An intolerable tolerance

Any notion that liberation from mindlessness simply requires information suggests a shallow comprehension of a very complex problem. The nature of being within a system of meaning precludes certain approaches or resistance. Those living within a system of mindlessness (obedience to authority, the Third Reich, nationalism, etc.) have a very difficult time understanding the nature of the problem because from their perspective, the injustice is a necessary part of their existence. Oppression is not only acceptable, but often it is made to be a fundamental part of how we come to know the world.[1]

Maxwell Schnurer does not write to justify the seeming inability of our society or its members to respond to a dire need to change. His essay, rather, appears in an anthology advocating animal liberation, which from a scholarly perspective, shares vegetarian ecofeminist ideas, but puts them into practice.[2]

The challenge Schnurer is dealing with includes system justification, in which the oppressed rationalize the system that oppresses them. The other aspect, the one Schnurer focuses on, is our participation in a system which is oppressive to animals and the environment.[3]

A Facebook friend—and I hope we remain friends—who posts much in favor of veganism, and more recently about the drought in California, has within the last couple days, posted a couple times about the consumerism associated with how women are expected to appear in our society. As right as she is, she’s only taking on part of the problem. Another aspect of this is a double standard: men’s faces are presentable in public without make-up. Men may grow body hair and even facial hair and still appear in public. Women who do this, however, may be subject to severe sanction.

My friend is more focused on the environment. Her response to California’s drought, now set to enter a fourth year, is, in part, to highlight the livestock industry. This position serves an agenda: She is vegan and opposed to the brutality of the livestock industry. But it is also the case that the livestock industry is hugely wasteful of water. It is, in fact, an environmental disaster, both for the resources it consumes—grain and water among them—and the pollution it emits. Compounding this is that we, as a species, are consuming ever more meat, not only as the population grows but as previously poor people, particularly in Asia, become more prosperous. And all of this has been extremely well-documented in publications aimed at both scholars and the general public.[4] Which is to say, there is no excuse for ignorance. If you are paying attention at all, and you consume animal products, you are an egregious and voluntary participant in the destruction of our planet.

And we should be clear: The worst effects of this will probably not occur within my or my friend’s lifetimes (she is, I believe, a little younger than me). We will likely see some pretty spectacular effects. The California drought is almost certainly one.[5] But the worst is almost certainly yet to come, after we die. Which is to say that the people who are most responsible for this suffering will all be safely in their/our graves when it happens.

The relationship between consumerism, the destruction of our environment, and a host of other ills[6] attracts rather less attention. (Which makes it all the more praiseworthy that my friend is calling attention to this.) I think this is because consumerism is, even more so since the early 20th Century,[7] but really since the Neolithic, an intrinsic and essential condition of our system of social organization[8]

When our society itself is at fault, it is insufficient to explain away one’s own extravagance with the planet’s resources by appealing to social necessity. It is necessary instead to discard that society and to try to find another way of organizing ourselves that is in fact sustainable. Urgently.[9]

A significant part of Schnurer’s essay—he identifies himself as Jewish—draws a connection between the Holocaust and animal exploitation.[10] He writes that the Nazis

required large-scale destruction and a bureaucratic system that allowed each person to wash his or her hands of ethical responsibility. What they neeeded most was a populace willing to set aside ethics and compassion when given orders by someone in a position of authority. The six million Jews and tens of thousands of others who were exterminated stand as testament to their intent and their success.[11]

In the same volume, Gary Yourofsky writes that “we must let go of the fantasy that those directly involved in torturing and murdering animals and profiting handsomely from it, will listen to reason, common sense, and moral truth.”[12] As we plow into the earth’s sixth major extinction event,[13] the indictment extends beyond direct participation in animal slaughter to the willingness to set aside ethics even for the sake of living one’s life,[14] that is, to those of us who, in order to function in this society, continue to wreak havoc upon an ecosystem whose slack we have long since exhausted.

Adopting a vegan lifestyle is a necessary but insufficient step in the right direction. Another essential component is the overthrow of the consumerist paradigm. And most fundamental of all, we must free ourselves and the planet from an intensely oppressive system of social organization in which we abuse each other as we do non-human animals and the environment.[15]

I won’t always be diplomatic about this. As I’ve grown older, I’ve become less diplomatic, partly because so many of my own life experiences have not been gentle, and partly because I have increasingly seen the futility of being gentle. To spare people’s feelings is, in a way, to be complicit in the wrongs that they do. I have less and less patience for that. And so should everyone else.

