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Beyond “We Want” to a Real Earth Day Ethic

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“It is easy for us to criticize the prejudices of our grandfathers, from which our fathers freed themselves. It is more difficult to distance ourselves from our own views, so that we can dispassionately search for prejudices among the beliefs and values we hold.”

- Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 1993

Many people are concerned about the environment, and believe Earth Day is a good opportunity to draw attention to various issues. But sadly—yet not surprisingly—Earth Day has become largely a meaningless event, with just about everyone—from the strictest vegan to the largest multinational—claiming to support “the Earth.”

Of course, the giant planet Earth is in no danger. Only the environment of the razor-thin biosphere matters, because it is where we and our fellow feeling beings reside. And this is the key: the ethics of the environment is, at the root, about those who are able to suffer.

When you look at what has become of “environmentalism” in the US, it isn’t obvious that ethics is ultimately about the lives of sentient beings. The general avoidance of an honest, meaningful analysis of the fundamental bottom line isn’t surprising; it is much simpler to parrot slogans, follow painless norms such as recycling, and vilify faceless corporations like BP. All environmental problems are treated as equally pressing, and anything we do for “the Earth”—changing a lightbulb, eating “locally,” buying a trendy car—is considered equally commendable. This makes it easy to continue the status quo and still feel good and green.

In many cases, “environmentalism” in the US is just a different expression of narcissism. We want charismatic macrofauna to entertain us. We want wild spaces to use. We want clean air and water for our children and friends. We want others to change to be like us.

But true ethics aren’t a question of what “we want.” Truly thoughtful individuals go beyond personal preferences and feel-good campaigns. We can each recognize that statements and sayings are superficial; intentions and ideology are irrelevant. All that matters are consequences. Actions—indeed, our very lives—matter only because of their consequences for feeling beings.

All creatures—not just wild or endangered animals—desire to live free from suffering and exploitation. Cruelty is wrong, whether the victim is an eagle or a chicken, a wolf or a pig. The rest is just noise and obfuscation.

And the greatest amount of suffering on Earth—by far—is caused by people who choose to eat animals instead of a cruelty-free alternative.

Veganism is a statement against “we want.” Veganism is the embodiment of a consistent, universal ethic. Veganism is a real choice with real consequences. At the end of the day, we can each look in the mirror, knowing we are good people making choices that won’t lead to more suffering for our fellow feeling beings.

Being vegan is only the beginning, however. Those of us who are already vegan have many further opportunities to make the world a better place. Even if our food choices aren’t directly causing animals to be slaughtered, our other choices—setting an attractive example, optimizing our time and resources to have the greatest impact—have consequences even more important than what we eat.

We can each take more steps, every day, to make a better Earth for all creatures.

Matt Ball is co-founder and Executive Director of Vegan Outreach. With Bruce Friedrich, he is the co-author of The Animal Activist’s Handbook, about which Peter Singer said: “The Animal Activist’s Handbook punches way above its weight. Rarely have so few pages contained so much intelligence and good advice. Get it, read it, and act on it.” Since 1993, Vegan Outreach activists have distributed over 17 million of their illustrated, documented booklets, influencing countless individuals around the world.

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