A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Why Earth Day Needs to Be Animal Day

Caring about the environment has to involve the animals too

By Michael Mountain

Two years ago, when I read Al Gore’s book Our Choice, I was impressed by his passion in presenting the stark choice we all face:

Not too many years from now, a new generation will look back at us and ask one of two questions. Either they will ask, “What were you thinking? Didn’t you see the entire North Polar ice cap melting before your eyes? Didn’t you hear the warnings from the scientists? Were you distracted? Did you not care?”

Or they will ask instead, “How did you find the moral courage to rise up and solve a crisis so many said was impossible to solve?”

So far, it seems, our children will be asking the first of those questions. Nothing much has changed in the past two years, and we’re already beginning to see the unmistakable consequences of worldwide inaction.

Books like Our Choice have their critics – mostly naysayers who try to argue that the climate isn’t changing and that pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere isn’t a problem. While that’s dangerous nonsense, I did have a concern of my own, albeit a very different one, when I read the book. I was bothered by the fact that it wasn’t until half way through the book that I came across any mention of animals.

On page 180 there was a story about a scientist, Willie Smits (photo left), who had found a dying baby orangutan and had gone on to start a foundation to protect the Indonesian rainforest. After that, the book had a few more references to animals, but not many, and they were referred to mainly as “species.”

All in all, I was struck by the absence of animals in a book that’s so passionately devoted to saving the planet from irreversible catastrophe.

Gore is not alone in leaving out the animals. I’m a great fan of Bill McKibben for his work in bringing people together, especially young people, to draw attention to the effects of climate change. In the first half of his book Eaarth — Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, he lays out in frightening detail what we can expect to happen in the coming years. And in the second half of the book, he offers proposals as to what we can do about it. But when he talks about the animals, it’s mainly from the point of view of the kinds of local farming we’re going to need to do to adapt to the changes taking place on Earth. In other words, it’s animals as resources, not as living beings in their own right – fellow creatures whose lives have been changed irrevocably by the damage done to them by our own species.

Animals and the environment

For many of us, maybe most of us, our relationship to the planet is inseparable from our relationship to the animals.

I, for one, still can’t figure out what a carbon offset is, but I’m moved to action by pictures of dolphins and turtles being washed up on oil-soaked beaches.

And even though I do at least know what CO2 is, I’m much more affected by seeing what climate change is doing to the fish, to the coral reefs they inhabit, and to the birds who can’t survive without them. It’s through the animals that I’m driven to want to protect the oceans.

But even browsing through the many environmental websites to do with Earth Day, I’ve found precious few references to animals – mostly things like how you can create a pond to attract frogs and other wildlife.

Anything is good, however small, but if we’re going to start turning the tide in our relationship to the planet, we need to create a much stronger relationship to the animals, too.

Bringing it all together

It’s not just the environmental organizations that are operating in a vacuum. It works the other way round, too. Animal protection groups rarely mention the environment.

Wildlife organizations come closest as they work to protect lands that are home to endangered species. But humane societies seem largely unaware even of the needs of any animals beyond dogs, cats and the occasional rabbit. It’s not unusual for a humane society to host a fund-raising dinner that serves animals for dinner. One recent benefit dinner was promoted as “Paws and Claws” with lobsters as the star attraction on the menu.

We’re all bound together in a common cause of protecting life on Earth in all its wonder and beauty.

Earth Day should be a time where it all comes together: people, animals, planet, and with the fundamental message that we are all part of one ecosystem – one web of life. Tear at any strand of it, however small, and you affect all of it.

Case in point: Almost every day now, extremes of weather are at the top of the news. These extremes, like, in the last week, 63 tornadoes in one deadly day in North Carolina and the worst wildfires in Texas history, are the early manifestations of the climate changes we’ve all been warned about.

Climate change, in turn, is tied directly to the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And one of the major contributors to greenhouse gases is factory farming. Cows emit more greenhouse gases than all the cars in the world. So it’s not a stretch to say that in a very practical way, our personal food choices are related to some of the extreme weather we’re witnessing.

We’re all connected

While there are obviously lots of details to attend to, the basic answer is quite straightforward: It’s time to work together to take up a way of living that’s in much closer harmony with our fellow animals and the Earth.

That way of living needs to be rooted in kindness toward all living creatures and respect for the planet that’s our home.

To whatever extent we make that connection with the animals and nature, the rewards are immediate.

Whether we’re involved in the humane movement or the environmental movement, and whatever aspect we’re passionate about, whether it’s animal rights, planting trees or hiking, we’re all bound together in the common cause of protecting life on Earth in all its wonder and beauty.

No cause on Earth is more important. And that’s what we celebrate on Earth Day.

What do you say? Have you found yourself extending your own circle of caring – for example from pets to wildlife to the environment? Or in a different way? We’d like to know in a comment below or on Facebook.

What you can do: There are numerous websites with practical suggestions for Earth Day.
Earth Day 2011 is proposing “a billion acts of green.”
Earth Hour 2011 is asking us all to turn off the lights for an hour. Perhaps turn off all the power, and maybe for more than an hour. Then replace your old light bulbs with the new energy-efficient kind.

Five other top things to do:

Leave the car and take the bus or ride a bike.
Plant something nice. Make sure it’s a native species that will thrive in your garden or window ledge and that’s friendly to local wildlife.
If you have a backyard, start a compost pile or buy a compost bin for leaves and kitchen scraps.
Join a local wildlife group and volunteer some time.
And the Number 1 thing we can all do to make a big difference to the environment:
Go meat and dairy free on Earth Day, and resolve to take animal foods off the menu for one day each week. Just one day makes a big difference.