Monday, July 1, 2019

Guest Post: Response to the claim that only 2% (or less) of people in the United States are vegetarian

 “Fake News” of Animal Advocacy:

Response to the claim that only 2%(or less) of people in the United States are vegetarian

Guest Post By
Vasile Stanescu

“Groups and advocates have been at this [vegan advocacy] for decades and yet the percentage of people in the United States who are vegetarian has basically not changed at all”

--Matt Ball; Co-founder of Vegan Outreach

  1.  About 1 out of 10 Americans identify as either vegetarian or vegan (between 8 to 13 percent).
  2. This percent is consistent across several different studies
  3. This percent is growing (with higher percentages for those under 50.)
  4. It is inaccurate to believe that a large number of people falsely claim to be vegetarian (although some people who are transitioning to a vegetarian diet and some pescetarians may claim to be vegetarian).
  5. However, half the people who strictly follow a vegetarian or vegan diet may choose not to identify with the labels. This is, in part, because of a fear of negative stigma around the labels “vegetarian” or “vegan.”
  6. The failure of studies and the media to accurately report the number of vegetarians and vegans may harm the animal rights movement. Likewise, inaccurate stereotypes of vegans (including by animal rights activists themselves), may also be harmful.
  7. Therefore, as activists, we should strive to let people know the comparatively high rates of people transitioning to a vegetarian and vegan diet and combat those suggesting inaccurate stereotypes of vegetarians and vegans.

Part I: “Absolute Fanatics”

Why are some of the most well-known and most influential vegans and animal rights activists telling people that animal rights activism is inherently useless and that calls for veganism may be hurting animal activism? For example, I recently engaged in a public debate with Bruce Friedrich, the president of the Good Food Institute and the former Vice President of PETA, on the topic of in vitro meat. The debate was wide-ranging; however, Bruce's most commonly repeated argument--both during the debate and in the dinner afterward--was his belief that animal advocacy does not work and that his lifetime of advocacy had, in fact, been a failure. After that debate, Bruce made similar claims in a feature article in the New York Times : “[w]e've tried to convince the world to go vegan, and it has not worked;” “[a]ll the education and all the awareness of the problem, and concern about the problem, doesn't solve the problem;” and even  “[w]e need to change the meat, because we aren't going to change human nature [i.e. eating meat is a fundamental part of human nature].” Similar claims have been forwarded by people such as Matt Ball, Senior Media Relations Specialist for the Good Food Institute and the original co-founder of Vegan Outreach, also a well-known vegan and animal rights advocate. For example, in 2017, he published a video for Vox in which he claimed that people should shift from eating chicken to cows or pigs (based on the number of animals killed to produce meat.) In this video, he also claims that many vegans and animal rights activists are “absolute fanatics,” and seems to support Anthony Bourdin's odd claims that vegans should be viewed like “Hezbollah.” Uniquely, Ball claims that when animal rights activists encourage people to eat vegan, they are “driving people back to eating meat.” These are remarkable claims as both Friedrich and Ball are long-time vegans, former leaders of animal rights organizations, and well-known animal rights activists.

The main motivation for these shifts seems to be repeated claims that only a very small percentage of the population is either vegetarian or vegan. For example, Matt Ball in the video claims, “[o]nly 2% of the population is vegetarian and only half a percent is vegan. Now, this is after decades of advocacy.” Likewise, Bruce repeated similar statistics as the major reason why he has shifted his own views on animal advocacy.

I have tried to track down the source for these claims: My best guess is that it is, in part, based on an article on the website Animal Charity navigator entitled: “
Is the Percentage of Vegetarians and Vegans in the U.S. Increasing? | Animal Charity Evaluators.”  This article claims that there has been very little increase in the number of vegetarians and vegans, leading the researcher to endorse a possible shift towards in vitro meat and/or humane meat as a more effective strategy for change. Before I examine the claim in detail, it is important to note that the article on Animal Charity Navigator is not a study itself; it is a guest blog post. The main qualification I can locate for the person writing the post--Saulius Šimčikas-- is a master’s degree in mathematics; it appears he may have written it while he was a part-time research intern. Of course, this does not mean that this is not a thoughtful or well-done guest blog post; however, it is to argue that a guest blog post is fundamentally not the same as a peer-reviewed study.

In contrast, I would argue that the majority of evidence we have available would seem to suggest that a. approximately 1 out of 10 Americans identifies as vegetarian or vegans b. the number of those under 50 is about 12% and, most importantly, c. the number is growing.

Part II: About 9% of Americans identify as vegetarian or vegan

The actual number of vegetarians and vegans in the United States—based on the best evidence we have—is between 8-13 percent with a pretty good “ballpark” estimate of 9% or about one in ten Americans. Let me break down a few of the actual studies.

