Why don’t the environmental & animal rights movements work together?

posted by Josh Ran

I just participated in the Animal Rights 2008 conference near Washington, DC, and had a rewarding and challenging experience. Rewarding, because the dozen volunteers who helped staff RAN’s table and I were warmly received – we signed up twenty new RAN members and got a couple of hundred signatures on our petition calling on ADM, Bunge and Cargill to stop destroying rainforests for soy and palm oil plantations. Challenging because a few of my presentations addressed questions of how animal rights activists could work with movements for the environment and for social justice – and I was concerned that people might not like what I had to say about that.

I certainly didn’t feel out of place representing an environmental organization at this conference. There was plenty of discussion about the urgency of addressing climate change – primarily by advocating for a plant-based diet due to the carbon-intensive nature of animal agriculture- and of protecting the rainforests – again by advocating for a plant-based diet due to the accelerating rainforest destruction to clear land for cattle grazing and soy plantations for animal feed (and fuel).

At the final plenary, I participated in a “Voices from Other Movements” panel. I promised to post notes from my talk on RAN’s blog, so here they are (notes from the talk are followed by the survey raw data if you want to skip ahead):

Voices from Other Movements

I thought that the best way to represent multiple environmental voices was to get some second opinions. So, I set up a brief online survey and sent it around to colleagues at RAN, NWF, WWF, Conservation International, Greenpeace and Sierra Student Coalition. It wasn’t my intention to get statistically significant results (there were fewer than two dozen responses), but they do seem to accurately portray the range of opinions I’ve heard during my time with the environmental movement…. And because I care, I’m going to give it to you straight.

The short survey was divided into three parts, first asking whether environmentalists agreed or disagreed with statements that seem (to me) to represent areas of overlap or division between our movements; second asking about the key barriers to collaboration between our movements and finally, asking about opportunities for collaboration.

I started by focusing in on issues around vegetarianism, because that’s a key area where animal rights activists tend to feel frustrated with mainstream enviros.

The first statement I asked about was “Animal agriculture is a leading cause of climate change.” (I very intentionally didn’t say the leading cause of climate change.) A quarter of respondents disagreed with that statement.

Because it takes more land to grow food for animals and to provide pasture for grazing, a meat-based diet leads to deforestation. This time more than half of respondents strongly agreed, a quarter agreed, and only 1 person disagreed.

To fight hunger and make the planet sustainable for all of the people who live on it, we must promote a plant-based diet. Most people agreed or strongly agreed. One person commented, “I certainly agree that we should promote a MORE plant based diet, but not that meat eating in moderation is inconsistent with sustainable living in the long term.”

One person commented about these three statements: “Enviro groups will never likely use these arguments because they are shared by so few/they are so far out of the mainstream… Most people would hear the arguments above and think we were crazy.”

I was curious how enviros feel about some statements that I hear pretty regularly around the AR movement, so the next statement was “You can’t be an environmentalist and eat meat.” About a third of people agreed with that statement, but most disagreed.

And finally, here’s the statement that sums up all of our frustration with the environmental movement, “Environmental groups are afraid to promote vegetarianism because they don’t want to offend mainstream members.

42% agreed with that statement. Half disagreed or strongly disagreed.

Some additional comments in this section:

“I don’t think Enviro groups are afraid to offend mainstream members. I think the smart ones do not want to offend people culturally. The environmental movement is so white, and being anti-oppressive and more diverse needs to be a priority. Having vegetarianism be the exclusive norm only builds more walls between us and communities where food is an important cultural resource and sense of identity and is not vegetarian.”

“I think the cultural aspects of eating meat need to be considered. The majority of the world’s cultures include some meat in their diets. How and how much of it, I personally believe, is a better way to address the animal-for-food issue than no-animals-for-food. Discussions around whether humans are natural omnivores versus vegans I also think should be valued.”


“Local meat is best – corporate animal agriculture is where the problems really come in.”

Responses to my question about the greatest barriers to AR and enviro collaboration were varied:

A few people said they didn’t have the capacity to get involved with multiple issues and prioritized environmentalism. As one person put it, “To me, it’s the gap between environmental justice and animal rights. When people are dying because of the coal death march, it’s hard to worry about sad cows. At the same time, I realize that the justice issue overlaps with the humans and animals involved. I just don’t have enough time for it all.” Another cited “a lack of initiative of either movement to put time and energy into developing common programs that would build closer relationships.”

PETA was mentioned more than once – as misogynistic, sexist; and as contributing to the reputation that animal rights groups as a whole were too extreme and militaristic.

Other comments included:

“Most Earth Liberation activists are also Animal Liberation activists. “Movements” collaborate all the time. NGOs don’t. Environmental, animal welfare, animal rights, human rights NGOs all have boards, donors, “deliverables” and many other barriers to being part of a multi-issue “movement.” NGOs are too single issue focused.”

Another barrier cited was “Establishing preconditions that limit discussion and space for finding common ground like “i won’t participate until the other side allows/disallows meat at x event”

“Underlying value systems are not the same. For many environmentalists, their value system is rooted in human rights and posterity. This puts them far more inline with the value systems of the social justice and human rights movements than a movement that puts animal rights above humans. Lots of animal testing is being done in direct efforts to improve human welfare. Issues like this demand pragmatism and balance not fundamentalism.”

