Welcome to the cruel world of wildlife killing contests, family events where children play amidst piles of slaughtered animals—and legal in 42 states.
Featured image: Killing contest contestants bring their dead coyotes to be weighed and counted, Williamsport Fire Department, Williamsport, Indiana, December 6, 2020. This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
By Katie Stennes
You would really have to try hard to find anything more depraved than a wildlife killing contest, which targets coyotes, foxes, bobcats, squirrels, raccoons, crows and even wolves and cougars in some states, for the sake of a prize that could range from cash to hunting equipment. These contests are responsible for the mindless killing of an inconceivable number of animals, all under the guise of sport.
Contests like these should be relegated to history books; instead, these events still take place in nearly all of the 42 states where wildlife killing contests are legal and result in the killing of thousands of animals every year.
Participants in these events, billed as family-friendly and often sponsored by bars, churches, firehouses and other local groups, compete with each other for prizes for killing the largest or smallest animal or the highest number of animals. Hundreds of animals may be slaughtered during a single contest. After the bloody piles of animals are weighed, prizes are awarded and the celebration ends, the bodies of the dead animals are often dumped like trash. Contestants frequently use cruel electronic calling devices to lure animals in for an easy kill and then shoot them with high-powered rifles—including AR-15s.
Referring to a custom-built rifle, a competitor in the De Leon Pharmacy and Sporting Goods’ Varmint Hunt told an investigator from my organization, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), that these rifles, “they’re like a .22-250 on steroids.” He had just used the rifle to gun down animals during the 21-hour contest that culminated in the pharmacy’s parking lot on a January morning in Texas. The rifles are “not very fur-friendly,” he added as he stood over a row of bloody bodies he had killed. “I wouldn’t use something like that if you want to save the fur.” To illustrate his point, he nudged a coyote, bragging, “I shot this one up here in the throat from high up and it blew out the whole bottom of his chest.”
Other participants at the contest unloaded more dead animals from the trucks, which were outfitted for prime killing with raised decks, cushioned chairs and gun mounts. A team of three men, who called themselves “Dead On,” won the event, killing five coyotes, two bobcats, a fox and a raccoon. Contest organizers handed out more than $3,000 in prize money.
At another killing contest in December 2020 that took place 1,000 miles north of Texas, an HSUS investigator saw firefighters helping to drag dead coyotes to the weighing station in the parking lot of the fire department in Williamsport, Indiana. The grand prize went to those who killed the five heaviest coyotes, with side pots awarded to those who killed the greatest number of coyotes, the “big dog” and the “small dog” (referring to the size of the coyotes). The winning team, which had all its teammates dressed in matching jackets, killed about 16 of the roughly 60 animals lined up for display when the contest ended. One competitor told investigators from the HSUS that he used an AR-15 rifle with night vision, adding, “I enjoy it.”
Some of these contests are high stakes. At the West Texas Big Bobcat Contest in January, participants vied for $148,120 in prize money. The jackpot for “Most Grey Fox” killings went to a four-man team that killed 81 foxes in 23 hours.
Competitors spend thousands of dollars on equipment to achieve an almost absurd advantage. Electronic calling devices amplified across a field by a loudspeaker lure unsuspecting animals into the open using the sounds of dependent young in distress. These animals can hardly be expected to compete with a team of people armed with spotlights and AR-15-style weapons fitted with precision thermal night vision scopes that “troll” habitat areas, obliterating anything that comes their way.
Killing contests have a cousin in the old-school pigeon shoots—another contest based on indiscriminate animal slaughter. At a pigeon shoot, the birds are stuffed into spring-loaded boxes, thrust into the air at the shooter’s command and then shot from a short distance—all for thrills and prizes. Only one state—Pennsylvania—still openly holds these pigeon shoots.
Just like pigeon shooters, participants in wildlife killing contests spout false claims that they’re doing some act of service for society by ridding the landscape of animals they deem as “varmints” and “pests.” But it is a fact that these events are for fun and games and serve no legitimate wildlife management purpose. The best available science shows that randomly killing animals, especially coyotes, creates problems where there were none.
It sounds counterintuitive but killing coyotes causes them to proliferate. In an unexploited coyote pack, typically only the dominant pair reproduces. Kill off a few members, and the pack splinters apart to find other mates. More breeding pairs means more coyotes—and this adds yet another wrinkle. While most coyotes avoid livestock and prefer to munch on rodents, more pups mean more mouths to feed, forcing adult coyotes to find easier targets like sheep just to survive.
