Birds and Pedestrians

David Allen Sibley begins the third chapter of his book Sibley’s Birding Basics by quoting the inimitable Yogi Berra: “You can observe a lot by just watching” (21). The focus of this portion of Sibley’s book is evident in the chapter title, “The Challenges to Bird Identification.” Sibley addresses the significance of field marks, relative versus proportional differences between species, the overall gestalt of a bird, and more. He repeatedly stresses the fact that there is no substitute for experience in the field.

By the end of the chapter, he writes “the expert may seem to have a mystical ability to discern detail and make an identification when you can see only a blur…[but] we all perform equivalent feats every day” (37) [italics added]. By equivalent feats, Sibley is referring to how, for example, we can recognize a friend in an instant and can do so even if our view is largely obscured. Sometimes a unique mannerism or a distinctive gait is sufficient to reveal a close acquaintance’s identity even from a significant distance. This commonplace skill is well within most people’s grasp but can seem, as he says, almost mystical when it is consciously honed and directed toward an unfamiliar subject such as birds.

Most people do not spend a significant amount of time outdoors—time “in the field” as Sibley writes—and so as ubiquitous as birds are they remain unfamiliar. Indeed, it was recently reported that “[t]hree-quarters of UK children spend less time outside than prison inmates.” This was partly attributed to “lack of green spaces and the lure of digital technology.” I recently gained some insight into this fact when leading a group of children on a nature walk through a local park. One of the kids told me how very much he was looking forward to seeing the Angry Birds movie later that afternoon. It’s unclear how many birds he noticed while walking through the park.

For the civilized, the natural world itself is largely unfamiliar and can often appear simply as an undifferentiated green mass of vegetation. The ability to identify birds is often limited to identifying a flying animal as a bird and no more. It can therefore be understood as an act of resistance to look closer and attempt to discern what is going on; to see both the forest and the trees, the species and the individual. Even modest progress in this regard is incredibly rewarding as it has the potential to make our shrinking world big again and to reveal the diversity still present in an increasingly homogenized world.

Like other domesticated animals, our senses have severely atrophied and abilities that were once widespread can now seem almost unimaginable.

Sibley writes:

The beginner [birder] might see just a flock of ducks. By identifying the species of ducks you will come to appreciate the fact that each one is not “just another duck.” By looking still more closely, you will appreciate that individuals of each species, such as the Mallard, are not “just Mallards”…a world of information is opened up.” (21)

Compare this with philosopher Iris Murdoch’s assertion that:

love is the perception of individuals. Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.”

It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to love an undifferentiated mass of green. And when all birds are simply birds, there will be little recognition of how many are struggling to survive or even on the verge of extinction.

As it happens, our failure and/or inability to look, notice, and discern is not just a threat to other animals; it is increasingly a threat to ourselves.

The corollary to Yogi Berra’s insight is that one can miss a lot by not watching and not looking. It is one thing to miss the subtle field marks of a particular bird but in a growing number of cases people who have succumbed to the “lure of digital technology” are failing to note not-so-subtle oncoming cars, buses, and even trains. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recently commissioned a study on “distracted walking” and has sponsored television and radio PSAs titled “Digital Deadwalkers”. A study from Ohio State reported that in 2010 over 1,500 pedestrians required emergency room treatment for injuries attributable to distracted walking. The total number of injuries is thought to be many, many times higher than that figure. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimates that in 2010 distracted pedestrians may have contributed to 4,200 pedestrian deaths and 70,000 traffic injuries.

The situation has gotten so bad, the number of inattentive people being killed by stepping in front of oncoming traffic has become so great, that a train station in Germany is experimenting with a potential design solution.

Recognizing that “the gaze of pedestrians has steadily moved downward as they stare at their phones”, the streetcar stations in Augsburg, Germany are installing flashing red lights on floor of the stations. Posted signs are no longer in many people’s shrinking field of view and so it is hoped that lights of the floor might alert smartphone users before they are about to be hit by a streetcar.

In 1958, Laurens van der Post said that the San/Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert had a connection to nature that “could almost be described as mystical” (quoted in John Zerzan’s Future Primitive Revisited, p. 14) In a civilized context, merely distinguishing one bird from another strikes most people as mystical. Soon it seems, the ability to peer beyond the screen of one’s phone to avoid an oncoming train might seem mystical.

Truly there is no substitute—digital or otherwise—for time “in the field”.


Elephant Attacks and the Dead End of Domestication


Not all animals are equally vulnerable to the process of domestication by humans. Indeed, very few species have fallen victim to such a thorough and decisive degree of domination. To be domesticated is to have reached the point of no return. There is but little hope for any meaningful resistance emerging from the barnyard or the slaughterhouse. There are accidents and there are injuries but not necessarily much in the way of resistance.

