Editorial: Earth Day is over. Take a clod to lunch.

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 1995:

The Editor’s most original contribution to the initial Earth Day, 25 years ago,
may have been coining the slogan, “Today is Earth Day; take a clod to lunch.” In the 1970
atmosphere of Berkeley, California, where the Editor was then a cub reporter, it went
without saying that the lunch would be vegetarian. The radical idea was not that meat-eat-
ing was and is the most fundamental environmental issue. Already Food First author
Frances Moore Lappe, Population Bomb author Paul Erlich, and Silent Spring author
Rachel Carson had delineated the links between meat production and depleted topsoil, star-
vation, and overuse of pesticides. Every incipient environmentalist in that particular time
and place at least paid lip-service to the ideal of vegetarianism. Disagreement arose, rather,
over the affirmation that the path to change lay through breaking bread instead of heads;
that environmental problems were due not to inherent flaws in the capitalist system, but to
rectifiable ignorance, which could be overcome more easily through discussion than
through fulminating about smashing the state.

Our sense was that despite huge gaps in awareness of environmental problems,
and some deep disagreements over their causes and solutions, hardly anyone genuinely
favored either pollution or exterminating endangered species, the two issues of most con-
cern to me. Hoping to avoid the societal polarization we’d already noted in the civil rights
and peace movements, we urged that the first Earth Day should be a teach-in, welcoming
all comers––not an us-against-them protest. The speed with which the Richard Nixon presi-
dency ratified the Clean Air Act (1972), the Clean Water Act (1972), the Marine Mammal
Protection Act (1972), the Endangered Species Act (1973), and the Convention on
International Trade in Endangered Species (1973) later validated our hope that shared con-
cern for animals and the environment could become one of the aspects of citizenship uniting
Americans as a people with a shared moral vision.
By the 20th Earth Day, in 1990, that seemed to have happened. Opinion polls
repeatedly found that from half to three-fourths of all Americans identified themselves as
environmentalists, depending upon how the question was worded. At least a third of all
Americans recognized as serious each of more than 20 environmental problems they were
asked about––whereas, in 1970, few recognized more than two or three environmental
problems. By 1990 the environmental movement had come through the overtly hostile
Ronald Reagan administration so much stronger that even Reagan’s former vice president,
George Bush, proclaimed his intention to be remembered as “the environmental president.”
Barely five years later, public opinion on environmental issues has never seemed
more sharply divided; environmentalism has never appeared less popular. The so-called
wise use movement claims to have delivered the margin of victory in as many as 32 trans-
fers of Congressional seats from Democrats to Republicans. A substantial faction within
Congress thus claims a mandate to dismantle environmental protections, most especially
the Endangered Species Act, which House Resources Committee chair Don Young (R-
Alaska) has declared to be “number one” on his personal hit list.
Even more ominous, The Tyndall Report, which monitors broadcasting content,
recently found that environmental coverage on network newscasts fell 84% from 1989
through 1994. No media could be interpreted to mean no concern.
But both the wise-use muscle-flexing in Congress and the decline in media notice
could be illusory. Network environmental coverage peaked in 1989-1990 due to the Exxon
Valdez oil spill and the Earth Day 20th anniversary. Some decline was to be expected––
until something else, perhaps the wise-use attack on environmental laws, pushes the envi-
ronment back up the list of public priorities. The wise-users may also claim too much credit
for the Republican capture of Congress. A post-election survey sponsored by the National
Wildlife Federation found that only 18% of Americans favor relaxing environmental protec-
tion laws, while 41% still say they want such laws strengthened. Even among Republicans,
70% favor a strong Clean Water Act; 60% favor ending subsidies to miners, loggers, and
ranchers who use public land; and 47% support the ESA. Only 41% think it should be
relaxed to favor business.
What is not illusory is the declining strength of at least five of the seven biggest
U.S. environmental advocacy groups. NWF, Greenpeace, the National Audubon Society,
the Sierra Club, and the Wilderness Society have all failed to keep the huge increases in
membership they enjoyed during 1989-1990, and have had to downsize. They may yet
capitalize on alarm over attempts to weaken environmental laws to recapture their peak con-
stituencies. At the same time, it must be noted that their steepest decline came just as some
of their senior board members and executives took high posts in the Bill Clinton administra-
tion. These groups should have gained from their unprecedented influence.
Whatever happens next, the environmental movement as such is over. The cause
remains alive with both activists and the public, but the unbroken momentum characteriz-
ing a movement has given way to the waxing and waning of an institutionalized special
interest––like education, health care, or organized labor, each of which also had move-
ment origins. The legacy of the environmental movement remains the infrastructure adopt-
ed under the Nixon administration. Most activity in the past two decades plus has involved
using that infrastructure to defend and consolidate the early gains.
Along the way, as an environmental establishment evolved, concern for animals
––growing among the public––was largely abandoned by leadership. It was well under-
stood, at the time, that much of the early clout of environmentalism came from mobilizing
animal lovers. Accordingly, through 1973, animal issues were at the forefront of the envi-
ronmental agenda. The MMPA, ESA, and CITES were and are essentially animal protec-
