Archive for the ‘Impressions’ Category

Mother Jones, Yet Again, Rushes To Judgment (This Time Over Bees)

» May 24th, 2014

If you care about honeybees, you probably know about colony collapse disorder (CCD). The disappearance of the world’s greatest living pollinators evokes an especially uneasy kind of ecological discomfort. After all, honeybee pollination brings us much of our food.

It would therefore seem especially critical—if only in a self-interested way— to understand the causes of honeybee collapse. And quickly. A wide range and combination of circumstances have been proposed over the years as factors contributing to the disorder. So diverse are the causal possibilities that the complexity of this problem has become legion to entomologists worldwide. It’s therefore not at all surprising that what’s missing from the CCD debate is a smoking gun. THE answer.

But if you read Mother Jones (May 23), you’d be forgiven for thinking that the ever elusive smoking gun was, at long last, discovered.”Did Scientists Just Solve the Bee Collapse Mystery,?” ran the headline. It’s a thoroughly Mother Jones-ish tactic. Strongly suggests a clear answer to a multifaceted problem—that smoking gun—but stay aware that the issue is really a lot more complex than the article will make it seem. Then add a question mark to cover everyone’s ass while still allowing the reader to feel the satisfaction of a clear and singular answer, not to mention righteous outrage at the dastardly menaces behind this ecological tragedy.

This is good guys/bad guys journalism.

The MJ article breezily relies on a single study, one that happens to have a Harvard imprimatur on it (along with that of a beekeeping association) to argue that the “key driver” of colony collapse disorder has once and for all been identified: a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids. The study identifying neonicontinoids as the cause of CCD is praised by MJ for its clarity (The experiment couldn’t have been simpler”), it’s brilliance (“What makes the new Harvard study remarkable . . .”), and it’s conclusiveness (“the CCD mystery has been solved.”) The author of the MJ article, Tom Philpott, effectively blames CCD on Bayer, the manufacturer of the pesticides in question.

Outrage: stoked.

But then, as always happens with MJ’s coverage of agriculture—coverage driven first and foremost by an inveterate hatred of industrial structures (Bayer in this case)—the other shoe drops with a thud. It happens a lot at MJ. I’ve noted as much in the past with respect to GMOs and an eventually retracted French study on rats. In the CCD case, the backlash against the “Harvard study” fingering neoniotinoids was unusually swift.  The more you learn about the study used to play the role of the smoking gun, the harder it is to believe that it was given so much weight in a major magazine to explain one of the most mysterious ecological phenomenon on earth.

The best critique of the “Harvard study” that MJ placed on a pedestal is here. Suspicions begin with the journal in which the paper was published—an obscure Italian publication called The Bulletin of Insectology. Critics note that the study’s author Chensheng Lu, “ has had trouble getting his work on honeybees past peer review in many US journals.” The study’s sample included only 18 honeybee colonies, all located in central Massachusetts. The researcher “had exposed his bees to an unrealistically high dose of pesticides,” a level that bayer itself agrees would be lethal for bees. ”This study is a total distraction,”  said an entomologist at the University of Maryland. “It’s not surprising that those bees died — those doses weren’t field realistic. The only surprise was that the bees didn’t all die right away.”

But a distraction is what Philpott and MJ are all about. They will shamelessly deploy the flimsiest science to bash industrial agriculture. Which is sad because industrial agriculture is so thoroughly flawed on its own terms, and its flaws are so readily obvious, that nobody should have to rely on questionable science to expose those problems. I’m all for sticking it to Big Ag—which is why I advocate for veganism—but let’s not resort to deception to do it. Follow the money, for sure. But follow the science as well.

Chipotle Experiences an Outbreak of Literary Food Poisoning

» May 20th, 2014

Just as we experience outrage when Big Agriculture’s deep pockets lobby for subsidies and deregulation, so we should react when a bunch of great writers lend their literary talents to a fast-food company with a history of greenwashing.

That’s now happening with Jonathan Safran Foer and the team of writers he has “curated” to further thicken Chipotle’s rhetorical soup. Like Big Ag’s iron triangle, this relationship reeks of self-interest and faux populism. Simply put, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

So far the reviews of this initiative are rotten, as they should be. But what’s problematic is not that the writing—all done on cups and bags—isn’t insultingly bad, but that this project happened in the first place.

That an impressive slew of cultural critics and deep thinkers—ranging from Toni Morrison to Steven Pinker—didn’t think better about cheapening their talents by using them to promote a food franchise bodes poorly for the state of intelligent public discourse.  It’s like all those cool kids in high school, the best looking ones with the nicest clothes and fanciest cars, who were so collectively enthralled with their clique that were unable to see how ridiculous they looked to the rest of us.

Beyond the embarrassment of this literary-burrito association, though, is the goofy reasoning behind it. Here’s Foer’s quote in Vanity Fair: “I mean, I wouldn’t have done it if it was for another company like a McDonald’s, but what interested me is 800,000 Americans of extremely diverse backgrounds having access to good writing. A lot of those people don’t have access to libraries, or bookstores. Something felt very democratic and good about this.”

