Many Voices


sea gull

“when we no longer hear the voices of warbler and wren, our own speaking can no longer be nourished by their cadences”  –David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous

Sitting atop a large rock on the Oregon coast with eyes closed.  The sound of the waves pours into my ears and I imagine the water pouring in close behind it.  The water swirls around my head and cleanses the toxic accumulation of so many human voices.

A healthy frame of mind requires a varied aural diet; a disproporationate number of voices from any one source or any one species can be detrimental.  Listening exclusively to human voices can warp the brain like a piece of old wood and dangerously distort one’s vision.

Humans listening exclusively to other humans have locked themselves into a house of mirrors where they regularly bump into and injure others as they are unable to effectively navigate the terrain.

The voice of the ocean was soothing.

While the ocean was speaking with its waves, birds flew in and out of view.  Their voices were less rhythmic and sometimes sharper than that of the waves.  They announced their presence, caught one’s eye, and departed, perhaps off to visit others.

Even the mussels and the barnacles have voices if one is willing to listen.  Compared to a 5 to 6 foot tall mammal, they are relatively small.  Compared to the ocean, they are relatively quiet.  But by bending at the knee, cupping an ear, and leaning close their collective chorus becomes audible.  They are filtering the ocean water; they are tightening or loosening their grip on the rock beneath them.

Animals and elements can show us the way out of the house of mirrors that is our own creation as well as our own prison.  We have walled ourselves in but their voices are not reflected in the glass and so by listening we can escape into the wider world and join them.  Only then can we begin to heal the broken relationships that result from our absence and neglect.

oregon mussles

Letter to the Editor re “Next Out of the Printer, Living Tissue”

Letter to the Editor re “Next Out of the Printer, Living Tissue”
Date submitted: August 18, 2013
News outlet: New York Times

A recent article on Darryl D’Lima’s efforts to print living tissue such as knee cartilage with a 3-D printer had a moderate tone (“Next Out of the Printer, Living Tissue” August 18).  It presented D’Lima’s efforts without succumbing to the enthusiasm of zealots who sometimes suggest that whole organs will be printed and transplanted into patients in the near future.

Yet there was no mention in the article that D’Lima has overwhelmingly produced dead rather than living tissue; specifically, dead rabbit tissue.  D’Lima has been performing medically unnecessary surgeries and killing rabbits in his lab for years.

To present only the possibility of a future benefit without also presenting the very real harm that is currently being inflicted on animals is a disservice, if not a deception, to your readers.

Darryl D'Lima ( performs deadly experiments on rabbits.

Darryl D’Lima ( performs deadly experiments on rabbits.

From Social Justice to Social Science? A Response to Nick Cooney

Nick Cooney, author of Change of Heart and Veganomics, recently published a blog post at that he described as possibly “the most important blog post [he’s] ever written.”  The post was titled “Changing Vegan Advocacy from An Art to a Science” and in it he argues that:

“not only can we use direct testing to improve our vegan advocacy efforts, but that we have an ethical imperative to do so.”

The idea is that that the animal liberation movement needs to invest far greater resources on controlled experiments to carefully craft a message and to design outreach materials so as to maximize their effectiveness.  For example, Vegan Outreach offers several different booklets detailing the horrors of animal agriculture and promoting vegan eating.  Cooney writes that:

“Whenever there are four videos – or leaflets, or vegetarian starter guides, or vegan eating websites, or humane education talks, or whatever – one of them is going to be most effective at changing diets and saving lives. That is simple fact”.

Cooney therefore suggests that the animal liberation movement begin to do the work of determing which is the most effective rather than relying on hunches, personal preferences, or anecdotal evidence.  Humane League Labs, the research wing of The Humane League (founded by Cooney), is dedicated to conducting such research and has, amongst other things, evaluated Vegan Outreach materials.  According to the Humane League Labs website they also plan to evaluate the efficacy of Facebooks advertisements that promote veganism, to determine what makes factory farming videos most compelling, and to assess whether “go vegan”, “go vegetarian”, or “eat less meat” is the most effective request.

I have not conducted a scientific poll, but my general impression is that Cooney’s post has been well received by animal advocates.

Activists as Alchemists?


“The Alchemist and His Gold” by Edmund Dulac

Cooney’s title indicates a desire to convert vegan advocacy from “an art to a science” but he begins his article by comparing the current state of vegan advocacy to alchemy which is neither an art nor a science but rather a pseudoscience.  After this sleight of hand, the widely agreed upon shortcomings of alchemy are then presumed to translate into shortcomings of the current state of vegan advocacy.  It is a weak analogy and consequently a weak argument.

