Module 6 – The Environment and Animal Rights


The first “Earth Day,” a now annual event, occurred in 1970. This day is set aside to educate the public about the environmental challenges  that we and the planet face. The organizers hoped that awareness would lead to an environmental movement.

Rachel Carson’s book , Silent Spring (1962), brought environmental pollution to public attention. Here is a brief introduction to Carson’s work:

But the movement to conserve natural resources did not begin in the 1960s. The American Conservation movement began much earlier:

By the turn of the 20th century, organizations such as the National Audubon Society and the Sierra Club were also involved in conservation efforts:

But efforts by naturalists and conservationists to save wildlife and preserve wild lands were occurring in the wake of colonization and westward migration on the American continent. Commercial trading in animal pelts and the feathers of birds, the slaughter of the buffalo, railroad building and mining, had all contributed to the deterioration of the environment. The factories and mills in towns and cities belched out smoke and polluted the streams and rivers.

City planners sought to create what we now call “green spaces”. New York City’s Central Park is an enduring monument to this idea:

But the poor who lived in New York City and other metropolises were confined to the worst areas of the city. New York City’s Five Points was one of the more notorious of such urban neighborhoods.  Here’s a glimpse of Five Points in a walking tour conducted by the creator/producer of Copper, a television series set in the 19th century:

As this clip suggests, historically, the lives of poor people in the city have been much more unhealthy and perilous than the lives of the wealthy.  In fact, poor people everywhere are more likely to live in areas that have been or are exposed to environmental hazards. Today, this is as true for the poor living in the mountains of West Virginia, the Mississippi Delta, and Native American reservations as for the poor living in urban inner city neighborhoods.

Concern about the unfairness of the distribution of environmental hazards (such as sewage processing plants) gave rise to what is known as the “environmental justice movement”.  Here is some information about the movement from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):

The environmental justice movement overlaps with the newer “food justice” movement, which focuses on the availability of healthy food sources in urban communities.  The food justice movement grows out of concern about the lack of supermarkets in urban inner city neighborhoods and the lack of ready access to fresh fruits and vegetables at an affordable price. One aspect of this movement involves “urban farming”. Here is a description of the movement in Syracuse and other cities, including Albany (note the video of urban farmers at work):

In addition, to the environmental justice movement, the modern “animal rights” movement focuses on protecting animals from humans. As with some activities of environmentalists protesting certain action (such as logging), some protests by animal rights activists have been controversial. However, the animal rights activists have spoken for animals who cannot speak for themselves. Here’s a website that provides an overview of the animal rights movement:

Suggested Activities

Activity 1:
What do you think should determine whether or not land is used for drilling, mining, or harvesting other natural resources? If we need fuel to maintain the way we live in America, should we turn to lands that are currently wild as a source of this oil, gas, and coal?

Activity 2:
Animal rights activists have on occasion freed animals being used in laboratory research.  Do you think this can be justified in some situations? Does it matter what kind of research is being done (for example, research for a new line of cosmetics vs. research to find a cure for cancer)?