John Sanbonmatsu Replies to Derrick Jensen

John Sanbonmatsu Responds to Derrick Jensen

It is not enough for Derrick Jensen to disagree with me, he must also call me a liar, imply that I am a racist, charge me with intellectual dishonesty, make fun of my last name because a typo in the manuscript of a different version of my essay, published elsewhere, accidentally misspelled his, and finally abuse the editors of this fine journal as “reactionaries” who need a “stern” talking to by an “elder writer.” Whatever else Jensen’s letter is intended to demonstrate, it reveals more than we might want to know about the man and his character.

Jensen spills a lot of toner ink about the responsibility of editors to fact check every claim by the authors they publish. But that’s a lot of hooey, and he knows it. There is no editorial staff on any journal anywhere in the world who check every fact in every story. If there were any inaccuracies in my original essay (and indeed I will confess to two of them shortly), the fault lies exclusively with me, not with the editors. In fact, the editors of UTA, while “young” (a term of condescension in Jensen’s hands) do a superb, careful job working on a shoe-string budget. They are a great bunch of folks, and they do not deserve the personal insults Jensen flings at them.

Before responding directly to Jensen, I should say that when I first agreed to write a review essay of Lierre Keith’s Vegetarian Myth I did so with some reluctance. Keith’s atrocious and unscholarly book frankly did not seem worth the trouble. No one, I thought, could possibly take such a book seriously. Subsequent events have shown how very wrong I was. That my little essay should bring down the wrath of Jensen (“an author with twenty books out,” as he modestly reminds us) shows that something serious may be at stake after all. Moreover, reading Jensen’s letter and glancing through his own writings, I see that I have been barking up the wrong tree anyway. Lierre Keith is merely Frankenstein’s monster, a paler imitation of Jensen himself. Better to have at the doctor himself.

Jensen begins his rambling note with Herculean efforts to pick nits. Let me grant him two of them. In retrospect, first, I should have made it clear that when I described Keith “singing joyously as she kills her farm animals with her own bare hands” I was being facetious. I thought it was reasonably clear from the absurdity of the image that I was using literary license. If not, however, I apologize. In truth, I have no idea how Keith kills her farm animals. But I don’t think it matters for my argument. On page 271 of Keith’s book, she writes, “I have looked my food in the eye. I have raised some of it myself, loved it when it was small and defenseless. I have learned to kill. And I’ve learned to say my own grace.” It is therefore difficult to credit Jensen’s claim that Keith “has never killed any farm animals by any means whatsoever.” Certainly, Keith gives us the impression that she kills her captive animals herself, up close and personal. However, whether Keith simply misleads us into thinking she found the stomach to kill, someone certainly kills her animals when they have outlived their usefulness as exploitable commodities for Keith, as for other gentlewoman animal farmers. A motif throughout the book is the beauty and necessity of killing. (As Keith says more than once, “for someone to live, someone else has to die.”)

As for my second textual error: apparently, the cows I referred to as belonging to Keith belonged to someone else. I am deeply ashamed. However, whether Keith has owned cows or not is entirely irrelevant to the questions raised in my essay. It is no less irrelevant whether or not the cows I referenced in the text were “Heirloom” cows. So-called Heirloom cows are essentially high-priced commodities raised primarily for slaughter. The idea of Heirloom and Heritage “breeds” is to reintroduce genetic diversity into commercial livestock, as a makeweight for the genetic monoculture that characterizes today’s meat industry. Producing them requires forcible artificial insemination of cows. Unwanted male cows (they are considered a “surplus” no one wants) are killed or sold into the veal industry. Heritage animals are in almost every case killed for their meat. And as in other arenas of animal exploitation, an undertow of violence and sadism afflicts this wing too of the “sustainable” animal agriculture movement. As the manager of marketing and communications of the American Livestock Breeding Conservancy joked, “‘We have to eat them to save them.’”[1] (Cf. the advertisement campaign this month by Legal Seafoods, the biggest corporate killer of marine life in North America, ostensibly demonstrating to the public its supposed interest in “sustainable” fishing with this ad copy: “Save the crab. Save it to show that every creature is sacred, no matter how small. Or just save it so that we can chop it up into tasty little crab cakes.”)

So my larger point still stands: whether such animals die slowly, from the blow of a pole ax (which Jensen reassures us is “rarely used”—unlike the gaff, a pole ax used at sea, where marine animals are stabbed through the eyes or gills to be hauled, dying in excruciating pain, aboard ships), or die after having their throats cut and being skinned alive (a commonplace in today’s slaughterhouses), or from a captive bolt gun (much of the time the animal is wounded but not killed), is immaterial. The point is that sensitive, intelligent beings with full emotional lives are being brutally killed in the thousands of millions, and there is no defensible reason whatsoever for any of it.