It’s a “paradoxical relationship”—kill more coyotes, lose more livestock. Haphazardly removing coyotes who haven’t been proven to threaten livestock before leaves voids that may be filled by coyotes who are more likely to prey on livestock. Most coyotes can even serve as “guard coyotes” for ranchers, keeping other carnivores at bay.
Native carnivores like coyotes and foxes provide a range of free ecological services to our communities—including controlling rodent and rabbit populations, indirectly contributing to the boosting of plant and bird biodiversity, and scavenging animal carcasses, which keeps our environment clean—and removing them en masse upsets the natural balance of our ecosystems.
Making matters worse, the pandemic has added another element: virtual competitions where the killing persists but the judging and participation are online. Contestants living anywhere in the United States can submit videos of the animals they have killed nearby, and in these videos the contestants are seen shaking the bodies of the dead animals to show that they have been killed recently. These virtual competitions have also led to new prize categories like “best video of a kill.” People from more than 40 states have joined these contest websites, including from states where the contests have been banned. These virtual events take place nearly every weekend.
We certainly can’t let this continue without challenge, especially since many hunters share the growing public disdain for wildlife killing contests. They understand that no animal’s life should be taken in this cruel manner, and like countless other Americans, they believe that there are limits to what we should permit when it comes to the treatment and use of animals.
I was diagnosed with cancer when I was 21. Scientifically, the odds were that I would die. They could have rolled me aside and let it happen, but doctors and loved ones did what they could to keep me alive. They tried to save my life even though they did not know if it would work.
The Earth is suffering. She does not want her rivers poisoned and dammed, her mountains blown up and mined, or her ecosystems and biodiversity destroyed. If she received the same care as me, perhaps we could stop the harm. Efforts to help show care and respect, whatever tomorrow brings.
When I have been abused, the most painful part is when no one sees it. Dismissing the harm that is happening to the Earth makes us complicit, even if particular philosophies seem to justify it (Doctrine of Discovery, Manifest Destiny, the American Dream, Gaia theory, the Sixth Mass Extinction, “it’s already too late”).
If your child or lover were drowning or trapped in a burning house, you would try to save them. If it’s a reflex to save our endangered loved ones, why can’t we develop an auto-response to save bears, prairie dogs, mountain lions, horses, and forests?
To belittle or discourage those who work to save the last remaining species and wild places seems like a betrayal of the Earth and those on the front-lines, the majority of whom are indigenous peoples (whose on-going genocide feeds the destruction of the planet).
Social psychology reveals that individuals commonly find ways to ignore those being harmed and consciously or unconsciously align with those in power, because it is safer.
Humans have imagination, soul, and agency. We can listen to the Earth, not only for our own re-wilding, but for what species, land, and ecosystems need too.
Rivers, forests, and oceans can be restored. Once they are, the climate dramatically improves. Perhaps humans can stop those destroying the biosphere and the last remaining species and lands. Why not support those who try?
Visit a clear-cut forest, plowed prairie, or concreted wetland. Ask them what they need. Ask the squirrels, rabbits, owls, and blue jays who live once lived there. Ask the bears in Asia, tortured for their bile, if their suffering is Gaia’s plan. Ask wild buffalo or horses routinely slaughtered, if people should stop helping them because it’s too late. Ask the last remaining birds, orcas, polar bears, fish, rhinos.
“Please help us,” they tell me. Don’t take my word for it. Go ask them yourself. The narratives and people that inspire me most are the ones that make listening, honoring, and keeping alive these voices central.
Editor’s note: The Biden administration’s budget to address the extinction crisis for the year 2021 is $22 million ($22,000,000). That is $60,273 per day, $2,511 per hour, and $41 per second. The Biden administration’s military budged for the year 2021 is $705.39 billion ($705,390,000,000). That is $1,93 billion per day, $80,527 million per hour, and $1,34 million per second. The US military is also the single largest polluter in the world, burning about 269,230 barrels of oil per day. The numbers alone show the preferences of this “culture” very clearly. (In my view, the term “culture” seems inappropriate to describe a societal structure that follows the logic of a cancer cell.)
This is a press release from the Center for Biological Diversity, May 28.