Even if such resistance was possible and even if it proved to be successful there is often no place for domesticated animals to go after their liberation; in many cases, their best case scenario will often be a sanctuary where individual animals could hopefully live in relative comfort until their death. Indeed, until their extinction.

Long before assuming his current role as wealthy CEO for the animal welfare behemoth HSUS, Wayne Pacelle described the goal as “one generation and out” explaining that he had “no problem with the extinction of domestic animals.” [1] It is perhaps uninspiring rhetoric but it speaks clearly to the irreversible dead-end nature of domestication. Gary Francione, no fan of Pacelle, has made similar comments: “Domestic animals are neither a real nor full part of our world or of the nonhuman world. They exist forever in a netherworld of vulnerability”.

It should not be surprising that in Jason Hribal’s book Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance, references to domesticated species such cows, pigs, chickens, sheep, and goats are scarce. In contrast two of the book’s four chapters are dedicated to resistance efforts carried out by elephants. One chapter focuses on circuses and the other on zoos; in both settings escapes are made and the animals’ tormentors are attacked.

Jared Diamond has pointed out that “Elephants have been tamed, but never domesticated.” [2]

It is a critical distinction because tame animals are often only tame until they’re not; the potential for violent resistance is ever present and quite often realized. These are animals who have been torn from the wild, having family ties severed, often beaten into submission, and then expected to slave away for the profit of their human captors. Sometimes they snap. They aren’t domesticated.

But even wild animals are not beyond the reach of civilization. They are well within striking distance and this makes both sides of the conflict vulnerable. Often portrayed as the embodiment of freedom, living in pristine landscape, wild animals routinely have their water supplies poisoned, their food adulterated, their habitat stolen or destroyed, and increasingly they suffer the effects of a changing climate. Industrial pollutants are found in the very bodies of even the most remote animals. And so it should not be surprising that wild animals—particularly wild elephants—are actively resisting a continually encroaching, continually threatening civilization.

Recent high profile incidents in West Bengal, India have shined a light on the frequency of deadly human-elephant conflicts. This past March, five people died in the course of two separate incidents. In one incident five wild elephants attacked two farmers killing one of them by effortlessly tossing him into the air and then trampling him to death. In the other incident three elephants attacked four people and quickly killed all four. These incidents gained a lot of attention in part because they happened within the span of two days and in part because one incident was captured on video. But such attacks are surprisingly frequent and routinely deadly.

In 2013, Harper’s Magazine reported that 400 people are killed every year by wild elephants in India (100 elephants also die or are killed). Deforestation and urbanization are routinely cited as the principal causes for these violent confrontations between humans and elephants meaning that humans are clearly the original aggressors in the dispute. That being the case, there is little reason to expect the death toll to slow down or the number of such incidents to wane. The economy of India is expanding at a rapid pace—in 2015 the economy expanded more rapidly than China’s—meaning the the forces provoking elephants are apt to get even more severe.

To conclude on an anthropocentric note, it may be worth asking: what might all this mean for us? To assess the prospects of civilized human beings, it may be worth considering whether we more closely resemble those beings who have already been domesticated and are thus without much hope for anything greater than a gentle escape from a world in which we don’t fit or, instead, those who are merely temporarily tamed, abused but still capable of hitting back. Like elephants, the forces impinging on us continue to get more intense. If there is any wildness left in us it will be made evident when we escape this cage.

[1] Animal People News May 1993

[2] Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel (New York: Norton, 1999), p 159

Letter to the Editor: The Day Dr. Frankenstein Came to Campus

Date submitted: 10 April 2016
News outlet: The Eugene Weekly

Jack Horner

When Montana State paleontologist Jack Horner recently spoke at the University of Oregon it was as though Dr. Frankenstein himself had arrived on campus.

Horner spoke of his efforts to “reverse engineer” a dinosaur. That is, to genetically manipulate a chicken—an evolutionary descendant of dinosaurs—so that the resulting animal will, in some way, physically resemble a dinosaur. This may involve attempting to add a long tail, altering the shape of the skull, changing the skeletal structure of the limbs, and on and on. The guiding idea is that if evolution could trace a path from velociraptor to modern chicken then humanity should be able chart a course in the reverse direction from chicken back to raptor.

Of course, the great sin of Dr. Frankenstein was hubris and an unexamined assumption that for him nothing is off limits or could ever be prohibited. But Horner’s macabre endeavors transgress on the sacred; they are an insult to the living world. If nothing else, respect for animals must bar treating them as a mere assemblage of component parts and desirable features to be rearranged and manipulated for one’s amusement or curiosity.