Sure. All those Chipotle goers, denied access to a library or a bookstore, will now be able to read the thoughts of our nation’s most creative thinkers on the outside of trash—very democratic, very good. But, by this logic, why not just place your wordy pearls of wisdom on a McDonald’s bag? Or just a bathroom wall? That would be democratic. And eliminate this outbreak of literary food poisoning for good.

*Two notes. First, I’m so baffled by this initiative that my residual paranoia compels me to say that I think this could be a hoax. Just saying. Second, I have this piece today in Slate.

The Thinking Vegan?

» April 6th, 2014

Okay, cue up your outrage:



Now, take a deep breath: what do you do here? How do you react?

There are thinking and thoughtless ways to approach this image. The most thoughtful might actually be to shrug it off as a shallow and insulting marketing gimmick. But doing so misses an opportunity to explore what exactly makes American culture—especially the complicated culture of the American West—uniquely supportive of this kind of message. That’s a big topic, a great topic, a  topic relevant to animal ethics. But it’s not what I’m going to explore at the moment. I simply want to note that a thoughtful response to this image might tend in that direction—the direction of thoughtfulness, the kind that illuminates the culture we want to change.

My real reason for including this image is to offer a case study on how not to react. This image came to me via a tweet from Gary Smith’s “The Thinking Vegan.” The twittery tag line was “what a horrible human being.” Inspired by such insight, Facebook readers smelled blood, launching into a tirade of invective that collectively made Palin look like Gandhi by comparison.

Here are what “thinking vegans” had to offer by way of intelligent analysis:

“Sarah Palin is a ignorant lying bloodthirsty murdering psycho in any language”; “I think she is but a stupid slut who did`n`t get enough love and care while growing up”; “Dumb bitch!”; “what a piece of effing shit”; “Fuk u her thats why your fukd n will die of some of cancer”; “I hate her”; ”Sarah Palin is an old Indian word for Cunt”; “She is an ignorant murdering bitch”; “Sarah Palin is an old Indian phrase meaning fuckwit!”; “Palin is an old Alaskan word for murderer coke whore…what a waste if oxygen this bitch is”; “Dumb as a rock that woman. Wanna throw up in her face”; “Ugly excuse for a human being.”

Ugh. And this from a Twitter profile that claims to have “a philosophical bent.”

Some of this was on The Thinking Vegan’s FB page, some on the page of the person whom The Thinking Vegan retweeted. Either way, there’s nothing thoughtful about this dump of anger. The Thinking Vegan should reconsider the impact of stoking cheap outrage. If anything, this kind of exposure alienates otherwise thoughtful and compassionate people who want to create a better world for animals. There are reasons that many potential vegans refuse to identify as vegan. And this example is one of them.

It might feel good to lash out, but what’s the benefit for animals?


Veganism’s Shaky Pillars

» April 3rd, 2014

Note: I wrote the following essay at the invitation of a prominent vegan activist for a book of essays this person was editing. A month after turning it in, I received a note from the editor asking if I’d be willing to change the essay substantially or if I had another essay I could submit. Well, no and no, I answered, before explaining how the essay met the volume’s stated theme. The editor wrote back and said that, on second thought, everything was cool and that they’d publish the essay. Two weeks later the publisher contacted me asking for changes on the grounds that vegans don’t believe this or that tenet of my essay and would object. The publisher also added that there would be “criticism” if my essay ran. So it was rejected.  I thus ask for your honest input. Is this an essay you think vegans need to read or not? I ask the question with genuine open-mindedness. 


Harming animals is a culturally ubiquitous act tacitly and not-so-tacitly accepted by virtually every human being on earth. The overwhelming majority of contemporary consumers unthinkingly contribute to animal suffering when they get dressed, eat food, apply cosmetics, and pursue basic forms of entertainment and recreation. Immense animal suffering, in short, is integral to a perfectly “civilized life.

Although unnecessary animal abuse practically defines modern life, we rarely see it. This is usually by choice. The suffering around us can be so extensive, it’s nature so viscerally brutal, that we have unconsciously but successfully limited our moral gaze to our fellow humans. And, even on that score, we’ve hardly set a model example of enlightenment and compassion.

But there’s a catch to this limited moral vision. A related concern has nagged humanity for centuries: what if, in our unknowing perpetuation of animal suffering, we might also be harming ourselves? This self-interested possibility has preoccupied thinkers from Aristotle to Kant to Isaac Bashevis Singer, who wisely wrote, “When a human kills an animal for food, he is neglecting his own hunger for justice.”

Could this be? Could our quest for the most delicious plate of barbeque be clipping the wings of our better angels? It is in the context of this age-old proposition—one that subversively connects the sacred and the profane–that this essay investigates the larger claim that ethical veganism can provide the key to a more just and equitable world.