  1. [1]Maxwell Schnurer, “At the Gates of Hell: The ALF and the Legacy of Holocaust Resistance,” in Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? Reflections on the Liberation of Animals, Steven Best and Anthony J. Nocella II, eds. (New York: Lantern, 2004), 108.
  2. [2]Steven Best and Anthony J. Nocella, II, eds. Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? Reflections on the Liberation of Animals (New York: Lantern, 2004).
  3. [3]Maxwell Schnurer, “At the Gates of Hell: The ALF and the Legacy of Holocaust Resistance,” in Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? Reflections on the Liberation of Animals, Steven Best and Anthony J. Nocella II, eds. (New York: Lantern, 2004), 108.
  4. [4]Lindsay Abrams, “The world’s consuming more meat than ever,” Salon, December 4, 2013,; Eliza Barclay, “A Nation Of Meat Eaters: See How It All Adds Up,” National Public Radio, June 27, 2012,; Sylvain Bonhommeau et al., “Eating up the world’s food web and the human trophic level,” abstract, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, December 2, 2013, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1305827110; Felicity Carus, “UN urges global move to meat and dairy-free diet,” Guardian, June 2, 2010,; Alexandra Evans, “UN Expert: Demand for Meat Diverts Food Away From Poor People,” One Green Planet, March 12, 2014,; Roberto A. Ferdman, “How much your meat addiction is hurting the planet,” Washington Post, June 30, 2014,; Michael Allen Fox, “Vegetarianism and Planetary Health,” Ethics and the Environment 5, no. 2 (2000): 163-174; Greta Gaard, “Vegetarian Ecofeminism: A Review Essay,” Frontiers 23, no. 3 (2002): 117-146; James Hansen et al., “Assessing ‘Dangerous Climate Change’: Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature,” PLOS One, 8, no. 12 (December 3, 2013), doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0081648; Livestock Environment and Development Initiative, Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization, 2006).; David Pimentel, “How Does Meat in the Diet Take an Environmental Toll?,” Scientific American, December 28, 2011,; David Pimentel and Marcia Pimentel, “Sustainability of meat-based and Plant-Based Diets and the Environment,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 78, no. 3 (2003),; Peter Scarborough et al, “Dietary greenhouse gas emissions of meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans in the UK,” Climatic Change, June 11, 2014, doi: 10.1007/s10584-014-1169-1; Mark Tran, “Food system that fails poor countries needs urgent reform, says UN expert,” Guardian, March 10, 2014,
  5. [5]Democracy Now! “Meteorologist Jeff Masters: Climate Change Affecting Weather Patterns Regardless of Season,” February 13, 2014,; Democracy Now! “‘This Should Not Come as a Surprise’: Bill McKibben on Global Extreme Weather from U.S. to Sochi,” February 13, 2014,; Suzanne Goldenberg, “Why global water shortages pose threat of terror and war,” Guardian, February 8, 2014,; Eric Holthaus, “Why Californians Will Soon Be Drinking Their Own Pee,” CityLab, June 18, 2014,; Michael T. Klare, “The Gravitational Pull of Planet Carbon: Three Signs of Retreat in the Global War on Climate Change,” TomDispatch, February 13, 2014,; Joe Nelson, “Gloomy prediction on drought at Cal State San Bernardino water conference,” San Bernardino County Sun, August 22, 2014,; Veronica Rocha, “Chance of ‘megadrought’ in U.S. Southwest now 50%, study says,” Chicago Tribune, August 30, 2014,; Southern California Public Radio, “California drought and the polar vortex: ‘New normal’ by 2030?” January 21, 2014,
  6. [6]Anup Shah, “Consumption and Consumerism,” Global Issues, March 6, 2011,
  7. [7]Anup Shah, “Creating the Consumer,” Global Issues, May 14, 2003,
  8. [8]John H. Bodley, Victims of Progress, 5th ed. (Lanham, MD: AltaMira, 2008).
  9. [9]David Benfell, “Change For The Improbable: Change For Human and Non-Human Survival,” September 27, 2013,
  10. [10]Maxwell Schnurer, “At the Gates of Hell: The ALF and the Legacy of Holocaust Resistance,” in Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? Reflections on the Liberation of Animals, Steven Best and Anthony J. Nocella II, eds. (New York: Lantern, 2004), 106-127.
  11. [11]Maxwell Schnurer, “At the Gates of Hell: The ALF and the Legacy of Holocaust Resistance,” in Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? Reflections on the Liberation of Animals, Steven Best and Anthony J. Nocella II, eds. (New York: Lantern, 2004), 122.
  12. [12]Gary Yourofsky, “Abolition, Liberation, Freedom: Coming to a Fur Farm near You,” in Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? Reflections on the Liberation of Animals, Steven Best and Anthony J. Nocella II, eds. (New York: Lantern, 2004), 130.
  13. [13]Dahr Jamail, “Are We Falling Off the Climate Precipice? Scientists Consider Extinction,” TomDispatch, December 17, 2013,; Igor Matutinovié, “An Institutional Approach to Sustainability: Historical Interplay of Worldviews, Institutions and Technology,” Journal of Economic Issues 41, no. 4 (December 2007): 1109-1137; Carl N. McDaniel and David N. Borton, “Increased Human Energy Use Causes Biological Diversity Loss and Undermines Prospects for Sustainability,” BioScience 52, no. 10 (2002): 929-936, doi: 10.1641/0006-3568(2002)052[0929:IHEUCB]2.0.CO;2
  14. [14]Mark Lilla, “Arendt & Eichmann: The New Truth,” review of Hannah Arendt, by Margarethe von Trotta, and Hannah Arendt: Ihr Denken veränderte die Welt [Hannah Arendt: Her Thought Changed the World], ed. by Martin Wiebel, New York Review of Books, November 21, 2013,
  15. [15]David Benfell, “‘We have found the enemy, and he is us’ — and our system of social organization,” March 6, 2013,

Author: benfell

David Benfell holds a Ph.D. in Human Science from Saybrook University. He earned a M.A. in Speech Communication from CSU East Bay in 2009 and has studied at California Institute of Integral Studies. He is an anarchist, a vegetarian ecofeminist, a naturist, and a Taoist.

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