Feature Article
The Offal Truth: Animal Waste and

I'M AMONG THE SENIOR POOPHEADS. In newsrooms around the world, we're known as the reporters who know our excrement. We're the poopheads. Thirty years ago I was a fifteen-year-old cub reporter and copyboy 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. 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 U.S. 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?

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 thirty-nine 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 blood streams 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 we 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.

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, were forthrightly agreed that the hunter-conservationist philosophy of the major environmental organizations was and is inherently exploitative, anti-ecological, and just plain wrong.

I do not remember any dissent whatever from the three Earth Day 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 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.

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 tenth Earth Day, eighteen 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.

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 a piece 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.

It's up to 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. ###

Merritt Clifton is the editor of ANIMAL PEOPLE. This article was excerpted from an address to the American Vegan Society's 38th Annual Convention on July 30, 1998.

[Jan/Feb 1999]

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