“We can never hope to change our society for the better unless we first change ourselves for the better.”
— Samuel Butler
All of us, even those who try to avoid it as much as possible, are exploiters both of the earth and its plant and animal life. Even the strictest vegan finds it almost impossible to avoid all animal products. There are animal by-products, for example, in such diverse things as asphalt used in road construction, the tires of automobiles, and photographic film. There would be no paper for this article if there were no logging operations which kill and displace many animals. In fact, each time a person purchases any product he or she is responsible for environmental disruption and animal deaths as a result of the exploitation that occurs to procure the basic raw materials. This is another case of blindness to cause and effect relationships. How many people who think that they care about Nature are aware of the destruction that is wrought to produce their stereo set, VCR equipment or new home computer?
The trick, then, is to try to keep the destruction of life and the environment to a minimum. There are many ways that people can do this. Couples can make a commitment not to add to the population or at least to limit their family to one or two children. People can refuse to purchase any obviously frivolous nonessential product, particularly if this product wastes gasoline or electricity. In so doing they will help to prevent the destruction of wildlife habitat and the construction of new dams, atomic and fossil fuel plants, offshore oil drills, pipelines, and transmission lines.
People can recycle reusable products. They can grow some of their own food. They can become a vegetarian, or better still, a semi-vegan. (I use the term “semi-vegan “because virtually no one can avoid all animal products.) Animal agriculture is energy inefficient and environmentally degrading. A cow consumes ten to twenty times the amount of grain needed to nourish a person. An average chicken slaughterhouse uses 100 million gallons of water in a single day. Factory farming generates massive amounts of animal wastes that cannot be property disposed of and are polluting our atmosphere and water supplies. Production of beef cattle results in overgrazing of land, cutting back of forests and accompanying erosion. Wildlife suffers from the destruction of habitat and from predator control programs. In addition, beef imported from northern South America is a major factor in the destruction of rain forests that are vital habitat for many threatened and endangered plants and animals. Vegetarianism and semi-veganism aren’t panaceas for all of the world’s problems, but they are a good beginning. If done for selfless purposes, and not simply for health reasons, they are an accurate gauge of a person’s willingness to sacrifice for the good of all life.
Sadly, most people do not want to sacrifice for the benefit of Nature. This is a result of a far greater problem –that being the nature of the human animal. There are no easy solutions. Perhaps enlightened self-interest will someday result in an environmental ethic which will include the concept that the lives of all creatures are sacred. But one thing is certain: The toughest opponent that we in the animal protection and environmental/ecology movements face is not any of our traditional adversaries. Our very toughest opponent is here, deep within ourselves. It is our greed and selfishness. We have met the enemy and it is us. Let’s try to search for and embrace the friend within.
Ron Baker homesteaded in the Adirondacks for 27 years, living in tents and a cabin made of indigenous fallen trees. He is a co-founder of Wildlife Alive, the first wildlife protection group in the Adirondacks. He is author of The American Hunting Myth (Vantage Press, 1985) and editor and writer of the Backwoods Journal. Some excerpts from that out of print publication will occasionally be printed here.