. . . . . . .

One needn’t be a philosopher to offer an answer. Unhindered common sense dictates that extending toleration, empathy, and compassion to other species makes it extremely difficult for entrenched prejudices of tribalism to persist in human society. The heroic moral reach from the “in group” of humans to the “out group” of animals, if it took place in any meaningful way, would mark such a profound cross-cultural leap of empathy that the oxygen fueling human hatred would dissipate into insignificance.

The culmination of this process, at the very least, would be a more harmonious human relationship with humans and non-humans alike. For the idealistically inclined, you could even say that, with the onset of ethical veganism, we’d find ourselves on the path to World Peace. I’m not quite ready to go that far, but neither am I ready to rule out such a heady prospect.

Either way, it’s an inspiring hypothesis. And, despite the all-too-frequent venom spewed by ethical vegans against each other and non-vegans alike, I think it’s beyond safe to conclude that the idea is certainly an accurate one. Put it this way: I’d find it virtually impossible to argue that a mass embrace of ethical veganism would not lead to a more peaceful earthly existence.

So: just go vegan and save the world, right?


Well, not so fast. The premise here might be correct—that is, ending speciesism would help end prejudicial oppression of all sorts—but it doesn’t automatically follow that ethical veganism is, at this point in time, a readily achievable goal.

In my experience, many vegans don’t seem to appreciate this point. It’s never easy for an interest group to admit that its worldview isn’t ready for primetime. It’s difficult to recognize that an animating insight might lack traction in the court of public opinion. It’s never fun to confront the daunting reality that the pillars that support your ideals might need considerable strengthening.

But, for any social movement, it’s a necessary part of progress. Ethical vegans thus have a responsibility to administer a thorough and sober intellectual self-examination if we ever hope to present to a mainstream audience a coherent, simple, and achievable vision of peace predicated on the ethical treatment of sentient animals.

It’s with this goal in mind that this essay grapples with two substantial obstacles—call them ethical veganism’s shakiest pillars. It does so with an eye toward reaching a solid pragmatic consensus requisite to moving a cohesive message into a brighter future, one where the virtuous potential of ethical veganism has a fighting chance of being realistically realized.


One shaky pillar of ethical veganism is the problem of moral consistency. None of us can live our lives free of animal exploitation. If we eat only plants, we harm animals. If we drive a car, we harm animals. If we take the bus or subway, we harm animals. It’s a deeply unpleasant, and even metaphysically troubling, aspect of existence, but the fact remains: life is unavoidably imbricated with animal exploitation. Worse, there’s nothing we can do about it.

The inability to avoid harming animals can, if not handled tactfully, place ethical vegans in a bind. Take the seemingly morally benign act of driving a car. A skeptic of vegan ethics might note that driving leads to the mass slaughter of insects and, in some cases, kills larger animals such as squirrels, deer, and even dogs and cats.

One can, by way of retort, reasonably argue that driving a car is an act we cannot, for all intents and purposes, avoid. Likewise, the vegan can further point out that the vehicular death of animals is incidental to our need to propel ourselves through space—an unintended consequence of being mobile and modern and in a rush

But does this answer suffice?

Not completely.  Just as human life is not fundamentally dependent on eating animals, survival is not fundamentally dependent on driving. Neither driving nor eating animals is a do-or-die scenario. It could therefore be asked in response to our “it’s incidental” defense: what makes driving any more or less a justifiable competing moral consideration (vis-à-vis killing animals) than sheer gustatory pleasure? Neither, after all, is required for humans to live. So, when it comes to justifying the harm of animals, why should driving have the moral edge over taste or tradition?

Taking this objection further, I can easily imagine a realistic scenario in which the choice to eat an animal becomes more central to one’s deeper sense of humanity than driving.

Consider a Hmong citizen sacrificing a pig as part of a traditional spiritual ritual and a New Yorker who works within walking distance of his dwelling space but drives to work anyway. Neither action—ritualistic slaughter or driving to work—is required to live life. But the competing moral consideration in the former situation (religion) is far more consequential than in the latter (driving).

So, this is a tough problem—a weak pillar. But I think it can be resolved in a way that purifies the connection between reducing oppression and ending speciesism.

That resolution begins by pondering a sad statistic: 33,561 humans died in car accidents in 2012. A ubiquitous action (driving) that we allow to justify the unintentional killing of animals also justifies the unintentional killing of humans. In this respect, the incidental nature of death, which applies to all sentient beings, allows the ethical vegan to escape the charge of speciesism.

There is, in the end, neither selective moral consideration nor intentional death at work when we drive. Despite its inevitable harm to animal life, driving thus remains acceptable vis-à-vis the prospect of animal death. The unintended consequences, however horrific, still apply to humans as well

By contrast, submit the other example–the religiously inspired sacrifice and consumption of animals– to the same test and everything falls apart. One might defend this practice by arguing not only from the perspective of tradition (a very weak move), but also from the platform of intention. Indeed, one might argue that an animal’s death is incidental to spiritual imperatives and, in that sense, no different than the death of animals being incidental to the need to drive the kids to soccer practice.