This alchemy analogy allows Cooney’s prefered solution of pouring resources into focus groups and marketing studies to assume the heroic role of chemistry which puts the alchemists out of business, shutters their schools, and, in short order, has provided medicine, smartphones, and clean drinking water…in other words: better living!

But if vegan advocacy is better understood as an art rather than a science (or a pseudoscience) then grassroots activists are street artists who are not simply operating with a formula and closely following a script; what works for one will not necessarily yield similar results for another.  Holding the line, Cooney could simply insist that these are simply additional variables that well designed studies could theoretically control for; but at some point positing variables begins to look like adding epicycles to make a theory work.

Sell it Like Soap

Introducing a second fairly weak analogy, Cooney writes:

“In the business world, testing and research are used all the time to help corporations sell more products and make more money.”

and thus he concludes:

“If testing can be used to sell products, to win elections, and to save human lives, it can also be used to save the lives of animals. Not only can it be used, but it’s my strong belief that those of us who care about farm animals have an ethical obligation to use testing and research to guide our vegan advocacy work.”

The analogy between business success and the success of a social justice movement is tenuous at best tending to mislead more than inform.  Businesses must overwhelmingly focus on short term gains looking toward quarterly profits; social justice movements must think in long spans of time.  CEOs don’t suggest that “the arc of history is long but it bends toward profit” to boost the morale of impatient shareholders.  Businesses are strictly hierarchical; social justice movements may have influential leaders but often lack the same type of control mechanisms.  Businesses are staffed by formally trained professionals and experts; social justice movements do not have such employees.

Of course, the analogy would not be quite so weak if the animal movement was not a movement of people but rather was a movement of nonprofit corporations.  But which of these is a more accurate description of the movement may simply be a glass half full-half empty question that lacks a definitive answer and there is little indication from his article which description Cooney favors.

As a sidenote, this is not a novel approach.  It is the same idea behind the spurious notion of voting with our dollars.  And was also voiced by John Lennon and Yoko Ono who in promoting peace said they would “sell it like soap”.

Who Needs Activists?

The word “activist” is used only once in Cooney’s almost 3000 word article.  It is used to refer to “vegan activists” who would be “in a quandry” if test results did not align with their philosophy such as if the phrase “Go Vegetarian” proved more effective in changing dietary habits than the phrase “Go Vegan”.  That is to say, the word “activist” is only used once and in that one instance it refers to people who are presumed to be quite ideologically rigid.

Far from simply quibbling about Cooney’s word choice, the point is that converting a social justice movement into a research project leaves little room for the participation of grassroots activists other than scripted legwork.  The real work would be done by social scientists leading focus groups with national nonprofits commissioning the studies and distributing the results.  The only role for activists would then possibly be to receive the results of such testing and to act and communicate with the approved vocabulary, font choice, and brochure color.  Activists would not be autonomous actors making meaningful decisions about their own campaigns but would be expected to defer to experts.  Indeed, Cooney writes that:

“to the extent we disregard empirical data in favor of philosophy or sociological theory, we are valuing the ideas in our head over the tangible misery of animals just out of sight.”

This would likely be the charge hurled at activists who go off script.

And Finally, a False Dilemma

“We as a movement have two choices,” writes Cooney.  Only two choices?

Cooney insists that we must choose between his approach and the status quo that he describes as analogous to knowingly embracing the pseudoscience of alchemy.  It is a false dilemma.  We are not restricted to either mimicking the politicians who take positions and choose their words based on the latest poll results (Cooney cites Barack Obama’s reelection campaign) or else adopting the methodology of those who sought to alchemically turn lead into gold.  We are not restricted to a choice between science and pseudoscience but rather can allow vegan advocacy to function as an art or better yet as a component of a social justice movement.   There need not be a party line that activists must adhere to once “the science is in”; rather strength (and efficacy) may be better found in a diversity of people adopting a diversity of approaches.  This does not mean that people are simply left to rely on their own hunches; at least not anymore than a skilled painter relies on exclusively on hunches as to what will resonate with a viewer.  It does not mean that all choices are equally good simply because there is no definitive answer that is always and everywhere preferable.


The principal mistake being made by Cooney is that he is providing a technical answer to what is essentially not a technical problem.  He doesn’t want to replace alchemy with chemistry rather he wants to replace painting with chemistry or social justice with chemistry.  It is not his mistake alone, it is a cultural inclination.  The tangible successes of science have prompted us to apply its methods beyond reasonable limits.

To this end Cooney quotes Bill Gates, “I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improving the human condition.”  Cooney says that “[t]hose words are so powerful, and from such an authoritative source” that he is compelled to repeat the quote a second time and does so.

It is not clear to me why Bill Gates is deemed an “authoritative source” on questions pertaining to animal advocacy or to advancing a social justice movement but the ability to measure something is not the same as the ability to control or change that thing.