The best is the one done by 
PEW in 2016 (which I can't find cited in the post from Animal Charity Evaluators—I'm not sure why). The overall take away is that 9% of the population are vegetarian and vegan. The research is even more encouraging; the 9% is heavily skewed by a low number of vegetarians and vegans in older populations: for ages 18-49, the percentage is 12%.

Likewise, here is the link to the frequently cited 
Gallup Poll. This is a great example of how perfectly fine research can be misrepresented. The study found 5 percent were vegetarian, which became the headline of the study,  the only way it was reported, and the number used in the post of Animal Charity Evaluator. However, that is not what the study found. What they actually found is that 3 percent of people consider themselves vegan ---in addition to the 5% who considered themselves a vegetarian. The most recent press release does not make this clear; however, it is clearly explained in a press release of an earlier version of the same study:
Vegans apparently view themselves as different from, rather than a subset of, vegetarians; most of the small number of respondents in the survey who said "yes" to the vegan question had said "no" to the vegetarian question.
So the number is not 5% including 3% vegans—it is 5% plus 3% vegans—i.e. 8% of the population (consistent with the 9% PEW found). If we think about it, this claim makes intuitive sense. If I was answering a poll and they asked me if I was vegetarian I would say “no,” by which I would only mean that I do not consume eggs or dairy, not that I eat meat. Again, the research is even more positive because the numbers among 18-49-year-olds were between 10-12 percent; the same percentages PEW found. And, that number—the under 50 number—is the main number we need to focus on. The main reason these numbers are not larger is not that people aren't going vegetarian, but that “baby boomers” are not, as an aggregate, going vegetarian (and there are a significant number of "baby boomers.")

However, the point is not only the research itself: it is the fact that no one reports the information in this way. For example, here is the headline of how the 
Washington Post reported on the Gallup Poll: “You might think there are more vegetarians than ever. You'd be wrong.” Even though the study does claim there are more vegetarians than ever.

Likewise, the 
FooDS survey (administered by the University of Oklahoma) found a similar percentage:  8.8% of respondents reported being vegetarian or vegan.  (This is the most recent data. If you look long term the precise percent varies over time; however, there is an overall upward trend).

Finally, while not as reliable as either Pew or Gallup, Public Policy Polling also found the same percent: 9%, of Americans are vegetarians or vegans in two 
different polls. Indeed, Public Policy Polling has a third study which found the rate of vegetarians and vegans at 13%, though my guess is that this study was a bit of an outliner.

Let me also highlight that all of this research is recent. One of the major problems with some of the research on the post from Animal Charity Evaluator was how old the data was (it included data from 1978). However, the trend is towards younger people becoming vegetarian or vegan. So, for example, if you use a study from 2000, everyone who is in the 18-29 demographic (which runs 12%) would not be included in the study [in 2000 the oldest person in this demographic would have been 10 to 11 years old; the cut off for these studies is 18.] We do not need to know how many vegetarians there were in 2000; we need to know how many vegetarians there are now (and will be in the future).

So, based on five of the most recent opinion polls from four different polling organizations, there is no question that the rate of self-reported vegetarians and vegans is a. around one in ten Americans b. consistent c. increasing and—most importantly—d. skewing towards higher rates (12%) for those under 50.

Of course, we want these numbers to be higher; these are still remarkable numbers.

Part III: “Assume They're Lying

One other point: What about the supposed “closet” meat eaters’ rate, i.e., the supposedly high percentage of vegetarians and vegans that still “secretly” eat meat or dairy? The argument seems to be that while people “self-report” high rates of being vegetarian or vegan, these numbers are misleading because—in essence—these people are lying and they are still “really” meat eaters. However, the data is a little more complicated than this narrative: The first survey to comment on this supposed trend was the Continuing Survey of Food Intake by Individuals (CSFII) conducted from 1994-1998. What they found was a percentage of those who they polled both said they were vegetarian and later recalled eating meat, which led to the idea that vegetarians are “secretly” eating meat. For example, here is a Business Insider article from 2013 entitled “
SURVEY: 60% Of Self-Proclaimed Vegetarians Ate Meat Yesterday” and begins with this opening paragraph:
Pretty much every vegetarian has been accused of eating meat on the sly — which makes sense, since most meat eaters can't picture life without steak (or hamburgers, or hot dogs, or bacon). But if you accuse a vegetarian of pounding down veal burgers during their off hours, chances are you'll be met with some serious kale-fueled rage that'll take a bucketful of bacon to forget. 
Pro tip: Next time, just skip the fuss and assume they're lying. In fact, go ahead and assume that they ate meat yesterday. You'd probably be right.
Let's set aside for a second why Business Insider is writing about a study from 1994---in 2013. This is not what the study found: First off, the study's manual prevented the interview (it was a telephone interview) from answering any questions about what “vegetarian” meant; all they were allowed to do was repeat the question. So, for example, if the person interviewed asked: “I do occasionally eat seafood, should I consider myself a vegetarian?” or if they asked: “I am just now transitioning into a vegetarian diet. Should I consider myself a vegetarian?” All they would have heard in response was the same question (here is the link to the manual used). And, unsurprisingly, that is exactly what the results show: the people who claimed to be vegetarian and were still recorded as eating meat ate significantly less meat then the nonvegetarians and almost all of it was fish or seafood. So, what the study shows is not that vegetarians are “lying” about being vegetarian but that there exists confusion about whether eating fish or seafood “counts” as a vegetarian (or that people may be transitioning into a vegetarian diet). This confusion is not surprising: The very first “vegetarian” cookbook I ever owned--The Moosewood Cookbook—included recipes for seafood.