But, even so, the act does not pass the more critical test, the inclusion test. The inevitable harm done to animals does not equally apply to humans. Our species is spared ritualistic slaughter for spiritual fulfillment. The reason we are spared is the fact that we are human. And, therefore, no matter how deep the spiritualism at stake, the act of killing an animal for religious purposes is speciesist.

The beauty of this distinction is that is allows vegans to admit that we harm animals daily without being speciesist, thereby preserving the very quality that will help ensure a less oppressive world.


The next pillar is shakier, as is my proposed solution. It centers on the classic problem of where to draw the line when it comes to granting equal moral consideration to animals.

Ethical vegans routinely confront this question. We do so because it’s an excellent question. Regrettably, too many vegan advocates choose to dismiss it, or reach for unrealistic platitudes (“all animals should be treated with equal consideration”), rather than seek a workable stance (compromise) on the matter.

Fortunately, the billions of animals that we eat, wear, and exploit for research and entertainment are situated well above the line. For these creatures, the ethical implications of their intentional exploitation are conspicuously evident to anyone willing to look: it’s obviously wrong

Endowed with complex nervous systems, a conscious sense of self, and possibly even a theory of mind, these animals—pigs, cows, fowl, most fish, primates, rats, etc.—warrant our moral consideration and, in turn, our compassion. To cause intentional harm to these animals and deem such an act morally inconsequential is to accept the fiction that they are automatons. Aristotle and Descartes might have seen them in such terms. But Darwin rendered that view appropriately obsolete, if not ludicrous.

But what about animals that are less “complex”—that is, critters that do not seem to have comparatively sophisticated nervous systems or an obvious sense of self, much less a theory of mind or a comparatively long life-cycle? Although convenient, it’s intellectually inadequate to state that, “all animals deserve equal moral consideration” and leave matters at that. For one, as already shown, we cannot realistically live by such a maxim.

But more importantly, animal species differ in morally significant ways. These differences, in turn, warrant varying intensities of moral consideration. There’s a qualitative distinction between torturing primates in a lab and swatting a fly buzzing around the kitchen. This is not to say that we should swat the fly. We shouldn’t. But it’s to acknowledge that torturing (and killing) primates clearly has more severe moral consequence than killing the fly.

Failure to grant these differences leads one by the nose into the trap of “plant intelligence.” That is, if we cannot highlight morally relevant distinctions among animals, ethical vegans will have a hard time drawing morally relevant distinctions between plants and animals. And if we cannot draw that line, all bets are off. The vegan argument collapses.

Ethical vegans thus need to accept the position that it is never justifiable to unnecessarily harm life—plants or animals included. But it may be excusable. This distinction enables us to engage in the unintentional death of animals while still preserving the non-speciesism central to the idea of a more peaceful future.

Needless to say, the lines we draw cannot be determined on the basis of arbitrary basis of “cuteness” or familiarity. Instead, we must look to more substantial and less subjective indicators such as the length and quality of an animal’s natural life-cycle under optimal conditions (a couple of weeks for a mosquito, 80 years for an orca), the neurological basis of sentience, a theory of mind, and the nature of suffering for that animal. Only then can ethical vegans insure that increasing revelations of plant intelligence do not become a pretext (however disingenuously presented) for justifiably slaughtering a pig.

Fortunately, at least in terms of eliminating speciesism through lifestyle changes, the “drawing the line” issue rarely comes into play. By choosing to avoid animal products in general, we make substantial progress toward living according to enlightened values—values integral to creating a more just society.

By limiting our exploitation of animals to incidental circumstances in which the harm is excusable but not justifiable, we simultaneously acknowledge the presence of “the line” without clearly identifying it, all the while focusing our behavior on achievable and meaningful reductions in animal abuse.


It seems perfectly obvious that eliminating speciesism would help end other forms of prejudicial oppression. But it’s by no means obvious that such an axiom will, by sheer force of its exciting potential, break into a mainstream culture of carnism.

In order for this to happen, a daunting number of factors will have to fall into place. As they do, it is absolutely critical that the pillars supporting ethical veganism have as much intellectual integrity as we can possibly give them. Ensuring that unintended harm to animals avoids speciesism, and making critical distinctions between unjustifiable and excusable unintentional death, are challenges that are easy to avoid. But they are critical to our mission of seeking peace through the better treatment of animals.
















The American Scholar and Animals

» March 26th, 2014

It is one of the sublime pleasures of blogging frequently and seriously that I can wake up to enjoy a debate in the comment section over hog testicles. I’m not being facetious here. As The Pitchfork evolves, as readers become more entrenched in the discussions, the quality of the site’s content ages like a fine wine. This year in particular I’ve started to realize that The Pitchfork is no longer “my website.” It has become a community effort. I’m humbled to be part of such a smart and ongoing discussion about animals, ethics, and veganism.

