Interview with vegan publishers John Yunker and Midge Raymond

John and Midge are authors and co-founders of the publishing house Ashland Creek Press, which is dedicated to animal and environmental literature.

How and why did you become vegan?

It was a journey that predates Ashland Creek Press. We both took different journeys but arrived at the same destination. And the more we learned about animals and how they are treated, the more this affected every aspect of our lives, including our writing. Ashland Creek Press grew out of desire to see more works of literature that address animal rights issues.

How did you come to writing and publishing?

Midge: We both have journalism backgrounds, and we both worked in publishing in New York. This is when I first began writing fiction. After publishing a number of short stories, my first collection, Forgetting English, was published in 2009, and my novel, My Last Continent, was published this year by Text Publishing. Ashland Creek Press was born thanks to John’s novel, The Tourist Trail, which we published in 2010 after his agent couldn’t find a home for it. This experience made us realize that there is a lot of environmentally themed literature that isn’t finding its way into the world, so we decided to start a boutique press with that focus.

John: While Midge has a strong background in editing, my expertise is more in web, production, and marketing. After publishing The Tourist Trail, we began accepting submissions for Ashland Creek Press and were amazed by the high quality of work we received, which told us that there was definitely a need for an environmental press. We’re now in our fifth year and have published more than twenty books.

What would you suggest for an author looking to write or promote a book about animal ethics? For one, I imagine it’s difficult to write a popular and successful book about animals ethics when so few people take animal suffering seriously.

First, we’d encourage the author to keep us in mind! Second, we’d encourage any writer passionate about these issues to not give up. In many ways, writers who tackle these issues are ahead of their time — but our time will come eventually.

Regarding the writing itself, it’s important that writers understand their audience and what they’re trying to achieve with their work. Some writers are successful in writing for fellow vegans, and their work reflects this. But to write a novel that will appeal across the full spectrum of readers, one must be careful not to be heavy handed in style and voice. You want readers to share your journey, and you must always keep in mind that those who are not vegans might not take the same path that you took. The goal is to open hearts and minds toward these issues by asking important questions in a way that respects where every reader is coming from.

What skills would you suggest are most valuable to learn early for starting and running a great business?

Start small and keep overhead low. We didn’t “give up the day jobs” when starting this press, and we still have other work to help make ends meet. And this gives us the financial freedom take chances on books that fall outside of the mainstream.

Also, a lot of people view publishing as an easy business to run because of the rise of self-publishing models and eBooks. But there are more than 200,000 books published every year, which makes book marketing a constant and never-ending challenge. In other words, we would not recommend that people get into publishing to make money but rather to pursue their passions. It’s definitely a labor of love.

What is it about fiction that allows a message to be communicated better than non-fiction?

Non-fiction speaks to the brain; fiction speaks to the heart. And while we find that non-fiction books have a huge impact on awareness and action (we also publish non-fiction, such as Dogland), we have special affinity for fiction. We’re readers and writers of fiction ourselves and are continually frustrated by the lack of novels that see the world the way we see the world.

What is your biggest insight on encouraging regard for animals, either in print or in person?

Empathy is the key. Most people have empathy for their family pets, and they may not realize, for example, that pigs are as intelligent as their dogs. The challenge is helping them expand their love for such pets as cats and dogs to animals that have largely been overlooked. One strategy is by giving an animal point of view in a story — not an easy feat but, done well, can be quite successful, as it was with the cockatoo Caruso in Gwyn Hyman Rubio’s Love and Ordinary Creatures. Other ways we can find empathy for animals in fiction is by authors creating unforgettable animal characters that live among humans, such as Jata in Mindy Mejia’s The Dragon Keeper. And both editions of Among Animals feature animals from dogs and cats to emus and cockroaches, all of which challenge us to view these creatures in a new light.

What one movie, piece of literature or other medium has most shifted your views?

John: It’s hard to pick just one. Some of the more influential books in my life include Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, Elizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee, The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin, The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy, and the story A Report to An Academy by Franz Kafka. When it comes to television, the British mini-series Edge of Darkness continues to inspire me.

Midge: I am a big fan of environmental novels like Ann Pancake’s Strange As This Weather Has Been and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves beautifully touches on important animal-rights issues. I also think film is a wonderful medium for the animal rights, especially as there are so many good films that tackle the subject from different angles, from Forks Over Knives to Earthlings to Cowspiracy.

What is one thing that you believe which almost no one else does?

We have long made the point that often widely acclaimed “environmental literature” isn’t truly environmental in that nature is exploited rather than respected. We are working hard to promote a “new environmental literature” that doesn’t glorify hunting, fishing, or any form of extraction from nature. We’ve founded the Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature ( specifically to highlight these works. We believe we’re due for a revolution in environmental literature.

What’s next for you?