The same is true for the data from the 
National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, (NHANES) 2007-2010. Furthermore, a 2015 study looked, in part, at the number of people identified as vegetarian and then looked at what they recalled eating in two 24-hour periods. What they found roughly “mirrors” the finding from CSFII: All of the self-described vegetarians who self-recorded eating some animal products consumed— substantially —less meat than non-vegetarians; they all consumed substantially more plant-based food; most of the meat they consumed was seafood. As the study itself explains (in the abstract):
Compared to non-vegetarians, vegetarians consumed …significantly less meat, poultry, solid fats and added sugars, and more soy, legumes, and whole grains than non-vegetarians. Both groups consumed about the same amounts of eggs, dairy, seafood, fruits, and vegetables. After energy adjustment, vegetarians consumed significantly more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and total grains than non-vegetarians per 1000 kcal. Although a large proportion of self-identified vegetarians report consuming some type of animal products, such as meat, poultry and/or seafood, their dietary patterns contain more plant-based foods and whole grains with less solid fats and added sugars.

Likewise, this study did no better at defining what a “vegetarian” was—or was not—than the previous CSFII. The take away is not that vegetarians are “lying,” but that many pescatarians and transitional vegetarians consider themselves to be vegetarians. The study itself even makes this exact point (i.e. that many of the people may be transitioning into a vegetarian diet):
However, since this is a cross-sectional study, it is impossible to know whether individuals who reported consuming animal proteins were trending towards eliminating those protein sources from their diet. The duration of practicing vegetarianism may be an important factor to consider in examining the dietary patterns of individuals. (90) 
One other quick point on these studies: They only asked about “vegetarians.” As earlier noted, in surveys, vegans do not always identify as vegetarians (although researchers often assume they will). I have not been able to locate any studies that show that vegans do not self-report correctly. This, again, makes intuitive sense: While some people are confused as to the meaning of “vegetarian,” most people have a more definite meaning for “vegan.” So, when Gallup (for example), tells us that 3 percent of the population is vegan, that number certainly may be incorrect, however, I can't find any evidence to suggest that it is.

On a deeper level: I still do not entirely understand the focus on this objection. Some animal rights advocates argue for a very limited definition of either vegetarian or vegan and suggest that people should immediately transition into full veganism. For example, Gary Francione could be read as making these type of arguments. I am neither agreeing nor disagreeing with this position. However, most of the animal rights groups that making these arguments about the low number of vegans and vegetarians—including Animal Charity Evaluators, Faunlytics, Bruce Friedrich, Matt Ball, etc.-- believe in and support the idea of “harm reduction” e.g. eating sustainably less meat is the goal, not dietary “purity.” If so, why do they seem to agree with Francione's' definition of who does, or does not, constitute a vegetarian or a vegan? Even if most vegetarians or vegans are “imperfect” vegetarians and vegans (which has not actually been proven), it doesn't mean that the terms do not have a meaning and that animal activism is not successful. As long as they are eating substantially less meat (which every study has found), it is still a meaningful term. For example, Debs, my partner, for the first year she was “vegetarian” would still eat salmon when she went home (as her parents worried over her.) Perhaps she was not “vegetarian.” However, it is also incorrect to suppose that the term did not mean anything; she was avoiding all other animal products the rest of the time and she was literally spending virtually every weekend on animal advocacy (and, over time, she stopped eating the “parent-worry-salmon” as well). If it helps people to call themselves “vegetarian”--in the sense of that being their goal, if not yet a full reality--I am unclear why that use of the term is viewed as such a problem.

Part IV: The Vegan Police

Let me give you the best example I know of researchers using the absolutist views of vegetarians and veganism to (heavily) skew the results. In 2014, the Humane Research Council/Faunaltyics published 
a study that found that only 2% of the population was vegetarian. In addition to the post of Animal Charity Navigator, this seems to be the most common source for the supposedly small number of vegetarians or vegans.

The problem with this study is that the definition of being a vegetarian or vegan was so narrow it inevitably excluded a large number of vegetarians, vegans, and people who did not eat meat or animal products (but simply did not care for the term). Let me explain: The first part of the study was a series of questions asking if the person consumed—any—amount of any animal product. If the person answered affirmative to consuming any amount of any meat product, they were automatically excluded from being a vegetarian; if they recorded consuming any animal product at all, they were automatically excluded from being a vegan. There was nothing the respondent could do. There was no way they could explain why it happened, how rare it was, anything. They were simply prevented from identifying as either a vegetarian or a vegan. For example, Debs, in her first year of being a vegetarian, would have been excluded because of the salmon she ate a couple of times a year when she visited home. In other words, even if a person ate 99% less meat, the study would still classify the person in the same category as, say, Jordan Peterson (who claims to only eat beef, water, and salt.)

