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"The Sacredness of All Living Beings"
An Interview with Ecologist, Filmmaker and Author Michael Tobias
By Michael K. Pastore

Michael Tobias is the author of more than 25 books, and the writer-director-producer of more than 100 films — including the acclaimed 28-part series A Parliament of Souls, the ten-hour dramatic miniseries Voice of the Planet, and such other productions as Ahimsa-NonViolence, Black Tide, Antarctica — The Last Continent, A Day in the Life of India, A Day in the Life of Ireland, and World War III. Most recently he finished his two hour movie-of-the week for ABC, The Sky's On Fire, a kind of "China Syndrome" of ozone depletion based upon his novel Fatal Exposure. Tobias has lived in India on and off for 25 years (he co-founded a major film studio in Mumbai devoted to socially conscious production and programming) and is currently involved in some 50 film projects around the world. Tobias has conducted extensive research in a dozen fields, lived and roamed with various tribes, stayed in monasteries in Tibet, Japan, Nepal, Bhutan, Greece and the Sinai Peninsula, climbed mountains (often first ascents) on every continent, and traveled to some 80 countries, usually with film teams. Throughout this personal and artistic odyssey, he has been a fearless advocate for vegetarianism and for the rights of all living things.

Tobias's stunning facts and original ideas — about animal rights, human overpopulation, the education of children, sustainable development, and so much more always surprised me, and often moved me to the point of tears. Talking with Tobias, especially amidst a background of the joyous cries and wild songs of exotic birds (he and his wife Jane maintain an animal sanctuary at their home), is an extraordinary experience. Very quickly it struck me that I was listening to that vanishing species known as "a hero": a human being with a wholly compassionate heart who is doing everything in his power to help our fragile Earth.

Michael K. Pastore: When the Russian writer Maxim Gorki first met the great Leo Tolstoy, he wrote these words about Tolstoy: "He had enough energy for three lifetimes." The same seems to apply to Michael Tobias. The quality and quantity of what you've accomplished — in filmmaking and authorship alone — seems like the work of at least three persons.

Michael Tobias: To be honest with you, I have no work ethic. I don't believe in work. I'm probably the laziest human being I've ever met, save for hammock-doting indigenous friends in the Amazon. I believe in a live ethic, not a work ethic. Everything I do is simply the outgrowth of a burning love within. Love for — well — nearly everything and everyone. I think that Nikos Kazantzakis once remarked (in his autobiography, Report to Greco) that what interested him was not human beings but the flame that burns in human beings. I think that we sleep when we're dead, dreaming our reincarnations. So while we're alive in this life we might as well embrace and enjoy it fully, and keep it burning as brightly as possible. There's so much to do in this generation. I was just listening to Jimmy Carter the other night and he was describing some of the efforts of the Carter Center involvement in over 70 conflicts — civil wars which are now brewing, entirely outside the purview of the United Nations charter. All that horror in addition to the escalating outbreak of abuse at every level of family and community. It's amazing the world hasn't already bled to death. And it certainly challenges those of us afflicted with that incurable disease known as "trying to save the world." To be crude, it's like peeing into the sea to change the tide. Nonetheless, to be an artist today, at a time of such peril and critical need, is to be socially conscious. Otherwise, it is a useless passion, to quote Jean Paul Sartre.

MKP: Your new novel, Rage and Reason is captivating as a story, and a deep meditation about the problem of how we should respond to evil in our world. There are some facts and descriptions in the novel that border on the unbelievable. Your book says in the United States alone, some seven billion animals are eaten every year. Is that true?

