Empathy and Laki the Sugar Glider

We are the wildlife generation. Or at least we were.

From National Geographic heroes, like Steven Irwin, to amazing programs on the television, like Blue Planet 2, we grew up surrounded by the beauty of the wild. Whether it was an octopus darting through coral, a hippopotamus submerging underneath water, or a Nile crocodile snapping down on unsuspecting prey — there was absolutely nothing more fascinating on the television.

However, at some point along the way, we stopped watching the shows we once loved. We stopped being as fanatical in our love for nature. We focused instead on our formal education, sports, college acceptance letters, and jobs. As our generation grew up, discussions shifted away from who wanted to be a reporter for National Geographic to who wanted to work as a software engineer at Facebook.

The fact that people have different interests is a good thing. This is how our a market-based economy must function. We must acknowledge that, in our society, people are lucky enough to have the liberty to express self-determination. However, the necessity to be connected to nature and the environment is not conditional. That is, our ecosystem must shift away from being a fringe issue. All life and all things on this planet are merely derivatives of the natural world. Therefore, we must protect universal common goods by realigning our consumption in a consumer-based economy with the natural limitations of our ecosystem. Clearly, everyone is a shareholder in the success and liable for the failures when we think in the context of environmental stewardship.

The Erosion of Empathy

In a consumer-based society, it is easy to become fascinated by material goods and advancements in technology. This type of thinking is not prohibitively bad for the environment, but actually sustainable if business is conducted in an environmentally conscientious manner. Incentives must align with ecological measures of protection. Too often, this does not happen. Unchecked greed has a tendency to circumvent legislative controls and capital incentives to allow for the destruction of our habitable planet. For example, the common talking point by environmentalists is any failure of fracking.

For the very same reasons that make this world so amazing, these are the very same reasons that make this world so terrible. Perhaps the failures we witness are sparked from those of who do not practice empathy. There is a fantastic TED talk titled the “Erosion of Empathy” and the topic was presented by Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen who serves as a Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the University of Cambridge. As a cognitive neuroscientist, he breaks down empathy into two categories: cognitive and affective. Cognitive is the recognition of another person’s emotions and the ability to place oneself in another person’s shoes. Affective empathy, Baron-Cohen argues, is the ability to be affected by the recognized emotional experience another human being is experiencing. Or, in other words, it is the necessary factor in explaining human cruelty towards anything.

“Empathy is our most valuable natural resource for conflict resolution.” —Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen

In the video, Baron-Cohen acknowledges that there are three social factors that primarily affect empathy. The factors are the influence of authority, political or religious ideology, and tribalism. Tribalism, in particular, relates to both in-group and out-group relations that perpetuate propaganda for the explicit purpose of dehumanizing the opposition. Later in his talk, Baron-Cohen notes that those who are autistic and those who are psychopathic are mirror opposites. Essentially, those with autism tend to have affective, but not cognitive empathy and the converse is true for psychopaths. This understanding has a caveat, that is, people have varying shades of either or both types of empathy. To support his claims, Baron-Cohen referenced James Blair’s experiment at the Broadmoor hospital, discussed the MOA-A gene, and the impact of fetal testosterone.

How Do We Get It Back?

Naturally, if we assume Baron-Cohen is correct, the best way we can become more skilled practitioners at affective empathy is through targeting the three social factors he mentioned. As people, we have no control over the varying degree of the MOA-A gene we were predisposed to or the fetal testosterone we experienced during embryonic development. Despite the multiple ways to successfully break down social barriers, our team at Counter Current would like to feature a friend who owns a sugar glider. This example of atypical pet ownership is meant to be informative and not persuasive — this is not an analysis on the ethics behind the global wildlife trade rather insight on the marsupial.

Angela Karamanos is the proud mama of a semi-famous, female, sugar glider named Skatoulaki or, Laki, for short. For those who are not versed in Greek, we suggest you ‘Google it’. Angela, better known as Ang, is a 2018 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and played Division 1 Women’s soccer. Following graduation, she became a combat systems officer in the military and considers herself “wild, adventurous, and energetic.”

Q: “What do most people think when you tell/show them Laki?” —Ryan

A: “They say “only you would have a flying squirrel” and then proceed to ask me if she flies. After a minute or 2 they think she’s so cool because she’ll just hang out and jump between people like a little ninja. Then she’ll curl up and they all think she’s so cute.” —Angela

laki.jpeg

While living in Florida, she decided to purchase a sugar glider because they seemed like a lot of fun. According to her, “[they’re] tiny so you can take them anywhere without people knowing and they’re easy to take care of.” For her, compared to a dog or a cat, Laki is a way better fit. During the bonding process, she noticed how skittish sugar gliders can be, so it was awesome when she would “walk up to her cage and [Laki] would realize it’s me” as she “crawls right up my arm into my pocket.” From the description, it’s hard to imagine anything so cute.

