Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book ‘Ethical Vegan’, interviews Dr Sailesh Rao, a systems engineer trying to heal the planet and build the vegan world.
Given enough time, all things will break.
Energy-pumping stars will stop working and either faint or explode. Planes will stop flying and end up in scrap yards. Computers will stop processing and will be abandoned in forgotten storage. And even hearts will stop beating and bodies will return to dust.
In this place we live — which we call our universe — there is a fundamental principle of physics —the second law of Thermodynamics — which essentially tells you that, with time, things will break. This law states that the disorder of the Universe, called entropy, always increases with time.
But this does not mean that chaos always prevails at a local level because when something breaks, it can be repaired. We can use energy and effort to repair broken things and mend failing systems. We can make them last for a very long time. But we need to know how to do that effectively. Luckily, some people know how to do it. They are experts in finding out why things do not work anymore, they are experts in repairing broken things, and they are experts in building new things with the pieces of discarded broken things. We call them engineers, and you find them everywhere.
Some are very good at mending broken mechanical objects. Others with electronic devices. Others with pipes and tubes transporting liquids and gasses. Others, though, can mend anything, because they do not specialise in anything in particular. We call these systems engineers — but we could well call them engineers of complex stuff.
Planet Earth is like a big machine with many components. A biological machine running on top of a geological machine running inside an astronomical machine. We, humans, have been playing with it so intensively in the last couple of million years that we are beginning to break it. Not surprisingly, because we are destroying many of its biological pieces (biodiversity loss), the places where pieces are connected to each other (ecosystems collapse), and we are messing with the energy that makes everything work (climate change). If only we could call clever engineers to repair the damages we have made, right? If only we knew any systems engineer willing to work on the Earth’s environment and find a way to mend our planet before it breaks down completely, right?
Well, I know at least one. I know a Human-Earth-Animal-Liberation activist that happens to be a systems engineer that has been working on healing the planet for a few years now. And he is an expert systems engineer who has worked on very big projects. So big, that the chances are that you are reading this thanks to one of the things he built a few decades ago.
Dr Sailesh Rao is a systems engineer from India who, after emigrating to the US and becoming part of the Intel team, worked on the internet communications infrastructure for twenty years. During this period, he led the transformation of early analogue internet connections to more robust digital connections that also ran ten times faster. The device you are using right now to read this is probably working with the infrastructure he developed.
He received five Exceptional Contribution Awards from AT&T Bell Laboratories between 1985 and 1991, a Distinguished Member of the Technical Staff award in 1990, the Intel Principal Engineer Award in 2003, and the IIT Madras Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2013 for his technical contributions. He is the author of 22 peer-reviewed technical papers, 50 standards contributions, 10 US patents and 3 Canadian patents. He was the co-founder of Silicon Design Experts in 1991 which was acquired by Level One Communications in 1996 and was later acquired by Intel Corporation in 1999 for $2.2 billion. A top-level systems engineer indeed.
However, one day, he left the expanding internet system to work on another system, one that seems to struggle. He decided to work on the Earth system. A system that we are breaking up and urgently needs repairing. He examined it, he found out what was wrong with it, he found a way to repair it and he talked to others about how to do it.
And how is it that I know him? Because his solution is the vegan world many of us dream about.
I had to interview him and find out more. It was truly fascinating.
Changing Countries and Systems
Dr Rao had travelled far both geographically and intellectually. Here is where he started:
“I was born in India and lived there until the age of 21. I did my undergraduate in India in electronics engineering, and then I came to the US to do my Graduate Studies. I finished my PhD at Stanford in the information systems laboratory and this is how I became an electrical systems engineer. Then I worked on the Internet communications infrastructure, video encoding, and other signal processing problems. I was basically the systems engineer who was just defining how problems would be solved.
During the time that I was working on the internet, in 1995-96, I was asked to look into a 100 Megabit ethernet connection standard and see how we can make it better and more robust. I found out that the medium was capable of a 1000 Megabit (1 Gigabit) ethernet connection. I proposed such an upgrade and people laughed at me. That, of course, juiced me up, and I said, ‘I’m going to get it done!’ And we got it done by 1999. It became a standard by 2003. It was on every motherboard at Intel and the internet took off — we were shocked at how fast it took off.
