“With great power comes great responsibility” – Elan Abrell – Anthropologist & Author – Sentientism Episode 154

Find our Sentientist Conversation here on the Sentientism YouTube and here on the Sentientism Podcast.

Elan is a cultural anthropologist focusing on human-animal interactions, environmental justice, and food politics. He is assistant professor of the practice in environmental studies and coordinator of the animal studies minor at Wesleyan University. He is the author of the Gregory Bateson Prize winning book: “Saving Animals: Multispecies Ecologies of Rescue and Care“. He also contributed a chapter called “The Empty Promises of Cultured Meat” to the book “The Good it Promises, the Harm It Does: Critical Essays on Effective Altruism“.

In Sentientist Conversations we talk about the two most important questions: “what’s real?” & “what matters?”

Sentientism is “evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” The audio is on our Podcast here on Apple & here on all the other platforms.

We discuss:

00:00 Welcome
01:25 Elan’s Intro

  • Cultural anthropology and teaching animal studies “my favourite thing to teach!”
  • Appearing on Knowing Animals & Our Hen House
  • Working with Kathryn Gillespie

02:42 What’s Real?

  • Raised mostly #secular
  • Dad believed in #reincarnation
  • At 12yrs old becoming aware of major religions & thinking “probably none of them are right”
  • “Materialist with a small ‘m’, empiricist with a small ‘e'”
  • “Probably when we die, we die… that just makes our lives more poignant & important”
  • Being given a bible stories book by a #jehovahswitness “this god person is really cruel… like a villain”
  • “Reassuring in a humbling kind of way… I’m a tiny part of this vast universe… we’re no less important for that”
  • “Mildly #agnostic… I know that I don’t know”
  • Not spiritual but “a certain sense of wonder”
  • An #ayahuasca retreat. Most others talked of “spiritual” experiences. “I felt pretty in touch with the particles of the universe… I don’t have any anthropomorphic encounters to explain I just felt deeply in touch with creation and appreciative that I’m a part of it… that went down like a lead balloon.”
  • Ego dissolution… “the seed of #sentience … that I share… with other animals”

17:00 What Matters?

  • #comics : “#spiderman was my favourite super-hero… with great power comes great responsibility” (vs. #judgedredd and “law and order” 🙂 )
  • “We have an obligation to help each other when we can”
  • Fairness: “Some people’s extra benefit isn’t really worth anybody else’s suffering”
  • “I don’t have a #utilitarianism perspective of maximising pleasure… but for each individual who experiences the world they deserve to have minimal suffering & maximal enjoyment of life”
  • Understanding bad actions that may be a response to trauma or desperation – not bad ethics
  • “An openness to understanding what might be motivating people even in conflicts”
  • Neil Levy: “Why bad beliefs happen to good people”
  • Peter Singer (future Sentientism guest – forthcoming episode)
  • Ethical pluralism: #care/#virtue/#deontological/relational ethics as long as all sentient beings get to count “that’s exactly right”
  • #elonmusk & the ethics of self-driving cars “it’s deeply flawed if you can take individual lives & throw them away without their consent because you think it will actually benefit more people in the long run”
  • #consequentialism
  • Risks of utilitarianism: aggregating, offsetting, replacement, maximisation, ends justifying means, epistemic / ethical uncertainty & risk

26:21Who Matters?

  • Beyond #anthropocentrism
  • Growing up “having relationships with members of other species”
  • “It always struck me as silly – the idea that other animals don’t have emotions & feelings & experiences… some things feel intuitive to a child’s mind… you almost need to think your way out of it.”
  • Solipsism & other people being “NPCs” (non-player characters)
  • Diverse experiences within & across species
  • Matti Wilks “children are much less speciesist than adults”
  • Delci Winders “we met in high school & she explained to me why she is #vegan… that day… I have to be vegan”
  • “I felt an absolute anger at the #injustice “
  • “Since I’ve mellowed a bit… a broader perspective… tempered the self-righteousness.”
  • At 17: “The rabbit & I just became bonded buddies… I don’t want to eat pigs who are like this… or cows who are like this… a couple of years feeling guilty because I became aware of the fact that my diet was coming from this kind of violence…”
  • “It was the 90’s & I didn’t know other people like that”
  • Having compassion for those facing social & practical barriers to veganism
  • “It is accurate to compare it to a religious conversion experience”
  • “It’s more than just making one choice… I’m going to reorient my whole life based on ethics”
  • “It became easier & easier… it doesn’t even feel like I’m trying to do anything anymore”
  • Moral purity & sacrifice vs. compassion as drivers of veganism
  • “I have some nostalgia for that time [when veganism was hard]… it was rewarding.”
  • “…elements of praxis & habitus that aren’t there now… I’m not complaining about it”
  • Biocentrism/ecocentrism “I feel conflicted about it”. These ideas aren’t new for many indigenous cultures.
  • Plant communication through fungal networks. Possibility of forms of sentience we can’t understand? The precautionary principle
  • “But I’m also used to years of people saying ‘but what if carrots have feelings?!’”
  • “Let’s be keep being open to those possibilities & adjust if we learn new things…”
  • Artificially Intelligent sentience? “We could also just not make the [sentient] AI”
  • Exclusion is more of a problem than over-inclusion.