WASHINGTON— With today’s (May 28) release of President Biden’s first full budget, the administration signaled that stemming the wildlife extinction crisis and safeguarding the nation’s endangered species will not be a top priority, despite the warnings of scientists that one million species are at risk of going extinct around the world without intervention.
The Biden administration is proposing just $22 million — a mere $1.5 million above last year’s levels — to protect the more than 500 imperiled animals and plants still waiting for protection under the Endangered Species Act. It is at the same level as what was provided for in 2010.
The budget proposal increases funding for endangered species recovery by $18 million. While this represents a modest increase from last year’s budget, the Endangered Species Act has been severely underfunded for decades, resulting in species waiting years, or even decades, for protection and already-protected species receiving few dollars for their recovery.
Based on the Fish and Wildlife Service’s own recovery plans, at least $2 billion per year is needed to recover the more than 1,700 endangered species across the country. The proposed budget fails to even come close to closing the gap in needed funding.
“It’s distressing that President Biden’s budget still ignores the extinction crisis,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “What’s especially tragic is that restoring abundant wildlife populations would also reap huge benefits in helping to stop the climate crisis, reduce toxic pollution and protect wild places. This was a missed opportunity.”
During the presidential campaign, President Biden touted his early support for the Endangered Species Act when the law was passed in 1973. In January President Biden launched a review of the Trump administration’s rollbacks of the regulations implementing the Endangered Species Act and decisions to weaken protections for the monarch butterfly, spotted owl and gray wolf.
To date, however, the Biden administration has not moved to alter or reverse any Trump-era policies or decisions related to endangered species. With today’s budget, President Biden is adopting the measly funding levels of the Trump administration.
Over the past year, more than 170 conservation groups have asked for additional funding for endangered species. This request echoes similar pleas from 121 members of the House of Representatives and 21 senators.
“Every year, more of our most distinctive animals and plants will vanish right before our eyes. Perhaps for the sake of his grandchildren, President Biden will reconsider this disastrous budget proposal,” said Hartl.
Around 650 U.S. plants and animals have already been lost to extinction. Some of the plants and animals that have been deemed extinct in the United States since 2000 include: Franklin’s bumblebee from California and Oregon; the rockland grass skipper and Zestos skipper butterflies from Florida; the Tacoma pocket gopher; the Alabama sturgeon; the chucky madtom, a small catfish from Tennessee; a wildflower named Appalachian Barbara’s buttons; and the Po’ouli, a songbird from Maui. Scientists estimate that one-third of America’s species are vulnerable to extinction and 12,000 species nationwide are in need of conservation action.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
Editor’s note: It’s sad and ironic how easily contemporary youth movements like Extinction Rebellion/Animal Rebellion are being coopted by neoliberal capitalism and how easily they are made to believe that big business, big tech and big agriculture can save the world. As Kim Hill points out in this article, they obviously completely lost connection to any physical and biological reality.
On May 22, activist group Animal Rebellion blockaded four McDonalds distribution centres in the UK, demanding the chain transition to a fully plant-based menu by 2025.
Bill Gates thinks “all rich countries should move to 100% synthetic beef.”
Bill Gates invests in Beyond Meat, a manufacturer of synthetic meat products. Beyond Meat uses a DNA coding sequence from soybeans or peas to create a substance that looks and tastes like real beef.
Gates also owns 242,000 acres of farmland in the US, making him the largest private owner of farmland in the country. He uses the land to develop genetically modified crops (in partnership with Monsanto) and biofuels.
In February, Beyond Meat announced a strategic agreement with McDonalds, to supply the patty for McPlant, a plant-based synthetic meat burger, and explore other plant-based menu items, to replicate chicken, pork, and egg.
The Animal Rebellion protests were designed for media attention, using theatrical staging, colourful banners and elaborate costumes, prominently displaying McDonalds branding. Several protestors were dressed as the character Ronald McDonald.
The police showed little interest in the blockades, arresting very few people, and at one site, barely engaging with the protest at all. It seems McDonalds has no objection to the action, and likely sees it as good advertising for the total corporate takeover of the global food system, and transition to synthetic food for the entire population.
This action appears to have the effect of introducing synthetic meat and other genetically engineered foods to the broader population, to normalise these foods, and make them acceptable to the public. People are seen to be taking to the streets to demand the introduction of these foods, and the corporations are giving them what they want.
