Sustainability – fixing the world for everyone, not just people. Interview with Professor Thomas Aiello of Valdosta State University
Published On: 2023/04/03
Thomas Aiello is a professor of history and Africana studies at Valdosta State University. He is the author of more than twenty books on American history. He holds PhDs in history and anthrozoology, and he also writes about the relationship between humans and animals, in particular the role of speciesism and human supremacy in creating vulnerabilities for nonhuman animals. During the winter semester 2022/2023, he was a visiting professor at the University of Gdansk as part of the Visiting Professors at UG programme.
Aleksander Piskorz: Firstly I would like to ask You how would You describe yourself as a researcher? What do you do throughout Your studies and what are the most important interests?
Thomas Aiello: I Focus on a lot of different things – at first, I am a historian, that was my first PhD. I focused mostly on the history of the Black America- in particular in a systemic injustices of racism. I grew up in American South, where racism was ever present. Most of my books were about that. But in my private life, apart from my academic work, I was always interested in animal rights and vegan activism, things like that. I got very frustrated eventually that I wasn’t really fulfilled doing my work and that I’ve never been good in anything else (chuckles) – the only things I am good at are writing books and teaching (chuckles). So I figured – if there is any way to meld animal work in my professional work? If so, I should do that. That’s why for the last years I’ve been doing a lot of Animal Studies and Anthrozoology. My second PhD was in 2020, delayed to 2021, and it, as relatively new, focused on Anhtrozoology. I didn’t really even know until 2017 or so that this field of studies even existed. It just isn’t that present in my academic field in Georgia. I didn’t really know that this is an option for me, so just after I discovered it I decided to jump to it and try to melt my both interests.
I find it as a great example of how the academia should work. Considering your various points of research and developing both Your main directions of Studies – Anthrozoology and History of Black America – what in Your opinion the “sustainable development” (SD) means and how do You personally understand it?
I see SD on a couple of different tracks. As an historian, I think the SD historically has in it the problems that we had to develop, which are both social and political – there have very clear historical roots. But as an anthrozoologist, I very much see SD as an acknowledged participation of humans in a broader, animal world and seeing us and animals in a way where we, the people, are not an exception from them, animals. I think it works both ways – we can clearly track historically how we got in the place we are now and in the same time, when we track it, we often forget the environmental problems and all the matters we are trying to fix or even hold off. SDGs are not something that just affects individual humans or even other species – in also affects individual animals, just like us. Sustainable development, in that way, means to remember all of the victims of the things we created and to fix them for everybody, not just humans. We are the bad guys in this story – and there are plenty of good guys in it who what nothing to do with that and with our destructive behaviour. Forgetting them is for me something that we simply cannot do.
When we look through Your latest research, papers and speeches, it is clear that You try to put equality between human-based perspective of general development and on non-human beings. Can You develop on it? How did You come to that point?
Coming from the US – we are sustained, but not in the same way we think. We are sustained by inequalities – by particular racial inequalities, but also very much class or gender ones. It kind of props up how we do everything that we do. It all casts a shadow over everything that we’ve done – when you spend a long time understanding those human inequalities that we completely, artificially constructed and created for us and between us as a species, it is not a very big jump to realise that we are doing the same on another, non-human species.
Ever since Linnean classification we assumed that humans are somehow better than any other animals – which seems crazy and wrong for me same as thinking that white people are better then black people in the US. All of these is built on artificial ideas about how our brain works as compares to somebody’s else brain. It makes very little sense, but it became so ubiquitous that is hard for most humans to see the difference – to take non-human animals seriously as beings. If we are going to think about sustainable development in any broader sense, we need not think about ourself as people at the university or people in Poland, but as people on one, single planet – the planet, which is simply a giant, floating ball in a sky with a bunch of different living beings trying to survive on it.
If we only think about ourselves in a human context, we miss the giant point. We are just a small portion of all the people living on this planet – if we actively consider animals as persons as well than we have all the responsibility since we are the ones who destroyed or are still destroying the planet and systematically kill the other species. This systemic act of killing is one of the main drivers of all our climate problems. We have to think about ourselves less as humans and more as animals if we ever want to have more holistic understanding of the problems facing the world.
I think that this holistic way of thinking is the clue for implementation of the SDGs. Clearly there is no coincidence that we more and more refer to biosphere rather than to “world of humans”.
Or only Anthropocene…
Exactly. This this the next thing I would like to ask You. In Your papers and speeches You present a strong disagreement with the idea of Anthropocene – meant as a presenting people as the middle of the general concept. Do You think that this semantic and philosophical change of putting animals or biosphere first is a better approach to our modern challenges?
