The Essence of Earth Day: Equitable Ethics vs. Easy Environmentalism

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

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

But of course, the planet itself – the mass that circles the Sun – is in no danger. There is no way we can destroy a hunk of rock that weighs 13,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 pounds. (That’s 13 septillion pounds.)

Let me emphasize this point again, as it has generated about as much angry feedback as anything I’ve ever written: “How can you say the Earth is in no danger?? What about fisheries’ collapse/ atmospheric pollution/ rainforest destruction/ topsoil erosion???”

But none of these are “the Earth.”

The oceans could empty and the atmosphere blow away, and the planet would still exist.

Only the razor-thin biosphere matters, because it is where we and our fellow feeling beings reside.

This indicates what really matters. The bottom line is the lives of sentient beings.

This is not something most people want to face, though. To avoid considering all our fellow creatures – and the implications that would have for our personal lives – many simply proceed as if any and every environmental problem were equally pressing, and anything “green” equally commendable.

When you look at what has become of “environmentalism” in the U.S., the emphasis tends to be either on the feel-good-about-ourselves (“I recycled!” “I bought a hybrid!”), or on condemning the “other” (“British Petroleum is evil!” “The government must do something about global warming!”). The 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, vilify faceless corporations, and demand that the government take action.

All of this makes it easy to continue the status quo and still feel smugly green and good.

Personal “environmentalism” is often nothing more than an expression of self-interest, just another laundry list of “we want.” We want to feel good about ourselves for doing relatively painless things. We want charismatic megafauna to entertain us. We want wild spaces for our use. We want clean air and water for our children.

But ethics aren’t a question of what “we want.” We can be truly thoughtful individuals and go beyond personal preferences, feel-good campaigns, and the vilification of faceless others. We can each recognize that sayings and slogans are superficial, intentions and ideology irrelevant.

What matters isn’t this rock we call Earth. What matters are the sentient beings who call this rock home. We can’t care about “the environment” as though it is somehow an ethically relevant entity in and of itself. Rather, what matters are the impacts our choices have for our fellow feeling beings.

In the end, all that matters are the consequences our actions have for all animals.

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.

We simply can’t consider ourselves ethical if we make choices that lead to more suffering for these creatures. And the greatest amount of suffering on Earth is caused when we choose to eat animals instead of a cruelty-free alternative.

A compassionate diet is a statement against “we want.” It is the embodiment of a consistent, universal ethic. Choosing to live with compassion is a real choice with real consequences – a way to oppose and actively reduce violence, to make the world a truly better place for all. When we choose to live consistently and ethically, we can look in the mirror, knowing we are good people making choices that won’t lead to more suffering for our fellow feeling beings.

But we know that our food choices are only the beginning. There are 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 – optimizing our example, time, and resources to have the greatest impact – have consequences even more important than what we eat.

This is why we are so honored to work with all of you, who recognize that every day is a day to make a real difference.

-Matt Ball
Director of Engagement and Outreach