Across the Great Divide: Environmentalists and Animal Rights Activists Battle over Vegetarianism. (Cover Story)

By Motavalli, Jim | E Magazine, January-February 2002 | Go to article overview

Across the Great Divide: Environmentalists and Animal Rights Activists Battle over Vegetarianism. (Cover Story)


Motavalli, Jim, E Magazine


Do Real Greens Eat Meat?

In September, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) shocked its foes and supporters alike by putting up a billboard in Vancouver, Canada, the launching pad for many a whale watch. PETA is well known for its provocative ad campaigns, which sometimes feature nude models proclaiming they'd rather go naked than wear fur. But this was different. "Eat the Whales," it said.

Had PETA gone mad? Could the group really want people to chow down on the largest, most majestic mammals on the planet, simply because they offer a greater meat yield than domestic pigs and cows? What's more, the group seemed proud to be alienating environmentalists. "Anti-whaling charities are spitting mad," it crowed in a press release.

A PETA spokesperson, Andrew Butler, says pissing off the greens was precisely the point. "I hope that environmentalists will see past their anger," he says. "They're always ready to condemn file Japanese, Norwegians and Native American whalers like the Makah, while ignoring the greater suffering from the buckets of chicken wings or fish sticks that they harvest at the drive-through or haul home from file meat counter. What we're saying to them is that it's rime to get real."

Iain Kerr, CEO of the Massachusetts-based Ocean Alliance (which includes the Whale Conservation Institute), is one environmentalist who takes exception to the PETA campaign. "I really like PETA, but I also think that environmentalists need to work together instead of upsetting each other," he says. "Environmentalists need all the help we can get, and we can't go around saying, `I can't take your data on PCBs because you're not a vegetarian.'"

Dick Russell, a veteran environmentalist and author of Eye of the Whale, agrees. "PETA is seriously stretching a point," he says. But whale campaigner Annelise Sorg, a spokesperson for the Canadian group No Whales in Captivity, believes PETA's campaign has merit. She admits that some activists are hypocrites "for advocating on behalf of one species while eating another."

PETA is not the first animal rights group to try to persuade environmentalists to go vegetarian. But the effort, to date, has been strikingly unsuccessful. An informal E survey of top environmental leaders found that most of them still eat meat, though they usually express support for those who choose a vegetarian path. Comments ranged from, "I'm cutting down on red meat," and "I think people should move in a vegetarian direction," to "I'm 60 percent vegan and 95 percent vegetarian," and "I'm not a vegetarian because I like to eat meat."

Voices from the Top

PETA's campaign puts in stark relief one of the key differences between environmentalists and animal rights advocates. Environmental leaders tend to think strategically about bringing the greatest number of people into the fold. Since the great majority of people leaning green eat at least some meat, alienating them with vegetarian absolutism is anathema. But personal ethics and choices are very important to animal rights groups. At a recent national conference, "Animal Rights 2001," there was strong sentiment that becoming a vegan (a vegetarian who also eschews all animal products, including dairy) was an essential commitment. Although some expressed concern that this was alienating potential support, the general feeling was that vegetarianism was not negotiable. Many attendees, in fact, criticized PETA itself because of what they termed "sensationalist media campaigns." PETA's representatives pointed out with some justification that the media ignores any campaigns that aren't sensationalized.

The environmental community tends to see animal issues through the lens of wild populations, not individual suffering. Right whales get considerable attention, for instance, not only because they are so-called "charismatic megafauna," but also because there are only about 350 of them left. …

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