I definitely agree with that, but it is going to take some grassroots-work to get people outside the universities to understand, right?
Because this dissent is now purely academic.
Yes, absolutely. I mean – we can trace such problems historically and really, most, like not all the problems we have now, were caused not longer than 150 years ago. This is relatively very new phenomenon which started with the process of industrialization, but than was really ratcheted up when we started factory farming in 1930s, 40s and 50s. That has put an exclamation point on a sentence of degradation in the world. We really know, form historical point of view, what we have done and how it happened, how we were able to destroy almost everything. Especially when we look at our past decisions specifically on how and how many animals we kill. That became the ultimate driver of a lot of these problems. We have to face the reality – the giant chunk of all of our environmental problems are created by the systematic way we kill animals to eat them later. Stoping that will stop so many other environmental problems without even completing many of the SDGs!
I have to say – there is a regrettable, but real divide between animal rights people and environmental rights people. We don’t always get along with each other. We should, of course – we have ultimately the same goals – but the SDGs f. ex. mostly consider things like species loss and things like this but they don’t always take the perspective of the individual lives of animals like the animal rights people do.
But do You see this factor as the main disadvantage od the concept of SDGs? What I understand from You is that we can call the SDGs as “okay, but..” (chuckles)
No, no. We have enough challenges where we can translate our academic work that we do on those animal and environmental issues to the general public who is really a main driver on how we are going to solve all our problems without disagreeing with each other. We need to have some kind of general consensus. We will never get a total consensus in the university setting – and we shouldn’t, we should always be debating – but there should be some level of generally assumed precepts that we can bring to the general public who does not have those same assumptions. We need to put them into language that everybody can understand.
But unfortunately I really fear for us. I mean – I come from a country where more then 30 % of the population does not agree on putting the masks on during COVID…
Same or even worse in Poland (chuckles)
… so what shall we do when people do not accept that thing, what about their broader consideration of saving their own lives? What I really wish them to do is to completely give up animal-based food products. But fortunately it turns out that people in the general public happen to be more and more interested in those topics and listen to those argument – less because of their interest on the lives of the individual animals but more because of their understanding of their role in all our environmental problems we have today.
What You say mean that in general we gain more and more consciousness about our current situation. We surely know that such awareness is much more debatable outside our academic box. Now I would like to talk about one of Your latest books. In 2017 You published “Tyranny of architecture”, in which you focuse on “philosophical defense of veganism”. Do You think that we should start to think about the problem of animal consumption form moral, ethical, philosophical point of view? I see Your book as a great start for the broader discussion by showing to readers that philosophically we, people and animals, are not that different.
To follow on that, first we need to see that all of our societies are historically built on systemic inequalities, as I mentioned before. We’ve seen in a climate crisis that the people, who are economically of racially most vulnerable are the ones who feel the effects the most. We can prove very conclusively that those systemic injustices have played out in the climate crisis in a real way. The people who are least affected or people in places like Europe or in the US suffer form these changes, but not in the same way like people losing their islands for example. We can see that those inequalities have played out in it, but the greatest of all the systemic injustices is the species one, because for all the problems that we created for the poor, the marginalised, the racially different and all the others in the human world – we see how they affect on them. In the same time what we still do and we don’t see is that we kill billions of animals with the “B” every year in all these meat or dairy-products factories. We just go thru it and treat them horribly, we subject them to the worse scenario we can possibly imagine. The only reason we do that is the idea of human supremacy. We assume that they are less than us. It has no basis in any kind of science – it is just a tradition that we always assumed.
Is it fully human-invented concept that we followed for years?
Exactly. It’s weird because our evolution gave us the ability to reason, to think morally about various concerns – we achieved that in the same way lions got claws and teeth, hawks go talons and so on. We got the ability to reason things out. Lions very much use their claws, hawks use their talons – we, however, tend to suspend our reason or moral thinking on those things. We don’t actually use the evolutionary gifts we were given. If we did that, sustainable development wouldn’t really be a problem. I mean – why would just be doing things we evolved to do. We are the only species who is not using its evolutionary gifts. If anything – we should be paradoxically much lower on this scale of animal being. We are just not doing things correctly as animals. The reason for that is… an architecture. We seat here in a building, that is just one piece of earth moved to another place. But just because we moved it here we decided that’s all of this means “civilisation”, “fancy”… we are just still here on Earth like all the other animal beings. What we do is to trick ourselves. We essentially cover it up, we put a veil on the actual world and that is why it’s so hard to actually see it for the general public. We cant see us as the part of the whole thing rather than rulers of it. If we don’t realise this we won’t be able to get out of it soon.