I came home one day in December 2005, and I was really depressed about work and how bad things were going — because I had just voted against the 10-gigabit ethernet standard. I came home that day, I turned on the TV, and there was Al Gore talking about climate change. I was shocked at what he was saying. I was just rooted to my seat. I couldn’t believe that things were so bad in the environment. I told my wife that if even half of what he’s saying is true, ‘I feel like I’m wasting my time working on the internet.’ And she said, ‘if you think it is that important, why don’t you look into it?’ So, I looked into it.
That’s one of the gifts I got from my advisor at Stanford because he told me that you can do anything; you can do systems engineering on anything, not just on electrical systems. You can take any problem in any field and make a credible contribution to it.
When I looked into it, I realised it was actually far worse than what Al Gore was saying, because he was only talking about the energy infrastructure, whereas it was our entire lifestyle that needed to be transformed. I wrote to Mr Gore, and I said, ‘how can I help you?’ and he said, ‘why don’t you come and get trained by me to give my presentation?’
I did that, and during the training, I asked him about animal agriculture, because it was a glaring omission. I asked him, ‘if we just return all the forests that we cut, can we not reverse climate change?’ And he turned to Roy Neal, his chief of staff, and he said, ‘how did this guy get in here?’ because he didn’t want people who questioned. He wanted people who regurgitated what he was saying — that’s what he was training people for. His objective was to preserve civilization ‘as we know it.’
But solving climate change requires us to change civilization as we know it. So, after a year, I basically stopped presenting his version of climate change.”
Dr Rao’s Vegan Journey
Changing the systems from electronics to the environment did not make Dr Rao vegan straight away. A few things had to happen before he made the step. He had to return to India to do it:
“My family followed the Hindu religion and I was Lacto-vegetarian from birth. We drank milk but we didn’t eat eggs or any other animal products. It’s basically an ethical stance. The story we tell ourselves is that we don’t hurt the cow when we milk the cow. And I bought into that story. I also bought into the scientific literature that was saying that consuming dairy is only a little bit worse than going vegan.
Then, I went to India, and I started working with the villagers in India. As an engineer, I like to implement and try things out. To address climate change, biodiversity loss, and ecosystem collapse, which are the three major environmental problems that the UN had identified in 1992, I went to Rajasthan, which is on the edge of the Thar desert in India, because there you can actually study all three problems at once. The forest is dying, so the animals are disappearing, and you see desertification happening around you. You see biodiversity loss happening around you. And then climate change, of course, happens everywhere.
I went to that village, and the villagers actually taught me, instead of me teaching anyone anything. I asked them about climate change and they said ‘of course, we know it’s happening.’ I said, ‘why do you cut the forest?’ and they said, ‘what choice do we have? Because the people in the cities want milk so we have to raise cows to supply the milk.’ That’s the only source of income for them. I could see deforestation happening because of cattle grazing.
Then I saw this fence, and to the right of the fence it was lush green forest, and to the left it was barren land. You could see all these cows walking around eating the grass. I instantly realised that it was my consumption of dairy that was causing that forest to die because they were milking the cow and selling the milk, as that was their source of income. They didn’t want to kill the cows so they let the cows roam around for the rest of their lives eating whatever they can, so the forest was literally dying because of that. If the forest dies, the deer dies; if the deer dies, the tiger dies. It’s a cascade of events that I was causing by consuming dairy. And people in the cities are consuming the dairy, not the people in the villages. I realised that dairy consumption is actually the worst, and I had this huge sense of shame when I realised it. I went vegan on the spot. It was 2008.