Reflecting on my recent piece in The American Scholar, I’m made aware of how many of the ideas in it have roots in this blog, how many formulations owe a direct allegiance to my readers. I’m also made aware of how the argument put forth in the piece has so far been conspicuously ignored by the food reformers who it critiques. I’m fairly certain that it has reached the in-boxes and twitter accounts of leading Food Movement figures, but I’m equally certain that, under no pressure to do so, these figures will probably treat it like an apple sold at Walmart. That is, not worthy.

This is all savvy backdrop to a crass request: please push the piece. Tweet it. Facebook it. Etc. And so on. Rarely do I write something that I think really deserves to hit the bullseye of a discussion. But this is one of them. The arguments in it are designed to incorporate animal ethics into larger policy discussions about food reform. What can hope from the future of food if the core interests of animals are ignored? I’m never thrilled to come to this blog and ask readers for a promotion, but every now and then I feel compelled to do so.

Thanks so much.


Notes on a Rainforest (part II of II)

» March 16th, 2014


As a species sharing the earth with others, humans have every right to integrate our lives into the rainforest. However, led as we are by the frontal lobe, we bring to this environment our own unique set of possible contributions. Consuming the oxygen generated by endless primary growth, we may not be able to camouflage ourselves, emit a noxious musk, or carry twenty times our weight, but we can contemplate the most responsible way to minimize our impact on finite natural resources. Granted, that choice might have meant avoiding taking a jumbo jet to San Jose, followed by a puddle jumper, to reach this place. But curiosity has its costs. And, if we can walk out with a clearer notion of our relationship with other animal species, maybe there will be some offsets.

And what would a clearer notion of our relationship with animals look like? Perhaps it’s best to answer the question by imagining what it won’t look like. Few people from the developed world would enter a rainforest and think, “ah, lovely day to slaughter and eat a spider monkey.” Jungle creatures might be enmeshed in a web of violence but the humans who peek into it rarely feel compelled to participate (weirdly, we’re more comfortable bringing exotic animals back to terra cognita and killing them on home turf).  I would even guess that there are plenty of humans who would justify eating animals on the grounds of “it’s a dog eat dog world” while, at the same time, balking at killing the javelinas that trudge through the underbrush of the world’s densest garden, serving an ecological purpose that we can barely understand.

The reason for this reticence would surely have something to do with the altogether decent desire to avoid sullying “virgin” territory with our disruptive slugs of lead. But as I noted in the last post, decent as it is, the whole idea is bogus. As far as the human eye is concerned, there is no virgin territory. We are nature; nature is us. Now, I could stop right here and conclude that the “red in tooth and claw” carnivores are merely deluded by a jejune idealization of nature. Sure. Fine. But, as you might suspect, I think there’s a little more to the story.

To spend time in a rainforest is to realize not only our holistic connection with the bees and the trees, but also to appreciate our differences from the surrounding thicket. Guided by a long and embodied history of decision making, one that we sustain with storytelling and reflection, humans are able to negotiate the rainforest with a more abstract understanding of our species’ potential place within it. The wisest among us know not to project “mere instinct” onto the sloth and her many forest companions. We know there’s more to it, and that such a characterization, regularly belied as it is by animal ethology, is essentially self-serving.

But we also know that the sloth is not contemplating the ethical implications of unnecessary animal exploitation. Nor is she in any way considering the moral consequences of her actions. Instead, she’s contemplating how to take a poop and not get eaten by a jaguar (sloths are usually killed while defecating; it’s the only time they come down from the canopy). This distinction (not where we poop, but rather how we think) matters none when it comes to the basic moral consideration we’re obligated to grant to humans and non-humans. But it’s critical when it comes to our attempt to justify our dominance over, say, the animals that we have no problem killing and eating beyond the rainforest, back in the confines of “civilized” life, to eat food we don’t need.

Our cultural willingness to kill and eat animal unnecessarily while, at the same time, showing respect to the creatures that do violence to each other in the rainforest is a double standard that speaks volumes about our confusion vis-a-vis animals. It’s a confusion that persists because we fail to realize that, as we observe the rainforest, that we do so as human beings endowed with the capacity to not only act peacefully, but to make such a quest the essence of our being. Post-humanism notwithstanding, only humans can stand in the midst of violence and ask, “how can we structure our lives to minimize what’s so necessary for other species to stay alive?”

In other words, in the rainforest, where bloodshed is the norm, we can, however momentarily, step aside and seek solace in the human capacity for peace. I’m pleased that I’ve never had to fight to the death in order to have sex. I’m pleased that that I’ve never had to start a war with another clan in order to reserve a place to sleep and eat. I’m pleased that I don’t have to kill and eat animals. I saddened every time we forget that violence could, theoretically, be eliminated among the human species This is what the rainforest reminds me.  This is how it enhances my feelings for the potential of humanity to be decent.