The protests were widely reported in local and international media, despite involving only 100 people, causing minimal disruption, and being of limited public interest. The media portrayal was overwhelmingly positive, even in the conservative press. This is in stark contrast to almost non-existent reporting of anti-lockdown protests a few weeks earlier, which attracted many thousands of people, had strong public support, and related to an issue that affects everyone.
Animal Rebellion spokesperson James Ozden said “The only sustainable and realistic way to feed ten billion people is with a plant-based food system. Organic, free-range and ‘sustainable’ animal-based options simply aren’t good enough.” But genetically engineered, additive-laden, lab-grown, pesticide-infused food-like substances produced in ways that cause pollution, soil degradation, extinction, exploitation of workers, plastic waste, chronic illness and corporate profits is absolutely good enough for these rebels, and is apparently sustainable and realistic.
While Animal Rebellion concerns itself with the wellbeing of animals, nowhere on its website is there any mention of:
The necessity of machinery, and synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers to maintain a completely plant-based food system
The harm caused to animals, humans, plants, soil and water by these chemicals and machines
The unsustainability of chemical and industrial farming
The fossil-fuel dependence of monocrop farming
The environmental harm of tilling and monocropping: soil degradation, salinity, desertification, water pollution, destruction of habitat for native animals, birds, and insects
The necessity of animals in natural and cultivated ecologies, to cycle nutrients
The takeover of farmland in many places around the world to supply McDonalds, to the detriment of local farmers, and traditional farming methods
The UK government’s net-zero emissions plan to convert farmland to biofuel production
Exploitation and under-payment of farmers and suppliers of McDonalds products
Destruction of local food cultures and local economies by fast food giants
Drive-thru takeout culture
The poor nutritional value of fast food and fake meat, and the many health problems that result
The nutritional limitations of a vegan diet, which would leave the majority of people with multiple chronic illnesses
Disposable packaging and litter
The possibility of humans, animals and plants all living together in (relative) peace and harmony, in a world without fast-food outlets, genetic engineering, multi-national corporations, global trade, and plastic packaging
The need for animals to regenerate soil that has been damaged by cropping
McDonalds is committed to ‘reducing emissions’, another favourite term used by corporations to greenwash their operations by investing in carbon offsets to make themselves sound like they are part of the solution, while continuing to exploit, profit, and destroy the planet. The corporate approach of emissions trading/net-zero/climate action is enthusiastically embraced by climate rebels.
On the same day as the McDonalds protests, a short film featuring Greta Thunberg was released, calling for a global transition to a plant-based food system. The film’s website calls on viewers to “urge some of the world’s largest restaurant chains, including McDonald’s, Domino’s, Subway, and Popeyes, to expand their global plant-based options.”
Yes, the proposed solution is to expand the business operations of multi-national corporations. The film is produced by an organisation called Mercy for Animals, which “works to eliminate the worst animal abuse and grow market share of plant- and cell-based foods.”
Mercy for Animals states: “Cell-based meat, which is animal meat grown by farming cells rather than by rearing and slaughtering animals, is fast-approaching the market and will transform the meat industry. These strides in the plant- and cell-based economy are too large to be ignored. The meat industry will adapt or perish and knows it. Meat industry giants Tyson and Cargill have both invested in cell-based meat technology, while Maple Leaf Foods has acquired plant-based food companies Lightlife and Field Roast.”
Animal Rebellion is just one more protest movement that has been captured by corporate interests, and used to market neoliberal reforms and greenwashed new products which cause more harm than good.
A movement that aims to be effective needs to see the big picture, address the root causes of climate change and animal exploitation, and have the goal to completely dismantle the corporate-controlled economic system. Another world is possible.
Editor’s note: Gender ideology is another form of postmodern insanity becoming a norm in this insane culture. Disguised as Human Rights, this sect-like ideology is even being embedded into the legal system of many countries. It’s also another example of how this culture, and neoliberalism specifically, destroys any form of identification (as a sex-based class in this case), replacing it with superficial, abstract ideas that have no relation to physical or biological reality whatsoever.
Women in Canada are joining together in increasing numbers to oppose the ever-growing impacts of gender identity legislation, as gender ideology takes root in our country. There are now numerous feminist groups across Canada, advocating for women’s sex-based rights. On May 2, 2021, four of those groups — WHRC Alberta, Alberta Radical Feminists (ABRF), Alberta Women’s Advocacy Association (AWAA), and Canadian Women’s Sex-Based Rights (caWsbar) — gathered in Edmonton, on the steps of the Alberta legislature, to take a public stand in support of our sex-based rights and in protest of the wholesale dismissal of women as distinct group and the insistence that we should redefine “woman” to include men.