I finally had this huge sense of guilt lift off my shoulders because I had been carrying that guilt since the age of seven or eight. As children we were always sent to our grandparents’ home for summer vacation — my grandparents lived on the west coast of India, in Mangalore, and we lived in Chennai, on the east coast of India. One time, when I was seven, we had just come to my grandparents’ home and I overheard my grandmother telling my grandfather that ‘this particular calf is drinking too much. He is not leaving enough milk for the children.’ And my grandfather told my grandmother ‘Don’t let him drink to his fill; pull him away after 10 minutes.’ And, as a child, I realised that there was something wrong going on, but I put it away in the back of my mind because I was being bombarded with the idea that milk is essential, and you have to drink it. Every time I was drinking milk I had that subconscious guilt that was building up.
I consider myself a Salesman of ahimsa. I am a devotee of veganism. To me, ahimsa is living in harmony with Nature, without consciously hurting anything, respecting every other living being as having space of their own, and minimising harm. To me, veganism, and healthy vegan food — not just vegan food but eating whole plant foods — is about healing ourselves first before we go out and heal the planet, heal the climate.”
Dr Sailesh Rao is the Founder and Executive Director of Climate Healers, a non-profit dedicated to healing the Earth’s climate. He explains what does it do and how it started:
“I started Climate Healers in 2007. The purpose was to figure out how to heal the climate, how to address the root cause of the problem and solve it from the foundation. Initially, I started Climate Healers as a way for me to formalise my activities as a researcher. I was doing systems research on how to solve climate change, and how to heal the climate. I was creating solar cookers and giving them away to people and seeing if they would use them, and things like that.
Then it was formalising what the solution space would look like. There are two major engines of planetary destruction: one is the fossil fuel engine, which I call the ‘burning machine’ — which is because we are constantly burning something or the other — and the other source is the ‘killing machine’: we are killing wild animals, we are rearing and killing domestic animals, we are killing life in the ocean, we are pouring chemicals and killing insects, and so on. This killing machine is also causing the climate to heat up, and it’s of course causing biodiversity loss to happen. For two of the environmental problems that the UN identified, biodiversity loss and ecosystems collapse, the killing machine is the absolute leading cause, there’s no question about that. I discovered that it is also the leading cause of climate change, responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions annually than the burning machine, but its impact is being hidden from the public.
There are three pillars of the current system. The system is based on consumerism, which is what I call ‘greed is good’ rule. It’s a false axiom of consumerism, which says that the pursuit of happiness is best accomplished by stoking and satisfying a never-ending series of desires. It’s an axiom in our civilisation because you routinely see 3000 ads every day, and you think it’s normal. The second is the false axiom of supremacism, which is that life is a competitive game in which those who have gained an advantage may possess, enslave, and exploit animals, nature, and the disadvantaged, for their pursuit of happiness. This is what I call ‘the might is right’ rule. The third pillar is the false axiom of global hunger, because without global hunger you cannot get people to do some of these dirty jobs that no one would like to do — like slaughterhouse work, and people raising animals for food in the villages. They are not doing it because they want to do it, they’re doing it because they have to. And that comes from the threat of hunger — you won’t get any money to buy food if you don’t do this. That’s the current system, which is a colonial system. This is how you colonise the whole world.
The current system is based on playing finite games. A finite game is based on winners and losers. It’s a competitive game, like the survival of the richest. The killing machine is not only killing animals but also killing people. A lot of people are being killed unnecessarily from chronic diseases, war, and from starvation. These are all unnecessary deaths, but this system depends on this to drive the economic engine.
Then you say, ‘okay, what is the correct way to do it?’ In a sustainable system, we will be playing infinite games. In an infinite game system where everyone belongs, people do things because they want to continue the game. There are no winners and losers. The object of the infinite game is to continue the game forever. That’s what sustainability is.
Then I said, ‘okay, what are the correct pillars of an infinite game sustainable system?’, and it turns out they are almost the exact opposite of the pillars of the current system. It has to be based on looking for happiness within ourselves, the ‘true axiom of inner peace,’ which is that the pursuit of happiness is best accomplished by seeking it within ourselves. I call this the ‘yoga pillar’.
The second pillar is ‘the true axiom of unity,’ which is that all life is one family in which we each bring our unique skills to give all we can, receive all we need, and to become all we are. This is the Vitality code rule of Dr Shelley Ostroff — a lot of my work is based on other people’s work because I’m a synthesiser. This is the ahimsa rule, which is non-violent behaviour towards others. It comes from the recognition that you’re respecting all life, that they all belong in this infinite game.
