Veganism, Year Twelve: The Pandemic, Animal Slaughter, and Economic Transition

by Neil H. Buchanan

There is nothing like a global pandemic to get people thinking about ways in which the world can make very big changes in very short periods of time.  That which seemed simply impossible -- animals walking through empty city streets, air quality radically improving in mere weeks (saving tens of thousands of lives in China alone) -- becomes not only possible but banal.  What else might be possible?

Today is the twelfth anniversary of my becoming a vegan.  Each summer, I write one or more veganniversary columns: 2019 (plus followup), 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, and the original announcement in 2008 (plus followup).  Because my co-Dorf on Law writers Professors Sherry Colb and Michael Dorf have written extensively and deeply on this topic (including their wonderful 2016 book), I have tended to approach the topic from one or both of two angles: offering non-expert (even pedestrian) observations of how vegans are perceived in popular culture, and providing economic analyses of vegan and non-vegan production and consumption.

This year, I will emphasize the latter.  Even so, I will begin with two pop culture references, the second of which actually provides a nice transition from the social observations to the economic argument of this column.

I make mental notes whenever I see a pop culture reference to veganism or animal rights.  For example, I have recently started watching "Community," a 2009-15 sitcom that I had missed when it first ran.  In its first season, one of the characters (Britta) is portrayed as an annoying do-gooder who was in the Peace Corps and constantly struts her social awareness.  In the first season, when she tells her study group friends that she is a vegetarian, the other characters say: "Oh, shocker!  Ugh, Britta is the worst."  Some friends!

Granted, that episode aired in 2009, and people's attitudes about veganism have changed radically over the subsequent decade-plus (which is the point of many of my veganniversary columns), but not as much as one would hope.

For example, in a standup routine that was posted earlier this year, Chelsea Peretti (best known as the hyper-confident social influencer Gina Linetti on "Brooklyn Nine-Nine") offered this:
"A lot of my friends now are vegan, and I think my least favorite part of the vegan diet is the verbal part, where they explain to it you.  [crowd laughs derisively]  It's a lot, it takes a lot; you have to hear a lot [gestures with hand to mimic a mouth blathering].  [scoffing] Vegans are like, 'I'm a vegetarian, but I don't even eat milk or honey, cuz it takes animal labor to make those things, and I think that's wrong.'  And it always just strikes me as childish logic, a little bit.  It's like, 'I like bees, and I like cows ... more than the immigrants who pick the vegetables that I eat.'  [crowd applauds]  'Cuz they don't have fur, and I'm dumb.'"
Right.  Vegans are dumb because ... we are unaware that labor is exploited in virtually every business in the world?  (That joke, by the way, was the last of her set, meaning that she thought it was the Big Finale that would leave the audience laughing.)  This is the classic response from panicky non-vegans who need to reassure themselves that their unwillingness to admit the consequences of their actions is okay, because (they tell themselves) those vegans have not solved every social problem in the world.  "I can keep putting out contract killings to procure my meals, because Gary Granola over here hasn't noticed that Whole Foods isn't a workers' paradise."

That particular version of the "If you can't solve every problem, don't talk to me about solving any problem that I find inconvenient to do anything about" non-argument was especially badly timed, however, because it showed up on YouTube just as the news hit that some of the worst outbreaks of COVID-19 were occurring in meat packing plants, harming immigrant workers the most.  An article in The Washington Post in May noted that Donald Trump ...
"ordered meat plants to remain open, [but] his executive order did nothing to address the unsafe working conditions in these facilities and the vulnerability of these workers. All workers in grueling industries need and deserve better working conditions and wages that reflect the risks they take to perform essential work. But foreign-born workers face particular challenges — and they always have."
It is hardly surprising that the "very stable genius" who seems to exist on Whoppers (not the Impossible Burger kind) and buckets of fried chicken would deem meat production to be an essential business.  Even so, let us assume for the sake of argument that there is at least a short-term unavoidable reliance on animal products to meet people's food intake needs.  (I strongly urge readers not to accept that argument as true, because it is not.)  What would it mean to transition quickly to a vegan future?

Note that I am skipping past the "Why veganism?" question.  Again, Professors Colb and Dorf have made those arguments better than I could, and if readers want to read a recent piece by a different author, The End of Meat Is Here," with the sub-headline: "If you care about the working poor, about racial justice, and about climate change, you have to stop eating animals."  (Note, however that Safran Foer is rather frustratingly slippery about veganism and his own eating habits, to say the least.)

Safran Foer emphasizes the environmental destruction wrought by factory farming, but he covers other issues as well.  He might as well have been responding to Peretti directly when he wrote this: "The slaughterhouse employees currently being put at risk to satisfy our taste for meat are overwhelmingly brown and black. Suggesting that a cheaper, healthier, less exploitative way of farming is elitist is in fact a piece of industry propaganda."  More broadly, his op-ed runs through the usual list of objections to veganism that people like me hear all the time.