49:43 How To Make a Better Future?

  • Cultural anthropology’s role in change
  • “There is no easy solution to that question”
  • “We’re not going to solve those problems with neo-liberal capitalism or global capitalism… it has an inability to address those problems because it permanently has to grow”
  • Compassionate capitalism? “The way the machine is designed – it requires a constant inequality”
  • Socialism, communism… something different?
  • Individualism vs. “we are social animals”
  • People using human nature as an explanation “yes we can be greedy, yes we can be self-interested… we can also be tremendously altruistic and practice mutual aid and make choices to help other people”
  • “I would love to see alternative proteins entirely replace animal agriculture… but we’re still going to have food injustice & environmental problems… if we don’t also shift how we think about food – should it be a right?”
  • Risks of authoritarianism or individuals being harmed for group ends
  • “I’m an anarchist at heart… small scale vegan anarchist communes?”
  • “I don’t think that appreciating the collective… your social connections to others & your bonds to others has to lead to a situation in which individuals are being subsumed into this group mind… the two things can be equally valued and balanced against each other”
  • “The claim by people who are perpetuating intolerant ideologies that their perspective should be treated as an inherent identity… that others will tolerate… is contradictory and absurd… I don’t have to tolerate your racism or your sexism or your homophobia… I don’t have to make a space to respect that.”
  • Making space for freedom of expression
  • Respecting aesthetic production & art & education
  • “Balancing the value of the individual and the collective at the same time”
  • Might capitalism emerge again from anarchism? “It might even be probable if there isn’t a reorientation”
  • “I don’t think there’s anything inherent to humans as a collective that makes capitalism an end goal”
  • The role of animal sanctuaries and the “Saving Animals” book
  • Working at sanctuaries “A lot of sanctuaries do function as inter-species anarchist commune models” although there is some hierarchy and power differentials – and they’re not self sufficient
  • Ethics of care
  • “They’re not functioning as a mechanism of saving vast numbers of animals, but…” that’s not what they’re trying to do
  • JW: “Even small impacts are meaningful”
  • Human unhoused: “No one is making a serious argument that because there are so may unhoused people there shouldn’t be shelters or support or opportunities for people.”
  • “It’s a put into practice approach to that idea – that everybody matters… a model of that kind of ethical orientation”
  • “The fact that there’s a growing number of people dedicating their lives to creating these spaces to help animals… becomes a part of the cultural consciousness… that’s how cultural shift happens over time.”
  • “Demonstrating that these animal lives matter – and that they’re going to do something about it”
  • JW: Inter-group contact theory across species “recognising this different way of being is possible”
  • Sanctuaries are not panaceas
  • Pattrice Jones and Vine Sanctuary
  • The role of sanctuaries in #JustTransition away from animal agriculture & exploitation
  • Different visions for sanctuaries: visitors? Trade-offs
  • “Animals are losing their spaces”
  • Ways of co-habitation?
  • “The ideal goal for all sanctuaries would be that they don’t need to exist… that animals don’t need to be in captivity”
  • JW: Animal agriculture as a “forced, relentless, repeated extinction over & over again”
  • The role of education – teaching animal studies
  • “We’re seeing a growth of animal studies across a lot of different disciplines… a response to increased interest among students”
  • “They’re really interested in thinking through this topic – but they’re not coming in as vegans, they’re not coming in as animal activists”
  • “I don’t see my classes as a means to convert people… let them think… I’ve seen a lot of people really shift”
  • There’s a block for some students “don’t want to mingle human issues with animal issues… risks dehumanising humans… but then they do see connections”

Following Elan: @ElanAbrell, buy “Saving Animals”.

Sentientism is “Evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” More at

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Thanks to Graham for the post-production and to Tarabella and Denise for helping to fund this episode via our Sentientism Patreon.

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