Letter to the Editor re: “Logging Towns Are on a Roll”

Letter to the Editor re “Logging Towns Are on a Roll,” February 24, 2012
Date submitted: February 25, 2013
News outlet: The Wall Street Journal

In truth, log yards are graveyards.  The stacked bodies of dead trees, viewed merely as building materials, were not only themselves once alive but also provided homes and security for countless others who lived amongst their branches.

To justify the industrial scale slaughter of trees by pointing to shifting unemployment rates and the “composite price per thousand board feet of framing lumber” is to paper over atrocity with the pages of an accounting ledger.

log yard daily astorian

The Zoobooks Approach to Animal Liberation

zoobooks orangutanszoobooks pandaszoobooks elephants

A recent post highlighted the fact that dung beetles navigate by the light of the Milky Way galaxy and suggested the possibility of cultivating a greater compassion for insects.  This is a precarious yet common form of reasoning on behalf of animals.

Animal rights and animal protection organizations regularly point out the amazing range of abilities that nonhuman animals possess.  In a video released by PETA titled “Who Cares”, we learn that rats and mice are “affectionate”, “clever”, “resourceful”, that they “form lifelong relationships”, and even “giggle when they are having fun”.  In laboratories they are said to feel “lonely, anxious, and depressed”.

In Defense of Animals (IDA) describes elephants as “complex, social animals” who “live in extended family groups” and develop “lifelong bonds”.

Note that this is often quite different from learning about animals for the express purpose of skillfully caring for them and/or being sure not to unwittingly cause them harm.  It may be practically important to know about familial bonds amongst animals but probably less important to know if they regularly laugh (or sing).

I am lightheartedly calling this the Zoobooks Approach to animal liberation. It could just as easily be described as the David Attenborough Approach.  The core idea is to encourage people to learn about animals as a means of heightening their respect and consideration for those animals.  So for example, one might think that if people know that pigs enjoy, and arguably excel, at playing video games they will act differently toward pigs (but then again, given that such video game research has been done by animal science professors and apologists for animal agriculture it is probably not the best example!).

The danger in this line of reasoning is that one mistakenly takes the presence of such abilities and/or intelligences as requisites for moral consideration.  The danger is amplified when the ability or intelligence in question is deemed to be “human-like”; animals are then often seen as worthy of concern only to the extent that they are like us.  But as Gary Francione notes, “there is absolutely no logical relationship between the possession of humanlike intelligence and the morality of using animals as resources.”

So how do I explain seemingly engaging in this form of argument last month and then calling it into question this month?  My explanation is that this shouldn’t be considered a “form of argument” in the first place and that problems only arise when it is considered as an argument.

I do not wish to suggest that insects warrant compassion because they navigate by starlight, recognize their peers, experience loneliness, or may be able to count.  We do not need to know these things about a particular individual or species in order to grant it moral consideration.  The facts presented in an issue of Zoobooks are not presented as premises in a moral argument.

That dung beetles are “celestial navigators” is closer to a dramatic and memorable story than an academic argument.

It should be clear that philosophical arguments alone cannot bring liberation for animals; if it were otherwise, the task of liberation would be behind us.  And while scientific experiments continue to reveal a great wealth of information about our animal relations the findings rarely cause even the experimenters to set aside cruel and invasive techniques.

It has been said that scientists could discover that dairy cows spend their time praying the rosary and awaiting the return of Jesus and it wouldn’t add a day to their life.  To wit, the person who discovered that rats laugh—Jaak Panksepp—is himself an unapologetic animal experimenter who, as recently as August 2012, was a co-author on a study in which rats were forced to fight one another before being decapitated and having their brains removed and cut into slices.

So it is clear that facts are not enough and even when strung together into cogent arguments remain insufficient to affect the behavior of most people.  We therefore need to do more than aspire to allot moral consideration based on the result of an algorithm, moral calculus, or peer-reviewed article; rationing compassion in this manner is unlikely to work.

We—in the broadest and most inclusive sense—need stories.

The Dark Mountain Manifesto, released in 2009, comes to a similar conclusion stating that: “borrowing the guise of science and reason, we began to deny the role of stories, to dismiss their power as something primitive, childish, outgrown…Yet for all this, our world is still shaped by stories.”

We need stories that inspire and leave us in awe of our animal relations.  Stories that are informed in part by science, in part by lived experience but stories that make us grateful for the company of our four-legged, our feathered, our finned, our scaled, and our cold-blooded relations.

