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Environmental Studies

Reflections on Let Live Animal Rights Conference

July 02, 2009

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    Matt Rossell of In Defense of Animals

Portland State University

July 2, 2009

“How to Deal with Environmentalists” was the title of a session that took place at Portland State University in June during the Let Live’s NW Animal Rights Conference. Animal rights activists and environmentalists have a longstanding ethical disagreement over the intrinsic value of ecosystems, species and individual animals. Animal rights activists focus on individual animals, while environmentalists are generally more holistic, concentrating on the good of entire ecosystems. The fact that animal rights vs. environmentalism is still an ongoing debate is a good reason for an environmental studies student to enter into the discourse, especially with such mainstream attention to rising carbon emissions, species extinction and the increasingly industrialized food culture.

To provide a better context on my interest in the Let Live Conference, I should probably talk a little bit about my summer research. I am currently a Mellon Research Initiative researcher for Professor Deborah Heath and Professor Daena Goldsmith’s project,“Local/Global Networks: Wine & Foie Gras.” Foie gras and wine are both produits de terroir, meaning that they are influenced by geological, climatic, and cultural factors in specific regions where they are produced. As both a practical and theoretical concept, terroir may bridge the gap between consumers and producers in the homogenized industrial world. However, foie gras is also a heated animal rights issue because of its unique production methods, viewed by animal rights activists as animal cruelty. Therefore, I was sent to this conference to observe and document the ethical claims made by these animal rights activists regarding foie gras production.

After having spent seven weeks examining claims made by scientists, French foie gras producers, US foie gras producers, and animal rights activists, I went into this conference with a fairly broad understanding of the arguments made by both sides of the foie gras debate (for more information on the debate or on INRA’s research on foie gras, please read Sarah DiGregorio’s article here  or Dr. Guémené’s report here). At the “Regional Issues in Animal Activism” panel, speaker Tim Hitchens referred to the foie gras debate as a cultural battle against Portland’s “new pop culture” for eating cruel meat. He claims that this trend has been heightened due to the influence of local chefs such as Gabriel Rucker of Le Pigeon, who even sports “I [Heart] Foie Gras” t-shirts. I asked Tim how he would address the cultural battle if French chefs argued that foie gras was traditional rather than hip, and he pointed out that Portland chefs aren’t cooking foie gras in traditional dishes and even if they were, their tradition is causing suffering.

The second talk that I went to dealt mainly with the anti-foie gras movement and polarization of angry chefs in Chicago. According to speakers Nathan Runkle and J. Johnson, the weak spot in the Chicago foie gras ban was that it was too heavily focused on foie gras and not the issue of animal cruelty itself: “It is about more than foie gras.“ Many in favor of foie gras could not agree more. For animal rights activists, the divide that the issue created in Chicago was between foie gras and animal rights; for chefs and producers, it is between foie gras and their traditions/freedom of choice.

In addition to dealing to “How to Deal With Environmentalists,” I wish that there had been a session on “How to Stump Environmentalists” because, to me, the animal rights vs. environmentalist debate is not as easy as the general “veganism has a smaller carbon footprint” argument that I heard several times this weekend. I find it hard to believe that veganism is the only plausible step towards an alternative food system that environmentalists would agree with. In attending the Let Live NW Animal Rights Conference this weekend, I was not able to see any solid reconciliation between the two positions, but I was able to better understand the basis of animal rights arguments and to find some peace in my admiration for their efforts.

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