Practical Issues > Health - Index > Vegan Index

We the People, You the Rest… and the Sierra Club:
Where Does Animal Advocacy Come In?
by Lee Hall

www.dissidentvoice.org
May 3, 2005

While the alliance of animal advocates and immigration restrictionists wanting to influence the Sierra Club’s future has caused a furor, the role that animal advocates could actually play is largely unexamined. The issues, however, are serious: Do environmentalists view other animals as resources to be protected? As objects of aesthetic interest? Or should environmentalists take the position that animals, other than the human ones, have their own interests?

John Muir, who helped establish the Sierra Club, employed the political rhetoric of viewing nature as a composite of material resources and aesthetic benefits to humanity when backing the establishment of a national forest system -- a system whose primary purpose would be the guarantee of a perpetual timber supply.[1]  Since its early days, the Sierra Club has identified its mission as environmental advocacy for people.

Given the inherent growth needs of capitalism, and the consequent advantages enjoyed by economic values, an effective environmentalism would emphasize the idea of nature itself as inherently worthy of moral consideration. Non-human animals, for the same reason, should be freed from the limitations our current legal paradigm imposes; for as long as they carry the status of things to serve human interests, by simple operation of law we obstruct our ability to perceive them as beings with their own interests in, and experiences of, the natural world.

Such proposals, however, are slow to make an impression on large, donor-reliant organizations. One in five current Sierra Club members is an angler or hunter.[2] And although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that animal farm waste has polluted more than 27,000 miles of rivers, and the demand for meat has become a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage [3], materials offered by the Sierra Club do not face this issue squarely.[4] Information published in connection with a recent Sierra Club campaign, The True Cost of Food, tells readers that three-fourths of the land in the continental United States is devoted to agribusiness, and much of the cropland produces grain for cows, not people.[5]  Nevertheless, the page stops short of unequivocally endorsing a plant-based diet. [6] Today, vegetarians make up just 1.5% of the national population; and vegans, who forego all resource-costly animal-based calories, hardly register at all.[7]

To be sure, some thoughtful people in a variety of fields might understandably conflate animal advocacy itself with a tendency to dismiss human needs and goals. Paul Watson, who has been associated with animal protection and environmental activism for more than three decades and a board member of the Sierra Club since 2003, has defended the tactic of tree-spiking (driving steel spikes into trees to damage chain saws), an activity denounced publicly in 1990 by Judi Bari for its effect of threatening the safety of timber workers and alienating them from the environmentalist cause. (A California sawmill worker was severely disfigured in 1987 when a saw blade hit a spike and shattered in his face.) More recently, Watson said, “I personally cannot get overly worked up about deprivation of human rights in a world where non-humans have no rights at all.” [8]

But one need not be a misanthrope to see animal advocacy as having a valid place in the Sierra Club, or in environmentalism generally. A morally consistent and effective animal-rights position would promote unbounded empathy, in which respect for non-citizens is deemed consistent with advocacy for non-human beings. Serious acknowledgment of the interests of non-citizens would reinforce an expansive view of legal personhood that has expanded outward, over the decades, from its early core of privilege.

Empathy for humanity could, moreover, relieve intercultural tensions in the interest of fostering continued co-operation on questions about the environment and any of its inhabitants. Numerous animals depend upon public borderlands for migration between countries, and as a matter of immediate practicality, animal advocates should know that sealing the borders against non-citizens can work directly against non-human beings and the habitats they need.  A case in point is the “Real ID Act of 2005,” passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in February, and now part of the supplemental appropriations bill for funding the Iraq incursion, tsunami relief and some other attractions that practically guarantee its being signed into law. The provision, designed to give the federal government unprecedented authority over states’ driving permits, identification cards and related data, would have environmental ramifications as well, as it would enable the Secretary of Homeland Security to waive federal, state and local environmental laws in order to expedite construction of security fences and barriers at the borders.

Construction has already damaged border areas, which include parts of national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges. Only a few hundred Sonoran pronghorn antelopes, animals now unique to the Arizonan and Mexican flatlands, live in the Buenos Aires and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuges and in Sonora, Mexico. The main threats facing pronghorns surviving into adulthood are the loss of habitat  associated with building and conversion of grasslands, being hit by vehicles, and fencing -- for pronghorn don’t jump. Barriers don’t selectively obstruct the movement and survival of one species alone. [9]

