Ignoring farm animals is hurting the conservation movement
Aldo Leopold is perhaps America’s most famous conservationist. His collection of essays A Sand County Almanac, published posthumously in 1949, has sold more than two million copies and been translated into twelve languages. In the final essay, Leopold lays out the basic tenants of his philosophy for how humans should view the world around them: “The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”
I read A Sand County Almanac when I was younger, for a book report in high school biology. My dad had a copy on his shelf downstairs and I remember leafing through the brittle pages, not understanding much but reading Leopold’s descriptions of central Wisconsin and imagining my grandparents’ tree farm not far from there where we gathered for family reunions in July.
Now I work in the land conservation field where I encounter Leopold quite often. People share his more famous quotes on Facebook and invoke his name in conference speeches. More generally, his ideas about a cooperative rather than exploitative relationship between humans and the natural world form the bedrock of the efforts of my organization and countless others. His land ethic is an unofficial motto of sorts for those of us invested in protecting the environment. We extend our concern beyond humans to soil, water, plants, and animals.
As conservationists we worry about bulldozers paving over prime soil, chemicals leaking into waterways, loggers clear cutting virgin forests, and lions being poached by would-be Teddy Roosevelts. But we don’t worry about cows and pigs and chickens living terrible lives and dying painful deaths.
Except when it comes to animals raised for food. Our land ethic doesn’t include them.
As conservationists we worry about bulldozers paving over prime soil, chemicals leaking into waterways, loggers clear cutting virgin forests, and lions being poached by would-be Teddy Roosevelts. But we don’t worry about cows and pigs and chickens living terrible lives and dying painful deaths. We view developers and energy companies as villains, but largely ignore dairy farming. At our events there are scrambled eggs and deli meat sandwiches and steak dinners, devoured happily without a second thought.
In my year and a half in the field of conservation, I have yet to meet another vegan and have met only a couple vegetarians. Some folks seem genuinely surprised to hear about the environmental implications of eating animal products, as if they had never thought about it. Others look at me almost apologetically and say they understand the problem intellectually, but just could never give up ribs or cheese.
Whether it stems from ignorance or apathy, this is a major problem, a huge blind spot in what we consider a progressive, earth-friendly worldview. Not only is drawing the boundaries of our community to exclude farm animals totally arbitrary––for instance, why is a bald eagle inherently more valuable and deserving of respect than a pig?––but it leads directly to their treatment as commodities, as things valued solely for their economic potential rather than as living creatures in a majestic fabric of biodiversity.
This commodification, in turn, drives a meat industry that contributes to deforestation, water pollution, wildlife disruption, and worst of all, to the slow-motion crisis that is global climate change. Ignoring this industry, by ignoring the animals it exploits, ultimately harms the very soil, water, and wildlife traditionally included in the land ethic.
We––not only conservation professionals, but anyone who cares about the future of our planet––would do well to embrace Leopold’s conservation ethic as a framework for our relationship to the natural world as we address the environmental issues of the twenty-first century.
His central argument is powerfully timeless, as relevant today as it was on the heels of the Dust Bowl and the Second World War. We must include soil, water, plants, and animals in our sphere of moral reasoning, must see ourselves as part of a community that reaches beyond the parochial limits of humankind. But in order to use this framework honestly—and effectively— it’s time we include all animals.
Nate Lotze works for a statewide conservation organization in Pennsylvania, and has also spent time as an environmental organizer and organic farmer.