Jack Horner: Building a Dinosaur from a Chicken | TED Talk (2011)

When Life Hands You Oranges…

orangegateA recently posted photo on Twitter set off a full-blown Twitterstorm and ultimately resulted in Whole Foods capitulating to the will of the digital citizenry and the store’s well-heeled clientele. Proving that the moral arc of the Universe is long but it bends toward justice…or does it?

The scandal, branded as #orangegate, was ignited by a photo showing individual pre-peeled oranges in plastic clamshell style packaging for sale at Whole Foods. The initial outcry was over the wasteful use of plastic packaging and the supposedly lazy people who are willing to pay $5.99 per pound for pre-peeled oranges. The damning #orangegate photo was shared over 70,000 times and Whole Foods quickly pulled the product from its stores.

The decision to pull the product and probably more so the tone of the original wave of criticism set off a second wave of concern that is still reverberating.

Disability rights activists pointed out that pre-peeled oranges aren’t merely convenient for the lazy and the slothful but also a potential “lifesaver” for those with limited dexterity. Pre-peeled oranges and pre-prepared foods in general make fresh, healthy food more accessible. The Universe’s moral arc was now called upon to double back in the direction of keeping pre-peeled oranges on the shelf.

The blog CrippledScholar has covered the controversy and has rebutted a great number of the arguments offered by the environmentally-minded, anti-pre-peeled orange crowd (see here and here). But there is one argument that seems to warrant closer examination. The claim is that people with limited dexterity who require pre-prepared foods are free to ask for such things in the produce department of their grocery store thus alleviating the need for individually packaged pre-peeled fruit. But CrippledScholar writes that asking for assistance in this way would represent “unnecessary gatekeeping” and would be “demoralizing and humiliating”. Furthermore, it is suggested that this would make people with disabilities vulnerable to harassment, abuse, and unwanted scrutiny from store clerks. It is possible that many people would go without the product rather than ask for assistance and as explained at CrippledScholar: “[a] solution isn’t accessible if people won’t use it.”

There is no reason to doubt what is being asserted. It is absurd, insensitive, and ultimately counterproductive to argue with people about what their feelings are or should be. It is curmudgeonly and trollish to tell people what they ought to feel. If people feel humiliated that is prima facie a problem to be addressed rather than simply denied or trivialized.

But how have we arrived in a place where asking for help can reasonably and sincerely be described as “demoralizing and humiliating”? None of us are so able-bodied so as to never need help; indeed, the disability rights movement has stressed the fluidity between the categories of disabled and able-bodied. People travel from one descriptor to the other both at different points of their life and even from moment to moment as their context changes. If nothing else, feminist philosophers and disability rights activists alike have pointed out that we are born into a state of complete dependency and often experience a similar state at some point before we perish. Depending on others is a normal part of life and should not be stigmatized.

The ability to ask for help is a skill to be developed and worthy of recognition. The fact that so many of us feel the need to regularly feign invulnerability and to project complete self-sufficiency is surely responsible for a significant amount of anxiety. If it is demoralizing to ask for help, it is likely just as demoralizing to need help but to be incapable of asking (we may be incapable due to a lack of skill or because of the particular context we are in).

Not entirely unrelated is the fact that we are living in a time when genuine friendships are on the wane. Adults report having fewer close friends than they did in the past; close friends being people they would confide in. Rushing to fill this void is empty online communication and equally empty technological aspirations. In fact, genuine friendships are often cultivated by sharing one’s vulnerabilities and asking for help. Our inability to ask for help is isolating us from one another and the coping mechanisms are likely compounding the problem.

But asking for help isn’t always perceived as “demoralizing and humiliating”. Creators of the Be My Eyes ( app have created an app allowing blind people to ask for help in a way that many people have found to be empowering. Be My Eyes connects blind users with sighted users via their phones. Sighted users can view live video taken by blind users and answer questions based on what they are seeing.

Writing in AccessWorld, the magazine of the American Foundation for the Blind, Bill Holton says “Be My Eyes is an extremely powerful platform whose time has come” and says it is a “resource for those times when greater independence can best be achieved by knowing when and how to ask for help”.

What is the relevant difference between the potentially demoralizing act of asking for help at the produce department and the empowering act of asking for help via the Be My Eyes app?

The most notable difference seems to be that the latter is a mediated, anonymous experience. It is an experience that does not require and generally will not facilitate relationship. It is a formalized process that is facilitated by a third party. It has been described as “microvolunteering”—which could be defined as volunteering with no strings attached. It risks no lasting entanglements with people or one’s wider community.

CrippledScholar rightly points out that one more item in plastic packaging—alongside all the bagged salads, shrink wrapped cucumbers, and prepared dishes from the deli—is somewhat inconsequential. The outcry over oranges seems out of proportion. The tempers are high perhaps because the stakes are so low. In contrast, the inability to ask for help has proven itself to be incredibly debilitating and on that problem there is hardly a word spoken.

Adding to the Noise?