Danger under the Big Tent

The only real border for this planet’s inhabitants is the ozone which shields us all. According to a report commissioned for the Pentagon, the coming two decades could demonstrate that reality in the harshest of forms.[10]  Substantial evidence indicates that significant global warming will occur during the 21st century, the report states, adding that once the temperature rises above some threshold, “adverse weather conditions could develop relatively abruptly, with persistent changes in the atmospheric circulation causing drops in some regions of 5-10 degrees Fahrenheit in a single decade.”  Were such a scenario to occur, mass migration would result “as the desperate peoples seek better lives in regions such as the United States that have the resources to adaptation.”[11]

In this context, animal agriculture raises pertinent questions, for methane, an inevitable by-product of animal agriculture, has 21 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide. [12] And while the Pentagon report’s co-author Doug Randall says that it “seems obvious that cutting the use of fossil fuels would be worthwhile”[13], it takes far more fossil-fuel energy to produce and transport meat than to deliver equivalent amounts of protein from plant sources.[14] Moreover, the burgeoning human population will soon be faced with a choice between feeding animals -- which means maintaining their growth before they are killed for food -- or feeding humanity. We cannot do both.[15] Our population problem is inextricably woven with the problems posed by animals we domesticate. Animals bred to be human food already outnumber human beings three-to-one, and their numbers are rapidly rising.[16]

Thus, promoting a shift away from animal agriculture would be aligned with, and necessary to meet, the Sierra Club’s stated goals.  According to its mission statement, the Club aspires to “promote the responsible use of the earth’s ecosystems and resources; educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment; [and] use all lawful means to carry out these objectives.” [17] Vegetarianism peacefully and lawfully spares forest land, and trees, in turn, are a key to preserving the earth’s atmosphere.[18]  In contrast, numerous endangered species are imperiled due to ranching in the United States, and conversion of wilderness into grazing land is the most threatening physical impact of human existence on the planet’s other living beings.

But executive director Carl Pope believes that “[i]t’s important to have hunters and fishermen in the Sierra Club” because “[w]e are a big-tent organization.” [19] This, though rethinking the Club’s stance on agriculture and food policy could quite sensibly be viewed as both pragmatic and environmentally consistent. A new policy might well provide a safety valve that allows dissenters to believe that their concerns are being heard, and shift the focus to healthful introspection rather than allowing an atmosphere of xenophobia to fester. If the Sierra Club itself is institutionally incapable of doing so, its members should interrogate its ability to function ethically and effectively. [20]  For no other single action would be more relevant to saving water, sparing habitat, and lightening our footprint on the planet than designing a plan to effectively interrogate the diet of our affluent culture, and the damage that it does to our forests and to the rest of the world.[21]

But because such questions implicate its own members and potential members, they conflict with the short-term safety of appealing to a large donor base. In a parallel matter, Jeffrey St. Clair has observed that the Sierra Club refused to oppose the invasion and occupation of Iraq although “[t]he day-to-day operations of the military complex itself -- weapons production and testing -- amount to the most toxic industry on the planet” and the nuclear industry threatens to extinguish all life on earth. [22] Carl Pope threatened to oust people who protested the Club’s neutrality. “For the board to compel our silence,” said dissenting member Dan Kent, “plays right into Bush’s mad world, where a nation of police, prisons, bombs, bunkers is better than lowering oneself to diplomacy to save lives.” [23]

Understanding: The Final Frontier

Like the war question, concerns about humanity’s swelling population, combined with its agricultural customs and its treatment of other living beings as a general matter, have been dismissed by some environmental groups without thorough examination. It’s time to accord these issues serious consideration; indeed, it shouldn’t take a crisis to compel such consideration.

Although environmentalists should be wary of the racially pernicious aspect of anti-immigrant sentiments, concern about the global population boom should not be dismissed through conflation with the views of the concern's least wise or least generous proponents. And respecting the interests of other animals with whom we share the planet, rather than objectifying and threatening them, furthers the goals of a holistic environmentalism; that point too should be considered without fear of being seen as sympathetic to tactics of intimidation which a small faction of animal advocates have adopted. In both matters, we are unlikely to see significant progress before we can change the basic human attitude to those outside of their immediate circle. That means seeing ourselves as more than just the people of a successful social class or ethnic group or nation. It also means seeing ourselves as part of the greater biocommunity. 

Lee Hall teaches immigration as a member of the Adjunct Faculty of Law of Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, and is Legal Director of Friends of Animals in Darien, Connecticut. Lee can be reached at: http://us.f808.mail.yahoo.com/ym/Compose?To=leehall@sprynet.com.

