A journalist's personal account of poop, pollution, vegetarianism, Earth Day, the environmental movement, and the threads that tie them together.

by Merritt Clifton, editor, Animal People
  (The following address was delivered by the author at the American Vegan Society 38th Annual Convention, July 30, 1998.)
  esides being editor of Animal People, one of my favorite dubious distinctions is that I'm an active charter member of the Society of Environmental Journalists, the professional association of people who report on ecology and habitat.

In newsrooms around the world, we're known as the reporters who know our excrement. We're the poopheads.

I'm among the senior poopheads, at a relatively early age, because thirty years ago I was a 15-year-old cub reporter and copy boy for a small and long defunct daily paper in Berkeley, California, when I opened an envelope containing a press release about a planning session for the first-ever Earth Day, scheduled for about six months later.

"Hey, it's going to be Earth Day!" I announced. "Take a clod to lunch!"

"All right, poophead," the editor growled. "You cover it."

I have been a professional poophead ever since, writing pretty much full time about poop and other waste products. At first I wrote mostly about recycling, household refuse, and sewage. Later I wrote about toxic chemical dumps and river pollution. During nine years on the farm-and-business beat for rural newspapers in Quebec, I might have written more about pig, cow, and chicken poop than about all other topics combined.

About twelve years ago I took the opportunity to start writing a whole lot more about other aspects of animals. That was just before the poop beat got really hot.

Most of the top honors in investigative journalism have gone to poop beat reporters over the past decade, including the 1997 Pulitzer Prize, which was won by colleagues at the Raleigh News & Observer for pointing out how a generation of pork barrel politics have polluted North Carolina waterways practically beyond recognition and perhaps beyond recovery.

Subsequent to that, in April of this year, the Senate Agriculture Committee reported that livestock are producing 130 times more poop per year in the United States than human beings: five tons of pig, chicken, and cow poop for every man, woman, and child. That's a dump truck load per household. Can you use it? Do you want it?

Obviously it's something to think about, and we don't really have much choice, even if we don't actually have dump trucks rolling up to our doors to drop off our share in our yards. The Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have identified livestock poop as the biggest single cause of declining fish populations in 60,000 miles of polluted waterways. That's 1,795 bodies of water, in 39 states. Another 113,000 miles of waterways are seriously affected.

As my colleague John Lang of the Scripps Howard News Service put it, in a nationally syndicated feature article, "Pollution from factory farms impairs more miles of U.S. rivers than all other industry sources and municipal sewers combined."

Waterways are the bloodstreams of continents. Eating meat causes clogged and degraded arteries: it's as simple as that.

Yet one aspect of this situation that scarcely ever gets a mention is that all of this ongoing eco-disaster could be avoided if Americans would just stop eating pigs, chickens, and cattle.

It doesn't get mentioned mainly because when us poopheads call the major environmental organizations looking for informed perspective, known in the news business as "quotes," or "sound bites," none of them ever bring it up.

That takes me right back to the beginning of my career, when the first Earth Day offered the notion of an ecology-centered approach to living as a direct challenge, not only to Washington D.C. and Wall Street but also to the environmental establishment.

Participants in the 1970 Berkeley Earth Day march, which was minuscule compared to the anti-war marches of the era, forthrightly agreed that the hunter/conservationist philosophy of the major environmental organizations was and is inherently exploitative, anti-ecological, and just plain wrong.

There was near-universal affirmation that a movement had to be built to oppose pandering to wealthy hunters in order to raise enough money to preserve token green spaces, within which rangers like latter-day King Canutes would try to hold back the tides of climatic change. Experts talked at teach-ins about acid rain and global warming, which were scientifically predicted if not yet confirmed as upon us.

No one denigrated the efforts of a John Muir to save Yosemite from development, or Julia Butler Hansen, then still in Congress, for her dedication to saving the Columbian whitetailed deer, or Velma Johnston, better known as "Wild Horse Annie," for fighting the extirpation of mustangs. Their work was honored but the job ahead was clearly identified as advancing the notion of reverence for life beyond application to signal species and singular beauty.

The importance of saving the whales, someone explained, was not that we would ever be able to go and see whales, since commercial whale-watching was still an unrealized concept, but rather that whales inhabit the whole globe. The oceans themselves are their critical habitat, making them the appropriate signal species for a whole-earth movement.

I do not remember any dissent whatever from three prescriptions for basic lifestyle change to achieve a healthier planet. One, still familiar, was to recycle. Another, also still familiar, was to use renewable energy. The third, which had special resonance to me as a second-generation conscientious vegetarian, was to stop eating meat. I had the good fortune to be born into a vegetarian family, because my father, after experiencing heavy combat in the South Pacific during World War II, decided he had seen enough of killing, and upon receiving his honorable discharge from the Navy, became a vegetarian and conscientious objector.