Of course, you could interpret the violence as an easy green light toward aggression. But do note: to align ourselves with the violence of the jungle in order to justify eating animals is to accept moral behavior that, for most decent folks, is considered reprehensible. Endorsing the logic of the rainforest as a model for human behavior is to endorse the myriad forms of dominance that have marked the lowest points of human society: slavery, eugenics, indentured servitude, internment camps, and all the other ways that humans have ignored their better angels in order to further selfish interests.

And that would be a tragic lesson to learn from a rainforest that, through its violence, asks us for peace.




Notes From A Rainforest (Part I of II)

» March 15th, 2014

Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica

Spending eight days in the Costa Rican rain forest tends to focus the mind on fundamental questions. Why do some animals emerge at night while others sleep? Why do we press our noses to tarantula holes while recoiling at a harmless snake? Why are sloths known for laziness when they happen to move with the stealth of a bobcat? How did a black and orange land crab that looks like a plastic Halloween toy make the evolutionary cut? By what means does a chunk-headed vine snake, all the width of a pencil, swallow a frog the size of ping pong ball?

These questions have answers. But, while touring the Osa Peninsula—a place that accounts for 5 percent of the world’s biodiversity—I didn’t have them. Which was fine. It’s an easy axiom to forget, but a lack of expertise enhances the power of observation. Pre-existing conclusions obviate the need to explore—be it an ecosystem, an animal, a tree’s ropy grid of interlocking roots—with innocence. Working from a baseline of ignorance, at least for those who find the world’s mystery worth pondering, improves the chances of seeing the world with fresh eyes and new thoughts.

As I was writing the last sentence, a dead roach dropped from the woody ceiling onto my laptop. It’s a reminder of sorts, evoking as it does the hard brutality of existence (albeit not exactly for me, surrounded as I am by a semi-open but luxurious eco-cabin that I’m guessing is dosed every afternoon with a corona of insecticides). But do note that this roach was not only lifeless. It also lacked at least three legs, part of its tail, and a head.

Hence the most unavoidable observation one makes in this environment: matters of life and death dominate. Nearly every moment for non-humans is dedicated to honing the strategies that evolution has bestowed in order to stay in the game and, preferably control it. In a rainforest, winners and losers are juxtaposed with rare intimacy. You wake up to spider monkeys mating with cold efficiency on a tree limb and end the evening shining a flashlight on a rainforest pond, standing stock still as a cat-eyed snake stalks and eventually kills a frog quietly trolling for insects. My decapitated roach offer mere italics to the obvious: as Tennyson put it, nature is indeed “red in tooth and claw.”

Yes, wild animals play. They frolic. They take time off from the preoccupations of survival to relax. But the specter of death—thoughtless but necessary death—is ever present. Even the seemingly benign snapshots of nature that we capture on our i-phones—snapshots with postcard appeal—verify the jungle’s ongoing juggling act of eating, mating, hunting, and hiding. The dramatic vibrancy of this teeming patch of biodiversity is the result.

Paradoxically, the violence looks peaceful.  A juvenile anole situates himself on a lone branch under the outermost leaf of the fig tree and you think “how cute.” But he does this not to look cute but to get a little shuteye while the vine snake, emerging from a day of slumber, stretches himself out like soft taffy to scour the tree’s interior for breakfast. It’s an enthralling moment, as we momentarily become omniscient narrator, seeing what the snake cannot. When the vine snake, wizened by trial and error, eventually adjusts to explore the exterior first, the lizard responds by going to sleep in the tree’s dense interior. But the move from the boroughs to lower Manhattan takes time, and the cost of relocation will be blood.

Still, we take the pic of the vine snake and paste it on our blog as the reason we came to the rainforest. Little do we know, as the friendly waiter serves us a cold glass of papaya juice the next morning, that we came to the rainforest not to witness the fullness of life, but rather to see, to rave over, the consequences of death.

It is also true that animals are frequently altruistic, loving, and maybe even endowed with a basic sense of right and wrong. But none of these qualities per se matters when you boil existence to its essence. In fact, it all adds up to one huge red herring. Animals cooperate for the sole reason that they are trying to avoid being killed while enhancing their own ability to kill. So ubiquitous is the law of the jungle that many species will even consume members of their own tribe. There is no censure or praise under this indifferent canopy. The fittest thereby survive and, as a result, the selection is as natural as it is amoral.

How these observations bear on humanity’s place in this jungle—as well as our justifiable behavior within it—remains a fascinating and hotly charged question. Many humans exploit nature’s bloody game of survival to rationalize a wonton exercise of dominance over the non-human world. It’s a jungle out there, we tell ourselves, and thus, to survive, we’ve got to cash in on our evolutionary success by tracking, hunting, killing and eating those members of the jungle that we can track, hunt, kill, and eat.

