Thursday, September 27, 2007

What Is An Environmentalist?

Via Emily Gertz, David Roberts tackles PETA's claim that meat-eaters cannot be environmentalists.

Roberts rightly scoffs at PETA:

"This is a deeply silly question. The term "environmentalist" is socially contingent and highly contested. Environmentalism has no metaphysical essence. "You aren't an environmentalist" is moral judgment masquerading as an assertion of fact."

Right. PETA, along with other more self-righteous "radical" environmental organizations, frequently try to define what environmentalism in based on their own behavior. Environmentalism has not only changed throughout American history, but it has no easy definition. Do you have to be a member of PETA or EarthFirst to be an environmentalist? What if you just recycle? What if you are a meat-eater who throws away all your cans and bottles, but you don't have a car?

PETA's attempt to define environmentalism based on their own behavior reminds me of two historical episodes. First, making moral statements that places oneself above the rest of the world is reminiscent of Anglo-Saxons in the early 20th century creating race charts to justify their own position as imperialists. While the racist imperialists both had more power and were worse people than PETA members could ever dream of, both group started from a position of moral superiority to the rest of the world and then created systems of knowledge to reinforce themselves.

Second, and perhaps more relevant, this reminds me of the spotted owl crisis in the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s and early 1990s when environmental groups demonized loggers because they cut down trees. Rather than think about the lives of average working people and their interactions with the environment, they preferred to condemn with a wide net, making thousands of enemies in the process. Never mind that many loggers are also avid hikers, fishers, hunters, bikers, etc. Because they logged for a living, they hated the forests. Of course, these groups used paper products as an important way of spreading its message. Likewise, PETA is excluding millions of environmentally sensitive Americans from the movement based upon one personal behavior. Unlike logging, where people worked in the forests to put food on the table, meat-eating is a more personal choice, but one with deep social, cultural, and class implications that many people cannot so easily throw away.

Is PETA right that people should not eat meat? From an environmental perspective, yes. There is no doubt that meat consumption is one of the most environmentally damaging actions we can do. Raising cattle destroys forests in Central America, while chicken and pig farms produce prodigious amounts of waste that often are improperly treated.

But of course this is not PETA's only argument. They also equate morality with their own brand of environmentalism. Thus eating meat is evil as well as environmentally damaging. This is a much harder argument to accept. Not only is it fairly absurd on its face, but it is alienating to the general public. Are they advancing their cause by saying meat-eaters cannot be environmentalists? Not at all. Rather, they are annoying people with their self-righteous, and often hypocritical, behavior.

We should make arguments that people should cut down on meat consumption. We should also encourage more humane and environmentally sustainable ways of producing meat. But I deeply oppose PETA's claims. Not only is PETA wrong, but, as usual, they damage the entire environmental movement through their blanket claims.