To the main business of Jensen’s own arguments: first, Jensen reiterates Keith’s point that mass organized human killing of other animals (1) is natural and (2) is no different from harvesting wheat or picking apples off a tree. In reality, Jensen is merely reiterating a point which he himself made first elsewhere, and which Keith later simply appropriated from her intellectual mentor (welcome to the Keith-Jensen echo chamber). Be that as it may, Jensen completely sets aside the central argument of my essay, which was that power functions by naturalizing violence and hierarchy. Instead, he argues that “it would be hard to argue that killing other animals isn’t natural, since in years of study I’ve encountered precisely one and only one vegetarian…indigenous human culture out of literally thousands.” Leaving aside the fact that numerous human cultures and subcultures have in fact lived primarily on vegetarian diets for years and even centuries at a time, either out of necessity (during times when animal flesh was scarce) or by choice (Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, and so on, some of whom adopted vegetarian and vegan lifestyles over a thousand years ago), Jensen simply blunders into the same, naive naturalistic fallacy that Keith succumbs to. One wonders whether Jensen even read my critique of Keith at all. For in it, I pointed out the obvious fallacy of the belief that because a cultural practice is or has been widely or even universally practiced, it must therefore be both “natural” (meaning innate and part of our biological rather than social equippage) and morally right. By that logic, male domination and violence against women must be natural and right, since all of the cultures Jensen has studied were patriarchal. Rape and war too can be found in every culture, or virtually every culture, in the world, past and present. Are they therefore natural and right?

Jensen next writes that he would “hate to try to argue that the Tolowa Indians, on whose land I now live, and who lived here for at least 12500 years, and did so completely sustainably, and who were and are a people of the salmon, were not living as fully integrated members of their natural community, and doing so by participating in the ongoing ... cycles of life and death.” As readers will know from his other works, Jensen is mighty big on salmon. It used to be cod. (In A Language Older than Words, Jensen describes a vivid dream he had in which he brutally killed a deep water fish. In the dream, a man comes to him and says, “It’s cod.” Jensen later writes: “I awoke perplexed, and then realized he meant for me to eat it, take it in. That is what we all must do.” While not quite the Lady of the Lake throwing Arthur a sword, Jensen’s prophetic dream states seem no less dubious a basis for asserting claims of political right. See Monty Python’s treatment of Arthur’s claim to sovereignty over Britain in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.) Whatever Jensen’s fish du jour, the trouble with this sort of romanticism of indigenous peoples is that it leads those who espouse it into a thicket of moral relativism from which there can be no return.

Jensen implies that it is “racism” to question the wisdom of the Tolowa (which, anyway, I didn’t); but if so, then it must also be racist to question the agricultural practices of the ancient peoples of Mesopotamia and the Americas on grounds that their agricultural practices led in many cases to ecological disaster, as both Jensen and Keith do. However, it is a painful but necessary truth that while indigenous cultures were often ingenious and wise, they were also sometimes (even at the same time) extremely violent, superstitious, and prone to destroying or degrading their natural surroundings. But then, the same can and should be said of every human people and culture, including our own. So I will say it: native peoples are human beings, and over the eons they too have suffered their own rare combination of vices and virtues like everyone else. That is part of the human condition, and Jensen would do well to open himself up to it. Some native peoples murdered and ate humans in other communities. Some engaged in nauseating spectacles of mass killing and torture, of humans and nonhumans alike. The fact that they killed on a much smaller scale than we have managed to accomplish with the technics available to us in industrialized capitalist society is worth noting, but that fact alone need not render us insensible to the possibility that they too made mistakes. Moral relativism is itself an artifact of modernity.

But as I say, if it is “racist” to question the practices of non-Europeans, then Jensen has to explain himself to Jensen for his dismissal of the record of sustainable agricultural practices in the Tai Lake area of ancient China. In this connection, Jensen’s indignation over my use of the 1997 Ellis and Wang article about Tai Lake seems to come out of left field. Having apparently only skimmed that article’s abstract online, he somehow misses or ignores the point I was trying to make, which is that indigenous farmers in that region were able to sustainably grow crops for nearly a thousand years, without destroying the soil. Jensen implies that in 1997 Ellis and Wang were sanguine about the use of artificial fertilizers in the region. On the contrary, in their article—the one Jensen apparently still hasn’t read—they express concern about unsustainably rapid population growth and the shift to petroleum-based fertilizers: “Human populations are now nearly twice their traditional maximum, and the region remains one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions thanks in part to heavy fertilizer applications that have changed nitrogen from a limiting nutrient to a potential source of pollution.” To be sure, the authors could and should have rung the alarm bells more loudly (as natural scientists, they write in the restrained idiom of their discipline). Nonetheless, their meaning is clear: the Communist state has driven the ecosystem to its absolute limits and substituted a polluting nitrogen source for a traditionally limiting one. (“Though massive nutrient subsidies have overcome the nitrogen limitation of traditional agriculture, this does not mean that other limits do not apply,” they warn.)

