the first time, human beings fly not only within the planet’s atmosphere, but also beyond it, having broken free of “gravity’s rainbow” (Thomas Pynchon) and earthly constraints in movement and possibilities. Humanity is venturing toward other planets to inhabit and colonize other worlds, perhaps altering the course of human evolution. Indeed, as the modern adventure unfolded in an era of rapid and dramatic discoveries; of bold new mappings of the land, sea, and stars; of startling scientific paradigm shifts; and of rapidly accelerating technological innovation hastening the pace of social change generally and altering life forms and human identities, the postmodern adventure is a continuation of this discovery, voyaging, and transformative process through a mapping of the Milky Way Galaxy and beyond. The term “astronaut” (Gr.: astron, star, and nautikos, ship) literally means one who sails the sea of stars. Yet this continuation of modern exploration dynamics is so qualitatively different, and has such more consequential implications, that it is best understand as a postmodern adventure.

Sagan traces a direct line from Columbus and other early voyagers who sailed the seas and explored new lands — space technicians and astronauts venturing into the sea of stars: “The Voyager spacecrafts are the linear descendants of those sailing-ship voyages of [early modern] exploration.”[6] As Sagan emphasizes, we have already become multiplanet travelers with earth as our home base. Standing on the shores of the cosmic ocean, Sagan feels we should take the plunge into the unknown. This, for Sagan, is the next big human adventure, one that frees us from the shackles of the earth to explore other planets, to build space colonies, to journey to the outer edges of the galaxy and perhaps beyond, as we shift toward post-geocentric, multiplanet identities, such as dramatized in the television and film series Star Trek.

The postmodern adventure would have as profound an impact on human identity as did modern explorations centuries earlier. The exploration of the cosmos, Sagan points out, is a voyage of self-discovery, a cosmic genealogy since we are ultimately born from the stars, beings “starstuff gathering starlight.” When life develops eyes and ears, the cosmos sees and hears; when it develops thought and intelligence, we become, as in a fantastic Hegelian evolution, the cosmos reflecting on itself. But the history of human thinking, as Nietzsche points out, is the history of crude errors, and the falsehoods and lies that prove most useful to life, such as which posit the existence of a God, the soul, the afterlife, and our privileged place on this planet and cosmic narrative. These delusions to which we cling tenaciously, as they soothe our fears, assuage our vanities, and transform our insignificance and nothingness into a sublime drama that enthrones us as the center of ,meaning and value.            

Unlike ancient times, Sagan notes, when everyday life was intimately connected to the celestial sphere, humans living in technoscientific culture have grown so distant from the starry firmament that the infinite space and beyond the earth’s stratosphere seems remote and irrelevant to human life. Focused on building dominator cultures, exploiting other species, and commandeering the earth without restraint or sense of limit, humanity has evolved from humility to hubris, as speciesist and anthropocentric philosophers, theologians, and scientists sunder us from our origins, strip us of our deep interrelationships with other species and embeddedness in and dependency on the ecological foundations of the biocommunity, while expounding endlessly on the twaddle of human uniqueness, destiny, and supremacy.

“Present global culture,” Sagan states, “is a kind of arrogant newcomer. It arrives on the planetary stage following four and a half billion years of other acts, and after looking around for a few thousand years declares itself in possession of eternal truths.”[7]  In his role as SETI enthusiast, Sagan looks not within human society for a revolution in ethics, values, and social institutions, but rather in the other-worldly realm. For he champions the idea that contact with an extraterrestrial civilization would lead to “a profound deprovincialization of the human condition.”[8] It is likely, Sagan believes, that the Watson we might speak to on the other end of the cosmic phone would be far more intelligent and technologically advanced than us, such that we could not but be humbled by our limited minds and relatively primitive technologies. As Rachel Carson, author of the environmental classic, Silent Spring (1963), emphasized, we are still in the Paleolithic stage of science, benighted by our ignorance of ecology and lack of eco-wisdom.         