The attack on women’s rights is nothing new. Several bills have been passed or are in the process of passing which impede women’s rights and, more broadly, limit the ability of Canadians to question or challenge gender identity ideology and protect kids from dangerous, irreversible medical procedures.
Bill C-16, Canada’s gender identity legislation, passed in 2017, adding gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code. The effect has been that males who identify as women now have unrestricted access to women’s spaces like rape shelters, change rooms, and prisons.
In 2020, David Lametti, the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, proposed amendments to the criminal code, which would criminalize “conversation therapy.” Bill C-6 is currently going into its third reading, and would prevent therapists, for example, from taking a moderate, exploratory approach to so-called “trans kids,” rather than immediately affirming a child’s self-declared gender and putting them on the path to medical transition.
More recently, the Liberal government proposed a removal of Section 4.1 of the Broadcasting Act, the clause excluding “user-generated content” from regulation by the CRTC, Canada’s public authority in charge of regulating and supervising broadcasting and telecommunications. The reforms, should Bill C-10 pass, will curtail free speech online, ensuring individuals who challenge government-sanctioned ideology cannot speak out about their criticisms and concerns on social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube, a form of censorship feminists are already experiencing in our attempts to remind the public, media, and politicians that human biological sex is important, real, dimorphic, and immutable. If Bill C-10 passes, the platforms women use to connect with each other and advocate for women’s sex-based rights will be forced to censor our words and content, under threat of fines from the CRTC.
Women who speak out about gender identity ideology are threatened with sexual assault, murder, beatings, job loss, social alienation, and silencing, and because trans activists have labelled us “TERFs,” and therefore “hateful,” “bigoted,” and even “Nazis,” this response is passed off as righteous and even progressive. Today in the West, this form of misogyny is accepted and supported. In the 20th century, suffragists faced similar attacks — slander, propaganda, violence. If you look at anti-suffragist imagery, you can see the parallels.
Criticism of trans activism and gender ideology has been labelled “hate speech,” but defences of women’s rights are not an attack on people who believe they are transgender. This response is revealing, though, in terms of the foundation and goals of trans rights activism. Women fought for decades to be considered persons under the law, for our right to sport, access to public toilets, the right to vote, and have autonomy over our own reproductive choices. Many of these efforts are being undone by the work of trans activists who want women to set aside our safety and comfort in favour of the desires, fetishises, and demands of men.
The May 2 rally in Edmonton was not advertised, and for good reason: we were concerned about interference or assault from groups who oppose women’s rights advocacy. We wanted a safe place to peacefully meet up (in compliance with Covid restrictions), talk, and share. So we limited knowledge of the event to our own circles, opting to livestream it to the ABRF and AWAA Facebook pages, later uploading the video to the WHRC Alberta YouTube page. An hour before it started, we shared an event poster across social media.
We were really happy with the turnout, with women coming from Calgary, Cochrane, Lethbridge, and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Some were afraid to attend in person, but watched online and sent us supportive messages. Some passersby stopped to listen to us speak. Just the opportunity to meet with one another in person was inspiring and galvanizing, as many of us had only known each other from social media and zoom meetings. There is power and energy in women gathering — especially for the purposes of feminist movement building or activism — that is hard to come by in mixed-sex groups. It may sound cliché or contrived, but it is invigorating — women can support and lift each other up in a space where we all know that womanhood is a shared experience of growing up female, not an identity one adopts.
I emceed the event and emphasized that this fight is not a partisan issue, saying:
“This isn’t about being a Liberal or a Conservative, it’s about being adult human females who have experienced oppression on the basis of our biological sex. This isn’t something we can just identify out of. This isn’t a magic trick that will cure the real issues we are faced with. Do not misunderstand: we are explicitly and exclusively pro-woman. Any insistence that we are hateful or bigots or fascist is a deliberate misrepresentation of what we are saying and our goals.”
Thousands of Canadian women have begun calling themselves “politically homeless,” because we are not represented by any party. We seem to be faced with voting against our own interests no matter who we choose.
