“Each vegan saves nearly 200 animals a year,” explains People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. For consumers who eschew animal products in order to reduce animal suffering, this statistic is an important one. It justifies our abstinence while re-affirming our virtue and effectiveness. Seductive as this notion is, though, envisioning a couple hundred farm animals whose lives you personally saved might be an all-too-simple accounting. Do individual vegans really spare the lives of individual animals?
If we’re talking about a small, self-contained food system, the question is relatively easy to answer: yes. In this system, a meat eater’s decision to go vegan would likely register tangibly enough for her to appreciate the decision’s effect. She could point to the local chicken farmer and note how the farmer raised fewer chickens because of her veganism. Relatedly, if a few hundred meat eaters in that little foodshed also went vegan, you could probably take credit for a major shift in local production. Maybe the chicken farm would shut down and re-open as a vegetable farm. Everyone, moreover, would know the reason why: those vegans! In this respect, small is more than beautiful. It’s power.
At the historical moment when Americans decided to take a closer look at the industrial food system and demand meaningful reform, the system rendered the most historically empowering method of reform effectively inconsequential.
But our food system isn’t small. It’s exceedingly global in size and intricacy. That scale and scope provide numerous consumer advantages in terms of accessibility and choice. But individual consumers remain so alienated from the actual mechanisms of production and distribution, so minimized by the beast’s heft, that our connection to it as individuals is illusory at best. Evidence of this disconnect comes every time we find ourselves shocked by some dogged exposé of the system’s more disgusting aspects—pink slime, for example—even though the practice is, from the inside, business-as-usual.
To understand this disenfranchisement, consumer ethicists have posited the idea of causal impotence. That might sound like something profound, but it’s not. It’s just a fancy way of saying that any individual consumer choice in a global context, no matter how nobly intentioned, amounts to, well, nothing. This is not necessarily an uplifting idea for anyone who wishes to link her behavior to a beneficial cause larger than herself (animal rights, climate change, population growth), but it’s worth boring into and exploring some of the implications.
Here’s how the concept plays out for the vegan. Say you buy groceries at Walmart and, after watching the documentary Cowspiracy you decide to boycott ground beef, which you once bought in great abundance. Does this choice even remotely influence Walmart’s meat counter? Likely not. We’re talking about a network that’s linked back through Sysco to Cargill to feedlots across Texas. Somebody else either buys the beef you so nobly boycotted or it gets tossed into a landfill.
Undeterred, you convince 10 more people to watch Cowspiracy and they, too, boycott Walmart’s ground beef. The impact? Still none. What about 100 people? Or 1,000? Nope and nope. Walmart doesn’t notice or care about your diet or the diets of those you are influencing. The machine churns away, oblivious. The beef will still land on the shelves and either be eaten or thrown away (which, given the latter option, may actually obligate the vegan to buy and eat the stuff, or at least feed it to their cats).
Of course, there must be a numerical threshold for change. There must be a theoretical number of boycotting consumers who would, in their collective abstinence, deliver to Walmart a message loud enough for the system to adjust. But, despite the great unlikelihood of such an event, it’s simply implausible that such a massive number could be attained through the moral suasion of individual choice. Instead, something external to individual choice—such as a spike in price or a food safety scare or maybe the classification of bacon as a carcinogen—would have to drive such a comprehensive transformation.
So if this scenario is right, if causal impotence is a real thing, does this mean that our choice to vote with our forks has been gutted? In a way it does. The sad irony here is that at the historical moment (the last 40 years) when Americans decided to take a closer look at the industrial food system and demand meaningful reform, the system rendered the most historically empowering method of reform—the personal boycott—effectively inconsequential. And while there have been earnest efforts to radically localize food systems, and thereby intensify the power of personal choice, these efforts too readily fall victim to a pre-existing political and economic logic favoring industrialization. To wit, as Civil Eats reported in October, 81 percent of the small farmers selling their produce locally through Community Supported Agriculture fail to earn a living wage.
While deflating, the message delivered by causal impotence shouldn’t deter the vegan from giving up veganism any more than it should deter the environmentalist from trading in the Prius for a Porsche. Symbolism matters, as does the personal satisfaction of knowing that you live your life in accordance with the ideals that you espouse. Plus, lots of symbolism can sometimes inspire a movement capable of effecting change from the top down, as Naomi Starkman recently suggested. But it is simply inaccurate to quantify our impact in terms of animal lives saved. Sometimes those making personal sacrifices for a larger cause—yes, even vegans—need to find another way to think about progress.
The Things We Eat is a regular Pacific Standard column from James McWilliams on food, agriculture, and the American diet.