Widening the Circle

Posted by Paula Mullen, ALDF's Executive Assistant on January 28, 2008

Recently, while reading the local newspaper, a well-written letter to the editor regarding an environmental issue caught my attention. The author’s name seemed familiar, and since she resides in the same small town as one of my coworkers, I asked him if he knew her. Thinking he probably did and that she must be a like-minded person, I was surprised when he said, "I don’t know her personally, but she’s an environmentalist/progressive-type. However, she is vehemently against animal rights."

Now I must confess to being (and probably looking) confused at first, since the words "progressive" and "against animal rights" seem like a contradiction in terms. But when he explained by saying, "You know, THAT kind of progressive," I unfortunately knew exactly what kind of person he meant.

There is a very vocal group of self-proclaimed "progressives" and "environmentalists" who, for reasons I can only guess, are not supportive of most animal protection efforts. I will try my best to describe this group and its overlapping subgroups, as follows:

  1. The "progressives" who believe that it’s all about the quantity of animals, not the quality of life for an individual animal. The people in this group are typically located within the larger environmental or conservation groups, and often proudly wear the "environmentalist" badge. The quality of an animal’s life is not important to them, as long as there are still plenty of that species. Apparently, it’s of no consequence that the "one deer" killed by a hunter had a life of his or her own before coming within range of a high powered rifle. This mentality is also found in some established environmental/conservation organizations; an example is the World Wildlife Fund’s "no opposition" stance regarding the bludgeoning of baby seals.
  2. The "progressives" who conveniently ignore the devastation that the animal agricultural industry has wrought on the environment. Let’s be honest – these are the people who are terrified you will rip that juicy steak (organic or not) from their dinner plate, so they choose to ignore the blatant animal suffering that takes place within the industry. The irony of it is that by doing so, they don’t even adhere to their own environmental standards. They ignore the fact that it takes far more resources to raise livestock (yes, even organically raised livestock) than it would to use the same land to grow crops for people. Even the United Nations gets it; in a 2006 report, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) states, "The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global." The report goes on to say that regarding climate change, "The livestock sector is a major player, responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalent. This is a higher share than transport."
  3. The "progressives" who believe that a person cannot care about human rights while simultaneously caring about animal rights. People from this group will criticize any attempt to help animals with comments such as, "You care more about animals than people!" This one really perplexes me. It doesn’t take advanced multi-tasking skills to support human-focused rights groups while still supporting animal-focused rights groups, and most animal advocates favor efforts to improve human rights. The difference is they don’t stop at humans; their hearts are big enough to feel compassion for everyone, whether two- or four-legged.
  4. The "progressives" who say that humans are predators just like wolves and bears and hawks – so therefore have the "right" to prey on other animals. This mentality completely ignores the fact that we 21st century humans can choose what we eat, in a way that a hawk or a bear or a wolf cannot. These people also love to point out how gruesome a death the prey animal suffers when killed by wild predators, to justify humans killing animals in brutal, inhumane ways. It’s the "Hey, it’s just nature" defense. My response: what on earth is natural about a factory farm, or a well-fed human who hunts with a scoped, long-range rifle?
  5. The "progressives" who say that since there is no way we can avoid killing bacteria and amoebas and insects with every step we take, we should therefore not help any animals at all. Besides being preposterous, this is the saddest justification of all. Talk about defeatism! The thinking is this: since we all end up doing some harm no matter how careful we are, we therefore shouldn’t try to alleviate suffering where we can. A dangerous idea indeed.

So why is this group truly not supportive of animal protection efforts, even efforts that so obviously benefit the environment? I think it all comes down to fear. First and foremost, they are afraid to change their lives. They cling to the "As long as it’s sustainable, I can buy/use/consume it" mentality so they don’t have to think about the suffering they’re supporting, and therefore won’t have to change their habits. I also think they’re afraid of that pesky "tree-hugging hippie" stereotype they’ve worked so hard to overcome. Perhaps they fear that if they show that they care about animals, this stereotype will be perpetuated. So, they go on the offensive and lash out at animal advocates, calling us "overly-sentimental Bambi lovers" (or worse).

I know that the thought of changing one’s personal habits can be daunting, but I and many other people are living proof that it can be done with a minimum of inconvenience. And one can easily combine the following two beliefs – the right of a species to not perish, and the right of an individual to exist free from harm. Many people support both tenets, quite easily – it truly doesn’t have to be either/or!

Our nation recently celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday. Dr. King once said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere…Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." I commend what has been done so far to improve the lives of humans, endangered animals and the planet we all inhabit. But I also issue this challenge to progressives everywhere: we are all connected, so please, try expanding your compassion to include all living beings, not just humans and not just certain populations of wild animals.

After all, if compassion is absent, our progressive ideals become anything but.

For more information about the devastating environmental effects of meat production, read this recent NY Times article:

Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler
The New York Times, January 28, 2008