I then introduced Charlotte Garrett, a teacher who spoke about children’s rights to a complete, accurate education. She said, “If a child is taught that five plus five equals whatever you feel it to be, you are destabilizing material reality; the very ground the child occupies.”
She also spoke about the female experience as an inherited birthright that goes “back and back and back.”
We then played a recording from Kathleen Lowrey, a University of Alberta anthropology professor who was punished for speaking out in defence of women’s rights, who encouraged us all to persevere, saying:
“Resistance to one mode of male aggression leads inexorably to other resistances. That’s why we face so much ferocious opposition for asserting common sense on gender identity ideology. But it’s also why we’re finding so many women swelling the ranks of feminist political action these days. They see what we see. They’re making the connections we’re making.”
Alline Cormier, WHRC Alberta coordinator, followed with a message in French, reiterating the message advocated in The Declaration on Women’s Sex-Based Rights: that women and girls’ sex-based rights exist, are important, and the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women and girls that result from replacing the category of “sex” with that of “gender identity” must be prevented.
The last speaker was Coach Linda Blade, who invoked the Famous Five in her call to courage:
“Like the Famous Five of old, we gather today in this new century to serve notice that we will not stop asking ‘why?’ until we reclaim our sex-based rights. Female persons of today, as well as future generations of Canadian women and girls, have the right to live in dignity and security.”
It is pivotal that we speak out loud about these issues, not just online, where powerful men can shut down our accounts, censor our content, or monitor what we’re saying in secret groups and private messages. We have to be able to talk about these things in public.
“Today we stand in the footprints of the Canadian feminists who came before us, who demanded that we be acknowledged and protected on the basis of our sex, who fought tooth and nail for the rights that we have today, the same rights being undermined by a new cult-like religion that requires obedience and acceptance of medical experimentation without question and without complaint, under threat of social and professional alienation and blacklisting. We have to stop staying quiet, we have to stand up.”
Any woman who does is not alone. If you reach out, you will find someone. We’re here and there are so many of us. We aren’t the first women to do this and we won’t be the last.
Transcripts of all of the May 2 speeches are available on the AWAA website.
Raine McLeod is a project coordinator and editor based in Calgary and is president of Alberta Women’s Advocacy Association and the founder of Alberta Radical Feminists.
Editor’s note: This essay reminds me of premise ten from Derrick Jensen’s book Endgame: “The culture as a whole and most of its members are insane. The culture is driven by a death urge, an urge to destroy life.”
According to The Parable of the Poisoned Well, there once lived a king who ruled over a great city. He was loved for his wisdom and feared for his power. At the heart of the city was a well, the waters of which were clean and pure and from where the king and all the inhabitants drank. But one evening an enemy entered the city and poisoned the well with a strange liquid. Henceforth, all who drank from it went mad.
All the people drank the water, but not the king, for he had been warned by a watchman who had observed the contamination. The people began to say, “The king is mad and has lost his reason. Look how strangely he behaves. We cannot be ruled by a madman, so he must be dethroned”.
The king sensed his subjects were preparing to rise against him and grew fearful of revolution. One evening he ordered a royal goblet to be filled from the well and drank from it deeply. The next day there was great rejoicing among the people, for their beloved king had finally regained his wisdom and sanity.
According to Fromm, we are inclined to see incidents of mental illness as individual and isolated disturbances, while acknowledging — with some discomfort, perhaps — that so many of these incidents should occur in a culture that is supposedly sane. Fromm haunts our self-image even today, attempting to unsettle these assumptions of sanity:
Can we be so sure that we are not deceiving ourselves? Many an inmate of an insane asylum is convinced that everybody else is crazy, except himself.
In an age now widely described as the Anthropocene, the conventionally held distinction between sanity and insanity is at risk of collapsing … and taking our civilisation with it.
The line shifts over time
At least since Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization (1961), it has been understood that the idea of (in)sanity is an evolving, socially constructed category. Not only does the medical validity of mental health diagnoses and treatments shift with the times, but what has been judged “sane” in one era has the potential to blur into what is not in another — and without announcement.
This can disguise the fact that social practices or patterns of thought that may once have been considered healthy may now be properly diagnosed as unhealthy. And while this can apply to individual cases, there is no reason to think it should not also apply more broadly to a society at large. A society might go insane without being aware of its own degeneration.