Other Articles by Lee Hall

* Refocus Seal Intervention Where It Belongs: Government Subsidies
* Globalizing Homeland Security Part II: Before and After Tuesday

* Globalizing Homeland Security (Part One): Doing Time for the Towers
* Blood on the Campaign Trail
* Bringing Social Justice to the Table
* People for the Exploitative Treatment of Arabs?
* Fit To Be Tamed


NOTES AND REFERENCES

[1] Colleagues “suggested to Muir that an association be formed to protect the newly created Yosemite National Park from the assaults of stockmen and others who would diminish its boundaries.” The Sierra Club, “John Muir: A Brief Biography.”

[2] Bart Semcer, “Sierra Club Reaction to False Accusations by the National Rifle Association, Sets the Record Straight on Gun and Hunting Policies (28 Jan. 2005). Yet founding member John Muir had urged Theodore Roosevelt to give up the “childish habit” of hunting.  Robert Kuhn McGregor, “Make Way” (book review of J. Baird Caldicott and Eric T. Freyfogle, eds., For the Health of the Land(1999), Illinois Periodicals Online Project.

[3] “Global Meat Consumption Has Far-Ranging Environmental Impacts,” World Watch Magazine, Jul.-Aug. 2004).

[4] “Inside Sierra Club: Our Top Priorities” lists clean water; ending commercial logging; stopping sprawl; forests and wildlands protection and restoration; clean energy; global population; stopping global warming; and responsible trade. The section on concludes by recommending “a national online directory of sustainably-raised meat.” Sierra Club, “Keep Animal Waste Out of Our Waters:  Stop Factory Farm Pollution.”

[5] The U.S. Department of Commerce counts 56 million acres of land used to produce hay to maintain animals bred to be food; only 4 million acres produce vegetables for direct human consumption. “Global Meat Consumption Has Far-Ranging Environmental Impacts,” World Watch Magazine (Jul.-Aug. 2004).

[6] “The True Cost of Food” recommends reading material from a broad spectrum of approaches, including information from the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture’s “Sustainable Livestock” Committee.

[7] Sharon Bernstein, “Automakers Getting a Taste for Vegan Values,” Los Angeles Times (23 Aug. 2004) p. A1. Los Angeles Times

[8] Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, “The ‘Good’ Pirate: Interview with Capt. Paul Watson” (edited from a piece which first appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of Bite Back magazine).

[9] Ironically, the Sierra Club was a plaintiff in a suit filed in February 2004 to block the conclusion of the construction of two fences and roads for the use of for Border Patrol agents at the Mexican border. Tony Perry, “Groups Sue to Block Border Fences,” Los Angeles Times (11 Feb. 2004), p. B8. The suit claimed that the project would needlessly destroy sensitive habitat in the region near the Tijuana Estuary, home to animals such as the coastal sage scrub bird.

[10] Peter Schwartz & Doug Randall, “An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for U.S. National Security” (>Feb. 2004), Global Business Network.

[11] Ibid.

[12] “National Program Annual Report: Agricultural Research Service Global Change National Program (204)” (FY 2001). Methane accounts for 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

[13] Mark Townsend and Paul Harris, “Now the Pentagon Tells Bush: Climate Change Will Destroy Us,” The Observer (22 Feb. 2004).

[14] “Global Meat Consumption Has Far-Ranging Environmental Impacts,” note 3 above.

[15] George Monbiot, “Why Vegans Were Right All Along: Famine Can Only Be Avoided if the Rich Give up Meat, Fish and Dairy,” The Guardian (24 Dec. 2002).

[16] The Food Revolution (2001), p. 234.

[17] “Inside Sierra Club: Our Mission Statement.”

[18] Forty percent of Central American rainforests have been cleared or burnt in the last four decades, mostly for cattle grazing. “Global Meat Consumption Has Far-Ranging Environmental Impacts,” note 3 above.

[19] Miguel Bustillo & Kenneth R. Weiss, “Election Becomes a Fight over Sierra Club’s Future,”Los Angeles Times (Jan. 18, 2004) p. A1.

[20] It might be unable. Describing “the type of organization we are,” Sierra Club president Larry Fahn has said: “Most people join to go on hikes. Only 5-6 percent are activists.”  Ben Adler, “Sierra Club Votes for Its Future,” The Nation (posted online 13 Apr. 2004).

[21] The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that livestock waste has polluted more than 27,000 miles of rivers; globally, humans are now taking half the available fresh water, leaving the other half to be divided among a million or more species. See “Global Meat Consumption Has Far-Ranging Environmental Impacts,” note 3 above. Notably, producing a steak requires thousands of gallons of water. Robbins, note 16 above, p. 238.

[22] Jeffrey St. Clair, “Torquemadas in Birkenstocks: The War Club,” CounterPunch (12 Dec. 2002).

[23] Ibid.