It is therefore hard to know why Jensen is trotting out all this data showing that the Tai Lake region is now an ecological disaster. Who said it wasn’t? Jensen writes that “[s]uch pollution problems are now widespread in China after three decades of unbridled economic growth.” Yes, that is so. But the authors of the 1997 study were not talking about the last three decades, they were talking about a period that lasted from roughly 950 C.E. to 1950 C.E. That’s not forever, and it’s not even the longest reasonably successful ancient experiment with sustainable agriculture, but it’s a pretty good run anyway. Perhaps we have something to learn from the experience of these Chinese peasants….But no. Before we can inquire into all that Jensen has jumped up waving his arms about the nightmare that is Tai Lake today. However, the unspeakable degradation of the Tai Lake region is an artifact precisely of non-sustainable practices that began after the Chinese Revolution in 1949. Why then does Jensen saddle me and the editors for allegedly defending the ruinous agricultural and environmental policies of Mao’s and Deng’s China? Here is Jensen: “And this is the example he uses for sustainability? This is an example you publish as an example of sustainability? Why did the editors of Upping the Anti not bother to do this basic fact checking?” For someone who claims that the editors of UTA are irresponsible reactionaries for failing to check their contributors’ facts, Jensen is astonishingly cavalier about the textual details.

But then, Jensen also misrepresents my arguments with astonishing thoroughness. He says that I claimed that Lierre Keith denies sentience to animals, which I didn’t. And he says that I claimed “that Lierre fails to show that agriculture leads to ‘biocide,’ and ignores both her and the world’s plentiful examples of how and where this has happened,” etc. In fact I fully conceded that point by Keith and explained why it was important and true. Here is what I wrote:

Keith writes movingly of the toll that modern mechanized agriculture takes on local ecosystems and on the myriad animal species who live in them. Agriculture ruins rivers through salinization, dumps nitrogen run-off into the sea, rips the nutrients out of the soil, poisons or displaces millions of birds, mammals, fish, and reptiles, and turns once thriving ecosystems into desert wastelands. Corporate agriculture is indeed a ‘war’ on the earth, one akin to ‘ethnic cleansing’....Keith is right that the current system of monocrop agriculture, which relies on unsustainable and ecologically fatal infusions of petrochemicals, is broken.

Where I do diverge from Keith and Jensen is their unequivocal conviction that all agriculture is doomed. They are right that many the agricultural practices of many ancient peoples proved ecologically ruinous. But not all of them [2]. At any rate, if I wanted to follow Jensen’s example I would turn around and call him a “liar.” But name-calling isn’t to the point, and anyway I don’t really think that dishonesty is Jensen’s problem. The truth is sadder than that. Jensen is so identified with Keith and her positions that he couldn’t even be bothered to read my article before dashing off his intemperate letter to UTA. With an air of noblesse oblige, Jensen the Patient, Jensen the Wise, Jensen the Mentor to Young and Reckless Editors, assures us that while he “didn’t have time for this nonsense…I made time to lay out these errors and to show you what an editor is supposed to do because I care about truth.” In fact, what he did was to cherry-pick some points at random and dress them up as straw targets to knock down. That is certainly his prerogative, but if he wants my advice he should think twice before tossing around cinder blocks inside his majestic glass house, twenty published books or not.

Let’s finally move on to the main bones of contention (pun intended). As I took pains to show, Lierre Keith explicitly and repeatedly conflates animals and plants, and dying with killing, in her book. In his reply, Jensen merely reiterates Keith’s ontological conflations, writing that “all eating requires death.” Yes, it does, which is why I said so in my original essay. However, what I also said was that the fact that everything dies, or even that in living we sometimes hurt others or inadvertently cause other beings to die, cannot be a moral defense for intentionally killing or causing suffering to conscious beings. Examined closely, Jensen’s “all eating requires death” reduces to a tautology, something along the lines of “life is life,” which is true but philosophically uninteresting. We might just as well say that human society also “requires” death, because if people didn’t die, there would be no place to put new human beings. But to acknowledge that “for some to live some must die” would be no justification for killing them. In any event, while I acknowledged in my essay that agriculture, even sustainable agriculture, does lead to “collateral” mortality in nonhuman beings, I also pointed out that the animal killing apparatus kills many, many times more of those beings, both directly and intentionally (billions of animals viciously confined and manipulated and then killed each year to meet the irrational and growing demand for flesh) and indirectly, through its monopolization of the land (since more than 75% of agricultural land today is used to grow crops for animals to eat so that we can kill and eat them).