The third pillar is ’the true axiom of Food Healers’, which is that healthy whole foods plant-based vegan meals have to be freely available to every human being on the planet, and that’s one of the main purposes of community, to ensure that your members are fed healthy meals — this is what you do in any family. That third pillar is the most powerful way to switch from the old model to the new model.”
The Thermostat Species of the Planet
As often happens to people who suddenly awake to the realities of this world, some triggers may cause a change of perception that leads to a paradigm change. Something that happens that makes you see the world differently. In my case, it was an encounter with a wasp. In Dr Rao’s case, it was an encounter with Kimaya, his granddaughter.
“Since 2010, I have been led by my granddaughter. Before she was born that year, I was one of the most depressed environmentalists around. I thought we were going to Hell in a handbasket, and that there was nothing I could do. It was just a suicidal spiral that we were on. And I thought, ‘What can I do as one person?’ I thought we were the only species that doesn’t belong on Earth. Every other species just lives, and the planet thrives; we just live, and the planet dies. That was the story I bought into.
And then my granddaughter was born. There’s something special about my granddaughter. I saw the whole of humanity in her when I held her in my arms for the first time, because she is half South Asian, one-quarter African, and one-quarter Native American. I saw all continents in her.
I was holding Humanity in my arms, and Humanity was looking up at me and she gave me this smile. It was a knowing, dazzling smile as if she was saying, ‘what do you mean I don’t belong? I belong exactly as I am, and you haven’t understood me.’
I had this thrill, this incredible feeling up and down my spine as if I was seeing perfection. I now had to rethink everything assuming that we belong exactly as we are and that we are doing something that we don’t yet understand. And that started my journey of discovery.
The solution was actually staring me in the face because as soon as we admit that we’re changing the climate of the planet, we have the responsibility to stabilise the climate of the planet as a species. That’s our purpose. Our responsibility is to maintain the climate. It’s up to us. If we maintain the climate, we are going to thrive; if we don’t maintain the climate, we are going to die.
We are the thermostat species of the planet. It’s our job to maintain the climate so that all beings thrive, because when an Ice Age happens, a lot of people, and a lot of animals, die. When ice covers most of the earth, and everyone has to compete for space around the equator, a lot of them die. This had been going on for three million years, and during that time life spawned us and said ‘fix it.’
We started fixing it during the current warm period, the Holocene era. We’ve done an amazing job of heating the climate, and for the first 10000 years, we maintained the Earth’s temperature, we kept it constant. That’s how agriculture happened. It wasn’t an accident. It’s us, our ancestors did that by burning down forests; they kept the temperature constant. And then, over the last 200 years, we’ve raised it by one degree Celsius, and in the process, we have created all the tools and technologies we need to understand what we have been doing. And now we can become conscious as a climate-regulating species for the planet.
This is the climate healers’ story. We do belong exactly as we are, and we just have to now realise that is what we’ve been doing. Now, let’s do our job consciously. That is the story that I synthesised after I met my granddaughter.”
The “Pinky Promise”
Climate Healers are working to create a vegan world by 2026. Why this particular date? Although several studies point towards the fact that, if we do not significantly stop our destructive ways very soon, we may reach a point of non-return in just a few years, this particular deadline is something much more personal for Dr Rao:
“I am writing a new book called ‘the Pinky Promise’ about my relationship with my granddaughter, and how at the age of six she made me promise her that the world would be vegan by the time she is 16.
I promised my granddaughter that I’ll never lie to her. That’s one of the things I promised her when she was two years old. Whenever she asked me a question, I would tell her the truth. She had no Illusions about Santa Claus and any of that nonsense because she would come and ask me. One time she asked me, ‘Grandpa, who were the first human beings?’. That’s a very profound question, so I tried to explain to her how Evolution works. I said, ‘imagine that you’re standing on the street, and you’re holding your mama by your hand. Then you ask your mama to bring her mama to stand by her side, and so on. So, you create a long line of mothers on this side of the street. And on the other side of the street, you ask a chimpanzee to do the same thing, with her mother, her grandmother and so on. By the time these two lines go from Phoenix to Tucson, which is about 200 kilometres, they would merge because, both lines are going to say, hey, that’s my mama too.’
