Monday, April 15, 2013

Equitable Ethics vs Easy Environmentalism: the Essence of Earth Day

Many people express concern for the environment, and believe Earth Day is a good opportunity to draw attention to various issues. Sadly – yet not surprisingly – Earth Day has become largely a meaningless event, with just about everyone – from the strictest vegan to the largest multinational – claiming to support “the Earth.”

But of course, the planet is in no danger—there is no way we can destroy a hunk of rock that weighs 1.3E+25 pounds.

Let me emphasize this point again, as it has generated about as much angry feedback as anything else I’ve ever written. “How can you say the Earth is in no danger?? What about fisheries’ collapse / atmosphere pollution / rainforest destruction / topsoil erosion???” But none of these are “the Earth.” The oceans could empty and the atmosphere blow away, and the planet would still exist. Only the razor-thin biosphere matters, because it is where we and our fellow feeling beings reside.

And this indicates what really is the bottom line – the lives of sentient beings. To avoid considering all our fellow creatures – and the implications that would have for our personal lives – many simply claim any and every environmental problem is equally pressing, and anything “green” is equally commendable.

When you look at what has become of “environmentalism” in the US, the emphasis is either on the feel good about ourselves (“I recycled!” “I bought a hybrid!”) or condemning the “other” (“British Petroleum is evil!” “The government must do something about global warming!”). The avoidance of an honest, meaningful analysis of the fundamental bottom line isn’t surprising; it is much simpler to parrot slogans, follow painless norms such as recycling, vilify faceless corporations, and demand the government take action. All of this makes it easy to continue the status quo and still feel smugly green and good.

Our personal “environmentalism” is often simply nothing more than an expression of self-interest, just another laundry list of “we want.” We want to feel good about ourselves for doing little, relatively painless things. We want charismatic macrofauna to entertain us. We want wild spaces to use. We want clean air and water for our children and friends.

But true ethics aren’t a question of what “we want.” We can be thoughtful individuals and go beyond personal preferences, feel-good campaigns, and vilification of faceless others. We can each recognize that sayings and slogans are superficial; intentions and ideology are irrelevant.

What matters isn’t this rock we call Earth. What matters are the sentient beings who call this rock home. We can't care about “the environment” as though it is somehow an ethically relevant entity in and of itself. Rather, what matters are the impacts our choices have for our fellow feeling beings.

In the end, all that matters are the consequences our actions have for all animals.

All creatures – not just wild or endangered animals – desire to live free from suffering and exploitation. Cruelty is wrong, whether the victim is an eagle or a chicken, a wolf or a pig. The rest is just noise and obfuscation.

At the end of the day, we simply can't consider ourselves ethical if we make choices that lead to more suffering for these creatures. And the greatest amount of suffering on Earth is caused when we choose to eat animals instead of a cruelty-free alternative.

Veganism is a statement against “we want.” Veganism is the embodiment of a consistent, universal ethic. Veganism is a real choice with real consequences – a way to oppose and actively reduce violence, and truly make the world a better place for all. When we choose to live consistently and ethically as a vegan, at the end of the day, we can look in the mirror, knowing we are good people making choices that won’t lead to more suffering for our fellow feeling beings.

But we know that being vegan is only the beginning. Those of us who are already vegan have many further opportunities to make the world a better place. Even if our food choices aren’t directly causing animals to be slaughtered, our other choices – optimizing our example, time, and resources to have the greatest impact – have consequences even more important than what we eat.

This is why we are so honored to work with everyone who is a part of Vegan Outreach, where, in the best possible sense, every day is Earth Day.

–Matt Ball