MT: That's a vast understatement. I was trying to bend over backwards to be conservative. There's nine billion chickens alone that are slaughtered, just in the US each year. And that does not begin to intimate the slaughter of turkeys, pigs and piglets, horses, goats, sheep, mules, and — of course — darling cows and calves. Nor does that even vaguely factor into the hundreds of millions of animals assassinated by hunters each year; the pets abused by owners; the hundreds of millions of animals mowed down on highways (the third largest source of animal obliteration in America, after meat eating and hunting), or trapped in oil pools left uncovered by corporations; the pet trade that flourishes at the expense of magical, gorgeous, sensitive, brilliant avians who are dispatched like luggage from location to location, spending their lives desperately caged. I would wager — and this is a vast guess — that there are hundreds of billions of living souls exterminated each year by Homo sapiens. We are the true monsters in the universe. Sorry to break the news.

MKP: It's incredible that these things are really happening in our country.

MT: It happens in every country. Animals who are helpless, who have no voice and can't fight back are fair game for human cruelty. In the name of science, in the name of religion, in the name of food consumption and sheer sadism, we have seen and we continue to see, the most unbelievable crimes against nature.

MKP: Nikos Kazantzakis has written, "If the soul within us does not change, the world outside us will never change."

MT: Despite the chaos that we have engendered in the name of human comfort and ego, we also have this magnificent opportunity to engender a new nature. It's obvious that we must change radically, if biodiversity is to survive. The survival of life on earth is at stake here. That's what we're talking about. Nothing more, nothing less.

MKP: There are all these miraculous living things around us, and we don't appreciate them, or even know them.

MT: We all grew up with Doctor Dolittle. Every childhood sensibility knows that we live in a secret garden, surrounded by the most spectacular "extra- terrestrials" in the universe, and they're in our backyard. There's 22 billion mysterious strangers in every human armpit (bacteria). There's seven million of them in our eyelashes (follicle mites). In every pinch of soil, millions of organisms. On a single tree in a rainforest, hundreds of different species. And we don't seem to care, let alone argue for moral status for these creatures. We simply don't know or even want to know anything about them. And hence, our feeling centers have been intellectually, morally coopted. Polls say that something like 90% of all people in the world declare themselves to be environmentalists. What does that mean? There was, for example, a rather hotly debated topic in the Sierra Magazine some years ago, with regard to the question: Does a true environmentalist have to be a vegetarian?

MKP: You've argued convincingly that the answer to this question is yes.

MT: I don't like to come down too heavy on people. I believe that everyone has to change in his or her own way, and that's going to happen regardless. You can't preach nonviolence with your left hand and kill with your right hand, and get away with it for very long. You can fool some people some of the time, but you can't fool yourself, you can't fool your own soul, which is the bottom line.

MKP: Let me ask you the question I've been almost afraid to ask. The population of planet Earth is very close to six billion human beings, and 92 million new persons are added every year. How is the world doing? Is this the best of times or the worst of times?

MT: It's the worst of times. There's no question about it because there's more people on the planet that suffer than ever before. Of course, someone's going to say: "Oh, come on, there's more people in the world to inspire, and to have fun, and to love life and to do all the good things and to do everything right" and that's also true. But let's get serious. Look around at the more than one billion children who are hungry. A billion people, a billion children, who are hungry.

MKP: When I read that number in your book, I dropped the book and I said to myself, "That can't be right. There can't be one billion hungry children."

MT: It's right. That's a World Health Organization statistic as of a year ago. And that's just children, up to the age of five. That's not their parents or older siblings.

MKP: You've made me think of William Blake's lines: "A dog starved at its master's gate, predicts the ruin of the state."