For ACP, we’ve just published the second volume of Among Animals, an anthology of short stories that explore human-animal relationships.

We also just launched the third annual Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature.

Next year we will be publishing the novel The Crows of Beara, about Ireland, nature versus industry, and the power of landscape. We’ve also just signed a non-fiction book about wild bears of Europe. Most people aren’t aware that there are bears there, and this book sheds light on the struggles that they face, as well as the people who advocate on their behalf.

And we’re also both writing new novels.

Thanks for sharing your time! If you want more information about Ashland Creek Press, check out their website.

I’m hoping for interviews with interesting people doing interesting things will become a regular segment. If you enjoyed this and want to hear more stories, make sure to subscribe. And if you have any interesting stories/experiences/wins you’d like to share, please do get in touch so I can interview you!

Why this failed pregnancy intervention highlights the need for charity evaluators

Cross-posted from LinkedIn.

From 2003, almost 3,000 school girls in Western Australia have participated in an unusual social intervention. They were given electronic baby dolls to create the experience of being a mother. The study team hoped that it would reduce teenage pregnancy rates. If you’re skeptical as to whether this would work, you’d be right, but you might be surprised by just how ineffective it was. According to a recent study published in The Lancet, not only did this intervention not have a positive effect on pregnancy rates, it actually increased them.

Australians gave over $6.8 billion to charity in 2014. We should be proud of this. Our country is built on the pillars of mateship and giving everyone a fair go – values reflected in Australians giving 6.5% more this year than last. We live this culture during Easter and Christmas appeals, when we sit down across the nation for Australia’s Biggest Morning Tea, and when we step into our local Salvation Army to help those in need.

While few would challenge the importance of giving to help others, we don’t tend to pore over the annual statements and fiscal returns of our most beloved charities. Rather, the majority of Australians base their giving choices on identity and respect for an organisation’s mission. Many charities we support aren’t always transparent about their methods, simply reiterating terms like ‘community’ and ‘support’ to encourage donations.

Surveys show that duplication and wastage of resources by non-profit organisations is our biggest concern when it comes to giving. Our concern should not only be administrative costs, but rather whether the programs they operate actually help people. Are they using evidence-backed strategies shown to work? Do they rigorously check that their programs are helping people at low cost? Sometimes the answer is yes, but too often it is no.

Unfortunately, most social programs simply aren’t that effective. David Anderson, previously Assistant Director at the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy (now working at the Arnold Foundation) said:

…75% [of social programs] or more turn out to produce small or no effects… [or] negative effects.

This is worrying, and it highlights the need for more research into the effectiveness of charities and social interventions. Luckily, GiveWell and other charity evaluators exists to undertake in-depth charity research to find out which programs are having the greatest impact on poverty.

‘Effective Altruism’ is a growing worldwide social movement which applies rigorous evidence and analysis to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for highly effective charities. This philosophy of acting with the head and the heart is gathering steam with growing think tanks conducting research in San Francisco and Oxford. Its supporters range from Australian philosopher Peter Singer to Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz.

Helping is not straightforward. But this is no excuse not to give. A minority of programs are found to be incredibly effective, saving and transforming lives at a very low cost per person.

By providing a growing literature on how to give effectively and make a difference with our careers, Effective Altruism promises to empower people around the world to make a real difference with their donations and their time. Aussies can now make tax-deductible donations to some of the most proven effective charities across the globe by visiting Effective Altruism Australia’s website.

Yes, giving from the heart is important. But our feelings need to be guided by facts. We now have the opportunity to be better informed about how, where and to whom we give. It has never been more possible for Australians to have a meaningful and positive impact on a massive scale.

Straw man, steel man and grass man

Straw man

A straw man is a well-known logical fallacy whereby one person appears to be refuting their opponents’ argument in a debate, but they are actually refuting a modified version of their opponents’ argument which has been made easier to refute. This gives the impression that one has beaten their opponent in a debate, when in fact they have beaten a ‘straw man’ which they have set up on purpose. This is also known as ‘attacking a straw man’.

Steel MAN

‘A Steel man‘ is the use of an improved version of an opponents’ argument that is harder to defeat than their original argument. This can (and should) be used in a debate to convince yourself that your own argument is indeed correct, and to give fair representation to your opponent.

Grass MAN

I would like to propose a new phrase along these lines – a ‘grass man’ – which is like a straw man, but involves holding an easily refutable position on something you already disagree with on purpose so that your friend (who you pretend not to know, or at least not to agree with) who believes what you really believe can knock down your ‘grass man argument’ and get people across the fence. This might be used to convince people of an argument they strongly disagree with by sowing doubt. However, this is of course a questionable and dishonest act, and so I don’t necessarily advocate for it. But I do think it is an interesting and new concept. One example of a potential use for a grass man argument that may be warranted is as follows.

