op-ed

We Are Broken Animals (or If You Sell a Dog a Cookie)

Spend enough time on social media and eventually you’ll run across the tale of the dog who pays for cookies. The story goes that in some faraway land the dog in question stood outside of a a bakery whose cash register apparently was quite visible from the street. Over and over he watched people hand thin green things to the cashier, and in return they received cookies. Being the hungry and resourceful type, the dog carried a leaf into the store and placed it on the counter. Charmed by his anthropomorphic cuteness, the cashier handed the mutt a cookie. Now the dog and the bakery repeat this routine daily.

It’s a cute story, and aside from the notion that the dog would limit himself to one cookie per day I have no reason to question its veracity. Dogs are smart, after all. Well, some are. My dogs are idiots. “Dogs are smart” seems to be the key to the story’s virality, or perhaps “dogs are smart and people are kind.” It’s a feel good story, and in 2019 we can use as many of those as we can get.

But the tale of the dog and the cookie does not make me feel good. Watching an animal function so far outside of its nature throws into sharp relief just how far humans have strayed from their inherent nature. This is what we look like to dogs: A bunch of leaf-exchanging cookie eaters.

Whether we’re talking about B.F. Skinner’s famous pigeons or dogs of the cookie purchasing kind, we delight in our ability both to teach and to recognize a learned behavior. “He brought me a leaf as if it were money! He thinks he’s people!” What we often fail to recognize is what these examples tell us about ourselves. What the dog saw while observing the bakery customers is exactly what we see when we observe the dog. Buying a cookie is a learned behavior, regardless of the purchaser’s species: Hand the right individual an item of arbitrary but agreed upon value, receive a cookie. Dog or human, leaf or dollar, the transaction remains the same.

While getting a cookie is a neat trick, presumably the dog retains his animal nature–he can find a place to sleep, hunt, scavenge, find water, defend himself, etc. But imagine if the leaf experiment completely corrupted his natural instincts. Now he spends all day in the park gathering, hoarding, and hiding leaves. He attacks any animal that dares to roam too near his valuable treasure. Hungry for something other than cookies, he drops a couple of precious leaves onto the confused butcher’s counter and is chased out of the shop. The same happens at the local hotel when the mutt tries to get in out of the rain.

Inevitably the dog’s all cookie diet leads to malnutrition, chronic illness, and death, but secreted away throughout the park is the largest collection of leaves ever accumulated by a dog. He has died the wealthiest canine in history, with a leaf worth that translates into tens of thousands of cookies.

It’s an absurd hypothetical scenario, and yet it describes precisely the nature of advanced civilization, or at least contemporary life in America: If you don’t have the cash, don’t bother to knock. That notion is so fundamental to a market-based economy that most of us literally cannot grasp that there are other ways for societies to organize themselves. Sure, we know these other ways exist, but they are “primitive” or “wrong” or even “evil.”

And so from the time that we’re old enough to work until we’re ground up and useless, the overwhelming majority of us plug away at meaningless jobs so that we have enough leaves for a cookie. The existential threat of a leafless future compels us to keep grinding it out, no matter our ambitions or ethics. Meanwhile, everything we do–eat, sleep, keep roofs over our heads, survive an illness or injury–requires an increasing number of leaves. We have no choice but to run around the park, scrambling for enough leaves to sustain ourselves and our families.

Occasionally we turn on a screen that cost many leaves and for which we pay one or more leafy premiums to watch heartwarming videos of cookie-buying dogs and backward hunter gatherers who forage for a few berries before pissing away the rest of the day sleeping. Sleeping! How can you accrue any leaves while sleeping!

We weren’t always like this, by the way. As the twentieth century dawned, American farms provided for about 80% of their occupants’ needs. Those occupants’ days were as busy as ours, if not busier, but it wasn’t time wasted gathering leaves unless we’re talking about actual leaves used for compost, to insulate winter root crops, etc. I remember my grandmother telling me that the Great Depression barely affected her family because they did everything for themselves anyway.

Regardless of who we were, this is who we are now and I don’t pretend to have a solution for it. However, I increasingly bristle at the demand for more leaves. The idea of paying ten bucks per month for the privilege of owning a doorbell with a built-in camera strikes me as absurd, as do monthly fees for myriad streaming services. Watching my tax burden rise so that the greediest dogs can have more leaves doesn’t sit too well with me, either.

We are broken animals. Maybe one in ten million of us could survive naked and alone in the wilderness, regardless of what the “reality” show you pay to watch suggests. We have removed ourselves so completely from nature that as a species we won’t survive when the cookies run out.

But that damned dog sure is cute. He think he’s people!

Categories: op-ed

4 replies »

  1. Not all of us dogs amass every leaf we can get our paws on. Some of us recognize when we have enough leaves to meet our cookie-needs and share the excess leaves with elderly dogs who can’t gather for themselves. Or we use our extra time showing puppies the process of converting leaves to cookies. Or we organize other dogs-who-have-enough-leaves to defend endangered trees to ensure an ample supply of leaves for everyone. Or we recognize that there are other leafy green things we could use to expand the supply of things-to-cookies stuff so we aren’t solely dependent on leaf production.

    OK I’ve run out of dog/cookie analogies. For a more direct discussion on this topic, take a look at David Brooks’ column https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/18/opinion/culture-compassion.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage

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