MT: Precisely. Here we are, the richest nation in history, yet we refuse to allocate congressional funds to protect our national parks from poachers. National Parks are supposed to be oases, the last chance for animals. And they're not. I just finished writing a book that's coming out in September, with John Wiley & Sons in New York, entitled Nature's Keepers: On The Front Lines Of The Fight To Save Wildlife in America. It's a diagnosis of the trials and tribulations inherent to the whole imperfect system of wildlife protection in America, and the rest of the world. While the book celebrates some of those rare, courageous men and women who are fighting as lawyers and as US Fish and Wildlife agents to preserve what's left, it points despairingly to the greater truth, which is the fact that these people are outnumbered, outfinanced, and outgunned by poachers. There are 235 US Fish and Wildlife agents in this country. And that's all. And they are charged with maintaining, overseeing, and catching all those who are transgressing against wildlife. The trade in endangered species is now estimated at somewhere between 10-to-30 billion dollars worldwide, and Americans are the number one consumers of such products. The most glaring discrepancy in the pursuit of this illegal and heartbreaking activity can be gleaned from a single fact: The man/woman power delegated by Congress to protect America's wildlife consists of a mere 235 special agents. That would be the equivalent of expecting one individual to patrol an area three times the size of Los Angeles, across the United States. There are more than 13,000 police officers in Chicago, and that's just to patrol Chicago. There's only 235 to protect all the wildlife in America. So, if a country as rich as America has that little interest in protecting god's creation, yes, it is the worst of times.

MKP: I've been thinking about the connection between vegetarianism, and the rights and lives of animals. How does vegetarianism help to improve the quality of a person's life?

MT: There are so many ways to answer that. Number one, meat eating, from the spiritual point of view, has karmic consequences that I would be immodest to even begin to predict. Forget the medical consequences which have long been proven by an armada of reasonable and responsible experts. The changes in the USDA recommendations have been dramatic, and have favored non-meat eating, for dozens of reasons which have to do with cholesterol, unhealthy fat characteristics and the sheer reality of our Homo-specific digestive system (which is by no means adept at processing meat). Meat languishes in our intestines for nine days until it's fully processed, and during that period the toxins accumulate, and percolate to every part of our body. There are countless medical reasons for turning away from flesh. Diet for A New America many years ago catalogued them quite effectively. It was nominated for a Pulitzer prize.

MKP: And how does it help the world ecologically when people practice vegetarianism?

MT: From an ecological standpoint, the consumption of meat implies the growing of cattle. The growing of cattle require range land, grasslands. The raping of rainforests in Central America, and in Indonesia, and in other parts of the world in order to raise cattle, has meant the destruction of a vast proportion of biodiversity, in exchange for hamburger patties. And with the razing of those forests, the injection into the upper atmosphere of vast amounts of methane and carbon dioxide has resulted. That, in turn, has fostered global warming, and with it, the desiccation of the coral reefs, and the rampant wildfires currently being witnessed across the globe — from Florida to Brazil to Borneo. The meat industry of course has contributed hugely to global warming. This is an insane vicious cycle that hinges upon the unbelievable slaughter of precious beings. The weight of ecological burdens that go into a pound of hamburger are disproportionate to the gains, by a long shot. And these are all ecological factors that must be taken into consideration.

MKP: When you step into a butcher shop in a country like Greece, you see the animal carcasses dangling from the ceiling, but when you go to buy meat in America, everything is wrapped up in a nice tidy package.

MT: We fancy-wrap, we dress up our mayhem in this country. We anesthetize murder. We shrug our shoulders and walk on. If every child could view a slaughterhouse, as I did, they would change their minds about succumbing to the temptations of their peers at school, or their parents at home around the dinner table.

MKP: Do you see tremendous changes ahead in the 21st century?

MT: I see in the coming century a new nature, a new generation of hearts and minds; people who recognize that all life forms are equal. Under whatever god that you care to recognize, or under no god, it doesn't matter. They will ultimately acknowledge a living, breathing, ultrarelevant credo in their hearts that demands absolute respect for all life forms. That's coming. It might be 25 years, or 125 years, but its coming. Right now, we are driving between 70 and 800 species to extinction, or the brink of extinction — EVERY DAY! Versus a natural background rate for extinction of 3 species, approximately, every million years. That discrepancy — the greatest sign of our insanity รถ should be front page news of every newspaper, everyday. It isn't. Why?

MKP: What is the new vision that we need to wake up to?