But Jensen suffers from the same cognitive incapacity as Keith: he is unable to distinguish between sentient and insentient life. Neither author is willing to concede any morally significant or ontological distinction, between plants and animals—such a basic distinction that practically every human culture or civilization in the history of the world has acknowledged its fundamental importance. Jensen indeed writes: “The soil itself—alive, with over a million beings in one tablespoon of soil, and more than a thousand different species in just a square meter of soil, all of whom must eat—requires food. Life requires death.” This reminds me of Heidegger’s contention that what happened in the Holocaust was no different than mechanized plant agriculture: “Agriculture is now a motorized food-industry — in essence, the same as the manufacturing of corpses in gas chambers and the extermination camps” [3]. In point of fact, as bad as industrialized agriculture is, and it is bad—indeed, as presently constituted it is just as ruinous for the planet as Keith and Jensen maintain (which is why I granted the point)—it is not genocide. Nor is cutting one’s grass on the front stoop equivalent to cutting the throats of chickens on an assembly line or beating cats and dogs to death for their meat (as happens in Korea). But if Jensen cannot see the moral difference between killing a child or a pig, say, both of whom are intelligent beings with emotions, and consuming bacteria in the soil, he really is beyond all help.

Yet Jensen cannot be disabused of his fantasy that plants are sentient. In my article, I maintained that no reputable scientist believes that plants are sentient, by which I meant and mean thinking and feeling and having the sensuous capacity for consciousness. I hold to that position, with one possible and partial exception (see below). Jensen claims that plant sentience and even consciousness is an established and widely accepted fact, the common sense of our time. And to demonstrate the point, he cites popular scientific accounts in mainstream media journals and refers his readers to the work of scientists at the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology. I confess that I had never heard of the latter. So after learning a little about the Laboratory I contacted Frantisek Baluska, one of the lead researchers there, and asked him whether he and his colleagues really believed that plants were sentient and conscious, experienced emotions like animals, and so forth. Baluska wrote me that while someday it “might turn [out] that…plant-specific sentience and consciousness will be even more complex than the animal/human ones,” in fact, “Unfortunately we cannot say anything about emotional lives of plants as the current science is still not matured enough to pose these questions.” In other words, they don’t know, and they wouldn’t make the claim.

The director of the Lab, Stefano Mancuso (cited by Jensen), answered my similar query to him with the words, “Frantisek already answered you as I would have done.” However, Mancuso did add that “I can not imagine a living organism [of any kind] being unconscious.” Thus, Mancuso himself seems personally to believe that plants are conscious and sentient—so chalk one up for Jensen: the one scientist in the world, apparently. Nevertheless, as I have just indicated, even members of Mancuso’s own research staff, whom he says he agrees with, admit that ascribing internal psychological and emotional states to plants is simply not something that the existing science permits them to do. In his email to me, moreover, Mancuso added, “At the end [of the day] it is [also] not possible even to be sure [of] the consciousness of our brother humans, of course you know the problem of ‘other mind[s]’....” In other words, Mancuso cannot say anything more decisive about the existence of plant consciousness than he can say about human consciousness. These are speculative matters. The most he and his peers can do is theorize about plant “intelligence,” without however being able to prove that they are “intelligent” in the sense of having consciousness and feelings.

My exchange with Mancuso and Frantisek led me to delve a bit further into this emerging discourse about plant sentience and “intelligence.” Why are Jensen and Keith so intent to blur the distinction between plants and animals, a primordial ontological distinction acknowledged by most if not all human civilizations throughout history? And why was Jensen, a back to the land primitivist, now coming out as a technoscience junkie (he cites Wired magazine and even the TED Conference, where the corporate literati now go to get their draughts of good technologic cheer)? I found this key clue on the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology’s website: the Laboratory, it says, embraces the “view [that] sees plants as information processing organisms with complex communication throughout the individual plant.” In other words, if some of the researchers at the laboratory are comfortable speaking of plant intelligence it is because they are setting out from an essentially mechanistic way of understanding life and consciousness—as information processing.

One of the most fateful mistakes of our age has in fact been to depict consciousness and sentience as nothing more than “information processing,” and to suggest that interior mental states and experiences can be represented as algorithms and reduced to external behaviors. This view of biology is of extremely recent vintage, the outcome of half a century of reified technological thinking about the nature of life. More and more in the scientific literature we are seeing a reified discourse in which biological processes are being conflated with mind and feelings. In his brief email to me, for example, Dr. Mancuso wrote of his belief that plants must experience their world sensuously because “plants are able to sense continuously and concurrently at least 20 different chemical and physical parameters; much more than any animal.” In other words, because researchers can identify “20 different chemical and physical parameters” of information processing in plants, it seems logical to attribute sensuous experiences to them.