There is a room full of people who don’t believe in vaccination. Several prominent scientists have tried to convince the people that vaccination is not harmful, and is actually quite beneficial, to no avail. Two people, unknown to the anti-vaxxers, then enter the room with a prior agreement to engage in a grass man. The first person starts telling the other that vaccination is clearly harmful, and provides a list of very easily attackable reasons for why that is so. The anti-vaxxers then identify with this proponent of what they believe. The second person easily debunks the first’s argument in a way that it is clear it was wrong. This sows doubt in the anti-vaxxers as to whether their position is right after all.

If one has still has moral qualms about such a deceitful tactic, perhaps we can assume that twenty children are about to die if their parents are not convinced that vaccines are safe.

Of course, this example assumes that people are logical and rational. However, there is reason to believe that emotion may still dominate in these situations, and they still won’t change their mind despite the grass man.

When did milk become an ethical dilemma?

If you’ve been paying attention to the news lately you’d know that there has been an uproar over dairy prices in Australia which are at record lows. People are out in droves buying milk and supporting our local farmers, and 891 ABC radio recently asked how milk became an ethical issue. And even more recently, Senator Nick Xenophon has proposed that the government pay to implement a free milk program for school kids.

It always has been an ethical issue, but not for the reasons that you think. I’d like to talk about the hidden victims of the dairy industry; the cows. It’s obvious, but people forget that, for a cow to produce milk, like any mammal, they have to be currently or recently pregnant. As a result, in order to produce the milk, they are often artificially inseminated, which is the most efficient way to get cows pregnant. It’s akin to rape, and animals are literally placed on ‘rape-racks’ to facilitate this process. Once the calves are born, they will want to drink that delicious milk, which of course is ours, so we take the calf away and either grow it for meat or have it killed. Once the dairy cow is too old to produce milk, they are slaughtered, usually for their flesh.

It’s not for any good reason either. Despite myths stating otherwise, milk from other species is quite harmful for humans, and leads to increased rates of osteoarthritis, and so Xenophon’s proposal is irresponsible and simply dangerous. Most humans are against exploiting animals for enjoyment, but somehow food animals are in a category of their own.

How did we get caught up in this hysteria around milk while forgetting the real victims of the situation? Luckily, there are at least a few who realise the insanity of the situation.

If you already recognise the horrors of the dairy industry, make your voice heard lest we start feeding our kids the product of torture, rape and suffering (I mean, what kind of lesson is that?). I might suggest writing your local politician, or write a letter to the editor in a newspaper. If this is totally news to you, I’d advise you to do some research.

Adapted from a submission to the Adelaide news publication The Advertiser.

Favelas and the Olympics: The hypocrisy of anger towards Brazil

There are some strange things going on in Brazil at the moment. Residents of impoverished ‘favelas’ in Brazil have been evicted in the lead up to the Olympics, causing international uproar. It’s hard to say exactly which part of this the uproar is about specifically, but I daresay it’s in relation to the fact that Brazil has spent a lot of money (a taxpayer contribution of $11.6 billion USD) on the Olympics while many are still in poverty.

I have to say it seems a little perverse to me for people to be attacking Brazil for holding the Olympics while there are still people in the favelas since Brazil isn’t the only country with poverty to host the Olympics. Not only that, when Australia held the Olympics in 2000, they too made the choice to spend money on the event rather than spend it on those in need locally and abroad. I would even propose that Australia is about as morally reprehensible for hosting the Olympics as Brazil.

To predict a common response, I don’t think that Brazil is more responsible for Brazilians than Australians (or anyone else) are. To say so must surely mean that we think Brazilians are worth less than Australians. When we have an opportunity to help people, we should do so, regardless of where they are. And yet as a nation, in 2000 Australia decided that $1.7-2.4 billion USD (taxpayer funded proportion) was better spent on games than on helping people. The Against Malaria Foundation didn’t exist at the time, but they are now able to save a live for around $3,000 USD. Consciously or not, we may as well have decided that the Australian Olympics was worth 566,666-800,000 lives. Were the economic benefits and the enjoyment of the public worth so many lives?

And so I don’t think we can really get too upset with Brazil. They made the same choice we did with a bit less visibility. I don’t mean to say that it’s ok that Brazil is largely ignoring their most impoverished at the expense of others. I think it’s terrible. Which is why I had to draw attention to this.

From utilitarian to abolitionist and back in a month

I’ve made a video version of this article and have expanded on some of the points here.

I’m a utilitarian through and through, so it might be a surprise to you to know that I called myself an abolitionist for about a month. But I’ve stopped, and I think my thought process is potentially quite useful. Regardless of your current position regarding animal activism, I ask you to read this.