Philosophers, scientists, and theorists all have a role to play but the contributions of skilled storytellers and gifted artists must not be overlooked  .


Letter to the Editor re: Wildlife Safari

In addition to regular posts of the sort that have appeared thus far, I will occasionally be posting the text of relevant letters to the editor that I submit to newspapers and other publications.  I currently aim for two posts per month; any letters that appear will be in addition to those two posts.  The idea is that even if such letters are not published by the news outlet to which they are submitted they will still be available here.

Letter to the Editor re: Wildlife Safari
Submitted: February 11, 2013
News outlet: The News-Review (Roseburg, OR)

In a little over a year, two giraffes—Kipandi and Hodari—have died at Wildlife Safari. Kipandi was six years old and Hodari was fifteen.

It is my hope that these deaths cause people to pause and reevaluate Wildlife Safari. Over 500 animals are contained in the 600 acre park yet the Wildlife Safari website boasts that the animals are “in their natural habitat freely roaming much as they do in the wild”. But the fact is that this is essentially an animal themed amusement park.

The presence of a petting zoo, camel rides, a so-called elephant car wash, and a lion tug-of-war (with a lion on one end of the rope and park-goers on the other) makes clear that Wildlife Safari is first and foremost about amusing park-goers and treating animals like entertaining exhibits. If further evidence is needed, the “Uganda Railway” train running through the Village area should suffice.

The cheetah breeding program—which the park is often praised for—serves largely to fill cages and exhibits at other zoos. Wildlife Safari’s website says that “[cheetah] cubs born at the park have populated zoos across the U.S.”. Yet many people respect Wildlife Safari precisely because it is perceived as being somehow different than a zoo; failing to realize that Wildlife Safari is the breeding ground for other facilities that they rightfully condemn.

In short, animals do not belong in captivity. And they do not exist for our amusement.

Correction:  The original text of this letter stated that Hodari and Kipandi died within a month.  In fact, Kipandi died in January 2012 and Hodari in February 2013.  The above text has been corrected to reflect this.

Update: This letter was published by The News-Review on February 21, 2013.

What Could Compensate for the Loss of the Night Sky?

Shanghai 31° 14’ 39’’ N 2012-03-19 lst 14:42

It is at best hubris and at worst obscene to think that we can even answer the question; to think that we could even crudely predict the consequences of such a monumental change in our lived experience. But in reality there is no prediction to be made because most humans now live in cities where the night sky has been blotted out. We do not need to predict the consequences rather we need to determine what we have lost. It is a relatively new experience for humanity to be living without stars and consequences are only now coming to light.

The New York Times Magazine recently featured a slide show of images by photographer Thierry Cohen that show cityscapes and the (normally absent) starry sky. Cohen’s project is titled “Darkened Cities” and it re-inserts what has been lost so that we can better know and feel what has been taken from us. The sky in Cohen’s photographs is brilliant and it is not a product of his imagination, it is the genuine sky of the world we live in, he has just photographed it in places where it remains visible and inserted into a cityscape where it is generally hidden from view.

The project highlights the fact that we are born into a denuded landscape (skyscape?) and so often only notice the loss that happens during our relatively short lives. We don’t frequently question the desecration that occurred prior to our own individual existence. But obviously we suffer from decisions made prior to our birth just as our decisions today will either benefit or harm those who follow us. That we are not always aware of the harm that has been done does not lessen—in fact it may amplify—our loss.
At some point—or more accurately, at a great number of points—a decision, or more accurately a long series of decisions, was made that stars are not important to our well being. That we can blot out the night sky without suffering…or at least not suffering in a way that couldn’t be offset by some perceived benefit. But what benefit could be sufficient? And how can such a decision be made and imposed on the whole community of life?

In a 2004 article in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, Travis Longcore and Catherine Rich distinguished between “astronomical light pollution” and “ecological light pollution”. The former is light pollution that obscures our view of the night sky; the later is light pollution that disrupts the normal light-dark patterns that are part of the ecosystems that animals—human and nonhuman—have evolved in concert with.

The human health effects are significant and are still being documented.