What we are seeing is the emergence of a new metaphysics rising (ironically) out of the most positivistic and ostensibly most anti-metaphysical of scientific disciplines, computer science and its theoretical counterpart, cybernetics theory. As Jaron Lanier, one of the founders of the internet and democratic hacking culture, has recently warned, the pernicious conflation of living beings and consciousness with “information,” bits and bytes of information, to be exact, has become a kind of evangelical religion among technologists [4] The origins of this disease of the human imagination can be traced back to cybernetics theory, the theoretical branch of information, systems, and control science, which by the 1950s had become little more than an extension of the US national security state. For decades, the goal of cybernetics has been to create mathematical and logical models for predicting and controlling the behavior of both inanimate objects and systems—machines, computers, societies—and living beings. One of the axioms of cybernetic theory, and indeed the ideological and practical goal of cybernetics research, is to achieve control over all systems—a kind of grand unification of matter based on the seductive notion that everything can be reduced to information, everything is a “system,” hence can be known, manipulated, and controlled.

As the natural sciences became completely dependent on computer science and computer modeling by the 1980s, information and systems thinking came to replace the older, mechanistic and behavioral models of life. The question of whether other entities, including machines, can exhibit “intelligence” and even sentience has become entangled in this techno-capitalist juggernaut. The obsession within computer science with the Turing Test is emblematic. Turing famously proposed that if a computer could be programmed to answer questions posed to it by a human being, in such a way that it could fool the human into thinking that it was human, then we could consider that computer to be “intelligent.” In recent decades, technologists have gone even further than Turing intended to suggest that such a “smart” machine would also be sentient and conscious. As Jaron Lanier notes of Silicon Valley culture, “intelligence” and even properties of conscious minds are today being attributed willy-nilly “to machines, crowds of fragments, [and] other nerd deities.” Commenting on the Turing Test in particular, Lanier writes:

You can’t tell if a machine has gotten smarter or if you’ve just lowered your own standards of intelligence to such a degree that the machine seems smart. If you have a conversation with a simulated person presented by an AI program, can you tell how far you’ve let your sense of personhood degrade in order to make the illusion work for you? [5]

What has all this got to do with Jensen’s fascination with Mancuso and his plant lab? In his writings, Jensen presents his philosophical conflation of plants and animals as though it were rooted in indigenous thought, when in fact it is an historical artifact, and ideological after-image, of the irresistible movement in technoscience to reify life by eroding the distinction between subjects and objects, persons and things. Recently, the hegemony of information and systems thinking in the sciences has led some researchers, though thankfully as yet very few, to adopt the term “sentience quotient” as a way of getting around the awkward fact that while computers and plants may process information, they are not in fact conscious, do not experience their worlds, and do not have emotions and feelings. In the 1980s, Robert A. Freitas, Jr., a research fellow at the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing who has been on the forefront of creating nano-sized robotic devices, coined the term “Sentience Quotient.” According to Freitas, “sentience quotient” (SQ) signifies a relationship between the estimated information processing rate of some “information processor,” measured in bits per second, plus the weight or size of the unit, plus the total number of processing units. Freitas had no problem, in an early essay, finding that human beings qualify for an SQ rating of +13 on his intelligence scale, which put our “sentience” only slightly above an Apple II (SQ +5) and a Cray I supercomputer (SQ +9) [6]. Subsequent technologists have tried to estimate the SQ of plants, with one scientist attributing “a peak of +1” to the venus flytrap. Presumably, the plants in Derrick Jensen’s garden have a sentience rating somewhere between a supercomputer and Michelle Bachmann. But I would have to look at the math.

The beauty of such definitions for technologists like Freitas—and similar definitions of plant “personhood” for anti-animal critics like Jensen and Keith—is that they make it possible to conflate the ontologies of computers, plants, and animals (including humans). As Manfred Stanley observed back in 1978, the goal of cybernetics theory was “to avoid treating collectivities as [distinct] classes of ontological entities (organisms, machines, group minds)” [7]. This is why Norbert Wiener and other leading figures in cybernetics research could torture and kill animals with such a clean conscience, electrocuting their isolated or severed limbs and so forth, believing that they were “proving” that animals—including human animals—were merely cybernetic systems who were no different in essence from other “information systems,” including machines.