But we know that’s not quite right. I suspect that we assume this position not because we think we’re integrated into the rainforest in the way that a skink or toucan is, but because we are simply seeking an easy, species-specific excuse to steal the forest’s low hanging fruit. No viable human society, with the possible exception of an academic department, justifies its behavior according jungle rules.

To deny the veracity of this human/non-human relationship is easy—daily life is held together with too much selflessness and cooperation for us to entertain the survival of the fittest fantasy for too long. But doing raises a more difficult question. Untangling it must begin by exploring our understanding of wilderness. When we stand on the precipice of a rainforest, preparing to enter, how do we envision our place within it?

I imagine for some visitors nature provides yet another product to consume. They paid their money and, dammit, they’re going to see their monkeys. They take in wilderness the same way they cut into their Costa Rican steak at the end of the day. Others see themselves as preparing to enter virgin territory, respectful intruders into a mythically sacred and exotic place. But this conception is equally flawed, if for no other reason than the fact that they are there and, by their mere presence, sullying the virginity of the place. The whole notion of an untouched wilderness is thus about as realistic as the noise a falling tree makes when there’s no one there to hear it.

As a species sharing the earth with others, humans have every right to integrate our lives into the rainforest. However, led as we are by the frontal lobe, we bring to this environment our own unique set of possible contributions. Consuming the oxygen generated by endless primary growth, we may not be able to camouflage ourselves, emit a noxious musk, or carry twenty times our weight, but we can contemplate the most responsible way to minimize our impact on finite natural resources. Granted, that choice might have meant avoiding taking a jumbo jet to San Jose, followed by a puddle jumper, to reach this place. But curiosity has its costs. And, if we can walk out with a clearer notion of our relationship with other animal species, maybe there will be some offsets.

And what would that clearer notion look like? That will be the question I’ll address in my next post. But for now, let’s say—despite the endemic violence—that there’s no room in it for our unnecessary exploitation of the animals with whom we share this mysterious space. In that axiom, moreover, lies a powerful message about the way we eat, what we wear, and the products we use.



Two of World’s Most Influential Opinion Makers On Animal Rights

» March 2nd, 2014


Here is a discussion between Gail Collins and David Brooks, both of the Times op-ed page, where they are columnists. This is not a parody. I have made none of it up. You will be stunned at the . . .  oh, never mind. Just read on. (And please follow on twitter @the_pitchfork. 


Gail Collins: David, here in New York we’ve been having a crisis over swans. Can we talk about that today? I don’t think we’ve ever discussed large fowl before.

David Brooks: I’d be really happy to talk about them, but when I was growing up we called them pigeons. The only birds I remember in New York were pigeons — and maybe sparrows, but sparrows manage to live without actually entering the consciousness of the creatures around them. I’m guessing you’re referring to pigeons and that now we’re calling them swans in the hopes that it will boost their self-esteem.

Gail: Wow, I’m getting a vision of pigeons tattooing each other and shooting up steroids. I think we have another movie script idea. But no, this involves real swans – mute swans, to be precise.

The New York Department of Environmental Conservation wants to get rid of virtually all the mute swans in the state. Apparently they eat up a lot of aquatic vegetation. But their main crime is being nonnative. Rich people brought them over from Europe to swim around in their estate ponds and now there are about 2,200 of them. Actually, that doesn’t seem like a lot of birds for a state this big. But the officials want to declare the swans a “prohibited invasive species.”

Doesn’t that seem sort of un-American?

David: My view is that the swans should be able to claim political asylum to escape all the Frenchmen chasing them for their foie gras. Yes, I know foie gras comes from geese, not swans, but I’m not sure U.S. immigration officials know that.

Gail: I’m generally in favor of government intervention in animal-management situations, but I’m coming down on the swan side. If New York is going to worry about wildlife overpopulation, they should concentrate on the deer and the geese. Or send all their troops west to block the path of the wild pigs. Do you know how many feral hogs we’ve got in this country? They’re taking over!

David: We’ve got feral hogs in Washington too! Many with law degrees. I’m not sure what the best method to reduce their number is, though bow hunting strikes me as a promising approach.

As for your animal problems in New York, I’m sensing an agreement between us. I‘d take care of the excess deer first. Then I’d take on the geese. I was once almost killed by a very angry mama goose while out for a run in Tarrytown. Since then I’ve been terrified at the prospect of being killed by anything essentially vegetarian. I wouldn’t mind some carnivorous bear or a lion taking me down, but I’d hate to be gummed to death by a grass eater.

Gail: You’ve been thinking a lot about ethics lately. Where do you come down on human rights versus animal rights?

David: My thinking about animal rights is evolving, I guess. On the one hand, I eat animals. On the other hand, it’s hard not to be impressed with the moral sophistication of some animals. The question to me is whether animals have souls. I guess I don’t think any have the sort of souls that could be saved or damned. But I do think elephants, dolphins and dogs exhibit soul-like behavior — that is to say, they seem to exhibit moral virtues, like empathy and loyalty.