MT: We've still got a long ways to go to make Americans and the rest of the world realize that all animals have passionate lives, that they are individuals, that their souls are magnificent, that they are brilliant, that they have languages that we will never understand unless we make a concerted effort to learn them. We need a Berlitz of ethology. We need to realize in our hearts, not just our heads, that they have everything to teach us if only we will listen to them, that they are our best friends, that they love us, and that we need to love them. That the greatest mysteries that we will ever come to know in our brief lives are those that reside within the hearts and minds of other species. And that the greatest poetry of experience is no more complicated than the song of the meadowlark, or the quiet shedding of the skin of a snake, or the almost unbelievable silence of an elephant snail crawling through a moist rainforest.

MKP: Part of the problem, I think, is that when we live in the large cities we're too cut off from the natural world to appreciate it.

MT: There was a study done on contact with nature. Unfortunately, the average amount of time that the average American spends in the wild, in his or her lifetime, is 19 minutes.

MKP: I was wondering if this century is unique because it's more urgent that we make choices and take action now?

MT: Of course. More is at stake. The population conference in Cairo in 1994 that the UN sponsored revealed quite clearly (in spite of the Vatican's archaic position) that in the next ten years we are either going to lose control of the population crisis, or take control. And this stark revelation is predicated upon the knowledge that several billion young people are poised to enter into their fertile years. And if they cannot be reached with the message of birth control, and responsible parenthood, then they're going to push the population explosion into a realm of science fiction. And we will probably achieve a number — and I say achieve in the most pejorative sense — of 15 billion in the next century. Fifteen billion consumers.

MKP: Fifteen billion, and more on the way from there.

MT: We are near the point of no return, demographically. And even though there have been several dozen countries whose populations have begun to shrink, the majority of the nearly 200 countries in the world are not following that pattern. And the United States is not following that pattern. We're the most blatant consumer on Earth, of course. Japan is shrinking, Germany and Spain and Italy and several other countries, as well. But India and China are exploding. Just those two countries will number four billion by late in the next century — more people than existed on the entire planet when I was born. Keep in mind that at the time of Karl Marx, there were a mere one billion people on earth; at the time of Christ, 250 million. What will our species be like when we're 15 billion? We won't be human, in my estimation. We are out of control demographically. To quote Boris Pasternak: "We are like a locomotive barreling through the dark night with our headlights turned inward."

MKP: The term "sustainable development" is cropping up more and more these days. What is sustainable development? Is it a solution to some of the problems that we've been talking about?

MT: The health of our children is a tremendous barometer for whether we're doing things right or wrong. That health is measured according to their happiness, their educational opportunities, their physical health, their diet, their ability to be free — free of abuse, free of curtailment, free of drugs, free of crime, free of violence, free of tyranny. Our children are perhaps our best indicators for the kinds of choices we should be making.

MKP: It sounds as if you are saying that love and children sit at the foundations of the notion of sustainable development.

MT: Correct. Every community must confront principles of ecology, if they are to ensure a healthy environment for the kids. I mean, a healthy environment for everyone, but I signify this process by alluding to the children, who are the most vulnerable sectors of any population. They breathe seven times more rapidly than their parents, which means they take in seven times more air pollution. They are more at risk from every peril. Among all the competing imperatives, our single most priority should be the protection, the love, the nurturance of every child, each fledgling, of every single species — and all species are equal on earth. And you can quote me on that. It's terribly true that there will be profoundly disturbing choices that we must confront: whether to give condoms to mothers in Ecuador or Somalia; to provide direct funding for AIDS research, or AIDS victims; the saving of a young baboon or an old man. These are interspecies "Sophie's Choices" that we must urgently find ways to circumvent through wisdom, prudence and, above all else, the Jain model of nonviolence and compassion and tolerance. I am a passionate believer in Jainism. We must find ways — and there are Jain models aplenty — for discovering the middle ground of sustainable, interspecies harmony.

MKP: Agriculture is connected with all this, isn't it?