The question that naturally arises is what is driving such a rapidly metastasizing discourse that seems intent on eliding fundamental ontological and ethical distinctions. And the only answer that I can see is capital. That is, it must somehow be important from the point of view of capital, which after all drives the technoscientific juggernaut all the way down, to deny and suppress such elemental and morally necessary distinctions. In fact, we see the same grotesque elision of individual subjectivity—human and animal alike—in technoscience that we see in capitalism as a totalizing system. The massively capitalized industry of “bioengineering,” in which genes from qualitatively different kinds of being—goats and tobacco plants and rabbits and human beings and bacteria—are swapped out, truncated, deformed, manipulated, “re-designed,” and so on—indeed depends on the systematic erasure of all such distinctions, both discursively and in material practice. But only from the point of view of an economic system that strips everything of its unique ontological qualities and reduces them to homogeneous units of exchange can humans and other animals be said to resemble machines or computers—or plants. This is not to disrespect the plant world. As scientists are discovering, Aristotle was more right than perhaps he knew when he described a “plant soul.” Yet despite the overall conservative tenor of his natural philosophy, it is to Aristotle’s credit that he distinguished between plant souls and animal souls, and recognized that while plants are alive and animate, they are not conscious and are not sentient. Any child could explain the difference between plants and animals to Jensen, if he bothered to ask one.

Yet Jensen is adamant. According to him, the reason Keith disavows any meaningful ontological or ethical distinctions between plants and animals is because she “is attempting to expand the circle of…personhood.” That’s for sure. As I noted in the longer version of my essay on ZNET, Keith tells us that plants “love their lives” as much as animals; that they have “mothers” and “some of them have fathers too,” as well as “plant babies”; and that just because plants don’t seem to be sentient doesn’t “mean they love their offspring any less” than we do (all direct quotes from her book). I will leave it to my reader to decide whether plants are “intelligent” as Jensen says, and whether they experience feelings of love just as we do, as Keith maintains. I would merely note that if educated people like Jensen and Keith cannot distinguish between sentient and insentient life, we are in a great deal of trouble, particularly when, as in the case of Keith, their conflation of bacteria and plants with people and other animals comes with a strident call to eliminate 95% of the existing world human population, without however their specifying the trivial detail of their preferred means for achieving that reduction. There is furthermore something disturbing about this radical devaluation of genuine subjectivity by expanding “personhood” to mean everything and therefore nothing. Jensen’s own conception of personhood is so degraded that he not only talks to trees in his books, he also talks to some of the dead animals sloughed off from his farm, seeming to believe they can still hear him. (E.g. Jensen describes leaving the corpses of two baby chicks who died on his farm at the foot of a tree on his property. He tells us that both chicks died of severe deformities—common among chicks hatched in electric incubators, as may have been the case on Jensen’s farm: in normal gestation, the hen and baby communicate with one another through the egg shell, the mother encouraging the baby to turn around, which greatly reduces deformities. There, “among the feathers of past offerings,” i.e. other victims of his farming practices, he reports, “I said to each chick, quietly, Now you get to be wild. Go little one” [8].) A substantive notion of personhood is worth holding onto, I maintain, and if the Left can only settle upon one thing to defend in this world it ought to be the distinction between subjects and objects.

So I stand by the three points I made in my original essay: (1) Animals are sentient, suffering beings, and plants are not; (2) even if plants were sentient, veganism would still be morally obligatory since meat-eating kills many more plants than veganism does (due to the efficiencies involved); (3) the whole question of plant sentience is any way a red herring argument, introduced post factum to justify the prejudices and violent predilections of those who support human supremacy and the instrumental domination of nature. The reader is invited to test this latter hypothesis, using Jensen’s own dubious data research method of Googling a term and counting the hits. If one Googles the term “plant sentience” what comes up are not articles in scientific journals or philosophy journals about cognition, intelligence, or consciousness, but debates over vegetarianism.

Finally, let us get down to brass tacks: Jensen’s apoplexy over the title of my essay, “Blood and Soil.” He writes: “Because she puts your basic ordinary organic fertilizer she bought at the local plant store onto her garden, she’s a Nazi? Are you fucking kidding me?” Accusing me and the editors of deciding upon the article’s title because of a homophone between Keith’s phrase “bone and soil” and “blood and soil,” he tells us that “Blut und Boden, the Nazi phrase, had nothing whatsoever to do with real, physical blood and soil. In the case of the Nazis, Blut referred not to literal blood but to race or ethnicity, as in Aryan; and Boden referred not to literal soil but to nationality, as in German.”

Alas, Jensen is simply factually wrong. Goebbels was so personally interested in the theme of blood and soil that he commissioned at least seven feature-length films on the subject. One of them, Ewiger Wald (“The Eternal Forest”) depicted “a Master Race whose roots lie in the sacred soil fertilized for centuries by the richness of their blood” [9]. The Nazis were especially fanatical about soil—not figurative soil, but real soil, soil so real that it became metaphysical. They believed that the essence of the German Volk lay in its peasants, who lived on the land and whose blood and bones ended up there. One of the leading ideologists of Nazism, Richard Walther Darré, in calling for a new “nobility” made up of peasant farmers, conjured up images of “‘the transmission of blood’” through the soil and land, and wrote that “‘the blood of a people digs its roots deep into the homeland earth through its peasant landholdings, from which it continuously receives that life-endowing strength’” [10].