In 2012, the American Medical Association issued a report on the health effects of light pollution stating:

“The natural 24-hour cycle of light and dark helps maintain precise alignment of circadian biological rhythms, the general activation of the central nervous system and various biological and cellular processes, and entrainment of melatonin release from the pineal gland. Pervasive use of nighttime lighting disrupts these endogenous processes and creates potentially harmful health effects and/or hazardous situations with varying degrees of harm…Even low intensity nighttime light has the capability of suppressing melatonin release. In various laboratory models of cancer, melatonin serves as a circulating anticancer signal and suppresses tumor growth. Limited epidemiological studies support the hypothesis that nighttime lighting and/or repetitive disruption of circadian rhythms increases cancer risk; most attention in this arena has been devoted to breast cancer.”

Ecological Consequences of Artificial Night Lighting—a volume edited by Longcore and Rich—catalogs the deleterious effects on animals. Many animals are disoriented, attracted or repelled to artificial lighting. Migratory birds are drawn off course and crash into illuminated buildings. Nocturnal foragers are faced with what is effectively a “perpetual full moon” and consequently may have reduced time to obtain needed calories or else face greater exposure to predators. Predator-prey relationships and reproductive patterns can be disrupted. Wildlife corridors may be effectively blocked.
Below is a short list of more specific findings from the recent scientific literature:

  • Artificial Night Lighting and Sea Turtles (2003)
    Sea turtle hatchlings exposed to lights may fail to find the sea after emerging.
    “What happens is documented on the beach surface by their flipperprints…Instead of tracks leading directly to the sea, turtles leave evidence that they crawled for hours on circuitous paths (‘disorientation’), or on direct paths away from the ocean and toward lighting (‘misorientation’).”
  • Apparent Effects of Light Pollution on Singing Behavior of American Robins (2006)
    “Proliferation of artificial nocturnal light may be strongly affecting singing behavior of American Robins at a population level.”
  • The Effect of Light Intensity on Sockeye Salmon Fry Migratory Behavior and Predation by Cottids in the Cedar River, Washington (2004)
    “increased light intensity appears to slow or stop out-migration of fry, making them more vulnerable to capture by predators such as cottids”
  • Studying the Ecological Impacts of Light Pollution on Wildlife: Amphibians as Models (2007)
    “Results…demonstrate that artificial night lighting has the potential to affect foraging and breeding as well as growth and development of frogs and salamanders…artificial night lighting should be considered an additional factor that negatively impacts amphib¬ian populations”
  • Street Lighting Changes the Composition of Invertebrate Communities (2012)
    “invertebrate community composition is affected by proximity to street lighting independently of the time of day. Five major invertebrate groups contributed to compositional differences, resulting in an increase in the number of predatory and scavenging individuals in brightly lit communities. Our results indicate that street lighting changes the environment at higher levels of biological organization than previously recognized, raising the potential that it can alter the structure and function of ecosystems.
  • Does Night Lighting Harm Trees (2002)
    Artificial lighting “can change flowering patterns, and most importantly, promote continued growth thereby preventing trees from developing dormancy that allows them to survive the rigors of winter weather.” Additionally, disruption of flowering patterns can in turn negatively affect pollinator species.

Even aquatic animals are not exempt from the bright lights of humanity. Fishing boats, offshore oil rigs, and research vessels project light in places and times that would otherwise be dark. In some cases, aquatic animals live and/or feed at very specific depths. A particular depth can normally be assessed by the amount of sunlight that penetrates the water. This is disrupted by artificial light thereby generating conflict and exacerbating competition.

A 2001 article in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society calculates that:

“about one-fifth of the World population, more than two-thirds of the United States population and more than one half of the European Union population have already lost naked eye visibility of the Milky Way. Finally, about one-tenth of the World population, more than 40 per cent of the United States population and one-sixth of the European Union population no longer view the heavens with the eye adapted to night vision”

So in exchange for compromised human health, dead animals, damaged ecosystems, and a sky void of stars we have gained the ability to forego sleep by working graveyard shifts under fluorescent lights.  If there is such thing as a birthright it must include the full use of our eyes and an unimpeded view of the night sky.

San Francisco 37° 48’ 30’’ N 2010-10-09 lst 20:58

Recommended Resources:

Ecological Consequences of Artificial Night Lighting edited by Travis Longcore and Catherine Rich http://www.urbanwildlands.org/ecanlbook.html

International Dark Sky Association www.darksky.org

Additional research articles about ecological light pollution compiled by Christopher Kyba (Free University of Berlin) http://userpage.fu-berlin.de/~kyba/literature/ecol_light_pol.html