There is far more than an algorithm between us and animal liberation.

Productive Personality Disorder

harold lloyd

“Time’s inexorable nature provides the ultimate model of domination.”
–John Zerzan, “Time and Its Discontents” [1]

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) was released last May and has since attracted a significant amount of criticism.  Many such as the Coalition for DSM-5 Reform have argued that:

“the lowering of diagnostic thresholds in several categories, rais[es] the spectre that thousands of individuals experiencing normative distress might be labeled with a mental disorder and treated with psychiatric drugs that have dangerous side effects” [2]

Normal human behavior is seemingly being pathologized with only a very narrow range of behavior being deemed healthy or normal and not in need of intervention.  Not only have additional disorders been added since the last edition (DSM-IV) but fewer criteria are now required in order to be diagnosed with a previously established disorder.  Allen Frances of Duke University has written that:

“Grief is now Major Depressive Disorder; medical illness is Somatic Symptom Disorder; everyday worries are Generalized Anxiety Disorder; the forgetting of old age is Mild Neurocognitive Disorder; being geeky smart makes you an Aspie; gorging is Binge Eating Disorder; having temper tantrums is Childhood Bipolar Disorder; and all of us have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).” [3]

Diversity is antithetical to industrial society where efficiency requires interchangeable parts.  Expanding what counts as illness therefore serves the both the function of creating new customers for high priced pharmaceuticals as well as providing rationale for modifying human behavior that is inefficient or otherwise undesirable from the perspective of industry.

While I wholeheartedly share these concerns, I am going to articulate a concern different from the above theme.  I am going to suggest a new disorder that could also be added to the DSM-5: Productive Personality Disorder (PPD).* So here it goes:

Do you feel the need to be always busy?  Do you feel compelled to “accomplish” something as a means of demonstrating your self-worth to others?  Do you mistake stillness for idleness? Quiet for deficiency?  Does a hectic schedule make you feel more important?  Do you feel the need to produce something simply to have “something to show for yourself”?

You may suffer from Productive Personality Disorder (PPD).

There is not a pill to take and consulting a doctor is not advised.  PPD is not an illness that simply afflicts individuals.  PPD afflicts whole societies and only derivatively afflicts members of a society.

The good news is that the harm imposed by PPD can be mitigated.  Unfortunately, the needed course of action is precisely what those afflicted with PPD struggle to do: pause.

Given the difficulty of such an instruction, some therapeutic exercises may be helpful.  In no particular order:

  1. Go outside.  Admire the shape of a nearby rock.
  2. Listen to any sound within earshot.  Recognize it as music.
  3. Look to the horizon.   Trace its contour.  Watch it move.
  4. Make eye contact with an animal.  Wish them well.

It’s important to remember that PPD is not your fault but has been imposed on you no less than the deliberately inflicted injuries imposed on nonhuman animals in a laboratory.  Your very birth may have been scheduled according to the needs of hospital bureaucracy or a doctor’s vacation schedule.  Compulsory factory style education is rigidly scheduled with ringing bells to set a prescribed pace and often includes paperwork to be completed before a student can relieve his or her bowels.  In “Time and Its Discontents,” John Zerzan writes:

 “In the world of alienation no adult can contrive or decree the freedom from time that the child habitually enjoys–and must be made to lose. Time training, the essence of schooling, is vitally important to society.”

Time training.  Learning to be busy and without opportunity to reflect.  To pack up your books and move to your next class when the bell rings and not until the bell rings.  Furthermore, all modern (read as: electronic) correspondence is now dated, time stamped, and archived (not simply by the NSA).  I can, for example, look back and learn that on November 27, 2009 at 6:26am, I shared a story online about a chupacabra sighting (the creature in question turned out to be a coyote—so really, it was a coyote sighting).

For many, the urge to do something (anything!) may be based on the realization that the current of our culture is towards destruction and therefore to simply be is to feel complicit.  The pace being set is that of a person with their hair on fire.  Yet, in a different time and place, with a different cultural current, to simply be would be to contribute; the practices of everyday life could potentially benefit others.  To exist would mean to be complicit.

This rationale for frenetic action even in the face of a world on fire is captured and defused by Paul Kingsnorth:

“Perhaps to a political activist, sitting by a stream in a forest seems like self-indulgence in the face of mass extinction and climate change, but it is the opposite. If you don’t know why that stream matters, you are not equipped to protect it. If you have forgotten how to listen to it, you may end up on the wrong side, as so many have before you.” [4]

It takes time to visit and to listen.  And to then, but only then, act decisively.


*It will be most embarassing for me if this fanciful disorder is actually included in the DSM-5.