How about those who did record eating zero animal products of any kind? One would presume they, at least, would be recorded as either vegetarians or vegans. This is not what happened. The study then asked them if they identified as vegetarian or vegans. If they did not—even though the study had recorded that they consume no animal products at all—the study still did not count them as either vegetarians or vegans. To be clear, this was not a small number—over half the people who recorded as vegetarian and vegans were excluded because they did not self “identify” as vegetarians or vegans (here is 
a link to the study methodology). Even taking the most stringent measure possible for vegetarian or vegan (perfect adherence to a diet free of animal products), the number of Faunlytics found was not 2%; it was 4%. This, in turn, match what others have found: In 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2016 the Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG) polled people about their dietary practices in a similar manner to the Faunylicts study; however, there was one important difference: they did not also ask if people identified as a vegetarian or a vegan. VRG consistently found that the number of strict “vegetarians in practice” ranged from 3.3%-5% (Here is the most recent survey). In other words, the same percentages Faunalytics /HRC would have found if they had not asked if people “identified” as a vegetarian or vegan.

What is fascinating is that in the same study vegetarians and vegans seemed to operate as both a practice and as a belief system. If someone agreed with the belief system but were still imperfect in practice (i.e. transitioning to veganism), they were excluded. Likewise, even if someone followed the practice perfectly (i.e. consumed zero animal products of any kind), if they did not also choose to identify as a vegetarian or vegan, they were also excluded. In their defense, Faunalytics itself has admitted these limitations to the study. 
For example:
It also estimated that 2% of the U.S. population are vegetarian. However, we should be wary of thinking that this agreement in estimates means the 2% figure is accurate. The Faunalytics survey was careful to check whether respondents said that they consumed any meat or fish items as well as whether they regarded themselves as vegetarian. This should lead to a lower estimate of the number of vegetarians.

However, this still raises the question: Why did they design a study guaranteed to produce as low as possible a number of vegetarians or vegans? What was the purpose of excluding everyone who was either—even slightly—imperfect in their diet or, even if perfect, chose not to simply call themselves a vegetarian or vegan?

In any case, what the study seems to highlight is not that there are a lot of vegetarians that are “closeted' meat-eaters but that there may well be a large number of people who are actually “closeted” vegetarians or vegans (i.e. people who do not consume animal products but still do not chose to use the label). As a letter to 
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition phrased this concern over the use of the label:
Although an increasing number of people are now avoiding meat, the label vegetarian carries with it various, and varying, connotations about beliefs and practices that are unrelated to diet and health and that appear to be based in part on societal norms and expectations.

I agree with my friend Matthew Cole that veganism is not about diet; it is an ideology against speciesism for which diet is simply one outward manifestation. So it might make sense for Matthew to formulate the study in this way. However, I can't figure out why the makers of this study (all of whom argue against “purity” and for harm reduction) would craft the survey in this way. Why do they care if someone “says” they are vegan or not?

These results may also help to explain one of the odder trends in polling about vegetarians and vegans: people consistently report higher rates of being vegetarian or vegan on online polling versus “face-to-face.” This tendency towards different rates in online and “in person” polling has been well established; however, it usually exists because people are embarrassed or uncomfortable to admit something and, therefore, are less likely to tell an actual person and more likely to record it in the seeming privacy of an online poll. As 
Gallup phrases this discrepancy:
 [W]hen respondents answer questions that an interviewer reads aloud to them, research has consistently shown that respondents tend to give …more socially desirable responses than when the same questions are administered to the same population via web or mail.
For example, online polling was consistently a better measure of the actual support for Trump than telephone polling, presumably because some voters felt uncomfortable admitting they were voting for Trump. If, as earlier suggested, people were not actually vegetarian but were, in essence, “lying” to say that they were, we should expect to see high rates of people saying they were vegetarian via in-person polling and lower rates online; instead, we see the exact opposite. This suggests the people may actually feel embarrassed to “admit” being vegetarian or vegan (even when they follow the diet exactly). Indeed, a growing body of data has found exactly these results: social stigma is one of the major reasons precluding people from switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet and refusing the “identity” even if they do follow the diet. As a peer-reviewed paper on the topic phrased this tendency:
 By definition, stigma is undesirable, and individuals want to avoid it. Due to the fear of experiencing stigmatized treatment, vegans report altering how they behave around non-vegans (e.g., discussing veganism only when prompted, actively trying to distance themselves from the characteristics associated with vegan stereotypes) …Thus, adding social distance between oneself and stigmatized others keeps one safe from ‘catching’ a courtesy stigma.
Furthermore, formulating these studies in this way, producing as low a number as possible, can cause real harm. The Faunalytics study was – universally—covered as saying that only 2 percent of the population was vegetarian. However, that is not actually what the survey proved. However, the fact that an “animal rights organization” had come up with these numbers became proof of their credibility and the supposed failure of all vegan or vegetarian advocacy.

