Saving the Earth, Saving the Earthlings
An Animal Rights Article from


Gracia Fay Ellwood, Vegetarian Friends
May 2015

Much of the information in this essay about environmentalists comes from Anna Peterson’s Being Animal

Green Overdose
Image from

Ever since my eyes were opened to the perilous condition of our planet as a result of reading a 1985 essay called “The Defense of the Peaceable Kingdom” by a Quaker scientist, I have been concerned about environmental issues, taking what small actions I could think of of to keep a light tread on the earth. My chief concern was the liberation of animals, but it seemed overwhelmingly obvious to me that any sane and mature person would care about the danger haunting the earth as well; this is, after all, our only home, as well as the home of many other beings, and it would be madness to stand by idly until it dies in a largely human-caused apocalypse. We can’t assume it’s too late; it’s worth working at. Saving the earth and saving its abused animal inhabitants seemed two parts of the same goal.

Sometime in the mid-1990s, a couple in our Quaker Meeting gave a very knowledgeable presentation on the environmental crisis, suggesting other actions one could take. It was evident they cared greatly. I was impressed by their erudition and their suggestions, and ready to come aboard with them. They knew that I was encouraging Friends to adopt a nonviolent way of eating, and I knew that they were meat eaters, but I naively thought the prospect of an enthusiastic supporter for the cause of the earth would be enough to induce them to at least modify their stance and support my Concern, if not go completely vegetarian themselves. After all, they would surely agree that the earth needs all the help it can get. But I couldn’t have been more wrong; apparently my vegan message made me persona non grata, for I got the cold shoulder in more ways than one. It was the beginning of my education in the unfortunate tensions between many animal advocates and earth advocates.

Fast-forward to 2014. Livestock’s Long Shadow, the lengthy report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) which concluded that animal ag contributed 18% of the greenhouse gases causing climate change--more than all forms of transportation together--had been out for eight years. Available for five years was “Livestock and Climate Change,” (See “Climate Change”), a (much shorter) report by Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang published by the WorldWatch Institute, which analyzed the FAO report and pointed out that when fish-farming (as source of animal feed), deforestation for pasture, transportation of animal products, and other factors are included, the percentage of greenhouse gases from animal ag is actually much higher, about 51%. Now the case for dropping animal products for the sake of the earth was suddenly considerably stronger, and even the reluctant Al Gore went veg. The percentages of meat and dairy sold in the US also went down, not because of a substantial jump in the number of vegetarians and vegans, but apparently because many omnivores are now eating several meatless meals each week.

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But no one saw crowds of environmentalists climbing onto the vegan bandwagon. Their major organizations--Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network, Greenpeace, Oceania, and others--mention the issue on their websites, but the information is kept in the background; they urge supporters to take action to oppose harmful activities such as fracking and oil drilling in the Arctic, but there are no campaigns to urge (or even encourage) the public to drop animal products from their diets. Not only that--when the makers of the 2014 film Cowspiracy interviewed spokespersons of the groups and asked about their response to the evidence for the looming threat posed by animal agriculture, they got mostly evasions. It seems likely that these nonprofit groups don’t care to risk their funding by promoting so extreme a measure as vegetarianism, let alone veganism.

Worldviews in Tension

Some of the tension between environmentalists and animal activists stems from partially conflicting worldviews. Many environmentalists (though not all) hold variants of a holistic, ecocentric worldview expressed in the classic Land Ethic of Aldo Leopold, set forth in an essay in his 1949 book A Sand Country Almanac. The two main principles of this ethic are that nature is not merely the human context, providing useful resources for us, but has value in and of itself; and that value is found in the whole, the ecological community. Individual beings, including animals, have value in proportion to their contribution to the health of the whole community, but not in and of themselves; they are expendable (and edible). Human beings are not the lords of this community as they have long assumed, but citizens of it, and responsible to other citizens for the welfare of the community.

The implications of this message are many. There is no doubt that humans have indeed been acting like lords--or rather tyrants--over the earth, recklessly taking out whatever they want, destroying habitats, decimating crucial ecosystems, fostering dangerous climate change, until “the earth withers . . . the earth lies polluted under its inhabitants, for they have . . . broken the everlasting covenant,” as Isaiah prophetically wrote three thousand years ago. It is desperately important that politicians and the wealthy lords of industry hear and heed this message, and accept their responsibility as mere citizens among other citizens of many shapes and varieties. But few are eager to do so.

To some extent the message is being heard, for many ordinary people are speaking up by vote and by protest against destructive industrial policies. But it is always a struggle between self-serving forces and those serving the earth. And, unfortunately, certain elements of some environmentalists’ message hinder their effectiveness. One of them, as Anna Peterson (pictured) points out in Being Animal, is a negative outlook on companion animals. Environmentalists who make it clear that they consider wild animals to be the only true animals, domesticated ones being so denatured as to no longer be worthy of the name, do themselves no favor with large swaths of the public, including many animal activists, who love their cats, dogs, or other animals-in-residence and consider them members of their family. To the extent that the environmentalists’ objections are to the destructive and unhealthy pet food industry, they have a very valid point, to which animal companion guardians (including myself) have no satisfactory answer. But condemning animal friends is not the way to help the earth.

Worldviews Colliding

Another difficulty, and a serious point of disagreement between environmentalists and animal activists is that while the latter consider the violence of predation as tragic, many of the former affirm it as good, because it is a crucial part of the valuable whole. Like the two Quakers who wanted nothing to do with my vegan message, they not only believe in eating flesh (from ecologically responsible farms), some practice hunting so long as the prey is from a species that is overabundant in a particular area, believing that it deepens their participation in nature. Furthermore, they hold that culling--that is, killing--large numbers of a species that is invasive, and/or throwing a local ecosystem out of balance, is the responsible thing to do.