The object of these three Earth Day 1970 prescriptions for lifestyle change was not just to clean up air and water, an immediate goal, but also to prevent pollution in the first place. All of the scientists who spoke were already vegetarians, and each made the point that no action accessible to every individual can do more to save water, fossil fuels, forest and topsoil than abandoning meat. Nor does any action do more to show regard for fellow living beings than ceasing to eat them.

There was no animal rights movement in 1970, nor any public talk of one, but animal protection was central to the activities of the first Berkeley Earth Day, with much talk of the need for an Endangered Species Act and other legislation to protect the existence of even the smallest and least popular creatures as vital and necessary contributors to the global ecology.

There was an antivivisection thread to the activity as well. I remember in particular that Bruce Ames, of the University of California at Berkeley, pointed out the failures of animal testing to protect public health. He argued that promoting vegetarianism would do far more for public health than banning trace amounts of pesticides. Ames offended disciples of Rachel Carson, and was booed, when he denounced the Delaney Clause. That was the 1959 law, obtained in part through Carson's efforts, which until repealed in 1996 both stood as the bulwark of public protection from cancer-causing food and drug ingredients, and formed the primary legal mandate for animal testing.

Since I didn't believe in political correctness, even then, I interviewed Ames on Earth Day 1971 for the San Jose State University radio station. Again on that occasion, Ames emphasized that encouraging vegetarianism should be a core objective of a serious environmental movement.

Another eminent environmental scientist, the entomologist Ron Stecker, made the same point in October 1970 when he joined me in a work bee to save the then just starting San Jose State University recycling center from condemnation as a fire and public health hazard. All day, Ron sorted and cleaned bottles and cans, and lectured about how recycling was important but only as a first step. The most important lifestyle change Americans would have to make, he argued, was giving up meat. We kept the recycling center from being forcibly shut down, and it grew into the biggest and most successful community recycling project in the United States. But along the way, the notion of recycling as a small step leading toward more fundamental lifestyle changes never caught on. Instead of advocating vegetarianism, succeeding generations of recycling center volunteers advocated that environmentalists should save water by putting bricks in their toilet tanks, which neither worked very well nor saved as much water as eating refried beans for lunch instead of fried chicken.

The environmental organizations formed around the first Earth Day forgot the humane component when they set aside vegetarianism to seek popularity, sought political clout by courting hunter/conservationists, and eventually allowed hunter/conservationists to set the agenda. By the 10th Earth Day, 18 years ago, the environmental movement had already been swallowed by the meat-chomping old guard it originally opposed. The animal protection and animal rights causes, which should be even more committed to vegetarianism, swirled down the same drain when they tried to borrow political influence by uniting with old guard hunter/conservation fronts such as the World Wildlife Fund and National Wildlife Federation, as well as aligning themselves with co-opted environmental fronts like Greenpeace, which hasn't opposed sealing and fur trapping since 1986, and declared in 1994 that "in principle" it doesn't oppose whaling either.

Such organizations have made plain by their actions, if not their words, that "be kind to animals" is neither in their vocabulary nor among their goals. In failing to forthrightly oppose meat-eating, they have also made plain that their form of environmentalism is no deeper than a bedpan.

Potty environmentalism, meanwhile, continues to preoccupy the public. Believing that the national groups are looking after wildlife, most average citizens loosely define themselves as environmentalists, haphazardly recycle, struggle with local water and waste disposal issues, and are unaware that whales and seals are not saved from cruel slaughter, that half of our National Wildlife Refuges are now open to hunters, and most importantly, that eating meat is the leading cause of pollution, abuse of resources, animal suffering, and habitat loss.

It is incumbent upon vegans and vegetarians to refocus the attention of the organized animal protection and environmental groups on meat-eating as the fundamental issue. Five tons of poop apiece is just the residue of eating 58 million cattle, 103 million hogs, 300 million turkeys, and nearly nine billion chickens per year, virtually all of whom live and die in conditions that would be prosecutable cruelty if inflicted on a cat, a dog, a horse, or a parrot. Whether you care about animals or just about poop, appropriate action begins with giving up meat.

I know you all understand as much: that's why you're here.

I'm here to remind you to reach out and forthrightly deliver that message to us poopheads, at every opportunity, not only when we call for quotes but also in letters-to-the-editor, e-mail messages to our web sites, and frequent press releases. Don't wait for us to call; remind us.

The big national environmental and animal protection groups couldn't and wouldn't do that in 1970, they didn't do that in 1990, and they won't do it now. They like living "high on the hog" too much.

That means, once again, it's up to the rest of us to say "Cut the crap," demonstrate how to do it through personal example, and point out the simple method don't eat meat to everyone else who pretends to care about the earth and the animals on it.

  Copyright 1998, anmlpeplwhidbey.com. Merritt Clifton is editor of ANIMAL PEOPLE: News For People Who Care About Animals, the leading independent newspaper and electronic information service providing original investigative coverage of animal protection worldwide. Free sample: (360) 579-2505