It is a melancholy recognition, with Earth Day upon us again, that the calendar has come full circle since the last, and that the human species has squandered yet another annum in the struggle to save the planet. Our collective thirst for fossil fuels remains unquenched and perhaps unquenchable. Though Americans have tried to lead the way -- toting home compartmentalized recycling bins from Bed, Bath and Beyond, switching to paper grocery bags at the Whole Foods Market, and attending sustainability conferences at our leading colleges and universities -- hundreds of millions of Indians and Chinese stubbornly and selfishly refuse to abide the grinding but green poverty of their current lives in order to pursue the very material comforts that poison our environment.
Americans, therefore, must do even more, must set an example that the people of the world can point towards and emulate, an example that both underscores the dire condition of Gaia and highlights the moral imperative implied therein. Desperate times call for desperate measures. We must look beyond stop gap solutions such as hybrid cars, energy-efficient light bulbs and low flow toilets.
We must look, in short, to our best friends.
According to a 2006 study by Robert and Brenda Vale, a husband and wife team of research fellows at Victoria University in New Zealand who specialize in sustainable living design, the carbon footprint of an average sized dog (including the land required to feed the farm animals consumed by Spot in his daily diet) is roughly twice as large as the carbon footprint of a Toyota Land Cruiser (including construction, fuel and maintenance). The carbon footprint of the average cat is roughly equal to that of a Volkswagen Golf. The Vales’ estimates have since been confirmed by scientists at the Stockholm Environment Institute in York, England and the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, DC.
The Vales titled their 2006 treatise Time to Eat the Dog? This, of course, was never intended as a serious policy recommendation. In the first place, most of us have become far too emotionally attached to our pets to consider ingesting them. In the second place, neither dogs nor cats are especially delectable animals, with their flesh, regardless of how it is prepared, whether filleted or on-the-bone, being especially tough and stringy. And in the third place, true environmentalists understand that the ultimate goal is to wean human beings off meat altogether.
Nevertheless, a state-sponsored program of mandatory euthanasia for household pets seems doable. Or at least you’d think so once the American public has been educated on the potential benefits. Consider: There are approximately 75 million domestic dogs in the United States. Their environmental impact thus equals 150 million . . . I almost said “cars” but the correct equivalence is “SUVs.” Dwell on that number for a moment. One hundred and fifty million SUVs. As of 2006, there were only 100 million SUVs on the road in the United States, out of a total of 250 million registered vehicles. Hence, a policy of humane canine eradication would achieve the same green goals as the elimination of every single SUV in America . . . plus another 50 million beyond that total.
That pleasant prospect, remember, doesn’t even include the eco-boon of ridding ourselves of cats. There are roughly 85 million of them in the United States -- each one the equivalent, in terms of its environmental damage, of a Golf. Granted, the Golf is a substantially smaller SUV than the Land Cruiser. What’s more, the one-to-one Mr. Whiskers/Golf ratio means that the planetary advantage accrued by a blanket feline extermination will not generate the eye-popping numbers of its canine counterpart. Taken together, however, it seems safe to conclude that euthanizing every household pet in America, especially if hamsters and gerbils and (in particular) bunny rabbits are thrown into the mix, would amount to, and perhaps even surpass, the eco-dream of removing every motorized vehicle from our roads.
Now I am not so naïve as to think that such a policy could be enacted tomorrow. We are a sentimental people when it comes to our four-legged friends. Witness, for example, the general opprobrium to which the professional football player Michael Vick was subjected for the killing of a mere handful of pups -- even though, as it turns out, he was on the side of the environmental angels. Surely, Mr. Vick’s transgression lay in his motivation and methodology, not in his sustainability outcomes.
The first step, in other words, may consist not of an act of Congress but of a shift in our own attitudes. Common perception is the key. If you strolled past your neighbor’s driveway and discovered four Land Cruisers parked side by side, what would you think of him? Would you shun him? Would you communicate your disdain to others? Would he soon become a social pariah? Likewise, therefore, if you discover two dogs frolicking and wrestling on his front lawn: You’re not looking at Buddy and Jake. You’re looking at Earth Killer One and Earth Killer Two.
Once attitudes have come around, legislation can follow. The logical place to start will be with the larger canine breeds -- Great Danes, Mastiffs, Rottweilers, Saint Bernards and Akitas -- and work our way down to Beagles, Dachshunds, Poodles and Yorkies. (Exceptions can be made, of course, for seeing eye dogs.) After the last Chihuahua has been dispatched, we can re-tool the machinery of the state for a final feline solution. The entire process, even with the inevitable holdouts in pantries and attics, should take no more than three years.
The justification for the foregoing proposal, of course, hinges on the answer to one critical question: How committed are we to saving the Earth? Each reader, in the end, must decide that for himself.