Breaking decisively from the will to power that deeply informs scientific “neutrality,” Sagan hopes to overcome humanist arrogance, to foster respect for life, and to promote “contact” on a number of levels, not only between humans and extraterrestrial species, but between scientists and the lay public, and amongst scientists themselves. Sagan feels that the present is a time of great danger but also profound opportunity. The danger is that human beings have not learned to direct scientific and technological powers toward peaceful and ecologically-sustainable modes of life; the opportunity is that humanity stands on the threshold of a potential evolutionary advance whereby they could overcome destructive histories and mindsets as speciesism, anthropocentrism, xenophobia, and tribalism, and thereby significantly broaden the boundaries of the ethical community.[9] Indeed, Sagan’s book, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980) and Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1994), is an extended critique of human supremacism, hubris, and alienation, accompanied by a call to dismantle destructive technologies such as nuclear weapons, to end the practice of warfare, to reconnect our isolated existence with the earth and the vast independent, interrelated biocommunity nature.[10]

Unlike eco-primitivists who reject the secular religion that links “progress” to advances in science and technology and long for a return to Paleolithic hunting and gathering cultures, Sagan feels we need more, not less, science to extricate humanity from the mire of self-destruction: “The present epoch is a major crossroads for our civilization and perhaps for our species. Whatever road we take, our fate is indissociably bound up with science. It is essential as a matter of simple survival for us to understand science.”[11] Specifically, Sagan believes that advancing space travel would facilitate overcoming human chauvinism. By learning our place in the cosmos at large, by understanding our cosmic roots, by realizing that we live together on one fragile planet with artificial national boundaries, Sagan hopes we might develop more peaceful and sustainable societies.

If nothing else, Sagan argues, contact with extraterrestrial life would teach us that it is possible for advanced technological civilizations to endure; beyond that, such civilizations might offer important knowledge about how we might survive our own suicidal technocapitalism. A satellite-mediated contact would mean “that someone has learned to live with high technology, that it is possible to survive technological adolescence. That alone, quite apart from the contents of the message, provides a powerful justification for the search for other civilizations.”[12] It would mean, in other words, that there is no inherent logic of technological destruction, no necessary path, as Theodor Adorno put it, from the slingshot to the atom bomb, and that human beings can develop sciences and technologies that are advanced, sustainable, peaceful, and life-promoting, instruments of Eros rather than destructive forces of Thanatos. Other scientists, however, disagree, and speculate that we have not encountered advanced extraterrestrials because none successfully survived the challenges posed by technologies far more advanced than the consciousness that spawned them.


Vegans: Space Aliens, Compassionate Earthlings, or Lifestyle Narcissists?

 “Once intelligent beings achieve capacity for self-destruction, the selective advantage of intelligence becomes more uncertain.” Carl Sagan

Sagan’s novel Contact (1985) and its film adaptation (1997) concerns the struggles Dr. Ellie Arroway encounters in her passionate search for extraterrestrial intelligence. A brilliant scientist with a promising career, she has marginalized herself by focusing on issues considered disreputable by many of her peers. But when contact is actually made, her beliefs are vindicated and the position of Homo sapiens – as the only alleged thinking beings in the universe — is changed irrevocably.

Able to decode “the message” from outer space, scientists realize that it is a blueprint for constructing a machine for rapid space (and perhaps time) travel. The machine is built, and Ellie and her team make contact, but their entire trip and conversation takes only twenty minutes. Lacking evidence that their dialogue with aliens were real, their testimony is rejected by a committee of their peers. We are left to wonder for ourselves whether her encounter was real or imagined, what possibilities for communication with aliens exist in real life, and the implications such contact might have for human beings.

Contact is a literary mapping of Sagan’s scientific ideas. Both the book and film versions dramatize encounters with a vastly superior cosmic intelligence and prompt reflection on the limitations of science and human understanding, and the fragility of life on the “pale blue dot.”[13] Contact is a symptom that human beings and the scientific community are starting to raise seriously the question: are we alone? The fact that NASA has sent cosmic messages in a radio-satellite bottle shows that there is at least some belief in the possibility of alien life.

