This is a guest essay from Alex Roth, a financial analyst, attorney, and environmentalist in Washington, D.C.
Matt Prescott, a spokesperson for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, asserted last month that “you just cannot be a meat-eating environmentalist.” PETA’s pronouncement is part of a cooperative campaign among a number of animal-rights groups. Their message is that meat production exacerbates global warming.
PETA will lead the charge by dispatching an operative in a chicken suit to tour the country in a Hummer. The group will also deploy billboards nationwide with a mocking cartoon depicting climate-change hero Al Gore eating a drumstick, next to the words “Too Chicken to Go Vegetarian? Meat Is the No. 1 Cause of Global Warming.” PETA’s recent bleating has attracted substantial attention, including a recent story in The New York Times.
The group’s campaign is based mainly on a United Nations report released last November. That report is about the environmental impact of livestock, but it doesn’t examine wild sources of meat, and it notes that some types of meat are more environmentally preferable than others — poultry is better than beef, for example. PETA also shoves aside the report’s conclusion that many of the environmental harms caused by livestock production can be mitigated through better agricultural practices. And in its rush to judgment, PETA snubs the millions of meat-eating environmentalists who encourage such improved agricultural practices by seeking out locally grown, humanely-raised, pasture-fed meat from farmers’ markets.
At its core, PETA’s recently discovered position on climate change seems to be just a reformulation of its long-held credo that “meat is murder.” The extent to which PETA’s conclusions on climate change overlap with the U.N. report it cites or any other scientific study appears merely incidental. PETA’s willingness to let the ideological tail of its preconceived conclusion wag the dog of science and fact is reminiscent of the Bush administration’s own approach to climate change — an approach any nonprofit public-interest group should hold itself above.
But what is most remarkable about Matt Prescott and PETA’s other staff members is not that their statements are misleading and exaggerated. After all, they are correct in their most important claim: Meat production is a major contributor to climate change and other environmental problems. No, what is most astonishing about a person like Prescott is that someone evidently so well-intentioned can simultaneously be so counterproductive and so irritating.
By saying that “you just cannot be a meat-eating environmentalist,” Prescott is recycling one of the oldest and stupidest retorts in the history of the environmental movement. I like to call it “the paper napkin defense.” It works like this: An environmentalist says something like, “We have to stop dumping toxic chemicals in our water, because it’s poisoning children.” Then someone who thinks he’s very smart counters that you have no right to speak up, because he saw you use a paper napkin, which is made out of trees and will be thrown in the garbage. As illogical and irrelevant as such a response is, haven’t you heard it a thousand times?
And now you’ve heard it again, because PETA’s new campaign is exactly in this vein. Environmentalists say we have to stop burning so much coal and gasoline, because fossil-fuel emissions threaten the future of our planet. And Matt Prescott, the Meatless Genius, wants to shout you down because — admit it — you ate a chicken Caesar salad last Wednesday.
Of course, most of us carnivorous environmentalists do sometimes eat factory-farmed meat, just as vegans sometimes eat products made from industrial soybeans. In a nation where more than 85 percent of soybeans are genetically modified, while none of them are labeled as such, it’s hard to avoid. Likewise, most environmentalists drive cars from time to time, even though we know driving is bad for the environment. This doesn’t mean we’re not environmentalists — it means we live in the real world.
These days, climate change is known to be exacerbated by most human activities, from stir-frying tofu to watching videos of endangered baby harp seals. To me, being an environmentalist simply means supporting policies and practices that promote a healthy environment.
Unfortunately, many people mistakenly believe that being an environmentalist means being a shrill, opinionated extremist who tells others how to live their lives. Many associate environmentalism with exaggerated factual claims and an insufferable holier-than-thou attitude. Prescott, whom I admit is an environmentalist, is only perpetuating such insidious stereotypes.
It is these stereotypes that, for the better part of the last decade, have encouraged the public to ignore environmentalists’ well-founded warnings about climate change. Only in the last year or so has the problem of climate change begun to receive the widespread recognition it deserves.
And it is at this moment that Prescott and his furry friends parachute onto the scene, with their oversimplified, sensationalist publicity campaign. It’s a move that sounds as gimmicky and vacuous and opportunistic as, well, driving a Hummer around the country while dressed in a chicken suit.