If you’re not familiar with the abolitionist (or rights) approach to animals (and its opposite, welfarism), I’ll briefly sum it up here. Welfarism is about focusing on trying to minimise suffering felt by animals. Some welfarists advocate for strategies such as welfare reforms in factory farming, like changing the way animals are slaughtered. They might also advocate for people reducing their meat consumption. Essentially, it’s a utilitarian point of view, or close to.

Abolitionism rejects this approach, and wants to abolish the property status of animals. For example, an abolitionist would say that anything less than advocating for full veganism (e.g. saying vegetarianism is ‘ok’ or ‘good’) is wrong, and anything less than advocating for full abolition of animal use (e.g. by advocating for welfare reform) is also wrong. The abolitionist movement is lead by Gary L. Francione, Rutgers University law and philosophy scholar/professor.

The story

I had loosely heard of the abolitionist point of view and had dismissed it on utilitarian grounds. I was already vegan and opposed animal experimentation for a number of reasons, but I still reasoned that, in some hypothetical where testing on 1 animal could mean that 10 other animals could leave, it would be quite unreasonable to not test on that animal. This point of view attracted a lot of criticism in mainstream vegan circles such as Facebook groups. One particularly emotive and memorable comment (which I paraphrase) was:

“You would put poison in the eyes of a puppy?”

To which I replied:

“To save 10 other puppies? Yes. If you wouldn’t you’re in effect killing 10 puppies to save 1 to save yourself feeling uncomfortable. That doesn’t make sense.”

We got nowhere but I was satisfied I had soundly won that debate on logical grounds. What got me thinking, though, was this video interview with Francione, where he argued that welfare reform is actually just not effective, and that we already had a welfare reform under Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Things did get a little better for exploited animals, but after a while people became complacent and things got worse. That seemed reasonable enough to me. And so while I never dropped the utilitarian stance, I was open to the possibility that, even on utilitarian grounds, an abolitionist approach was just better in the long run.

Perhaps the best way to be a utilitarian is to pretend not to be a utilitarian.

And so I called myself an abolitionist, and started acting like one. I became opposed to the owning of pets, to welfare reform campaigns, and to advocating for anything less than veganism. I began arguing with my non-vegan family more and started to find it harder to function in a society of meat eaters. But I’m no stranger to dealing with adversity for the sake of my goals, and so I pushed on.

The turn

I began questioning Francione’s point of view when I heard him state in a talk that he wouldn’t test on one animal even if it meant curing cancer, which reminded me of the conversation I had had on Facebook. The math just didn’t add up for me.

I read Francione’s Rain Without Thunder (1996), or at least made it halfway before giving up. He had some solid points in that welfare reforms simply were not as effective as people thought they were, and possibly made things worse. He criticised Peter Singer and his utilitarian stance towards animals (who believes that animal use could be acceptable as long as their interests are considered equally to human interests), and praised Tom Regan‘s deontological position of giving all animals rights, although he didn’t spend any time justifying why deontology was better than utilitarianism. The more I read, the less I was convinced.

The tipping point

The final tipping point was when I was reading Brian Tomasik‘s work on wild animal suffering. He argued that a rights approach to animals might actually increase animal suffering in the long run, if we consider wild animals. I directly quote from Wikipedia here:

“The argument is that animal rights leads people to believe that all animals have fundamental rights and should not be exploited or interfered with, regardless of the outcome on wellbeing. This may lead people to be against interfering with nature and wild animals. However, the magnitude of wild animal suffering is potentially immense,[9] and interfering with the wild may be a good way to reduce this suffering.”

I feel that the reason most discussions about abolitionism go nowhere is because people aren’t even valuing the same thing, and so of course they have different answers. If you primarily value the wellbeing of animals and disvalue their suffering, you would probably seek to do whatever max/mins wellbeing/suffering in the long run, which might be an abolitionist-like methodology, and might not. If you want to try and optimise for individual rights instead of wellbeing you’d perhaps take a different approach.

I’m becoming less convinced that I should try and optimise for rights above and beyond how it relates to wellbeing. If it came down to me choosing (all else being equal including flow-on effects, which doesn’t really happen in reality of course) between an animal being happy and an animal being miserable but slightly less exploited, I don’t think I could justify the latter. It seems almost forceful and exploitative itself to choose to consign some animal to misery just so they can be a bit less exploited. Surely what animals fundamentally value themselves is wellbeing, not a lack of exploitation. Humans value not being exploited because it feels bad. Non-human animals only feel bad in factory farmed conditions because such conditions objectively suck for animals. They are abused and are kept in awful conditions. I’m not convinced that ‘humane’ slaughter is possible in reality, and so I still won’t advocate for it, but I won’t pretend that there is some other thing that animals value called ‘rights’.

Final thoughts

As the icing on the cake, I expressed my concerns to Francione on his Facebook page, and he deleted my comment and blocked from liking the page. Well said, Francione.