While removing invasive plants is not likely to lead to major contention, killing animals because there are too many of them for sustainability does have serious consequences. One is practical: the animals may increase their reproduction rate to compensate for the losses (as humans did in the Baby Boom after 1945), so that the horror and bloodshed will have been for nothing. In the case of some species, there may be harmful repercussions for the survivors; for example, elephants who as infants endured the massacre of their mothers and extended families show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder and may become violent and dangerous.

Humans simply do not know all the results of their actions; as Tolkien says, “Even the wise cannot see all ends.” If, as we at the Peaceable Table and many others hold, all beings are so deeply linked that what happens to one affects all, the violence of any massacre pervades and pollutes earth’s spiritual atmosphere, fostering further violence elsewhere.


Violent solutions to animal overpopulation tend to be the first to come to many people’s minds, but nonviolent solutions, such as birth control, can be sought and found. Another example: when the area threatened by an imbalance of animals is delimited, the animals can be moved, as took place 1999 - 2000 when animal advocates cooperated with environmentalists to move invasive wild goats living on Catalina Island near the coast of Southern California. (Unhappily, after the airlift took many of the goats to a safe new location, the Conservancy that owned much of the island was unwilling to wait for further fundraising, and began killing the remaining goats).

From the viewpoint of consistency and thus integrity, the most serious problem of the massacre solution is the unhappy fact that the animal species whose numbers are most out of control, who are doing what may be fatal damage to the whole biosphere of the planet, is, alas, so-called homo sapiens. We have met the enemy, and it is us. But scarcely anyone wants to be an ecofascist who advocates mass killing of human beings to save the earth; not only is this counter-intuitive, it is, to say the least, very unpopular. (Deep ecologists, especially members of the group Earth First!, are thought to favor this solution; there is a single pseudonymous 1987 essay tentatively exploring the idea that the deaths of many humans would be beneficial, but most of the group’s members do not support the idea.)

Thus, for ecocentrists, the value of all animals in all species is subordinated to the welfare of the whole community, and they can be killed when their numbers threaten that welfare--all species, that is, except us human animals, who happen to be the worst offenders! It does seem a little ironic, then, that humans should appoint themselves the killers of other overpopulated animal species. It is true that when particular ecological problems have been created by humans, humans ought to try to resolve those problems; but the means should be of the sort we would want applied to ourselves.

Hope is the Thing With Feathers

But not all environmentalists are ecocentrists, as many readers know; there are other positions, most of them happily compatible with animal advocacy. Some are anthropocentric, primarily motivated by a desire to save the earth for future generations of human beings. Some are theocentric, holding that the earth and all beings in it belong to God, who has appointed humans as stewards or guardians; thus we humans do have a special status among other species, but it is one of caretaking, not exploitation. Some, especially ecofeminists, emphatically reject the dualisms of human culture vs. nature, male vs. female, whole vs. individual that are typical of much traditional Western thought, and the patterns of domination that these dualisms foster, domination that ravishes the land and thoughtlessly or deliberately kills millions of animals. Some environmentalists, particularly certain Quakers, affirm that the earth and all its beings are indwelt by an immanent divine Light/Presence, so that they are owed respect, even reverence, both as a whole and as individuals. There are some influenced by Buddhism who hold that all beings are one, their separateness essentially unreal like the ephemeral waves of the ocean, so that when our eyes are opened, we see ourselves in every being, and consequently live and act with compassion for all. And, of course, several of these categories overlap; e.g., a person can be a Quaker or Buddhist of evangelical Christian ecofeminist.

Julie Brent
Image of earth in hands is from Julie E. Brent

These positions face both theoretical and practical problems, just as ecocentric environmentalism does; most readers know them already. Briefly, the main theoretical one is that when both the whole and the individuals are to be held in respect or reverence, there is little inherent guidance about how to deal with situations when the welfare of two communities or individuals conflict. Two practical problems faced by animal advocates in particular--whether they are also environmentalists or not--are: first, that our vegan message seems ascetic and depriving to most people, who continue to cling to meat and dairy; and, second, that, thanks in part to the media, vocal animal defenders full of anger tend to capture the public’s attention much more than advocates who seek to deliver the message with compassion for all, so that people get the impression that we are judgmental and hostile, making them feel ill-used and defensive.

Can’t We Get Along?

One hopeful possibility--a very large area in which all animal advocates and environmentalists can agree and work together--is that the huge factory farm and slaughterhell system is an abomination in every way--exploiting and often injuring vulnerable workers, undermining consumers’ health, creating hells for animals, and wreaking unimaginable harm on the earth through extinctions, pollution, and climate change. It must be nonviolently dismantled. It is useless to expect any leadership toward this goal from government agencies designed to protect human health or the earth; the only way it will happen is for people to to be effectively persuaded to stop buying the products. In addition to the important work animal advocates are already doing, we could join major environmental organizations and pressure them from within to start speaking up--loudly--about the terrible peril this evil system poses to the earth. Wealthy donors can have particular influence here, but many people with shallower pockets might help convince one or more of the big earth-defending nonprofits to put their mouth where their money (supplemented by our contributions) is.

Imagine, for example, the HSUS, PETA, Greenpeace, and the Sierra Club joining forces to press the message home: if you want to do what will help most to promote compassion for animals and prevent our planet-home from becoming a dead world, swear off meat and dairy (especially) and eggs from factory farms. Such a major cooperative effort would mean both sides learning to tolerate certain views and actions they find hard to take. But things might really begin to move.

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