EXCHANGE: The long and winding road to environmentalism

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  September 2013: (Actually published on October 8,  2013)

I have been involved in animal rights since 1985,  and am grateful for the way that our movement has grown and evolved.  When I first began practicing animal law,  the idea that animals had rights to which we must pay heed was revolutionary.  Courageous activists went to jail to put it on the agenda. To date,  the main thrust of our movement has been to publicize issues of animal abuse and,  most significantly, the  fact that animal exploitation is so woven into the fabric of our culture that we don’t see it.  Institutionalized cruelty––factory farming,  animal experimentation and hunting––are not recognized as cruelty because they are so pervasive.  They are like the background to a painting which is so familiar that we no longer see it or perceive its impact.  Our job has been to define that background in red so that people can,  if they choose,  see it for what it is,  disengage from automatic acceptance of its premises,  and refuse to participate in its enormities. But let’s also see ourselves as environmentalists.  For a long time the animal rights movement and the environmental movement have perceived themselves as separate though largely parallel world views.  The animal rights movement has promoted vegetarianism and veganism,  a view that was not adopted by early environmentalists who believed that people could eat animals,  as long as we were not greedy enough to destroy the ecosystems upon which those animals depended.  That is changing and today there are a growing number of environmentalists who have embraced veganism. The animal rights movement, for its part,  has tended to ignore issues of pollution and human overpopulation,  except as they impact animal populations.  I went to an animal rights conference in Los Angeles a few years ago where there was one small workshop on human overpopulation.  Meanwhile, there were dozens of talks and workshops on animal cruelty,  legislative tactics,  and factory farming.  These are worthy topics,  but  the animal rights movement needs an inclusive awareness that the biggest problem facing animals (including us) is human overpopulation.  This issue, if not addressed,  will swallow up any gains we make in the areas of cruelty and veganism. Even at environmental conferences,  discussions of  human overpopulation occur more in the corridors than in keynote addresses. Among  politicians,  this topic is anathema because it is a political loser.  It is significant that the most prominent worldwide leaders discussing human overpopulation are Prince Charles and the Dalai Lama,  both unelected figures. Let’s put these issues back on the agenda in our outreach and at our conferences. ––Larry Weiss Denver,  Colorado

Editor’s note: Surveys of animal rights advocates have repeatedly demonstrated that upward of 90% also define themselves as environmentalists,  yet most acknowledge a wide gulf between animal rights perspectives and the prevailing views among mainstream environmentalists and environmental organizations,  such that the opportunities for partnerships beneficial to animals remain limited. There may be marginally more areas of agreement now than in 1970,  when animal advocates including then-Humane Society of the U.S. president Mel Morse tried to put animal welfare on the agenda during the first Earth Day celebration.  Indeed,  the best-remembered Earth Day 1970 activity was probably Dolphin Project founder Ric O’Barry’s attempted release of the dolphin Charlie Brown in Bimini. But to be recalled as well is that while saving wild whales was among the causes that built the environmental movement,  ending dolphin captivity has yet to receive much mainstream environmental support,  while several of the biggest mainstream environmental organizations partner with dolphinariums to promote other issues,  and not coincidentally,  raise funds from the visitors. The root problem may be that mainstream environmentalism grew out of habitat preservation causes,  which in turn emerged from the medieval practice of gamekeeping.  This consisted mostly of preventing anyone except the landowners––the feudal nobility––from exploiting wildlife and habitat.  Mainstream environmentalism continues to accept the paradox of the “hunter/conservationist,”  who kills wildlife in the name of protecting wildlife.  Mainstream wildlife conservation is funded in part by the sale of hunting,  fishing,  and trapping licenses––and,  in consequence,  wildlife conservation policies and priorities are often warped to suit the interests of hunters,  rather than the needs of wild animals. Mainstream environmentalism also accepts––and promotes––ecological nativism,  a pre-Darwinian theory of habitat which holds that only the species who evolved in a particular geological location actually belong there.  Thus mainstream environmentalism encourages the massacre of “non-native” species,  regardless of how well-suited to the habitat they may be,  and how integral to the ecosystems which have evolved as result of habitat change. Mainstream environmentalism exempts much anti-animal activity from the ecological precepts it selectively advances,  and is especially self-contradictory in opposing pollution from factory farms without,  for the most part,  opposing the products of factory farms.  While it is true that there are more vegan environmentalists now than in 1970,  it is also true that to this day only two of the biggest seven environmental organizations have even tenuously advised their supporters to eat less meat,  let alone urged veganism or vegetarianism as a lifestyle. Finally,  while ANIMAL PEOPLE board members Kim Bartlett and Patrice Greanville are on record in agreement that “the biggest problem facing animals (including us) is human overpopulation,”  ANIMAL PEOPLE editor Merritt Clifton dissents,  contending that the greater issue is not how many people live somewhere,  at least up to present population densities,  but rather how those people choose to live.  Two points of note: •  Exchange of ideas occurs more easily among larger congregations of thinkers,  and the greater the population density of a society, the more attention tends to be paid to reducing violence and consumption of limited resources.  Thus,  while more meat-eating people means more factory farming,  if most people live as Americans and Europeans live,  not eating meat emerged first as both a widely accepted ethical precept and a practicable option in India and ancient China,  the most densely populated regions of their time.  Philosophies advancing ethical treatment of animals have continued to emerge and gain support primarily from urban rather than agrarian societies. •  The most dramatic recoveries of wildlife and habitat of the past century have occurred in the Northeast and West Coast regions of the U.S.,  and in western Europe,  which are also three of the regions of the world where human population growth has been most rapid. This is not to argue that human population growth is “good,”  or that family planning and birth control should not be encouraged.  At the same time,  human population growth has long been strictly managed in China.  Per capita meat consumption in China,  though rising,  is still less than half of the U.S. and European norms.  Nonetheless,  animal suffering and exploitation in modern China has only just begun to be addressed by a rising animal advocacy movement––and that movement emerged first from several of the biggest cities in the world.

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