Despite these barriers, people offered numerous opportunities for collaboration.

“the fact that we can all help do our part in reducing green house gas emissions simply by changing how we eat. eating meat 1 time a week would be a great start.” (ok, so not the preferred messaging of the AR movement, but isn’t it a starting point?)

“The justice issues, esp. with CAFOs/factory farms.”

“Animal agriculture/climate change campaign”

“Stronger critique of corporations hurting animals.” “Promoting local food systems and agricultural policy reform.”

“Common interest in habitat protection.”

“The most opportunities for collaboration exist when we focus on how animals are treated (welfare). We should focus on providing the most humane treatment of all animals as possible, wild animals as well as those domesticated for food.”

And I got three additional comments that I’d like to pass on to you:

“The AR and Env. movements have plenty of overlap in membership and infrastructure as it is. Efforts at cross movement collaboration should meld Env. and Social Justice movements as much as possible if we want to win, and AR fundamentalism is offensive to many SJ and HR groups who are working against unbelievable human suffering that is happening now on a massive scale.”

“Extremism on any side tends to paint all soldiers with the same unfortunate color.”

And finally,

“I’m glad people are working on animal rights.”

My goal in this presentation was to let people’s words speak for themselves, so I’m not going to add a lot of commentary about their responses. But I would like to add a few words from my own experience straddling these two movements:

First, I think that more radical enviro groups (and I’ll put RAN among those) tend to have the most respect and understanding for both the goals and tactics of the AR movement.

That said, those same groups tend to have the greatest desire to incorporate issues of anti-oppression and social justice into their analysis. As an environmental organization, RAN had moved towards vegetarian-only events – a stance that we recently stepped away from when we realized that it alienated people we want to work with (both on staff and as allies) from the communities that are the most directly affected by the issues we’re dealing with. As a result, we recently decided that a meat option should be offered, as well as a vegan option.

We realized that it’s much more important to work with these communities in a mutually respectful way that builds trust than it is to insist on a menu that will highlight our cultural differences and make people uncomfortable.

This might be a harder decision for an AR group to make – but at a minimum, the AR movement needs to come to terms with its own whiteness and start to build more of an anti-oppressive lens where other people are concerned. For example, the People of Color caucus that met earlier today asked to read a statement – calling for anti-oppression and anti-racist workshops at future AR conferences – and was denied the opportunity to speak. If we can’t allow space for people of color to be heard within our own movement, how can we expect movements representing people of color to collaborate with us?

Clearly, we have plenty of overlap and opportunities for collaboration when it comes to issues of climate change and habitat loss. But I’d like to add a word of caution here. Often, when I talk to AR activists, I get the feeling that the question they’re asking isn’t “How can I be more collaborative with the environmental movement?” It’s really “How can I get the environmental movement to promote veganism?” If AR groups are truly interested in collaborating, there are plenty of coalitions working on climate change, and I’d be happy to provide an introduction. But keep in mind that the key to collaboration – and to being a good coalition partner – is to come to the table asking what you can contribute towards the common goal, not trying to get other groups to adopt your approach.

I see a lot of opportunities for collaboration in standing up for the right to dissent. RAN is part of two coalitions opposing the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, even though our current campaign targets probably don’t fall under the broad category of animal enterprises. We all need to speak out and watch each other’s backs when we hear free speech and peaceful protest branded as terrorism.

Another area of commonality is in challenging the systems that give corporations all of the power in our society. Corporate power is at the root of most problems confronting animals, the environment, and pretty much every social justice issue you can name. We can and should work together to challenge it.

I’m going to post a summary of the survey findings on RAN’s blog within the next week in case you’d like to take a look, and I welcome the opportunity to talk with you more about ways we can work together towards our common goals.

Thank you.

Raw Survey Data:

1. How familiar are you with the goals of the animal rights movement in general?

Very familiar: 30.8%; Familiar: 61.5%; Not very familiar: 7.7%

2. Do you agree or disagree with the following statements often used by activists in the animal rights movement?

Animal Agriculture is a leading cause of climate change

Strongly agree: 15.4%; Agree 61.5%; Neutral 0; Disagree 23.1%; Strongly Disagree: 0

Because it takes more land to grow food for animals and to provide pasture for grazing, a meat-based diet leads to deforestation.

Strongly agree: 53.8%; Agree 23.1%; Neutral 15.4; Disagree 7.7%; Strongly Disagree: 0

To fight hunger and make the planet sustainable for all of the people who live on it, we must promote a plant-based diet.

Strongly agree: 23.1%; Agree 38.5%; Neutral 30.8; Disagree 7.7%; Strongly Disagree: 0

You can’t be an environmentalist and eat meat.

Strongly agree: 0%; Agree 7.7%; Neutral 30.8; Disagree 38.5%; Strongly Disagree: 23.1%

Environmental groups are afraid to promote vegetarianism because they don’t want to offend mainstream members.

Strongly agree: 0%; Agree 41.7%; Neutral 8.3%; Disagree 33.3%; Strongly Disagree: 16.7%