What about the economics?  Safran Foer notes: "If for a single year the government removed its $38-billion-plus in props and bailouts, and required meat and dairy corporations to play by normal capitalist rules, it would destroy them forever. The industry could not survive in the free market."  He also makes a point that is consistent with my 2019 veganniversary column, which is that "the free market" -- aka capitalism -- can drive a great deal of the change toward a vegan future as profit-seeking companies (food producers as well as groceries and restaurants) notice that there is a growing demand for vegan foods, which creates a self-reinforcing cycle of better vegan options, more demand, better production and distribution, mainstream availability, and more demand.  Because the supply can expand even more quickly than the demand, this is not a formula for price increases but actually for vegan foods becoming more affordable over time.

As I observed above, however, the pandemic offers us a different way to think about this.  Safran Foer suggests that the way people in quarantine are thinking so much more deeply about food -- and the way that some of us continue to be worried about exploited workers and tortured animals -- can accelerate the transition.  That makes sense, but I want to think about something different.

Specifically, what would a rapid change to a vegan food system involve?  That is, rather than hoping (as I do) that eventually the economics of food will be changed in a way that the world simply ends up being vegan, what if we were already at the point where an overwhelming majority of people were ready to be vegan -- but those people were also worried about what would happen to those people whose livelihoods currently depend on animal cruelty and exploitation?

As I have noted on Dorf on Law before, a very early season of "Saturday Night Live" offered a fake advertisement for the Acme Puppy Grinding Company, with the punchline: "Puppy grinding.  Sure, it's disgusting, but think of the jobs!"  There are all kinds of horrific ways that people can make money, from child sex trafficker to fugitive slave hunter, that are still "jobs" and thus that provide a living to the people who do those things.  That does not mean that we should continue to support those immoral activities simply to protect certain people's incomes in perpetuity.

But what is especially interesting about the pandemic is, again, that big things happen so quickly.  More importantly, we have found that when we want to, we can make the transition easier for people who need to be moved out of jobs that are no longer competitive or useful.

Both Republicans and Democrats, for example, quickly provided huge subsidies to airlines.  One would have hoped that those subsidies would (as in most of Europe) have been tied to keeping people on payrolls, but the point is that we were willing to spend billions upon billions of dollars to keep alive businesses on the pretense that they will go back to normal very soon.

They will not.  Even if both a vaccine and a cure for COVID-19 were to become miraculously available tomorrow (or, per Trump, if it all just disappeared), we know that the pandemic has changed the world in a permanent way.  Although much of my job will still involve business travel, even I will reduce how much I fly.  More importantly, plenty of people have figured out that Zoom meetings are a very good substitute for many -- if not most -- business interactions.

That means that airlines, aerospace companies, restaurants, convention centers, hotels, and so on are in for wrenching changes that will outlast the pandemic.  I have also been told that the housing market is now responding to an increased demand for houses with dedicated office space, which in some cases involves merely relabeling "guest bedrooms" as "home offices" but will also certainly change the way new houses are built.  Employment at companies like Zoom will increase.  Delivery companies have already expanded employment massively (but again, we need to make sure that those workers' conditions improve), as have various types of producers of antiseptic products.

My point is that we could, if we chose to do so, simply pay people to transition out of the business of animal cruelty and into the business of producing food in a sustainable and cruelty-free way.  A la economic shutdowns, we could simply provide income to people who are working in jobs that we -- for other reasons -- have realized should not be jobs in the future.  Even if not all of them were to find work in plant-based food industries, we can and should give them transition assistance.  Some of the "induced coma" that countries imposed on their economies this year was based on the idea that people will soon go back to what they were doing (law offices, non-emergency medical services, and so on), and when the patient is brought out of the coma, health and normal functioning can quickly return.

We know, however, that we are in part lying to ourselves about this.  Some of the people whom we have been paying to stay at home will have to work in different jobs in the future.  The transition is needed not because of any fault of the workers, of course.  Even so, we treat both those who will have to "find something new" (in Ivanka Trump's let-them-eat-cake framing of the problem) in the same way that we are treating those who will go back to the same old thing.

We always knew this, but the pandemic has made it clear that we can do it on a huge scale when we think it is important enough.  Would it be important enough to do so, when we consider the fact that, per Safran Foer's op-ed, "[i]f cows were a country, they would be the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world"?  Would it be important enough to do so for the health benefits (and cost savings) of non-animal-based diets?  Would it be important enough simply to stop the pain and death (of both animals and the humans whose jobs depending on exploiting them)?

Experiencing big things reminds us that big things can happen -- bigger and more different than we ever thought possible.  We now know that it is possible to respond to an emergency by having citizens collectively (through their governments) smooth the path of workers who must stop doing what they have been doing.  "But think of the jobs" can no longer be the excuse for allowing unacceptable things to continue.