Hunting Issue Separates Conservationists and Animal Advocates
Animal agriculture degrades the environment in many ways – from deforestation and grassland destruction to water pollution; from intensive energy consumption and global warming to the global expansion of farmland; from the global spread of diseases to biodiversity loss and threats of extinction. This is a well-established reality, and it has been for some time.
On energy consumption and global warming, Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin, assistant professors in geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago, found that removing animal products from one’s diet would reduce greenhouse emissions, eliminating 1.5 tons of carbon dioxide that each person generates in a year, as well as reducing methane (which has 21 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide) and nitrous oxide. By comparison, switching to a hybrid car would only eliminate 1 ton of carbon dioxide per year. Nevertheless, mainstream environmental organizations have yet to confront animal agribusiness -- and their members’ support for this sector -- in a serious way.
If Eshel’s and Martin’s findings come as a surprise, it is precisely because environmental groups have hesitated to inform the public. Vegans and other animal advocates have long been aware of the ecological impact of animal consumption. And as early as 1944 the founders of the Vegan Society emphasized the importance of a conservation ethic in their charter, which defines veganism as taking into account humanity's “responsibilities to the earth and its resources and seeks to bring about a healthy soil … and a proper use of the materials of the earth.”
Animal rights and environmental advocacy have much to gain from each other in the effort to protect and restore land and water and intervene in pollution and global climate change. The fusion of animal rights and environmental advocacy would bring speed and synergy to these related causes.
A major obstacle to the unification of the two communities, especially in terms of land preservation, wilderness advocacy and endangered species protection, is the view of conservation formed by hunters at the end of the 19th century, when several species of hunted animals teetered on the verge of extinction. At that time, as today, the conservation movement was fragmented between those wanting to protect nature for nature’s sake, and those wanting to manage nature for human use – the latter comprising the majority.
One of the earliest and most adamant advocates of the former view was John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club. Muir’s vision of conservation as the preservation of untamed wilderness contrasted with that of Gifford Pinchot, a forester and politician who advocated for conservation as the utilitarian management of natural recourses. In 1904, Muir noted, in a letter on the preservation of free-living animals, “The murder business and sport by saint and sinner alike has been pushed ruthlessly, merrily on, until at last protective measures are being called for, partly, I suppose, because the pleasure of killing is in danger of being lost from there being little or nothing left to kill, and partly, let us hope, from a dim glimmering recognition of the rights of animals and their kinship to ourselves.”
While Muir was no friend of hunting, the Sierra Club took a neutral position on hunting that lasted a hundred years. In 1994, the club’s board of directors adopted a pro-hunting policy. In 1996, the club launched the Hunter and Angler Outreach Campaign and its magazine, Sierra, published the article, “Natural Allies,” by hunter Ted Williams, which argued, “If only hunters, anglers, and environmentalists would stop taking potshots at each other, they’d be an invincible force for wildlands protection.” The article became the foundation for Sierra Club’s outreach campaign, later renamed Natural Allies, which, during the buildup to the 2004 presidential election, saw the appointment of a designated director.
Historian Michael Smith notes that “John Muir established his reputation as a nature writer shortly after the Civil War, observing the alarming depletion of the nation’s resources long before the conservation movement became institutionalized during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency.” The Sierra Club now downplays its own founder’s achievements and influence on environmentalism in favor of Theodore Roosevelt and the Boone and Crocket Club, a trophy hunting organization Roosevelt founded with Gifford Pinchot that formulated the concept of fair chase. Roosevelt and Pinchot expropriated the word “conservation” to describe an anthropocentric view of nature’s purpose. Yet the Sierra Club’s electronic “Conservation Timeline” actually begins with the founding of the Boone and Crocket Club in 1887.
And today, hunters are called the original environmentalists by parties as divergent as the Sierra Club’s executive director Carl Pope and hunting militant Ted Nugent. Early hunter-conservationists were not claiming to advance environmentalism so much as the efficient, professional management of natural resources in the interest of the national economy. This was made clear in Roosevelt’s first State of the Union address in 1901:
The fundamental idea of forestry is the perpetuation of the forests by use. Forest protection is not an end in itself; it is a means to increase and sustain the resources of our country and the industries which depend upon them. The preservation of our forests is an imperative business necessity.
Pinchot referred to this vision of conservation as “the greatest good, for the greatest number, for the long run,” and treated it as the foundation for the sustained-yield, multiple-use policies for federal resource management. Muir, in contrast, realized such utilitarian precepts would have disastrous results for other animals, noting, “None of our fellow mortals is safe who eats what we eat, who in any way interferes with our pleasures, or who may be used for work or food, clothing or ornament, or mere cruel, sportish amusement.”
Hunting and fishing are multi-billion dollar industries intimately linked with state and federal agencies, not unlike logging and ranching interests. It’s not apparent that, as a group, those who participate in the recreational, consumptive removal of free-living land and aquatic animals are “natural allies” in the preservation of untamed lands. But for as long as mainstream environmental organizations seek to romanticize the 19th century hunter-conservationist, those organizations will fail to offer a decisive challenge to our planet’s most pressing environmental concerns.