The ‘carrot and stick’ method of nudging people into action took on an altogether different meaning at the New York Stock Exchange earlier this year. The initial public offering (IPO) of Beyond Meat – the pioneering plant-based burger and sausage company – raised $241 million from its sale of shares, and the company is now valued at more than $3 billion. This is especially remarkable given that Beyond Meat is the first vegan company to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. While the primary source of protein in Beyond Meat is peas, not carrots, we might ask, ‘Is the stick even necessary now?’ This successful IPO is sure to challenge more people to think about what they eat and why – especially when it comes to our use (and abuse) of animals. Beyond Meat will make vegan products cheaper and easier to buy.
Consumers are increasingly taking ethical issues into consideration. Exercising ethical ‘choices’, however, makes all of us players in the capitalist game of social justice consumerism. Regardless of whether we see ourselves as vegans, vegetarians, pescatarians, or reducetarians – or environmentalists, anti-sweatshop campaigners, or living wage proponents – we live in capitalist societies. We’re forced to play by its rules, whether we want to or not.
Social justice is impossible to achieve under capitalism. This becomes especially clear when we think about climate change. Indeed, capitalism’s insatiable drive to growth is the reason why we have climate change. Infinite growth is incompatible with finite resources. There’s only one planet, and we’re eating it alive with our rampant consumption. Unless we transform our relationship to the planet and its resources, we will experience environmental catastrophe. While it is true that capitalism evolves and adapts itself – which is exactly what has happened with Beyond Meat’s IPO – we’re fooling ourselves if we believe we can ethically consume our way out of this crisis. Eating Beyond Meat burgers won’t save us from climate change.
The stakes become even higher when we think about our relationships to other animals. If climate change is the biggest threat currently facing our planet, our treatment of other animals is the great moral challenge of our time. Animal suffering eclipses human suffering. For example, more than 70 billion animals are raised for food each year, and most of them are kept in appallingly cruel conditions. Moreover, as ecofeminists and vegans of colour teach, our freedom and well-being are inextricably tied to theirs. It is worth asking, then, whether the market can deliver a just future for all of us – including non-human animals. Are optional consumer choices, such as veganism, enough to save the planet’s inhabitants?
We believe they aren’t. Individual change is good, but institutional change is better. The two need to operate together. Of course, individual change often leads to institutional change. (To be clear: we’re both vegan, and we believe everyone should be.) But what is not being said enough is that we need to ‘veganise’ not only recipes, but also our societies.
We need individual and institutional change. Public opinion is notoriously fickle, which is partly why institutional change will have a greater impact. Also, legislation can accomplish far more than individuals can, no matter how committed each of us is. For too long, the strategy of the animal rights movement has been to privilege lifestyle choice: ‘Go vegan!’ But it’s not just people who need to go vegan. We need also need our governments, our judicial systems, and industries – indeed, our entire societies – to commit to anti-speciesism.
Public policy – legislation and its effective enforcement – proscribes human behaviour and deals with transgressions. We can harness public policy to transform capitalism. We should enact legislation which supports us in reducing our consumption; which outlaws the use of non-human animals for food, clothing, entertainment, and testing (as well as the exploitation of humans); and which facilitates cooperation, rather than competition, between people. If it works in relationship with sustained intellectual critique and cultural change, public policy will not only help us to transform capitalism – eventually, it could create the conditions that enable us to transcend it.
Vegans, and all of those in the animal rights movement, should focus not only on promoting vegan lifestyles, but on advocating for legislative change. One strategy might be to lobby government agencies to end farmed animal subsidies, tax rebates, and other corporate breaks, and instead invest these public funds in supporting farmers, and those who work with them, to transition from animal agriculture to industries that are healthier for consumers, that are less injurious to the environment, and start to address the causes of climate change.
Does this mean that legislation should be the ‘stick’ to Beyond Meat’s ‘carrot’? Not quite. Really, there isn’t any reason for thinking about any of this as punishment. Last year, an article in The Economist predicted that 2019 would be the year of the vegan – and Beyond Meat’s IPO is just one sign that they were right. More revealing is how the article discussed this change:
If plant-based “meats” take off, they could become a transformative technology, improving Westerners’ protein-heavy diets, reducing the environmental hoofprint of animal husbandry and perhaps even cutting the cost of food in poor countries.
If this is where the ‘stick’ leads us – well, what’s so unpleasant about that?