Hearing this, Jensen leaps up waving his Bible—a 1978 copy of Rodale’s The Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening—to ask mockingly whether it was “actually a secret handbook to ‘death fetishism’ and National Socialism because it speaks of the importance of both blood and bones to feeding the soil (blood, dried; and bone meal, respectively)?” This was an unfortunate choice. Jensen apparently is unaware of the nexus of ideological and personal connections between the organic farming and back to the land movements of the 1920s-40s period in the US and Europe and fascist movements of the same period, a nexus which in fact formed the background of the Rodale Institute itself. J.I. Rodale, who founded the Institute in 1947 as a nonprofit thinktank advocating a back to the land aesthetic and organic gardening, based the Institute’s entire program and philosophy on the writings and thinking of Albert Howard—“the father of modern organic agriculture,” as the organic foods lobby describes him. Howard was one of a number of leading British agriculturalists who were connected formally or informally with the extreme British right before the war. As Dan Stone recounts, “Just as fascists repudiated mainstream politics as stultifying, ossifying, and degenerative, so organicist farmers in the ‘epoch of fascism’ reviled mainstream farming methods for ‘killing the soil’ on which all life depends, and for killing British soil in particular, for this especially fertile soil nurtured the now-threatened racial characteristics of the British” [11] Stone continues:

...British organo-fascism developed in its own way, based on notions of British cultural characteristics. It is of course correct to note that there was no necessary connection between the organicist movement and blood and soil racism; nevertheless, some of the most influential and high-profile members of the organicist movement in the 1930s and 1940s to a large degree were blood and soil racists [12].

Of particular importance during this period was the so-called “Kinship in Husbandry” group, formed in Britain in 1941 by Rolf Gardiner, a former leftist turned anti-Semite and open admirer of German Nazism, along with a few others, including the fascist Lord Lymington. Albert Howard, the ideological and spiritual godfather of J.I. Rodale, was an associate of this group. No, this does not make Rodale a fascist at one remove. But it does suggest that linking organic farming with metaphysical qualities of blood and soil is not as fantastical as Jensen would like the reader to think. In reality there are troubling historical ligaments, however tenuous, binding the fascism of an earlier era to the organic, localized killing we see aestheticized and naturalized in Jensen and Keith. In this connection, of course, the big problem with the fascist cathexis with the soil and the virtuous, “life-giving” farmer was that the fetish of soil and blood was backed up in Germany with real violence. For, as Kiernan observes, “only advanced industrial killing could give Germany back its primeval past” [13]. Similarly, Keith and Jensen are promoting a discourse which is rooted in real, not merely figurative violence—organized, sustained, remorseless, brutal violence against literally thousands of millions of sensitive and intelligent beings.

Here I should observe that Jensen grossly misreads my ironical references to Blut and Boden, or some of them, anyway (to my disappointment he fails to notice my reference to Goebbels’ revolver—but let that pass) as a callow and sophistic trick to attack Keith personally. But if Jensen had bothered to read my essay carefully, he would have noticed that I treat Keith merely as a symptom of a much broader phenomenon that includes The Omnivore’s Dilemma as well as the gassing of chickens on the BBC. My article was indeed about a disturbing death fetishism on the Left. That fetishism can be seen in Jensen’s own books: not only a morbid fascination with the taking of animal life, but a desublimated pleasure in it masquerading as Native Wisdom. Absurdly, Jensen seems to think that he is delivering the coup de grace against the poor harried editors of this journal when he accuses me of bringing up the Nazis as some sort of desperate ad hominem, presumably to distract my reader from the fact that I’m not saying anything.

But my reference to “blood and soil” was not simply rhetorical. There is no question that Keith’s metaphysical assertions, like Jensen’s (“the book saved my life,” etc.), about the “life-giving” nature of flesh and blood from killed beings—not figurative persons, but real ones—resonate with the autochthonous discourse of the Nazis. Several leading Nazis were farmers who experimented with the breeding of animals, and used their knowledge of manipulating and controlling (and killing) large numbers of animals as a basis for their policies in the Third Reich. Heinrich Himmler, for example, the head of the Gestapo and the overseer of all of the concentration camps, formed his vision of the Final Solution on the basis of his agricultural interests. (The editor of an SS newspaper later emphasized “‘the [agricultural] practices [Herr Himmler] enlarged on subsequently with regard to breeding, selection, and perhaps even what he understood by extermination of vermin’”[14].) Indeed, the many homologues and historical coincidences between the human extermination of other animals and the murder of European Roma and Jewry are now well established in the field. Theodor Adorno, Wilhelm Reich, and the Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, all explicitly compared the plight of animals to the plight of Nazi victims, as did the late Jacques Derrida and as has J.M. Coetzee. Charles Patterson, a former researcher at Yad Vashem, has even written an entire book on the subject [15].

