Race to the Top: The Environmental Crisis, Animal Products, and Individual Choices

by Neil H. Buchanan

Although my next scheduled veganniversary column is almost eleven months away, I want to offer a few thoughts here about the meat-related causes of the Amazon crisis that Professor Dorf discussed in his column yesterday.  I will also draw from a column in the previous day's New York Times, which carried an op-ed by Farhad Manjoo under the pleasingly bold (and somewhat jarring) title: "Stop Mocking Vegans."

Those two pieces, along with my two-part 11th veganniversary column last month, provide a good framework within which to talk about the ethics of eating meat and the role that small-c capitalism has played in moving us at least a bit in the right direction.  The fact is that veganism -- or at least large-scale partial veganism -- is a necessary and central part of any effective response to the global climate crisis.

Overcoming people's attitudes about veganism, however, remains a frustratingly stubborn barrier.

One of the themes in my veganniversary columns over the years has been to describe the progress (or lack thereof) in public responses to vegans and veganism.  One of the most common tropes, of course, is the idea that vegans are preachy and smug.  Manjoo objects: "[P]reachy vegans are something of a myth. There’s an old joke — 'How do you know you’re talking to a vegan? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you' — that is as untrue as it is revealing about the teller."

Indeed.  I recently was asked by some family members why I am a vegan.  I was pleased that they seemed to be genuinely interested, because they had never seemed receptive even to talking about it until now.  On the other hand, I was very nervous about being perceived as coming on too strong.  I even stopped myself at one point and said: "Vegans have a reputation for being preachy, and I want to be very careful not to sound like that here."  To their credit (and, I guess, mine), they said that they were not put off by my answer to their question.

But the uncomfortable fact is that the answer to that question will inherently be off-putting to anyone who is inclined toward even the most minimal self-reflection.  What is at least the subtextual conversation?  Q: "Why are you a vegan?"  A: "Because I did not like the moral implications of not being a vegan."  Q: "I'm not a vegan.  Are you saying you're better than me?"  A: "I don't want to say that, but I do think I'm better than I used to be, and you can draw your own conclusion."  Awkward!

The titular question in my 2017 post was: "Why Do Hipsters Mock Vegans?"  That hipsters mock everyone and everything is not a good enough answer, because they do become very earnest about many issues -- a big one ironically being environmentalism.  Even so, it is difficult to get away from the defensiveness that was captured in a character's description of her vegan friend in the fun film "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World": "Bottom line: He's just better than everyone else!"  (Tellingly, the vegan character is a self-important dolt who does not even know that chicken parmigiana is non-vegan.)

OK, but that movie was released in 2010.  If I was right in my column last month when I wrote that "veganism is ascendant," surely things have gotten better in the decade or more since they wrote that movie.  Maybe, but as recently as two weeks ago Trevor Noah, on "The Daily Show," responded to a news report that the only way to save the planet was to become vegan by looking pained and saying that "it's been a good run" and that he'd rather just die than listen to some preachy vegan have an I-told-you-so moment.  He delivered the "joke" in that kind of whiny, haughty voice that one associates with scolds.

Manjoo's point, however, was not merely that there is no truth (or no more than anecdotal confirmation bias) to the widespread assumption that vegans are unpleasant prigs.  He was saying that vegans are not merely innocent of the charge of being socially annoying but that they are to be lauded for actually pushing society in the direction that it needs to move for environmental reasons.  As he concludes:

"For the good of the planet, put down the sandwich. But if you won’t do that, at least refrain from putting down the people who are trying to light a path to a livable future. The vegans are right. The vegans were always right. The least you can do is shower them with respect and our gratitude, because they deserve it."

Leaving aside the surprisingly over-the-top phrasing (not unwelcome to a vegan, to be sure), this is Manjoo's conclusion after laying out the argument that the ever-wider availability of vegan products did not happen because the food companies suddenly became ethically or environmentally woke.  They did so because enough people made it worthwhile for the companies to think that there is a profit to be made in selling people vegan food.

That argument was the basis for my decision to title Part One of my veganniversary post last month "Capitalism and Freedom," using Milton Friedman's (in)famous book title to make the point that sometimes the Invisible Hand actually does what the market idolators claim it does.  We have movement in the direction that things are now moving because -- despite the constant mockery -- people in growing numbers decided to stop eating animal products (or at least fewer of them).

As Professor Dorf emphasizes in his column, there are still those who cling to misinformation to justify their participation in animal exploitation.  The latest rationalization is that growing soy and almonds to make alternatives to meat and dairy is environmentally damaging, but that is wildly false.  As he points out, beef is the worst but eggs and dairy, which are the "best," still waste about 85 percent of the calories from vegetable input by using animals to process the plants rather than eating the plants ourselves.

Perhaps the most bizarre response from those who refuse to give ground on the vegan question is the claim that individual choices to eat an animal product are morally acceptable because, after all, the animal is already dead (or the milk has already been extracted, or whatever).  As Professor Dorf points out, this is a form of illogic that almost no one would accept in any other situation.  "Every litter bit hurts" was the public service advertisement's slogan from the 1970's, and people understood that "just my soda can" was part of a bigger problem.  And "don't bother voting" is not exactly a widely accepted argument.

What is especially puzzling about the my-decision-changed-nothing argument is the belief that somehow it is acceptable not to aggregate the results of one's decisions.  As Professor Dorf noted, one cannot ignore the fact that a slice from an already-dead cow will lead to another cow being killed if the consumer makes enough individual choices to add up to the suppliers seeing the demand for another dead cow.

And it is not as if one can pretend not to be participating in -- or even to be unaware of -- what is happening.  "I go to my local butcher, who just happens every day to have dead animals on hooks and in pieces strewn about his shop.  I didn't kill any of them!  If I didn't come in, these particular animals would not come alive again.  How am I to know that this butcher is going to go out and ask someone to kill more animals in anticipation of people like me coming in to buy animals that are not dead yet (or have not even been brought into existence for a miserably short and cruel life)?  I have nothing to do with that!"

This is the free-rider problem run amok.  Everyone knows that standing up in a theater leads to everyone else in the audience feeling the need to stand up, and in the end no one on average can see any better (but everyone is less comfortable).  But this I-didn't-kill-this-animal argument goes so far as to say that it is morally acceptable to isolate each decision and ask whether it alone added to suffering.

According to Professor Dorf, he hears that argument surprisingly frequently from philosophers.  I normally do not defend economists (to say the least), but even those who take very anti-environmental positions do so not by denying the facts of aggregation but by claiming (wrongly and incoherently) that environmental laws are inefficient.  They would never claim that people's isolated choices do not add up.  Curses upon those philosophers who are making me praise economists by comparison!

And the aggregation effect is true on the upside as well.  What Manjoo is saying, in stronger terms than I used in my column last month, is that of course supply responds to demand, and even more importantly, demand can create momentum so that the resulting supply induces even more demand as more people see, say, non-dairy ice cream and decide to give it a try.  It is a virtuous cycle.

In the end, we will either figure this out as a society (and a planet), or it will truly be the end.