Following Sagan’s scenario (where the first images aliens picked up were those of a Hitler rally), it is somewhat amusing and embarrassing to consider that the messages that might be received are not those representing our greatest achievements in science, philosophy, and art, but rather the most insipid products of (in particular) American mass culture. If aliens were to receive the sounds and images of The Bachelorette, The Jerry Springer Show, The Rush Limbaugh Show, The Glen Beck Program, and Wheel of Fortune, rather than the dialogues of Plato, the sonatas of Mozart, the sensitivities of Romantic poets, and the equations of Einstein, they might wonder, indeed, if there is intelligent life on earth and pass us by.

The highly evolved cosmic beings Sagan describes are from planet Vega, and thus could legitimately be called “Vegans.” Is it merely a coincidence that “vegans” are also earthlings who are considered utterly alien to human cultures dominated by speciesism (for ten thousand years at least) and flesh-eating (a tradition stretching back millions of years)? Isn’t it the case that for the vast majority of humanity vegans are perceived and treated as if they are from another galaxy? And thus are shunned, ridiculed, and ostracized. Why is it that vegans are treated with contempt, mistrust, and disrespect, whereas liberal cultures, at least, seem to better tolerate other forms of difference and deviate/from the norm? Among other reasons, ethical vegans are vilified  because they raise repressed feelings of guilt in  carnivores, because implicitly or explicitly they stand in judgment against those whose trivial pleasures are satisfied through the torture and death of others, because they challenge the speciesist assumptions that animals are mere resources for humans to use for their purposes and thus call into question human supremacy, and because they exclude themselves in the most basic of human rituals, which is to consume the corpse of murdered animals in the company of others.

Sagan says nothing about the diet of the Vegans — indeed, they seem to be disembodied spirits — but their level of wisdom, spiritual insight, care for the world, and compassion is something for which every ethically and philosophically oriented vegetarian here on earth should strive, and in principle represent. In practice, however, while vegans may have made huge changes in their diet and relation to animals, this does not translate into personal spiritual growth or interpersonal relations in general, as vegans retain every perfidious habit, truculent trait, and abominable behavior toward other humans as corpse consumers, In fact, with their religious-style vegangelicism, their moral fundamentalism, their facile one-dimensional “solutions” to complex problems, and their cultish cultures, vegans can be more flawed in their humanity that those upon whom they heap criticism. This, the main thing earthly vegans have in common with cosmic Vegans is the status of alterity and being “alien” to the earth and its dominant cultures and ideologies.


The Politics of Science

“We humans have already precipitated extinctions of species on a scale unprecedented since the end of the Cretaceous Period. But only in the last decade has the magnitude of these extinctions become clear, and the possibility raised that in our ignorance of the interrelations of life on Earth we may be endangering our own future.” Carl Sagan

Much of Contact concerns the politics of science, the competitive forces behind scientific discovery, and the hegemony of patriarchy in the scientific world. Contact also takes on the theme of the conflict between religious faith and science, , as well as a battle going on within science between the hegemony of positivism and more speculative theories exploring the possibility of unknown dimensions of space and time.

Sagan, of course, has always been an ardent critic of mysticism, superstition, and fundamentalism, and he champions scientific rationality and experimental methods as the means of gathering truth.[14] But he is hardly a narrow positivist and has always embraced a philosophical and ethical version of science that encourages a sense of connectedness with life and awe for the cosmos. Sagan does not promote religion, nor does he embrace a mechanistic paradigm that drains all meaning and poetry from the universe, and ethical responsibility and values from science. Sagan seeks a rapprochement between science and religion, arguing that an authentic religion is open to the discoveries of science, as a valid science is informed by a religious-like sense of wonder. Unlike religion, of course, science is not content with mystery and seeks to unravel the secrets behind the wonder.[15]