Jensen, I fear, is still at sea, reading these words with incomprehension and suspicion, so let me spell it out even more clearly. Yes, I really am saying that the discourse which Keith and Jensen are going around plying in print and on YouTube is fascistic in reference to other animals. In what way are they engaging in fascistic arguments? In the way that they treat social, historically contingent practices, particularly phenomena of hierarchy, domination, and technologically-mediated killing, as natural. In the way that they confuse the “natural” with what is morally permissible or obligatory. In the way that they trivialize the deaths of millions of unique individuals, and treat them always as empty signifiers and figures of mute, anonymous, ewige groups [16]. In the way that they present victims of extreme violence and cruelty as being naturally worthy of their fates, and as even desiring or willing their own destruction. In the way that they aestheticize killing and tie it to a neo-romantic, ersatz primitivist metaphysics of soil, blood, and existential self-making. In the way that their defense of animal husbandry implictly legitimates such practices as eugenically manipulating, controlling, and limiting the reproduction of other groups of beings through scientifically managed “selection.” In the way that they implicitly defend such psychologically damaging practices as separating the young from their parents in order better to make use of them and dispose of them. In the way that they legitimate forceful confinement of target populations and speak and write coolly without remorse or regret about chopping off heads, while otherwise remaining coyly silent about the thousand other ways the victims of their discourse are actually dispatched from this world—by gassing, strangulation, crushing of the lungs from rapid decompression, throat-slitting, suffocation, a bullet or captive bolt to the brain, et cetera. Finally, their discourse is fascistic in the way that the authors defend their intellectually weak ideas from the criticism of others using the violent language of ridicule and personal insult in an attempt to crush people they don’t like, or whose arguments they disagree with.

No, Derrick Jensen is not a Nazi. Nor is he a liar, a racist, a crank, a reactionary, or even (despite his unhappy performance here) a “shitty writer.” He and Lierre Keith are simply wrong. They are wrong about the moral permissibility and supposed necessity of intentionally killing of other animals; they are wrong that plants are sentient and have feelings; they are wrong about the roots of our civilizational crisis; and all of this makes them equally and importantly wrong about how we ought to go about solving that crisis. They are wrong in ways which make both of them well worth paying attention to, if only for the damage they continue to do to the Left.


[1]Emily Badger, “Move Over Tomatoes, Here Come Heirloom Cows and Heritage Chickens,” Miller-McCune, July 15, 2009 (
[2] See, for example, Jared Diamond’s account of why some ancient forms of agriculture worked while others didn’t, in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Viking, 2004).
[3] All commentators on Heidegger seem to interpret this comment as referring to plant agriculture, so I am keeping with that reading. However, seeing it again in this context I wonder whether Heidegger was not in fact speaking of animal agriculture—the mass killing of other animals—in which case what he was saying had justification. However, Heidegger did not clarify what he meant.
[4] Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget (New York: Borzoi Books, 2010).
[5] Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget (New York: Borzoi Books, 2010), 32.
[6] Robert J. Freitas, Jr., “Xenopsychology,” Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, Vol. 104, April 1984, pp 41-53,
[7] Manfred Stanley, The Technological Conscience (New York: Free Press/MacMillan, 1978), 145.
[8] A Language Older than Words, 153. Jensen’s emphasis.
[9] David Welch, Propaganda and the German Cinema, 1933-1945 (I.B. Taurus, 2001), 90.
[10] Neuadel aus Blut und Boden, quoted by Ben Kiernan, Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur (Yale, 2007), 425.
[11] Dan Stone, “The Far Right and the Back to the Land Movement,” in Julie V. Gottlieb and Thomas P. Linehan, eds., The Culture of Fascism: Visions of the Far Right in Britain (I.B. Taurus, 2004), 188.
[12] Stone, 186.
[13] Kiernan, 429.
[14] Kiernan, 427.
[15] Charles Patterson, Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust (New York: Lantern Books, 2002).
[16] E.g., describing the capture and killing of millions of auks over the course of “perhaps thousands of human generations,” “season after season, generation upon generation,” Jensen writes, all while “causing no appreciable harm to the birds.” Jensen, Language Older than Words, 104. In other words, none of that brutal killing, psychological terror, and so on, “harmed” the millions of individual birds who were so struck down, because it didn’t destroy the species.