One does not need to be a conspiracy theorist to recognise, with Foucault, that power shapes knowledge. If profits and economic growth are the benchmarks of success in a society, it simply may not be profitable to expose a society as insane, and even members of an insane society may sooner choose wilful blindness than look too deeply into the subconscious of their own culture.
If our society is not sane — and I find myself pointing towards this thesis — another question follows: what might sanity look like in an insane world?
I come to these questions without mental health training or expertise, but simply as an ordinary member of late-stage capitalist society, one suffering in his own way and trying to understand the mental health burdens that accompany our ecocidal and grossly inequitable mode of civilisation. I make no comment on the very real biophysical causes for mental illness, such as chemical imbalances or physical injury.
Instead, I reflect, at a “macro” level, on the sanity or insanity of the dominant culture and political economy in contemporary capitalist societies such as Australia, asking how the world “out there” can impact the inner dimension of our lives.
Following Fromm’s lead, I inquire not so much into individual pathology, but into what he calls “collective neuroses” and “the pathology of normalcy”. Of course, collective neuroses are not easily observed, for they are, by nature, the background fabric of existence and so easily missed.
Drinking the Kool-Aid
At first, I tried to distil a positive life lesson from the Parable of the Poisoned Well, but I quickly realised this was the wrong way to approach it.
There is arguably no moral guidance in the fable, only an amoral social insight. If there is a lesson, it is that sometimes it is easier or safer simply to conform to common assumptions or practices, no matter how dubious or absurd they are, to avoid being socially ostracised. If you do not go with the flow you may be deemed mad, so it may be better just to blend in and drink the Kool-Aid.
A second reading of the parable points to the relativity of notions of sanity, again suggesting that what’s sane or insane isn’t fixed, but is culturally dependent: a person is sane if they “function” well enough in the society, even if that society is sick.
It is this relativity of sanity that Fromm calls into question in The Sane Society. “The fact that millions of people share the same vices,” he wrote, “does not make these vices virtues, the fact that they share so many errors does not make the errors to be truths, and the fact that millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane.”
He felt that society needed certain objective conditions to be sane, including environmental sustainability. If too many of humankind’s most basic needs were not being met despite unprecedented capacity, he felt it would be proper to declare a society sick, even if the behaviour producing the sickness was widespread and validated by its own internal cultural logic.
What is “normal” behaviour today? The climate emergency points to our fatal addiction to fossil fuels. We know their combustion is killing the planet, but we can’t help ourselves. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established in 1988 to advise us on the science of climate change, yet here we are, more than 30 years later, and carbon emissions continue to rise (excepting only the years of financial crisis or pandemic). We emit 37 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, in full knowledge of their impacts.
In 2019, fossil fuels supplied around 85 per cent of global primary energy demand. Driven by a fetish for economic growth, voters support politicians who bring lumps of coal into a parliament for a laugh and enthusiastically build new fossil fuel power stations. It is a tragedy disguised as a grim joke.
Scientists warn that current trajectories of climate heating are not compatible with civilisation as we know it, with potentially billions of lives at risk this century, both human and non-human. You know something is wrong when the Arctic is burning. And yet nothing is more “normal” than hopping into a fossil-fuelled car or consuming products shipped around the world to satisfy the carboniferous desires of affluent society.
We’re deforesting the planet and destroying topsoil to feed a population that is growing by over 200,000 people every day. The United Nations projects we’ll have reached almost ten billion people by mid-century.
This human dominance of the planet under global capitalism is contributing to a holocaust of biodiversity loss, with the World Wildlife Fund recently reporting that populations of vertebrate species have declined by 68 per cent since 1970. We are living through the sixth mass extinction, driven by human economic activity that is not just normal but encouraged, rewarded and widely admired.
Empire marches on like a snake eating its own tail, pursuing growth for growth’s sake — the ideology of a cancer cell.
For whom, then, do we destroy the planet? Is a greater abundance of “nice things” what we are lacking in the overdeveloped world? Or is there, as historian and philosopher Lewis Mumford once opined, an inner dimension to our crises that must be resolved before the outer crises can be effectively met?
How easy it is to live life regurgitating the prewritten script of advanced industrial society: cogs in a vast machine, easily replaced. Perhaps we see our disenchantment reflected in the eyes of those tired, alienated commuters, a class into which it is so easy to fall simply by virtue of being subjects of the capitalist order. We all know that there is more to life than this.