MT: Sustainable agriculture. The total systemic approach to farming that includes using organic fertilizers; relinquishing all artificial pesticides and insecticides; multi-cropping; long fallow periods. The principles that have been advocated for so many years by Wendell Berry in Kentucky, the great literary farmer; and of course Wes Jackson, at the Land Institute in Kansas. There's a vast literature coming from Cuba on organic farming where they have been forced to recognize the limited carrying capacity of their island. The cooperatives in Denmark, the US, Australia, and elsewhere, triggered by the so called Ithaca-hours programs, have also been instrumental in showing us the way forward towards an effective barter society that relies upon local product, local labor, and sustainable activities with regard to environmental virtue. But I would caution you when speaking about sustainability: what is it we are trying to sustain? Those who speak of wildlife and habitat as "a resource" are misguided. The life force is not a resource. Individuals — with individual souls — are not a resource. Sustainability, in its most fundamental definition — refers to sustaining a life. By that definition, nations and communities, and individuals had better be prepared for a lifetime of due diligence and compassion.

MKP: We were speaking earlier about the harmony of human beings and nature, a very old idea that's making a tremendous comeback.

MT: To reach harmony is going to require nothing short of presidential behavior in each of us, in terms of how we re-engineer our industries, our processing, packaging and transport; our micromanagement, our aspirations, our greed, how we modify our expectations, and how we include those who've been unincluded up until now, both human and non-human.

MKP: In your book World War III, you write about the very important inner dimension of sustainability.

MT: Sustainability, ultimately, refers to the ecology of conscience. Because if your heart is in the right place, then every choice you make, and every new problem you tackle will be pursued with an orientation that is ethical, that is egalitarian, that is pre-meditated with the best goals in mind for the most number of individuals of all species. We must lose all moral hierarchies. Try to live, even for a day, on an equal footing with the bugs, the birds, the lizards, and your worst enemy. It is possible. If for a day, then why not for a lifetime? That implies not profit, that implies not merely jobs, but the right kinds of jobs. And money that is well-conceived, profits that are nobly achieved. Blood money is of no interest, ultimately. Blood money comes back to haunt you. Societies that are founded, or communities that are founded, on industries that rape and pillage will be obsolete sooner or later, and they will leave a legacy of disasters. I'm speaking of sustainability of the heart, not just the purse.

MKP: There's a Turkish proverb that says: "No matter how far you've traveled on the wrong road, turn back." Do you think we have a lot of turning back to do?

MT: There are major cleanup efforts going on everywhere, and that's all part of sustainable development. We have so much money in this country, if we would only get our priorities straight and tax ecological abusers, and use that money to support and encourage loyal ecological businesses, we would be in much better shape. The Tobin Tax has been advocated, for example, which would place a tax on all international stock transactions, which would bring in, they believe, about $150 billion a year that could be applied to environmental restitution. That in itself would be a gigantic windfall when you look at the scarce dollars which in fact are applied towards environmental remediation.

MKP: You've made a film about a revolutionary breakthrough in the development of a clean, non-polluting source of energy: hydrogen fuel cells.

MT: The hydrogen fuel cell revolution is another example of probably the most successful model for sustainable development in energy production that exists on the planet. And every community could benefit from the hydrogen fuel cell revolution. Every building could become its own utility plant, and generate just the amount of energy it needs, totally sustainable without impacting adversely on nature or on the community. I heard recently that the Chicago Transit Authority was considering the prospect of transforming city buses into hydrogen fuel cell buses. In Montreal, they've gone part way — with hythane public transportation (part hydrogen, part natural gas); in Munich, at LAX, in West Vancouver, there are other prototypes. Tokyo Gas & Power utilizes a fuel cell, and there are a dozen other companies pursuing the technology, in concert with new research from the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, and with the revolution in electrolyzers which use an electrical source to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Most interesting of all, the hydrogen fuel cell revolution would prove to be one of the most effective forms of birth control on the planet, because it would put two billion people onto the electric grid and — as family planners have long understood — when people have television, and refrigeration, and hence reliably cooled vaccines, and thus better health standards, they make fewer babies.