Last December I gave a Sidney Award to an essay on the soulful behavior of elephants. In one story an elephant who had been abused at a circus greeted a new acquaintance by showing her all the places where she had been injured. The other elephant touched each injured spot with her trunk, as if to say: I feel for you. I am with you.

I wouldn’t be comfortable eating an animal who could do that.

On the other hand, when it comes to geese and deer, I’m like: Go ahead, make my day. I guess I’m describing a slippery slope between animals that seem to have soul-like pieces and animals, like cows, that don’t. This may be extremely self-justifying and bogus, but I’m comfortable with slippery slope arguments. Much of life is about making decisions on a continuum.

Gail: I believe humans come first, and that our main responsibility to the animals is not to cause them unnecessary suffering. If there are too many deer or geese, it’s O.K. to get rid of the excess. But we have to do our best to kill them fast so they won’t die in pain.

David: I’m totally with you on the reducing pain element. Here the laws of kosher killing seem wise. It’s amazing, by the way, how late this sensibility entered human history. For centuries and centuries, even after civilization was quite far along, many smart, caring people were utterly insensible to the suffering of animals. They would have considered it bizarre to care as we do.

Gail: I’m also a big fan of protecting endangered species, but to tell the truth, that’s mainly because they’re a good warning indicator. The things we have to do to protect endangered species are almost always things we need to do to protect the planet for ourselves. Otherwise, to be honest, I could be pretty serene about the passing of the stubfoot toad.

David: Here I slide back onto my continuum. I’d be for preserving endangered animals as long as the human costs aren’t too high.Absolutists sometimes seem on the verge of stopping economic growth for the sake of a few snail darters. More generally, I’m for saving truly homely animals. We have to fight our natural tendency to favor the adorable. It’s a good moral discipline to defend the stubfoot toad, while forcing koalas to take care of themselves.

Gail: Our national attitude toward wild animals has too much of a pro-cuteness bias. If deer had tusks and little beady eyes, we’d have long ago figured out how to reduce the deer population.

David: I’m trying to think of the ugliest animals we allow to live among us. Donkeys I guess. Plus journalists.

Gail: And then there’s meat-eating. How far do you think we’re obliged to go in making sure the animals we eat weren’t tortured on their way to the dinner table? Nick Kristof wrote a columnrecently about factory farming, where animals are squashed so close together that they spend their lives unable to move.

I’m not sure we have an ethical obligation to give livestock full and rewarding lives, but we should at least face up to the way these animals are treated. Right now this is one of the many, many aspects of society where we tend to vote for avoidance.

David: If anybody really wants to think hard about this, I recommend Jonathan Safran Foer’s book “Eating Animals.” For myself, I prefer not to know. I’ve definitely practiced avoidance all my life. I don’t suppose there is any nonmessy way to kill large numbers of large animals, though obviously I’d be for humane treatment on the way to the culling floor.

Gail: How do you feel about hunting? I can appreciate the intense feeling a lot of people have for hunting – although the business about standing in the water waiting for a duck to fly by still escapes me. And while it’s good for gun control advocates to make sure they aren’t mistaken for anti-hunting crusaders, some politicians do go overboard on that point. Listening to some liberal Democrats talk about the glories of shooting partridge, you’d think they were refugees from “Downton Abbey.”

David: I respect hunting as a social institution and I defend it ideologically, but to be honest I could never hunt myself. I have a problem with the idea of sitting around waiting for something and then I have a problem with the act of shooting a creature. That pretty much takes me out of the two big sides of the hunting vocation. I say that aware that I grew up in a big city and I have a certain urban value set so I’m hesitant to impose it on others. I do understand the mental and physical challenge of the sport.

Gail: By the way, what’s your favorite wild animal? Years ago, I did a story about the Bronx Zoo, and I went looking for an animal that was so unlovely, nobody even went “aww” at the babies. I finally settled on the bats. I’ve been a big bat fan ever since.

David: O.K., now we’re crossing the credibility threshold. Do you mean to tell me if a bat landed on your shoulders you wouldn’t immediately flop around frantically trying to get the ugly little bugger off you? I definitely would.

Gail: You’ve got me. Last year, I was in the country and grabbed a book from the shelf. A bat fell out and landed on the desk in front of me, hissing. I instinctively clobbered it with the book before I had a chance to contemplate the critical role of bats in the circle of life.

David: I guess my favorite ugly animal would be the sloth. It’s not only truly ugly, it’s a moral role model. It teaches us to slow down and enjoy life.


» February 8th, 2014


Just a quick note to thank you for your patience as I finish a 6,000-word piece tentatively called “Loving Animals to Death: How The Food Movement Cooks its Own Goose.” It’s for a big publication and it’s due to my editor in the next few days. Been working round the clock on it. I plan to be back at The Pitchfork by Thursday, flush with fresh material. Meantime, be well.