While the novel is far clearer on the reality of contact, the film leaves the issue of whether or not contact was made open to judgment. While the political and scientific dogmatists conclude that she fantasized her experiences, it is possible, according to black hole theory that Ellie slipped through another spacetime dimension. While no one believes her in the hearings, we are left to make our own decision, and many will no doubt embrace the idea of unknown beings and spacetime dimensions potentially available to human experience, a multiplicity of parallel universes about which superstring theorists and others speculate.[16]

The most critical theme of Contact concerns less the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence than the reality of an earthly technological rationality so narrow and one-dimensional that it is destroying the evolutionary opulence from which it emerged. The main message of Contact is that human beings have to overcome their hubris and recognize that they are not the most important, or certainly the only, life form on earth and likely within the cosmos at large. In the film, Ellie says if she gets to ask only one question to the Vegans, it will be this: “How is it that you are so technologically advanced, and yet have not destroyed yourself?” How can a culture, in other words, be technologically advanced, peaceful, and sustainable all at once?[17]

In their dialogue with Ellie, the Vegans frankly state that they see us as backwards socially, economically, and technologically, and knew our planet was in serious trouble when they received televised images of Hitler’s speeches. We learn that the Vegans are cosmic shepherds, part of a community of space beings who for billions of years have cooperated in stopping the dissipation of the universe by recycling galaxies through black holes.

Sagan advances an interesting hypothesis that may explain why we have not yet  communicated with advanced beings in space: “Once intelligent beings achieve technology and the capacity for self-destruction of their species, the selective advantage of intelligences becomes more uncertain.” If technology is to be an evolutionary adaptive advantage rather than a fatal flaw, Sagan suggests, we need new adaption strategies and new forms of learning and evolution; life becomes uncertain in the age of advanced technology.

Clearly Sagan is warning that our current society, intensely driven by science, technological innovation, insatiable profit and growth imperatives, and deadly state rivalries is irrational, unsustainable, and disastrous. Sagan is also suggesting, however, that things could  be different, that we need not be embarking on a path of omnicide if, among other things, we related to the earth and its myriad life forms in a more respectful and compassionate way.  

Sagan feels that if a successful technological culture exists somewhere in space, we would have much to learn. Thus, he concludes, we ought to fund the space program. Sagan claims that funding for projects like SETI would cost no more than a new military plane and would not jeopardize needed spending on social programs here on earth. He is certainly aware of the need to take care of pressing social problems on earth, as evident in his citation of Anaximenes speaking to Pythagoras: “To what purpose should I trouble myself in searching out the secrets of the stars, having death and slavery continually before my eyes?”[18] Yet if space programs are relatively inexpensive, Sagan feels that there is no conflict between exploring space and improving society.

Nevertheless, Sagan’s reasoning is flawed by two non sequitors. First, simply because a civilization is technologically advanced enough to make contact with earth and survive a threshold of complexity, it does not follow that it is benign. Rather, as Battlestar Galactica (1978-2010), War of the Worlds, and Independence Day reminds us, advanced species may seek to destroy us or survive parasitically through appropriating human and earthy energy sources. In response, however, Sagan might reasonably ask: how is that a civilization that turns on other species would not also turn on itself? Perhaps only a species at war with itself, such as Homo sapiens, would wage war on other species, or vice versa.

Second, it does not follow that simply because sagacious aliens have crucial knowledge and wisdom to offer, that we would accept it, as if philosophy rather than profit, growth, and efficiency imperatives do not rule this planet. This points to a key flaw in Sagan’s work, namely the abstract detachment from the all-too-worldly hegemonic power of global capitalism, state repression, social conditioning, culturally  enforced ignorance, crude utilitarian values, and the domination of technical knowledge over the values, ethics, wisdom, philosophy, and holistic thinking that Sagan himself embodi