MKP: Lester Brown has defined a sustainable society as: "A society that satisfies its needs without diminishing the prospects of future generations."

MT: That's right, absolutely. And it's essential to understanding the impact we're having as human beings on planet earth, which is the key criterion for assessing overpopulation. So these are all aspects of sustainable development.

MKP: Suppose a person wakes up one morning and looks in a mirror, and says to himself or herself: "Today I'm going to begin to help make the world a better place." What can that one person do to help the world?

MT: If people want to help the world, they've got to expand their notion of the world to accommodate as many beings as possible. That person can certainly think about adopting a child as opposed to giving birth to one. That person can certainly volunteer for animals, and the environment, and human rights. That person certainly can dedicate time, to emailing letters right and left all over the world to people in power and government and industry who need to hear from us, about various issues, countless issues. That person can donate money, as well. That person can try the impossible, dream the impossible in terms of creating his/her own eco utopia — even if it consists of a single action, or a community concept, a school, a bookstore, a green business, animal sanctuaries and shelters (what the Jains call "panjorapors") — anything that imbibes the spirit of giving and of ecological integrity. And, by example, such endeavors will inspire others to join in on behalf of Mother Nature. That's true community.

MKP: You were telling me about the parrot you rescued from a detestable cage in a mechanic's garage in Central Los Angeles. I'm trying to imagine the joy of that bird, when it realized that it was now living in a place where it would be safe and cared for.

MT: It was tearful. Human beings can liberate animals. They can free animals. They can bring animals into their lives. They can rescue animals. They can rescue children. They can rescue old people from the castaway society of America which banishes so many of our elder statesmen and women to old folks homes where they're ignored or treated like invalids. There's so much we can do on a daily basis to extend our love to those around us. That is what we must do. That is why we were born. That is why we're probably living now at this time. To do everything we can to reverse the brutality of society as it is evolved currently. And it is brutal.

MKP: Are we living in the most brutal era in history?

MT: It is without precedent in its brutality. This century has witnessed the most horrible wrongdoings in the annals of biology. And we're living at the unspeakable zenith of that century. We're living with the recent memories of the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Armenian massacres, and the Serbian massacres. We are living, breathing repositories of one horror after another — 250,000 bloody conflicts since the time of the Renaissance, billions of people massacred. That is not the solution to overpopulation, by the way. In fact, a body of extraordinary data reveals that the more wars, disease and famine, the greater the succeeding population booms. A century after the Medieval Black Plagues which wiped out a third of the human population between Iceland and India, human numbers rebounded threefold. And if we can't digest that, and learn from history, and wake up tomorrow and do everything differently in our power... to give unconditional love to everyone, then we too will be lost to the long, anonymous night of invisible background radiation. Meaningless cosmic anomalous dust (at least by our current concept of "meaning"); as if we would never have existed in the first place. As if all that pain and suffering which we have inflicted were for nothing — no spiritual gain, no advance of wisdom, no memory of the victims. No honor. No faith. No passion. I, for one, would sorely miss the memory of Beethoven, and Aristophanes, of Li Ch'eng and Rabbi Hillel; of Mahavira and Sultan Muhammed; of Christ and Buddha and Van Gogh and Marc Chagall. Of butterflies and Santa Claus. And, most of all, I would miss my family and many friends. I would miss the mystery and liberation of love, and the possibilities of love. . We have it in our power. It's up to us to choose: violence or nonviolence. Total love, or total destruction.

MKP: It's a choice.

MT: It is a choice.

MKP: What final thought or thoughts would you like to leave in the minds of your viewers and readers?

MT: Evolution does not condemn or liberate us, only our choices can do that.

Copyright (c) 1998 by Michael K. Pastore. All rights reserved.

Michael K. Pastore can be reached via Youthtopia website, http://www.youthtopias.org

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