tion measures, addressing humane concerns to some extent as well as the survival of
species. However, the 1974 Arab oil embargo shifted public attention to energy, and the
environmental focus shifted with it to the resource issues that have preoccupied the major
groups ever since. Newly enfranchised enviros hastily brokered a marriage-of-convenience
with old-line hunter/conservationists, who then as now dominated the leadership of many
key organizations and institutions. Rather than be embarrassed by “antis,” the environmen-
tal power-brokers disassociated themelves from the animal rights movement, which rose
after 1974 in part because of the failure of organized environmentalism to follow through on
concern for animals. The gap widened as the animal rights cause aligned itself with long
established and well-endowed antivivisection societies. Denouncing animal testing, animal
rights activists attacked the very basis of the environmentalist drive to ban or restrict use of
toxic chemicals––which polls affirmed as the leading environmental issue, in the public
mind, throughout the 1980s.
Since Greenpeace abandoned anti-fur and anti-sealing campaigns in the mid-
1980s, ostensibly to make common cause with native Americans who rejected the overture,
none of the biggest environmental groups have even pretended to advance humane con-
cerns, as distinguished from concern about species. Most environmentalist activity under-
taken on behalf of species, moreover, has actually involved using the MMPA and ESA as
tools in resource disputes over water rights, logging, and oil-drilling. Use of animal pro-
tection laws to “lock up” resources is indeed the major reason why the ESA is itself now
endangered. Whatever the merits of protecting wilderness and unexploited mineral
reserves, the ESA was not adopted to serve those purposes. Indeed, most of the species
most at risk are found in remnant green space close to human habitation, where conserva-
tion incentives rather than “lock-ups” might prove more efficacious in preserving them.
The truth that was first casualty
The first casualty of the institutionalization of environmentalism, however, was
the early emphasis on vegetarianism, which in 1970 the Editor mistook for universal.
Perhaps shedding vegetarianism was part of the price of public acceptance––but whether or
not giving up meat was or is palatable to much of the public, the environmental harm done
by meat consumption must still be addressed. The fastest-growing pollution problem in the
U.S. is what to do with all the concentrated excrement produced by factory farms, far from
any fields where it can be spread. The Soil Conservation Service, a branch of the USDA,
estimates that about half of the 280 million acres under tillage in the U.S. are naturally at
risk from soil erosion, and about 65% are being tilled––chiefly to grow corn to feed live-
stock––by methods that promote erosion. Intensive irrigation to produce fodder crops con-
tinues to drain water and fossil fuel resources, as well; depending on whose statistics one
cites, a meat-centered diet takes from four to 16 times as much water and petroleum to pro-
duce as a vegetarian diet. Five years ago the General Accounting Office found that most
federally leased pastures are overgrazed (contributing to the decline of 346 endangered
species, according to an NWF follow-up), yet there are more cattle on the range now than
then, and despite a series of fruitless efforts to hike grazing fees to encourage conservation,
the fees are actually from 19¢ to 37¢ lower per animal unit month now than in 1994.
Nor is eating fish any more environmentally benign. The United Nations Food and
Agriculture Organization recently reported that nine of the world’s 17 major fisheries are in
serious decline, four are commercially depleted, and the remaining four are either “fully
exploited” or “over-exploited.”
Quite apart from humane considerations, and even without looking at the effects
of animal agriculture on rainforests or the cattle-dependent starving nations of North Africa,
there are ample reasons why every environmentalist should give up meat and fish, and why
every environmental group should actively encourage that choice. The level of environmen-
tal awareness in the U.S. should translate into a growing national commitment to eating less
flesh. Instead, per capita meat consumption just hit an all-time high. More discouraging, a
National Live Stock & Meat Board survey of the eating habits of 20,000 Americans over a
two-week period reported in February that while 3% call themselves “meat avoiders” and
2% call themselves “vegetarians,” close to the figure of 6% vegetarians estimated by vege-
tarian activist groups, the so-called “meat avoiders” and “vegetarians” actually consume
about 60% of the volume of red meat, fish, and poultry that self-acknowledged meat-eaters
do. Fewer than 1% are in fact fully vegetarian.
In a separate survey, the NLSMB found that only 1% of American youth see eco-
logical harm in eating beef, and fewer still see ecological harm in eating pork and poultry.
In short, both the institutionalized environmental movement and the animal rights
movement have to date failed in addressing the most basic of issues: what’s for dinner if we
eat ourselves out of our habitat? Curbing population growth, a currently fashionable goal
also raised by Lappe, Erlich, and Carson, can delay the need for answers, but however
many of us exist, the question won’t go away. And in the long run it doesn’t really matter
how the environmental movement responds to the wise-use challenge, if it can’t or won’t
encourage a drastic drop in meat consumption, before loss of the resources to produce meat
forces it upon us, after we’ve already lost our rare species and every other aspect of our
environment that the meat habit jeopardizes.
Earth Day is over, but it’s still a good idea to take a clod to lunch––a vegetarian
lunch, to explain gently that while there’s no such thing as a free lunch, a lunch without
meat or fish costs the earth less; provides more nutrition for the input; and is healthier for
us as well as for animals.
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