Moreover, assuming earthlings were by and large open to acquiring wisdom, philosophical insight, and spiritual knowledge, it hardly follows that the most plausible path to enlightenment lies in contact with the erudite spirits drifting in deep space. As interesting and paradigm-shattering as contact would be, our world cannot wait light years for a cosmic Godot to save us from self-destruction. Nor, in fact do we require a black hole Buddha or supernova Socrates to manifest in the Milky Way through a wormhole portal, since the wisdom and learning we need to dismantle dominator societies, to harmonize our existence with other species and the earth, and to develop sustainable cultures has can already be found in ancient Eastern and modern Western traditions alike. It is not much that the storehouse of knowledge lacks knowledge of ecology or advanced technologies but rather that capitalist social relations and elite interests block progressive applications of holistic medicine or alternative energies in order to reinforce the status quo that serves their political and economic interests so well, suffering individuals, dying species, and collapsing ecosystems be damned.

Finally, while Sagan is infectious in his utopian optimism about the emancipatory possibilities of technology and science, he seriously underestimates the dialectic and dark side of accelerated technoscience innovation — such as theorized by a critical tradition stretching from the Romantics and Luddites to Martin Heidegger and the Frankfurt School to postmodernists and primitivists. The hegemony of technology over nature is problematic enough, let alone as controlled by market forces, sociopaths, and nihilistic whose sole concerns are profit, power, and conquest.

 Sagan does not recognize that the causes of warfare, domination, and ecological crisis stem not simply from dysfunctional primate behaviors or arrogant humanism, but also from the objectifying, and domineering logics of technocracy, bureaucracy, and capitalism. Most conspicuously, Sagan divorces all levels of crisis and catastrophe in contemporary society from the institutional imperatives of a global capitalist economic system dominated by elite monopoly powers who control resources, media, communication systems, and have governments and armies at their beck and call to quell dissent and silence opposition.

To gain an adequate understanding of the catastrophe radiating triumphant and the critical crossroads at which humanity currently stands, however, we have to appreciate how radically we have colonized the earth in so short a time. Here Sagan’s very useful device is a cosmological time line from the Big Bang to the present.[19] If we squeeze the entire history of the universe into a year of time, such that the Big Bang begins on January 1st, we gain a remarkable perspective: the Renaissance does not begin until 11:59:59 and the industrial revolution arrives at the first second of the New Year. Sagan’s conceptual exercise reminds us how rapidly human beings have colonized this planet, how quickly we have depleted and destroyed it, how little time is left, and how radical the evolutionary leap must be lest we ourselves succumb to the black hole of extinction crisis we have opened on this once vital and fecund planet.


[1] On the concept of “postmodern adventure,” see Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, The Postmodern Adventure: Science, Technology, and Cultural Studies at the Third Millennium. New York: Guilford Books, 2001. The notion of the postmodern adventure underscores that we are in a tempestuous period of transition and metamorphosis, propelled by transmutations in science, technology, and capitalism. This critical analysis seeks to grasp continuities and discontinuities with the earlier modern era, while mapping striking changes, threats, and promises now before us. The postmodern adventure involves leaving behind the assumptions and procedures of modern theory and embracing a dynamic and ongoing encounter with novel theories, sciences, technologies, cultural forms, communications media, experiences, politics, and identities – all fraught with both opportunities and dangers. Thus postmodern discourse to have theoretical and political weight, it must be articulated concretely with the profound alterations of the day. At stake is the development of modes of social theory and cultural criticism adequate for capturing salient aspects of our contemporary predicament, and connecting them with projects of social transformation.

[2]. One might find it ironic that many people yearn for contact with the ultimate Other, space aliens, as they harbor racist and sexist sentiments toward members of their own kind, and speciesist biases toward their evolutionary ancestors in the animal kingdom. But aliens fill a huge gap in the human psyche that earthly forms of alterity cannot. By clinging to a belief in aliens, people nourish the hope that we are not alone in the universe and perhaps our existence is not meaningless.