For example, consider some the press coverage of the study from ScienceAlert:
Thanks to the extreme actions of a select few, animal advocate groups have at times struggled to maintain a favourable reputation with the public, particularly in the US, where PETA continues to embarrass itself. It's great to see efforts like this [study by Faunalytics] to understand the motivations and challenges that come with a significant diet change, and the acknowledgement that giving up meat is not the only way to address both the health, animal welfare, and environmental concerns that come from farming animals to the degree that we are now.
Likewise, the study directly led to the headline in Popular Science: “Stop pretending that all Americans could ever go vegan: There are more realistic ways to combat climate change.” In turn, the article argued that environmentalist should not focus on decreasing animal consumption as a way to combat climate change (despite the science suggesting that we should). It ends with the conclusion:
Let's stop the charade. Most Americans are meat-eaters, and no study is going to change their minds. Instead of fighting the inexorable march toward ever-more beef and poultry, let's invest in realistic solutions to our problems. Climate change is quite possibly the biggest challenge we'll ever face as a species, and we'll never tackle it with such impractical goals [decreasing meat consumption].
And, as earlier mentioned, several vegans and prominent animal rights activists have publicly made similar claims. In other words, I worry that a combination of misreporting and ill-designed studies could help to produce a self-fulfilling prophecy. Animal advocacy is working. However, if the media keeps telling everyone (animal rights advocates included) that is it is failing, has never worked, and will never work, it is logical to suppose that people will both stop trying to promote vegan advocacy and, those of us who do promote it, may find people less responsive (after all, “people will never go vegan” is already the number one argument I hear against vegan advocacy). Indeed, it is important to consider not only the data itself but also the biases around the data that is being reported. It seems clear that the data is universally being reported in the most negative way possible against vegetarians and vegans. Gallup data actually shows 8% vegetarians and vegans and a growing number of vegetarians and vegans year after year; all the reporting on the survey claims that there are few vegetarians now and that there is either no change or the number is decreasing. PEW, unequivocally, shows a large number of vegetarians and vegan; however, unlike with the reporting on Gallup, I cannot locate any articles on the report. And Business Insider reports on a deeply flawed study from 1994, in 2013, as though it was “breaking news.” However, imagine the opposite. What would happen if instead, news media reports were accurate and positive? For example, what if the headlines proclaimed: “Nearly one in ten Americans now identities as vegetarian or vegan;” or “A growing number of Americans are going vegetarians and vegan” or “Is Vegetarianism the future? 12% of Americans under fifty now identify as vegetarian and vegan” Here is the point: All of those headlines are actually more accurate than the headlines that are being produced. However, the way a problem is defined will define the solution. As long as people “believe” that no one will ever go vegan, why try to convince anyone to change their minds? Why support governmental programs to support vegan options or decrease meat consumption? What seems to happen instead is that even vegans and animal rights activists start to support the twin fantasies of “humane meat” and “in vitro meat,” neither of which are scalable options to a global scale. In short, because of incorrect data, they are abandoning actually viable options that do work, as well as brainstorming new ideas that might work better, for ideas that will, in fact, never work.

Perhaps even more importantly, if the emerging research on social stigma and veganism is correct, every time animal rights activist stigmatize veganism or animal activism, they are not only (incorrectly) describing a world with few vegans; they are actively helping to create it. In other words, when Matt Ball tells people that most people think that vegans are rude, fanatical, and viewed like “Hezbollah;” he is, in fact, directly causing fewer people to go vegan in the first place or “identify” as vegan even if they do eat “plant-based foods.” As the earlier referenced article phrased this same concern of vegan stigma:
 [W]e believe our results to be especially telling regarding an aspect of vegan stigma that had not been previously examined: how vegan stigma impacts how non-vegans think and behave... Since we find evidence for stigma functioning as a social deterrent in this context, the outcome of stigma anticipation and social distancing is that non-vegans will behaviorally distance themselves from vegans by continuing to eat how they currently do—in a non-vegan fashion—and this is at least partially due to the possibility of social stigma.