Immediately, she just sat up in bed, and said, ‘what are you telling me? that animals are my family?’ All life is one family. It became visceral for her. She said, ‘why are people eating my family? Grandpa, make them stop!’ And she started bawling. ‘Make them stop eating my family!’ She was naming names of the people she knew who were eating her family, and I realised I had created a world full of monsters for my granddaughter because I was trying to tell her the truth.
I was trying to console her, and I said, ‘Kimaya, this is what I do. In fact, it’s my job to make them stop, so please stop crying.’ Immediately she stopped crying. She looked at me and she said, ‘This is your job? This is your job? You haven’t done your job. When will you do your job?’ I said, ‘I better do it by 2026, otherwise we’re all in big trouble.’ That’s when she said, ‘will you promise me that?’ I said, ‘yeah, I’ll promise you that.’ She said, ‘will you give me a pinky promise? I said, ‘sure, I’ll give you a pinky promise’ — I had no idea what it meant. She held her pinky and locked it in mine, and then she said, ‘you can never break a pinky promise.’ And that’s when I realised I’d made a very serious promise to a five-year-old girl, and I better figure out how to keep it. That’s when the Vegan World 2026 project started.
In 2016, I started working on creating a vegan World by 2026, doing the system design for it. At first, I didn’t know how to do it. I went around just talking to people, saying ‘this is what I found, this is what the data is saying, we need to get to a vegan world by 2026. Any ideas on how can we do this?’ Feasibility-wise, it can be done. All you have to do is eat this instead of that, wear this instead of that, and it’s done. It’s not that complicated. Feasibility is easy, but persuading people to do it is the difficult part.
I started modelling this as an infection, like a contagion model. We have to minimise recidivism and maximise the contagion of the vegan message. That means that we have to talk about veganism, we have to communicate with people, and we cannot keep it to ourselves. We have to express why we are doing it, what we are doing, and then we have to also help people make the transformation happen. We have to hold their hands — this is how you prevent recidivism.”
The V-COP and the World Food Healers Day
As often system engineers do, brainstorming to identify problems and prioritise solutions is something that Climate Healers have been doing with increased frequency. The first meetings of this sort were called “convergences”, but then they changed the name to “V-COP”. Among the actions they decided in such meetings, they created World Food Healers Day, when they hope healthy vegan food will be given free to people all over the world — with the help of many faith organisations. Dr Rao explains more:
“Then I started the convergences, so we had our first convergence in 2018. We called them the ‘Vegan World 2026 Convergences.’ With the first convergence, I invited people to come and brainstorm about how to get to the vegan world by 2026. We had whiteboards on the walls and then I asked people to go write down their questions on different aspects — cultural aspects, social aspects, political aspects, economic aspects, and so on. Then I asked them to write down questions on how do you think the transition is going to happen. Then we ranked the questions as to what they thought was more important.
We got together again in 2019, and this time I had written a paper and we worked on that together. And then, the 2020 COVID pandemic happened, so we couldn’t do an in-person convergence. We decided to do an online convergence instead, and that was the third one. We then said that we want to meet every quarter, not just every year because it needs to happen faster — because even during the internet standards work that I was involved in we were meeting once every four months. We’ve just finished our 10th vegan convergence.
After I went to Glasgow and attended COP-26, I was so disgusted with the way climate change is being addressed at the UN that we changed the name of our convergence to Vegan Convergence of the Peoples (V-COP)’. The 11th is going to happen on the 5th and 6th of November 2022. We have already sent out the announcements for it and people have been registering. For this one, the theme is Food Healers, because we want to focus on World Food Healers Day on the 19th of November. It is the day after the UN COP-27 ends. I’ve been sending out these newsletters explaining why we are boycotting COP-27.