So how would You describe the manifestation of SDGs in regards to all You said? The situation you described gives us rather a gloomy perspective on how we perform in the light of philosophical understanding of the environmental problems. Most of the concepts you mentioned are still a part of academic discussion, not a general knowledge popular among non-academics…
First of all, I think all of the goals of the SDGs are great – even if they don’t deal with directly with animals the way I would like them to. The reality is that animals are no. 1 victims of all problems mentioned in the SDGs. That’s the problem – they die in much greater masses than even the poorest human populations when it comes to climate changes. Basically anything we can do to stop or minimize it is good. But my criticism of the SDGs is based on their human-centralized perspective – they are performed in a way which presents people as a group beyond all others. If you are not making part of your goals the elimination of unnecessary animals’ death – which would drastically solve most of the problems – you can’t succeed. For an animal person like me it just rings a little hollow (chuckles). If we just dealt with factory farming….
You seem to be someone who already know the answers for our problems, but what I see as the main issue is to ask these general questions publicly, widely among non-academics.
Yes, because this is the result of very particular reason. The two places that are the most hidden for the society are prisons and slaughterhouses – and there is a reason for that, because we just don’t want to see all that cruelty.
It bothers us.
Exactly. We don’t seem to bother seeing exhaustion fumes coming out of the cars or factories. We can see clearly the ugliness of such behaviour, causing the degradation of our environment, our world… We can still our politicians or representatives making ridiculous decisions that end up harming a lot of people and biosphere. That kind of things come to our minds quite easily when the real problems are happening behind the curtains, at these factory farms, slaughterhouses and so on. There are hidden intentionally from us. I think one of the main goals of academia is to shine a light on things that are not often talked about or seen by the general public. The university is simply a knowledge factory that is essentially developing knowledge, pushing it down to students and then pushing it up to the world through books, papers etc. One of the things we need to do is to show what behind those curtains – in this case, what behind the animal agriculture. That’s the most important factor of the climate change for animal people.
And it’s statistically most significant.
Of course, there are the main drivers of climate change. Even more importantly – it kills people after all! It finally always hurt people, like the ones who have to take all these jobs in the farming industry are in the same moment the most marginalised people who are going to be affected by the climate change and our decisions.
You managed to answer for my next question, which was meant to deal with the idea of how the academia and higher education can help us in implementing those changes, described by You and the SDGs. However I would intentionally ask You whether all the actions done by the academics and the universities – lectures, papers, books – are enough? Do we put enough effort? This is the moment of the one of the most crucial turning point in the history of humankind and human development.
This is a great question and the answer is… probably not enough, but I think it is just what we can really do. I think that’s probably our role in much larger, global way. In the US, back in the 1950, there were no courses on Black American history. There were no programs dedicated to the history of development of Black America on how Black people built the US, literally – both physically, but also culturally, socially etc. Nothing like that. There was a sustained push over series of years by the black students that said “If you’re not teaching Black Studies, you are not really understanding Your own country”. It took a long time, but it finally worked and at the end of 1960s we started to introduce in the US the programs of teaching the Black America history. There was also a moment that we were taught only about rich, powerful, white men – then social historians came and said “Well, you know, that’s not how it actually worked, we need to talk about all the people – women, minorities etc.”. It also took a long time but now in the XXI century we have it established as regular fields of historical studies.
All those became essentials of historians’ research and methodology.
Yes – you can’t ignore it when you want to research anything nowadays. Starting in the 1990s., we started to ask all those questions in regard to animals in the academia. We call the research as “humanities” to emphasize that we study Humans, because there are all that matters. The challenge to that started in the 90s and we are still in the process of this, of getting to this point when histories of other species, dispossessed groups are the norm of studies. Now we have Animal Studies as an academic programme on dozens of universities and it is still growing rapidly. I think that one of the goals for academia is to make sure that these things are in our curriculum.
We all have to make sure that all what is behind the curtains bothers as same or even more than all these things we see on regular basis. When we pass fastfood bars we need to realise that they do much worst things overall then cars passing by. It would be great to include that in our systemic changes. It’s great that we put such effort on electric vehicles, that some universities try to focus on only-electric vehicles, solar and wind power, stuff like that – those are all amazingly good things and it should be still done. However, if there is a fastfood bar like on the corner of the campus, it still won’t be enough. It becomes a part of generally assumed landscape which does not bother us anymore -that’s wrong.
As an animal person, my goal would be to focus, when we think as a community and as a university, on how we can change ourselves as a community in favor of being carbon neutral and also getting animal products out of the universities. You will never be a carbon-neutral community if you still serve animal-based foods and drinks.