We find ourselves living in an age where the old dogmas of growth, material affluence and technology are increasingly exposed as false idols. Like a fleet of ships that has been unmoored in a storm, our species is drifting in dangerous seas without a clear sense of direction.
Where are the new sources of meaning and guidance that all societies need to fight off the ennui? Pioneering sociologist Émile Durkheim used the term “anomie” to refer to a condition in which a culture’s traditional norms have broken down without new norms arising that can give sense to a changing world. Perhaps this is the term that best explains our existential condition today.
I am reminded of a poem by Michael Leunig:
They took him on a stretcher
To the Home for the Appalled
Where he lay down in the corner
And be bawled and bawled and bawled.
‘There’s nothing wrong with me,’ he wailed,
When asked about his bawling,
‘It’s the world that needs attention;
It’s so utterly appalling.’
What is a sane reaction to an insane society?
One could go on, but it would be perverse to do so. “Doom porn” is not my business or purpose. But there is a case for diagnosing our society as insane — not as rhetorical strategy, but in the pursuit of literal truth.
If an individual knowingly destroyed the conditions of his or her own existence, we’d question their sanity. If a mother only fed her children if she could make a profit, we’d doubt the soundness of her mind. If a father took all the household wealth and left the rest of the family in destitution while building bombs in the basement that could destroy the neighbourhood, we’d call him psychopathic.
And yet these are characteristics of our society as a whole. Fromm would not permit us to diagnose ourselves and our society as sane just because the actions that produce the features outlined above are considered “normal”. There is a pathology to our normalcy — my own regrettably included — and this pathology is no less pathological just because it is shared by millions upon millions of people.
There are negative mental health effects that might naturally and justifiably arise when otherwise sane people find themselves living in an insane world. The paradox that threatens to emerge has already been variously noted.
In Welcome to the Monkey House, Kurt Vonnegut Jnr writes, “a sane person in an insane society must appear insane”. Thomas Stephen Szasz contends: “Insanity is the only sane reaction to an insane society”. And the British psychiatrist R. D. Laing said insanity was “a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world”. I think I recall Star Trek’s Dr Spock saying something similar.
How can we not get depressed when reading the newspapers today or watching our politicians go about their business with such confident incompetence? How can we not grieve the wildlife and natural habitat being destroyed each moment? What parent can look to the future and not feel a foreboding dread at what world their children and grandchildren will inherit?
At the same time, and because of that dread, it is hard to maintain the emotional resources to care for strangers or “join a movement” when stress, agitation, worry and busyness clutter our mental lives. This can make society seem like a harsh place, lacking in generosity of spirit or compassion.
Whether it’s from watching white supremacists march or listening to climate deniers speak from platforms in parliament and mass media, a nausea sets in, a sickness not so much of the mind but of the soul.
This is an existential diagnosis, not a medical or psychiatric one. It would be wrong to make peace with this madness. The world we live in should not be treated as normal, and it should not be a sign of good health to become “well adjusted” to a society that is casually practising ecocide, celebrating narcissism, institutionalising racism and assessing the value of all things according to the cold logic of profit maximisation.
It is okay not to feel okay
We must not assume behaviour that makes an individual “functional” within a sick society is sufficient evidence of their sanity. In such a society, it is okay not to feel okay, to cry and feel grief, to feel dread and alienation. In our tears, let us find solidarity, for we are not alone.
Remember this when you wake up prematurely in the morning with an anxiety without object, or as you stare at the ceiling late at night as you try to fall asleep. You are not losing your mind. It is precisely because you have a grip on reality that reality seems so out of whack.
On my third reading of the Parable of the Poisoned Well, I noticed something I had missed — it was the watchman, the man who warned the king not to drink the poisoned water the rest of the citizenry had already consumed.
Wanting to quash the revolutionary sentiment, the king succumbed to public pressure and eventually drank from the well in order to fit in. But what about the watchman? Is it possible he never drank the poisoned water and remained sane in an insane society? Did that made him seem mad?
Perhaps my thoughts here are those of a watchman, someone who has tried not to drink the Kool-Aid, who has attempted to resist the pathology of normalcy.
Admittedly, I have questioned my own sanity at times — when, for example, I’ve found myself dancing in the middle of a busy intersection with Extinction Rebellion, risking arrest. What had driven me to act in a way that sees me surrounded by police with batons, guns and pepper spray? They sure looked mad.
Call me crazy, but I’ll finish with the words often attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche: “Those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music”.