Indeed, if vegan social stigma theory is true, is might also help to explain why a growing number of vegans try to distance themselves from the “other” vegans who are posited as “extremists” or “fanatics.” It might have less to do with the poorly designed studies and more to do with a desire to “fit in” by critiquing “fanatic” vegans. For example, Matt Ball could have presented the identical argument (the utilitarian need to shift from eating chickens to cows) without stigmatizes vegans; such comments would seem to have nothing to do with utilitarian calculus or even his beliefs in the small numbers of vegans. Why then, we must ask, did he choose to include them? And how can we explain the odd tension in the earlier mentioned Vox video: Matt cites data that critiques vegans as, in a sense, not being extreme enough (not having perfect diets; not always identify as vegans) and, in the identical video, also criticize them being too extreme, as both fanatical and “rude.” One must ask: What level of commitment/extremism towards veganism is appropriate?  Who could meet this Venn diagram of contradictory impulses towards animal advocacy? In other words, part of, although certainly not all, of the reason why former well-known animal rights activists and long term vegans are now stigmatizing fellow vegans may be because of fear of social stigma, or as the researchers phrased it “actively trying to distance themselves from the characteristics associated with vegan stereotypes.” In any case, those of us who are concerned with increasing the number of vegans should not view public statements (by anyone) who stigmatize veganism or animal advocacy in a neutral light: each comment that stigmatizes animal rights advocates or veganism may, in fact, directly hurt the cause of either. To summarize my fears of this article in one sentence: It may be the case that people describing a world with few vegetarians or vegans are, in fact, helping to create one.

Conclusion: Don't Believe Me

However, my point is not that you believe me in any of this. I have probably made mistakes. This is not a peer-reviewed article; I am not an expert on opinion polls. However, perhaps, also be more skeptical of information you are hearing from others. If animal activists want to use evidence-based research (and I think we should); it is very important that we get correct information. And, to do that, we need to use published peer-reviewed studies in established journals by experts in their respective fields. This is not to disagree with the work others are doing—all research can be helpful. It is to argue that official peer-review does matter: it catches errors and assumptions that might otherwise be missed in what is, in essence, “self-published” data (as I have highlighted here.) I tried to find out why HRC/ Faunalytics did not publish their research in a peer-reviewed journal; here is the explanation from their Facebook page:
3) PEER-REVIEW Some have expressed concern that we did not subject the study to the peer-review process. HRC has planned to submit our work for publication in a peer-reviewed journal since the beginning of this project. However, knowing this can take several years and given that HRC's primary responsibility is to inform advocates, we opted to release early findings to the movement…
It is true that it can take a while for peer-reviewed publications to come out in print (although not—normally—“several years.”) However, what is happening in the period of time –at least theoretically--is that experts in the field are evaluating the work. Published peer-reviewed information certainly is not perfect; however, it is the best system we currently have for determining what is actually occurring and would actually work to help animals. While I—strongly—support evidence-based changes to animal advocacy, I worry that is not happening. And, I worry that believing we are getting evidence-based advice (when we may not be) could be more dangerous than nothing at all. As Alexender Pope famously phrased it: “A little learning can be a dangerous thing.” In any case, before decades-long vegan and animal rights activists give up their views and tell others that animal rights activism will inherently fail, they should, I would argue, make sure that these statements are true. Until this happens, perhaps we should believe the growing number of vegan and vegetarian restaurants and food options that we see opening all around us as a suggestion that the number of vegans and vegetarians really is increasing --even if some of them are still imperfect in their diets or chose not to use the labels. In short: while imperfect, and open to improvement, the majority of evidence does suggest that our animal advocacy works.


Friday, March 8, 2019

How to think the eradication of animal cultures.

So for years now, I have been trying to figure out how to talk about these issues, and I am still trying to figure it out. Maybe you can help. First, I'm going to quote from a recent Atlantic article that has me thinking about these issues again, and then talk about the problem.

“Sometimes in the rush to conserve the species, I think we forget about the individuals,” says Cat Hobaiter, a primatologist at the University of St. Andrews. “Each population, each community, even each generation of chimpanzees is unique. An event might only have a small impact on the total population of chimpanzees, but it may wipe out an entire community—an entire culture. No matter what we do to restore habitat or support population growth, we may never be able to restore that culture.”
Other animals are also likely losing their ancestral knowledge at our hands. When poachers kill an elephant matriarch, they also kill her memories of hidden water sources and anti-lion tactics, leaving her family in a more precarious place. When moose and bighorn sheep were exterminated from parts of the U.S., their generations-old awareness of the best migration routes died with them. Relocated individuals, who were meant to replenish the once-lost populations, didn’t know where to go, and so failed to migrate. These discoveries mean that conservationists need to think about saving species in a completely new way—by preserving animal traditions as well as bodies and genes.

So, for years now I have been using the language of culture (and cultures) to talk about other animals. They do, indeed, have cultures, if by that we mean traditions and habits that are unique to particular groups and get taught and passed down over time. While controversial, I think the rejection that many nonhuman animals have culture is simply an example of Frans de Waal has called anthropodenial, the tendency to deny characteristics we associate with only humans to other beings. My question is, how do we talk about the sorts of things I quoted above?