However, sugar gliders are nocturnal creatures. In particular, it can be challenging to hear Laki barking at 4:30 AM because she wants to play, but it’s totally worth it because Laki is super loyal. Despite the patience required at the beginning, once Laki became familiar with Angela the nibbling or "crabbing” stopped. She recalled in the interview that there was this “one time I fell asleep with [Laki] in my pocket and when I woke up she wasn’t in my pocket anymore. I had no idea where she went and then I found her in my closet going crazy climbing up and through all my clothes!” Marsupials will climb on anything — or at the very least, try. Angela also mentioned another time she was lying down and Laki pounced right into her face with absolutely no regret. Without a doubt “it was pretty funny.”

An average day with Laki is built around routines. Angela loves to hang out with Laki and tries to as much as possible. In the morning, Laki is let out of her cage and fits snugly into Angela’s pocket. Later in the day, when Angela revisits the cage, she places Laki in to get some uninterrupted sleep. Around 8 or 9 PM, Angela will cut Laki some fresh fruits and veggies, so Laki can eat when she wakes up around 10 PM. From 10 to 11 or 12 PM, there is a strictly enforced playtime before Angela goes to bed. However, every day is different because Laki can be carried anywhere with Angela! Oh, and let’s not forget, that owning a pet has been show, scientifically, to make a person more empathetic.

Parting Thoughts

A huge thanks to Angela Karamanos for the interview! She was such a help and we wish her and Laki all the best. Stay tuned for an article about Laki, Zoboomafoo, and other marsupials that have made a splash in the lives of so many.

Disclaimer: This article is not a critique or an endorsement of the global wildlife trade for exotic animals. To our readers, expect a follow up article to discuss the potential benefits and negative implications of the global wildlife trade.

Kier Mellour: Eco Bikini Girl

Be Glam and Give a Damn.

Kier Mellour is the hottest environmental fashion, beauty, and travel blogger to hit the L.A. scene. Her wildly successful “classy, sassy, over-the-top style” fashionista blog is emblematic of the true Kier Couture image. However, at first glance, many wouldn’t know that Kier Mellour lives a not-so-secret, double life. Just like Christian Bale was the best Batman of our generation, Kier Mellour is unequivocally the best “Eco Bikini Girl” of our generation. She demonstrates on a daily basis that it is possible to both take care of our planet and remain ever-so fashionable. Or, in her words, you can “be glam and give a damn'.

Boy Scouts, Water Taste Test, and An Instagram Friend

Kier’s life — like all great stories — starts in the outskirts of a small town. Growing up as a regular kid in the Pacific Northwest, she learned to foster a great love and respect for nature, animals, and the earth. She credits her father and his former experience as a Boy Scout for nurturing her love for the wild. Whether she was camping in the summer, growing their own food, or reading books inside when it rained, Kier learned what it meant to incorporate sustainable practices into daily life. For example, she would mend clothes and fix toys instead of tossing them or buying new. This lifestyle made her that friend who would talk about how to live an eco-friendly life in a consumer-based society. That’s a good thing. You want to be that friend because environmental causes are not fringe issues, they are universal common goods that impact the lives of everyone.

Q: “After your first photo and beach clean-up, what happened?” —Ryan

A: “I began to talk more about plastic and easy swaps people could make in my stories and I realize that my audience was really interested in hearing more… They started to ask questions and I started to get messages about how much I had inspired them to make changes in their life which just encouraged me further.” —Kier

In 2017, Kier wanted to create more videos for her Youtube channel. The idea was to conduct a blind taste test of water bottles in California. Oddly enough, California was also experiencing a severe drought, even though Kier was buying most of her water bottles from the state. How was the private sector able to sell water that originated from a state that, supposedly, was lacking water sources? After extensive research, she discovered how terrible bottle water was for the environment. She thought about what she learned until one fateful day at the beach. Kier could absolutely not just relax in the sun or lie in the sand, as plastics had washed ashore and were scattered around the formerly, pristine beach. Therefore, she took action. She spent the day cleaning up the beach and at the end, she had her picture taken. Nearly immediately, the photo spread like wildfire and her flame for the environment was ignited even more.

Eco Bikini Girl represents that “women can be intelligent, conscious, and compassionate as well as stylish, sexy, and beautiful.”