Marcel Duchamp, Hat Rack (1917)

Marshall McLuhan said that the medium is the message. Marcel Duchamp said that the artist of the future will simply point. And Mark Zuckerberg believes he has given humanity “the power to share”.

Like so many others, I feel a compulsion to produce something, to express myself, and to advance a particular point of view. But I also experience a recurrent feeling that the effort is futile and potentially even counterproductive. As if everyone is shouting and my foolish but perhaps natural response is to attempt to shout even louder than the crowd. Nothing can possibly be heard and so, in truth, I’m merely adding to the noise.

I can generate what is now commonly called “content”—able to produce fodder for a format—and can then, in one way or another, place it into the world. I can make paper copies and stash them into the hidden letter boxes that are to be found in abandoned stone walls or I can stuff them into glass bottles and hurl them into the sea. But more likely, I will deposit whatever I produce into the digital marketplace of ideas where ideas aren’t ideas but are simply content filling a space. At this point, it’s likely that my every move has been anticipated and my purposes already circumvented; my efforts may be effectively channeled to serve purposes that are not my own. By contributing content to the digital realm I am propping up what I wish to tear down and yet throwing a bottle into the sea doesn’t seem promising.

It feels as though nothing can be incisive enough to overcome this medium; to aspire to transcend the medium and think that one can rise above its constraints may simply be a case of wishful thinking. To “fight fire with fire” is an interesting locution but in the real world water has consistently proven to be more effective.

Alternatively, I may not produce or generate anything but instead simply point toward, which is to say post, something similar enough to what I want to say. Such pointing is simply another attempt to amplify a signal, to make something louder, more visible, and to push it onto the screens of more people. Again, adding to the noise which is deafening the very people I am hoping will somehow find a way to listen. How can this succeed?

It doesn’t matter how insightful or well-crafted something is if there isn’t the space for it to be understood, considered, or comprehended. During the writing process one might focus on clarity and precision which are qualitative considerations; but once put into the digital realm it is almost exclusively quantitative considerations that remain relevant. What we want is for our content to be loud enough to silence everyone else; to command space. If not the smartest voice perhaps we can be the loudest voice.

But are things really this grim?

Even in the noisiest of spaces we are generally able to make out coherent bits and pieces. Civilization is a homogenizing, totalizing force but it is not yet fully realized, not yet perfect. There remain cracks. There remains space for learning, dialogue, and ultimately resistance. One need only consult his or her own experience and will likely recall numerous times when something significant reached one’s eyes or ears in a most timely way prompting a change in direction.

In 1964 anarchist and art critic Herbert Read lamented that “the fall of the last civilization will not be heard above the incessant din”. This lament of a past anarchist can be a source of hope for contemporary anarchists who do not see civilization as something to be preserved or mourned but rather thrown off. Despite the incessant din, which sounds so much like the machine humming away, we would be wise to remember that “[c]ivilization is not about to collapse, it is collapse.” We should not expect to individually steer the direction of mass society in any direction as though we were generals on a battlefield; instead we should imagine ourselves as mice and rats chewing at the wires…soon there will be flames.


Antonin Scalia and the Air We Breathe

ScaliaFollowing the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, political pundits and politicians are busy rallying their respective bases about the importance of the next Supreme Court appointment and, more specifically, about who is going to get to make that appointment: the current president or a future president. Everyone, of course, wants someone from their own side to make the decision. Democrats want it to be Obama while Republicans hope to delay the process until they might secure the presidency for themselves.

The highly influential SCOTUS Blog writes that “The stakes could not be higher.” Many are warning of a constitutional crisis. Social media is abuzz with “suspicious memes”.

In an article at The Huffington Post, law professor Adam Sulkowski lists a myriad of issues that are apt to be affected by a future Supreme Court and, driving the point home, writes that “The new SCOTUS justice will help decide the safety of the air we breathe”. It is no doubt true and it is no doubt absurd.

Sulkowski’s point is that it’s vitally important who holds this position; at least for those of us who “want to breathe” or “drink water”.

It’s vitally important who holds this position! That’s the message we hear whether we are talking about the Supreme Court, the presidency, the local sheriff, or the high school hall monitor. We need good people, or more accurately our people, in positions of power. There is some truth to it but the most effective propaganda generally contains some truth. If, as Picasso reportedly said, “art is a lie that tells the truth”; propaganda is very often truth in the service of a lie.

This is the shell game of mass society; the names are always changing and it’s important for you to take a side.

But if you’re fully invested in fighting over who gets to decide how safe it will be to breathe the air; you will likely overlook the absurdity of a system in which one person—or possibly a very small group of people—has such power. There was a time when humans beings didn’t have such power and didn’t make such decisions; it coincided with a time when we could take a deep breath without fear and without poison.