On the one hand, if this was something humans were doing to other humans, the language of colonialism and genocide seem to be in order. This was my intuition when I first started trying to talk about these things. It did not go well. And now I generally think I was in the wrong. Partially because it is too divisive, and terminology that begs to be misunderstood is probably bad terminology. And concepts that seem to offend the very people who you might hope to convince is bad at persuasion, no matter how personally satisfying. But also, as I tried to explain in my article "Beyond Biopolitics" a few years ago, I find these analogies to be insufficient at doing the conceptual work. In my article I linked to above, I explained some of the issues I have with comparing the term genocide or murder to what happens to animals in the factory farm. But here, with the destruction of cultures of other animals, is colonialism the right term?

It is clear that there is a link between colonialism and anthropocentrism. One need only look at the work of, say, Sylvia Wynter, to begin to understand how the construction of "Man" is meant to make disposable or trainable large swaths of the human population. And there is the rhetoric of colonizers, the way they deploy a language of hunting or culling nonhuman animals to justify their world historical crimes against those they sought to colonize. Then there are the material connections between colonialism and other animals. There is the history of "exotic" animals being forcibly relocated to the metropole, often as a way to glorify the power of the colonial center, and as entertainment to the colonizing people. There is the long history zoos displaying both nonhuman animals and humans from other cultures. There is the history of game hunting as being an element of the expansion of imperialism, and as I have argued there is a continued logic of hunting power and xenophobia that guides our policy to non-native species. And this leads one to agree with Dinesh Wadiwel that there is a war against animals. So I am not saying that there is no relationship between colonialism and our treatment of other animals. Indeed, any animal scholar would be greatly enriched by studying decolonial philosophy. And if for some reason you have to choose between reading Agamben and Wynter, read Wynter.

However, it is hard to argue that colonialism fully captures what is going on here. If nothing else, it is unlikely that the theoretical insights produced by decolonial scholars will easily map onto how we are to respond to this eradication of animal cultures (even if, as Juno Salazar Parreñas shows, there is much to be learned from decolonial insights into the conservation of other animals). What we need to do, and what I am sure some of you are already doing, is to develop a vocabulary and conceptual apparatuses that draw insights from scholarship on colonialism and genocide studies, while doing the work that is unique to animal studies. We need something that exists between the language individual animal rights and suffering and the language of extinction. And from there, we can begin to navigate not only better conservation practices toward other animals, but also one that begin thinking and responding to the cosmopolitical struggles of when animal cultures run up against human cultural practices.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

The Decarbon Turn: On the Green New Deal and Shared Socioeconomic Pathways.

For the last several years in response to questions of if I am a liberal or a lefty, a moderate or a radical, a capitalist or a socialist, I have taken to responding that I am an environmentalist. It is an annoying answer, but I think it is important to reorient my political goals and strategies. Furthermore, it conforms to my intuition that no matter how still important the political philosophy of the 19th century is, it perhaps only awkwardly reflects the battle lines of the 21st century. It is with this in mind that I want to talk about the Green New Deal (GND).

The Green New Deal promises to wed together social justice with environmental progress. It seeks to support a more economically egalitarian society with one that is rapidly decarbonizing. Such a move is already facing the usual objections. This recent editorial from the editorial board of the Washington Post is one example, where the claim is that all the social policy aspects of the Green New Deal are distractions from the more important environmental aspects. Others have defended the GND by pointing out this is an emergency, and that the GND seeks to shake up the political landscape by exciting people with social policy so they support the environmental policy. And that is not a bad argument. But what seems to be missing from this debate is that the social policy of the GND might actually be good environmental policy, and not just good politics.

In the most recent IPCC Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, we were introduced to the idea of Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSPs). SSPs were not part of the executive summary of the IPCC report, and therefore have mostly not been talked about. However, they are an increasingly important form of complex integrated assessment models, which allow researchers to pose what if questions and determine how policy or societal changes might effect global warming. As Daniel Aldana Cohen explains:
Prior to the latest report, the IPCC projected future scenarios based on skeletal, technocratic models of energy, land use, and climate. They represented climate politics as being like a dashboard with a few dials that engineers could turn—a little more renewable energy here, a touch less deforestation there. In contrast, the SSPs imagine different possible climate futures in terms of realistic clusters of policy decisions, which in turn affect emissions, land use, and how the impacts of extreme weather are felt.
This feels obvious, but needs to be underlined. It is not simply policies targeted toward reducing Greenhouse emissions or increasing renewable energy that matter, but also larger questions about how we organize society also matter for global warming. Shared Socioeconomic Pathways tries to capture how societal decisions change global warming and resiliency.

