The Greatest Transformation

Rao, Sailesh | May 3, 2016 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF


This essay is excerpted from the forthcoming book, Carbon Yoga: The Vegan Metamorphosis.

We are in the midst of the greatest transformation in human civilization in the life of our species. But this time, it is not about concentrating more and more power in the hands of a few, but devolving power to the local level in the hands of the many. As such, this is like a metamorphosis and just as in Nature, the Caterpillar has no choice but to become a Butterfly.

Historically, every momentous transformation in human civilization has been accompanied by revolutionary changes in three aspects of human lives [1]:

1) in the way we harness energy;

2) in the way we communicate with each other; and

3) in the foods we eat.

About 200,000 years ago, we:

1) discovered the controlled use of fire;

2) developed spoken language to communicate with each other; and

3) began eating meat from hunted animals because our controlled use of fire allowed us to cook that meat and made it digestible.

Thus began the dominance of patriarchy as male hunters assumed more importance than female gatherers in human societies. The gatherers no longer had to forage over large distances to gather the nutrition needed for human sustenance since the hunters could provide concentrated nutrition in the form of animal flesh. Simultaneously, this transformation strengthened speciesist attitudes within human societies as animals became objects to be killed for human consumption. Thus sexism and speciesism are the core oppressions from which all other oppressions sprung over time. Hierarchy developed within the patriarchy. The victims of sexist oppression, the women, were partly assuaged when they could oppress other species and feel superior to them.

About 10,000 years ago, during the agricultural revolution, we:

1) harnessed the energy of animals such as cows, buffaloes and horses to plough our fields;

2) developed writing in order to communicate with each other; and

3) grew crops of our own liking instead of relying on what Nature provided in the wild.

Instead of humans belonging to Nature, we began acting as if Nature belonged to us. Not only did we enslave work animals to do our bidding, we enslaved the Earth to produce what we desired. In the resulting agricultural revolution, cities were born where the ruling classes did not do the actual work of raising crops but were fed very well. The social hierarchies developed more layers, resulting in other oppressions such as slavery, classism and casteism.

About 200 years ago, we:

1) began to harness fossil fuels for energy;

2) developed the printing press for communication, to disseminate information far more efficiently than with just hand written documents; and

3) re-purposed our domesticated work animals to be raised as just food animals.

We developed machines to plough the fields and didn’t need the work animals anymore for that purpose, but we continued to enslave them anyway just to milk them and eat them. We developed further layers of hierarchy in our social structures to expand the scope of our human enterprise until it bestrode the whole globe, conquering and colonizing any indigenous civilizations that came in our way. The fossil fuels were to be found in specific locations on Earth and we had to create refining, processing and distribution systems for them. The food animals were most efficiently raised in giant factories as if they were widgets, and then processed into meat packages, refrigerated and distributed to the consumers up and down the social hierarchies. A dominant financial sector arose that siphoned off increasingly larger shares of the wealth, simply as a commission for allocating capital efficiently. Oppressions such as colonialism and racism became much more prominent.

And today, we are poised to undergo yet another transformation, the greatest of them all! This time:

1) We are harnessing solar energy directly and rather than being concentrated in a few locations, it is actually falling on our heads almost everywhere.

2) We are using the internet to communicate with each other and it has put the entire accumulated knowledge of all humanity at each and every fingertip.

3) And, we are transitioning out of animal-based foods to plant-based Vegan foods, which can mostly be grown in local farms without having to rely on large animal husbandry operations with giant processing, refrigeration and distribution systems that are currently spread out over half the globe.

Unlike the previous three major transformations that increasingly concentrated power in the hands of a few and strengthened the social hierarchy, what is occurring today is an entirely radical kind of transformation since all three changes devolve power to the local level, where it becomes easier to implement cooperative and consensual decision-making processes.

The devolution of power is already evident in the US. While the US Congress is quite gridlocked and can barely manage to pass continuing resolutions that maintain the status quo, local governments in cities and municipalities, from Detroit to Seattle to Los Angeles to Tempe, have been promoting urban farming, innovative housing solutions, and other such radical changes. Therefore, the transformation that we’re undergoing now is towards a loosely connected global network of densely connected local communities. But, of course, such a revolutionary transformation will need to overcome the resistance of the power elites in the current hierarchical system, who naturally fear the loss of their perceived privileges.

But the transformation is inexorable. The Caterpillar has no choice but to become a Butterfly…

[1] In 2011, Jeremy Rifkin discussed these three drivers in an interview with Een Vandaag entitled On Global Issues and Future of the Planet.

Sailesh Rao is the Executive Director of Climate Healers. An Electrical Systems Engineer by training, with a Ph. D. from Stanford in 1986, Sailesh switched careers after twenty years and became deeply immersed in the spiritual and environmental crises affecting humanity, starting in 2006. He is the author of the 2011 book, Carbon Dharma: The Occupation of Butterflies and is currently working on the follow up book, Carbon Yoga: The Vegan Metamorphosis.

MAHB-UTS Blogs are a joint venture between the University of Technology Sydney and the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to

MAHB Blog:

Last week’s post to the MAHB Blog from Ilan Kelman took a critical look at how the term “transformation” is being used and whether it adds anything to the discourse within sustainability research and movements. The above post focuses on “transformations” –past, present, and forthcoming– and provides an example of the term’s use. In this context, does “transformation” add to the discourse, or would the same message be conveyed by saying “change”?


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  • Very interesting article. Obviously there is a lot to discuss and to question specially about “transitioning out of animal-based foods to plant-based Vegan foods”. But the idea that an intensively diversified source for energy and food and a radically open and broad exchange of ideas and information is the basis of a really democratic society is worth considering seriously.