[3] “The Drake equation is closely related to the Fermi paradox in that Drake suggested that a large number of extraterrestrial civilizations would form, but that the lack of evidence of such civilizations (the Fermi paradox) suggests that technological civilizations tend to disappear rather quickly…..The astronomer Carl Sagan speculated that all of the terms, except for the lifetime of a civilization, are relatively high and the determining factor in whether there are large or small numbers of civilizations in the universe is the civilization lifetime, or in other words, the ability of technological civilizations to avoid self-destruction. In Sagan’s case, the Drake equation was a strong motivating factor for his interest in environmental issues and his efforts to warn against the dangers of nuclear warfare” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drake_equation).

[4] Here we should recognize the contribution Sagan has made to society in his capacity as a liaison between the scientific and public worlds. Unlike so many of his peers, Sagan broke free from the sterile enclaves of science to address a lay public; he communicated difficult concepts in simple and interesting terms. He aroused public interest not only in astronomy and the planetary probes of NASA. It was most unfortunate that many of his ingrate peers denied him admission into the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, unable to comprehend that one could be both a serious scientist and a popular public intellectual. This is an exemplary case of the elitism of science and its rarified separation and detachment from the general public.

[5] Carl Sagan, Cosmos. New York: Ballantine Books, 1980, p. 284.

[6]  Cosmos, p. 121.

[7]  Cosmos, p.  276.

[8]  Cosmos, p.  259.

[9] See Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search for Who We Are. New York: Ballantine Books, 1992.

[10] For the documentary films made on each book, see Cosmos (http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/cosmos/) and A Pale Blue Dot (http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/pale-blue-dot/). The latter documentary is an unauthorized attempt to produce a documentary based on Sagan’s book.

[11] Cosmos, p. xvii.

[12] Cosmos, p. 251.

[13] Both versions dramatize encounters with a vastly superior cosmic intelligence and prompt fascinating reflection on the limitations of science and human understanding, and the fragility of life on the “pale blue dot.” Much of Contact concerns the politics of science, the competitive forces behind scientific discovery, and the hegemony of patriarchy in the scientific world. Contact also takes on the theme of the conflict between religious faith and science, between two competing interpretations of the world, as well as a battle going on within science between the hegemony of positivism and more speculative theories exploring the possibility of unknown dimensions of space and time. Sagan, of course, has always been an ardent critic of mysticism, superstition, and fundamentalism, and he champions scientific rationality and experimental methods as the means of gathering truth. But he is hardly a narrow positivist and he has always embraced a philosophical and ethical version of science that encourages a sense of awe for the cosmos. While Sagan does not promote religion, nor does he embrace a mechanistic positivism that drains all meaning and poetry from the universe, and ethical responsibility and values from science. Sagan seeks a rapprochement between science and religion, arguing that an authentic religion is open to the discoveries of science, as a valid science is informed by a religious-like sense of wonder. Unlike religion, of course, science is not content with mystery and seeks to unravel the secrets behind the wonder.

[14]. See, for example, his critique of irrationalism in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Ballantine Books, 1996.

[15]. Sagan’s ideas about religion and science are laid out in the confrontation between Ellie and religious fundamentalists in Chapter 10 of Contact. See especially the end of novel where she and the fundamentalist reach some surprising agreements.

[16]. For those disinclined to believe her (and Sagan also by implication), a likely conclusion to draw is that the reckless and gullible governments of the world squandered a trillion dollars on a sophisticated tinker-toy, once again ignoring the plight of real citizens here on earth. Such a conclusion, quite unintentionally, would contradict Sagan’s passionate efforts to promote interest in space exploration and more funding and support for programs like SETI. Whatever conclusion the audience draws from the film, Sagan clearly wants us to accept the rationality of funding space travel and attempts to make contact.

[17] This is an important part of the film, but one can’t help but notice that in her extraterrestrial dialogue, the question is never raised. Rather, following the novel, Hollywood embodies cosmic alterity in the image of Ellie’s father (apparently a gesture of kindness from the aliens) and delivers a largely banal discussion. It is also worth pointing out that in the novel a team of researchers from various countries travel to Vega, whereas in the film Ellie goes it alone

[18] Cosmos, p. 263.

[19] Carl Sagan, The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence. New York: Ballantine Books, 1977, pp. 13-17.

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