In the most recent IPCC report, there are five SSP scenarios (future reports will probably feature more). Here they are in some detail:
SSP1 Sustainability – Taking the Green Road (Low challenges to mitigation and adaptation)
The world shifts gradually, but pervasively, toward a more sustainable path, emphasizing more inclusive development that respects perceived environmental boundaries. Management of the global commons slowly improves, educational and health investments accelerate the demographic transition, and the emphasis on economic growth shifts toward a broader emphasis on human well-being. Driven by an increasing commitment to achieving development goals, inequality is reduced both across and within countries. Consumption is oriented toward low material growth and lower resource and energy intensity.SSP2 Middle of the Road (Medium challenges to mitigation and adaptation)
The world follows a path in which social, economic, and technological trends do not shift markedly from historical patterns. Development and income growth proceeds unevenly, with some countries making relatively good progress while others fall short of expectations. Global and national institutions work toward but make slow progress in achieving sustainable development goals. Environmental systems experience degradation, although there are some improvements and overall the intensity of resource and energy use declines. Global population growth is moderate and levels off in the second half of the century. Income inequality persists or improves only slowly and challenges to reducing vulnerability to societal and environmental changes remain.SSP3 Regional Rivalry – A Rocky Road (High challenges to mitigation and adaptation)
A resurgent nationalism, concerns about competitiveness and security, and regional conflicts push countries to increasingly focus on domestic or, at most, regional issues. Policies shift over time to become increasingly oriented toward national and regional security issues. Countries focus on achieving energy and food security goals within their own regions at the expense of broader-based development. Investments in education and technological development decline. Economic development is slow, consumption is material-intensive, and inequalities persist or worsen over time. Population growth is low in industrialized and high in developing countries. A low international priority for addressing environmental concerns leads to strong environmental degradation in some regions.SSP4 Inequality – A Road Divided (Low challenges to mitigation, high challenges to adaptation)
Highly unequal investments in human capital, combined with increasing disparities in economic opportunity and political power, lead to increasing inequalities and stratification both across and within countries. Over time, a gap widens between an internationally-connected society that contributes to knowledge- and capital-intensive sectors of the global economy, and a fragmented collection of lower-income, poorly educated societies that work in a labor intensive, low-tech economy. Social cohesion degrades and conflict and unrest become increasingly common. Technology development is high in the high-tech economy and sectors. The globally connected energy sector diversifies, with investments in both carbon-intensive fuels like coal and unconventional oil, but also low-carbon energy sources. Environmental policies focus on local issues around middle and high income areas.SSP5 Fossil-fueled Development – Taking the Highway (High challenges to mitigation, low challenges to adaptation)
This world places increasing faith in competitive markets, innovation and participatory societies to produce rapid technological progress and development of human capital as the path to sustainable development. Global markets are increasingly integrated. There are also strong investments in health, education, and institutions to enhance human and social capital. At the same time, the push for economic and social development is coupled with the exploitation of abundant fossil fuel resources and the adoption of resource and energy intensive lifestyles around the world. All these factors lead to rapid growth of the global economy, while global population peaks and declines in the 21st century. Local environmental problems like air pollution are successfully managed. There is faith in the ability to effectively manage social and ecological systems, including by geo-engineering if necessary.
We worryingly seem to be headed toward the worst of all possible worlds, SSP3, or the regional rivalry. But let's bracket that concern, and focus instead on both SSP1.

SSP1, or Sustainability, is pretty heartening. It paints the picture of both a more economically egalitarian world and a more environmentally sustainable world. Sound familiar? And this pathway is the one that currently the social scientists working on climate change think would be the best for fighting global warming. And this shouldn't be surprising. We know that, for example, increase in women's education and access to healthcare are often key drivers for decreasing population growth. We know that rich people produce more greenhouse gases, regardless of their environmental commitments. And not only do these social policies make mitigation easier (that is, decreasing how much the planet will warm), it also improves adaptation (that is, how well we can respond to warming. Cohen again:
For instance, at two degrees Celsius warming, in an SSP 3 world, between 750 million and 1.2 billion people would be severely exposed to climate-linked extreme weather, according to a 2018 study discussed in the IPCC report. In contrast, the IPCC reports, under the SSP 1 scenario, well under 100 million people would be hard hit by extreme weather at the same level of warming.
That's a pretty big difference!

So, in short, the Green New Deal has the chance to not just be good environmental politics and good social policy, but to also have social policy that is good environmental policy. But there are, of course, still worries. Look now as SSP5. It describes a world of economic egalitarianism based fossil fuel development. Not all good social policies are going to be good environmental policies. It is important, as the Green New Deal becomes fleshed out, that the environmental realities guides, as much as politically possible, the social policies. We need to probably be agnostic on what kinds of zero-emission energy to invest in, and we have to be serious about carbon capture. We need to avoid being overly nationalistic in our economic growth, and think of how to adapt SSPs for national and local decisions. There is no reason to believe, though, that any of these missteps have to take place in finalizing the Green New Deal. Right now, the important thing is pushing for its reality. And with that, arguing fully that the social policy is part and parcel of the environmental policy, and vice versa. The Washington Post Editorial Board is not just wrong politically, they are wrong on policy grounds. They are wrong because they have not kept up with the mainstream developments of what are the best policies for fighting global warming. And the Green New Deal, rather intentionally are not, is exactly where we need to be.