  • One could argue that hierarchy comes from nature. Most, if not all animals that live in groups have hierarchy dominance systems. Bigger and stronger always gets their way. Male monkeys and apes are bigger than females. The roots of patriarchy strike deep. On the other hand, if you look at contemporary nomadic hunter-gatherers, they are, without exception, egalitarian. Real patriarchy has nothing to do with meat-eating, it has to do with economic surplus that farmers got from agriculture. There is a better argument for associating meat with egalitarianism, monogamy, bigger brain size, and longer human childhoods. When a large animal is caught by hunters, it is often shared and distributed equitably to all other families in the group.

    Veganism is a dead-end religious practice that does more to cut us off from nature. There are carnivores all around us: dogs, cats, wolves, bears, weasels, salmon. They form important parts of food-chains and eco-systems. Industrial agriculture is not sustainable, but agriculture without domesticated animals is also unsustainable.

    • Sailesh Rao

      True, there are carnivores all around us, but we are 7.4 billion strong, weighing over 500M metric tons, which is more than twice the weight of ALL megafauna that existed 10K-100K years ago:
      To top that, our livestock currently metabolize 5 times as much biomass as we do (4.69Gt vs. 0.93Gt):
      Therefore, veganism makes sense if we’re aiming to lighten our tread on this planet and evolve towards a sustainable civilization.

      In the US, as of 2010, according to a Pew Center Research report, 12% of Millennials, 4% of Gen X-ers and 1% of Baby boomers were vegan. Since then, interest in veganism has doubled according to Google trends. The interest is especially strong in the rich countries of the world, which augurs well for its longevity.

      Veganic farming is actually thriving throughout the world. Personally, we are members of a CSA with Sunizona Family farms in Arizona, a veganic farm that has been operating since 1996:

      • It is a pipe-dream to believe that we can support seven or more billion people on Earth indefinitely. It is possible only because we have exploited the energy from fossil fuels. Once they are used up or global warming forces us to stop using them the human population will decline significantly.

        Industrial farming: vast fields of monoculture, gigantic feedlots, and the destruction of natural habitat are all unsustainable. What we need to replace it is smaller more localized economies, greater attention to recycling, and a reacquaintance with our partnership with domesticated animals. Small scale farming is more efficient with animals like chickens, sheep, and goats, etc., than it is without them. They provide meat, eggs, and fertilizer. They recycle food scraps and eat the stubble and leftovers from harvest. The idea of “Capital” comes from the cow, which for a small investment in land provides milk, and the basis for milk products, meat, and hides for leather.

        • Sailesh Rao

          The question is not whether we can support 7 billion humans indefinitely as biomass considerations alone preclude that. The question is whether we can make an intelligent transition towards a sustainable human presence, without requiring apocalyptic events to trigger changes in our behavior.

          Veganism fundamentally signifies a clean break with our past attitudes towards other life forms on Earth, which is why it is so appealing to the younger generation. There is also no question that we can recycle our food waste through composting, as veganic farms routinely do.

          Capitalism needs to be re-imagined as well. As the line in the children’s movie, Cinderella, goes, “Just because it is what is done, doesn’t mean that it is what should be done.”

          • Instead of heading in the direction of purity I believe the most productive way forward is to deepen our understanding of our origins.

          • Sailesh Rao

            In his memorable opus, “Why the West Rules–for Now,” Ian Morris contends that the existential question of our times is
            whether we, as a global civilization, evolve towards utopia or careen
            towards oblivion:


            I’d much rather spend my time figuring out how to do the former than resign myself to the latter. It’s a much more joyful way to live!

            While it’s true that in the past, egalitarian societies did not grow beyond 150 families or so, these days, our trust networks are already vast, thanks to technology and the internet. We trust those with good Amazon ratings, even though we’ve never met them. In Carbon Yoga, I make the case that we now have all the tools needed to evolve a truly egalitarian human society that is in harmony with the natural world, and describe how such an evolution might take place. Veganism is an integral part of it.

          • I remember reading Buckminster Fuller’s book Utopia or Oblivion in the sixties. He was hyper optimistic. I am not so optimistic in the short-term, the next hundred years. I believe we are heading for a new dark ages, but one that we could survive. The problem is that with 7.5 billion humans it is impossible to stay in harmony with nature. Something’s got to give, and unfortunately it will be human population and well-being. I look to ways to see the light at the end of the tunnel, because we are about to enter this side of it whether we like it or not. Believe me, utopia is not going to be happening with death and destruction all around. We need to brace ourselves for the worst and hope for better times in the distant future.

          • Sailesh Rao

            The arithmetic is clear: as far as food is concerned, we are not presenting the profile of 7.5 billion people, but that of 45 billion people since our domesticated animals consume 5 times as much food as all humans do. Since the planet cannot support 7.5 billion people indefinitely, the least we can do is to cut out all that excess consumption so that it buys time for future generations to stabilize and reduce human population gradually.

            The conditions were not right in the sixties to accomplish the necessary system change towards utopia since the internet had not been invented then.

  • Last week’s post to the MAHB Blog from Ilan Kelman took a critical look at how the “transformation” approach is being framed and whether it adds anything to the discourse within sustainability research and movements.

    The above post focuses on “transformations” –past, present, and forthcoming– and seems to support one of Kelman’s points that “transformation” is not inherently good. Rao also illustrates how “transformation” does not occur in a vacuum, it is driven by changes in how we live and has far reaching consequences.

    Do you think “transformation” is useful in terms of an approach? Does knowing we need dramatic changes to human civilization get us closer to realizing them? How can we use examples from the past to guide us going forward?