Following the first beach clean-up, Kier started to participate in clean-ups once or twice a month. She also began following an Instagram account @CleanOurSeas and quickly became friends with the account manager, Natalie. After several Direct Messages (DM) and with the goal to spread as much awareness as possible, Kier began to write “#CleanOurSeas” on Instagram posts to encourage others to cleanup the environment. Naturally, Natalie loved Kier’s work and featured the post on the @CleanOurSeas account. Unfortunately, a male — unnamed for this article — derisively degraded the purpose of Kier’s actions. He insinuated that she had only participated in these clean-ups for Instagram “likes” and not because she cared for the environment. At that moment, the “Eco Bikini Girl” was born and she hasn’t looked back.

Thoughts on Consumer Behavior and Environmental Stewardship

With respect to consumer behavior, there are two great options that Kier recommends. The first is re-homing products and the second is to buy secondhand. As a consumer-based society, the value of our dollar is important. In fact, we have the ability to vote for the society we want based upon the products we sell. Therefore, it is necessary to practice a certain level of mindfulness when browsing Amazon or shopping in L.A.

“Literally, I’ve posted “free clothes hangers” and had a friend come and pick them up within an hour. There is so much stuff already out there, but you could use this tactic in reverse, as well…”Does anybody have a blow up mattress I could borrow for a week” will not only save you money, but it might reconnect you with a friend you haven’t seen in a while. [Facebook] prohibits you from buying something that you might not need forever.” —Kier on Consumerism

Further, Facebook and other social media platforms are great tools when connecting with others. It’s more than possible and should be encouraged to reach out to friends and family when it comes to products you may need for only a short amount of time. Whether it is borrowing a blow-up mattress or giving away hangers, there is not a need to constantly “buy”. However, thoughtful exchange could revolutionize the way we interact with others by furthering friendships and protecting our planet at the same time.

Thoughts on Defining Success and Environmental Stewardship

Success occurs on an individual level for Kier. Whenever there is a shift in thinking from someone who did not recycle and now they recycle, refuse, reuse, and practice conscious green consumerism — that is a win. She definitely feels successful in proactively reaching out to others, but her greater goal is to curb cigarette waste. Cigarette brands ought to switch to compost-able, natural filters. As many readers may know, cigarette butts are the number one most littered item, so if there was a shift from cigarette firms (either through legislation or profitability metrics) that would be a huge success. The implementation is the difficult part.

Thoughts on Politics and Environmental Stewardship

As a libertarian, Kier often finds herself arguing with both sides and, generally, thinks government should stay out of a person’s life. However, as an environmentalist and as a libertarian that possesses a strong belief in limited government, she is very torn on the best method to decrease nonessential plastics. Taxes on nonessential plastics or incentives in the form of tax credits or subsidies often come to mind — however, she is conflicted.

In Oregon, the cash redemption value machines have had astonishing success — it would be excellent if programs like these could be implemented nationwide. Witnessing the “success of common sense laws” that allow for cashback or discounts help any person on a budget. Further, it keeps plastic, glass, and metal containers in a circular economy for longer without needing to be placed in a landfill or dumped into an ocean. Anecdotally, California could be massively improved by implementing machines that are more visible, in higher frequency, and socially encouraged. However, often times these machines are swarmed with homeless people which typically makes it less than appealing to most people — this is another social problem that ought to be addressed.

“We can’t trust the government to protect us — we need to be the change we see.”

On the flip side, our government is incredibly wasteful — “I don’t think they know anything about how to be sustainable!” If sustainability was a greater focus, recycling and redemption facilities would be more frequent and self-education on the topic would be less necessary. Similar to the idea of including the true environmental cost when taxing a company for using plastic, it is not that rough of a thought to consider plastic as hazardous waste. This term would require companies who produce it to be responsible for disposal and cleanup. This is a realignment of our consumer-based economy, again, to reflect the true environmental costs.

Clearly, any policy change would need bipartisan support. The easiest way to make a change now is to convince others to “vote with their dollar” and not buy plastic. Companies want to be profitable. Companies will realign their strategic vision and operations to what the consumer wants and that’s why the “consumer truly holds the most power”. Changing our actions on a personal level are a lot easier than changing laws that have undercurrent agendas.

Counter Current Parting Thoughts

This article is dedicated to Vivian. Vivian is Kier’s chihuahua who was laid to rest on January 30th. For the last 13 years, Vivian is the one who showed the world that “you can be small and make a huge difference.” Nothing will replace you Vivian and you are forever treasured in the hearts of so many. We love you.

If you liked what you read, be sure to subscribe to Kier’s YouTube channel, follow her Instagram, and pray for Vivian. All links are in the article.