Firstly, we have to boycott them, not take them seriously, and secondly, we need to act, not just boycott but also act. And the best way to act to create this new system is to start feeding everybody healthy food for free, not just people who are starving and hungry, but everybody, because even those who have plenty of food to eat, are not eating healthy food.
This is why I am proposing that we do a World Food Healers Day, as an act of compassion towards all life. We need to give away healthy food for free, and we need to get religious institutions involved in this healing process because it’s only a spiritual and cultural transformation that can solve climate change.
In the Hindu temple in Los Angeles, in Norwalk, California, people come together every weekend and cook thousands of vegan meals and give them away. That is what we are trying to spread, so that’s what the World Food Healers Day is all about.”
The First Vegan University
Dr Rao is also an author and Executive Producer of multiple documentaries including the milestones Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret and What the Health. He is also the main “protagonist” of the award-winning documentary produced by UnchainedTV called Countdown to Year Zero. Therefore, educating others about veganism and environmentalism has become an important part of his work. And what better way to educate than to create a new university:
“I am proposing a Vegan University that would implement these new concepts, so you would have a college of non-violent Arts and Sports, a college of non-violent Media and Communications, a college of Self-care Sciences, a college of Veterinary Care Sciences, a college of Healthcare Sciences, a college of Earth Care Sciences, a college of Eco-Governance, a college of Sustainable Engineering and Technology, and a college of Vegan Spirituality. The idea is to create this environment where people can recognise that what they have been taught was for the old model.
I am proposing the Vegan University because when you talk about actually implementing our solutions in real life, people will say, ‘oh, wait a minute, this is going too far, you haven’t tried it out.’ Anthony DeMello said this is the fear of the loss of the known because those who have money and resources in the old model don’t want to give that up. They are saying, ‘if you implement it, then I may lose my position.’ We have a system in which those who have the most power are reluctant to give that up.
This is why you have to create a less threatening venue, in which it gets done. And, to me, that less threatening venue would be a university, where you actually implement everything too. Not just talk about it, but implement it, and try it out. And then, the people who come to the University as professors, and students, if they like it, they could say, ‘hey, this is better than what we have there.’ Then, there’ll be demand for other universities to also do the same thing.
I went to India to talk about this because if you have to build a system based on yoga, ahimsa, and feeding everybody healthy vegan food, the natural home of it is the Land of Ahimsa, which is India. Let’s try it in India and see if it resonates with people. I looked at some land in the Coimbatore area, in the South of India, to build this, and now I’m creating the proposal so I can send it out to potential funders. It doesn’t have to be much. You can start with just one building and then you set it up, and you create a committee for faculty selection. We create a curriculum for a Bachelor’s in Ahimsa, and start from there.”
If we build it, they will come — said Kevin Costner in the 1989 film Field of Dreams when talking about building a magical baseball pitch — and if vegan universities are built, I would certainly come. This iconic expression has become a symbol of idealistic dreamers, which many of us vegans are. But if the spirit of this sentence is expressed by an accomplished systems engineer, someone who was laughed at when he proposed to build something we all are now using, then we may be talking about the stuff of the future, not the stuff of dreams.
I would not necessarily trust a politician to build a vegan world, because they hardly ever think beyond the next election and they often build their careers on deception, not truth. I would not necessarily trust an entrepreneur because they hardly ever think beyond profits and they often build their careers on competition, not collaboration. I would not necessarily trust an academic because they hardly ever think beyond convention and they often build their careers on status, not equity. But I would trust a systems engineer because they hardly ever get distracted by irrelevant factors and they often build their careers on applicable solutions, not wishful thinking.
We need more people like Dr Sailesh Rao. We need more systems engineers trying to mend the current social, political, and economical systems, and rebuild a new system where all members of any species of the planet can benefit forever. An infinite-game sustainable system based on ahimsa, in which not harming other sentient beings is something that is taught at all levels of education. A unified, peaceful, and healing system that allows humanity to do its job as the planetary thermostat. A compassionate, fair, and true system that does not leave anyone behind and is no longer based on consumerism, supremacism, and hunger.
We need the vegan world, and we need it as soon as possible.
As soon as 2026.