A howl over a man-bites-dog story

They've been called "tree huggin maggots" and compared to cannibals. One person wondered if they ate their kids.

Pet lovers are not happy with Brenda and Robert Vale, two New Zealand architects who published an environmental book this summer called "Time to Eat the Dog? The Real Guide to Sustainable Living." Since media coverage spiked two weeks ago, the Web has become a platform for people barking at them and their ideas.

"Sic'em boy!!!" a commenter wrote on the Web site pawnation.com, where a post implying that the authors want people to "think about" eating the dog has drawn more than 400 comments.

It all started with a seemingly simple insight. In the book, the New Zealand authors calculate that a medium-sized dog has twice the ecological footprint of an SUV. The book then suggests ways to cut down on the impact.

"The reason we called the book 'Time to Eat the Dog' with a question mark is, we were not actually suggesting that you should actually eat your dog," Robert Vale said in an interview. "And we didn't provide any recipes in the book."

But that bit of nuance doesn't seem to have penetrated through to all of the readers of the Web sites where the Vales' book has been described.

Robert Vale says that after a flood of media coverage began following an article in New Scientist magazine, he received half a dozen e-mails a day ranging "from the sort of raving and foul-mouthed ones to the reasoned ones saying, 'Gosh, I didn't realize, it's good to know this sort of stuff.'" He says that the comments he has seen online are "not quite as extreme" as some of the reactions he has gotten in his in box.

Tension over calls for altered living


Much of the acrimony appears to reflect a long-standing tension between those who believe that environmentalists want to control how people live, and environmentalists who advocate lifestyle changes in order to protect the Earth.

"What's with all these ideas to help stop global warming? This article is getting awful close to the joke of suggesting people stop breathing in order to help stop global warming," wrote a commenter going by "ed bell" on the Web site wattsupwiththat.com, where a news article about the book from the New Zealand-based Dominion Post was posted.

Another reader put it more bluntly.

"Doesn't this perfectly illustrate the problem for the average man on the street?" wrote a commenter identifying himself as "Bob1776" on the Web site of the U.K.-based newspaper The Independent. "Governments and Corporations can use Global Warming to argue any point with figures and manipulate people."

Robert Vale said he is not ashamed of advocating for lifestyle changes. He called it essential, and argued that modifying the way people live does not receive enough credit in a society that appears to favor technological solutions as the path to sustainability.

The Vales, architects who are researchers at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, published an earlier book in 2000. Called "The New Autonomous House: Design and Planning for Sustainability," it caused barely a murmur compared with the enraged howling over their latest venture.

Fighting climate change goes beyond changing light bulbs

"We're trying to point out that some of the issues that we face in terms of a sustainable future are going to be very difficult to think about, and they're not going to be things you don't notice, like changing your light bulbs," Vale said. "They're going to be things that require you to make difficult and sort of stressful decisions."

He maintained that many technological solutions -- like switching to zero-energy buildings -- will take a long time. Meanwhile, behavioral changes -- like forgoing pets -- can have larger and faster impacts, he said.

Two weeks ago, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh told New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin to kill himself over remarks the latter made about the impact of population on climate change -- and a question Revkin posed about whether carbon credits should be awarded to those who have fewer children.

A reader going by "John M" writing on wattsupwiththat.com pondered, "I wonder if Andy Revkin will now write an article musing about how too many people have pets and Rush Limbaugh will suggest IF Andy feels that way, he ought to kill his dog."

Could your pet become a vegetarian?

Household pets, the Vales found, have a surprisingly large ecological footprint because their diets consist largely of meat.

By calculating the amount of land needed to produce the food different pets eat over the course of a year, the authors found that the average medium-sized dog eats about 164 kilograms of meat and 95 kilograms of cereals a year, requiring about 0.84 hectares, or 2.1 acres, to produce -- about the size of a very large backyard.

By their estimates, the energy needed to power an SUV requires about 0.41 hectares, or 1 acre, of land.

Vale suggests keeping smaller pets or communal pets, or simply not having one. Alternately, he writes, people could raise animals that "wouldn't be pets" but could be eaten, like chickens and rabbits.

"We felt that if we were gong eat meat, we had to be prepared to see the whole thing through," Vale said.

Kristie Phelps, assistant director at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, opposed the idea of raising edible animals and suggested owners could instead feed their pets a vegetarian diet.

Phelps feeds her own dog a diet of packaged vegetarian pet food, along with barley, rice, carrots, peas, nutritional yeast, flaxseed oil and broccoli. She also owns four cats and two rabbits. Cats, more than dogs, though, are "true carnivores," and owners should consult with their veterinarians before turning them into vegetarians, she said.

Some prefer to blame the system, not the dog

Robert Vale said it is not essential to give up pets per se, but people who love their dogs too much to part with them should should adjust their lifestyles in other ways, he said. In the rest of the book (which only dedicates 29 of 384 pages to the subject of pets) the Vales examine the ecological footprints of houses, diets and transportation, as well as areas like marriage and divorce -- and having kids.

Not all environmentalists agree that lifestyle changes are the key to saving the planet, though.

Derrick Jensen, the author of more than a dozen books surrounding the theme of "stopping this culture from killing the planet," said he believes political action is more important than behavioral shifts, because the majority of environmental damage comes from corporations' practices.

If the idea behind lifestyle changes is that people can have an impact as consumers en masse, he said, they might as well spend their energy on activism, which has a greater impact.

Jensen, who decided at age 8 or 9 not to have kids because of their ecological impact, said he lives an environmentally friendly lifestyle, but "I don't make a big deal of that."

He said that ultimately, consumption poses a greater threat to the environment than population.

Vale acknowledged the distinction. Dogs have smaller ecological footprints than people in general. But both pets' and people's impacts vary widely across different countries. That makes a huge difference, he said.

"An American dog has less impact than an American child," he said. "But an American dog has a hugely bigger impact than an Indian child."

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