Ancient Jain texts describe the life of a prophet named Mahavira. Born in the early 6th century BCE, he abandoned his worldly possessions as a young adult and embarked on a journey of spiritual awakening. When he achieved enlightenment, the gods built him a celestial temple called the samavasarana, or “refuge to all.” Humans, animals, and gods would gather in concentric rings around a towering ashoka tree where he professed his teachings. Mahavira came from a society that practiced ritual sacrifice and consumption of other animals, but he rejected these traditions and preached the gospel of ahimsa: compassion to all living beings.
There are some 6 million Jains in the world today, but hundreds of millions more who also don’t eat animals. Estimates for global vegetarian populations in the last decade range from 375 million to 1.5 billion. Nowhere are they more numerous than India, but philosophies of nonviolence toward other animals span across the globe, with independent roots tracing back to ancient Greece, China, Japan, and other civilizations. With industrialization, objections to animal agriculture have expanded from philosophical and ethical concerns to those surrounding threats to ecology and public health. Long before COVID-19 emerged, epidemiologists were sounding the alarm about novel swine and bird viruses incubating in intensive animal farms. Climatologists have warned that on its current trajectory, the livestock sector alone will use half the emissions budget for 1.5°C warming by 2030. Animal farming is now considered among the primary global drivers of extinction, deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, marine dead zones, soil degradation, antibiotic resistance, zoonotic disease, and diet-related illness. These crises demand immediate action.
The most direct and effectual response to the existential planetary threat posed by the industrial exploitation of animals is mass boycott. We cannot afford to wait for government regulation or corporate innovation. We should see this not simply as an individual choice, but rather a collective act.
In all its degrees and forms—from Jain dharma to meatless Mondays—abstention from the consumption of animal products is, in essence, a boycott. While the actions of an individual may be negligible on a global scale, they collectively contribute to a movement at least 25 centuries old and hundreds of millions strong. Regardless of the extent of an individual’s participation or how they define their diet, motivations, or philosophy, they are using what can be considered the same tactic against the same system. When the early Jain monks began practicing ahimsa, it wasn’t because they believed that changing their consumption habits was sufficient to end animal exploitation. Their goal was simple: to mitigate harm to those with whom we share our planet. This remains the most immediate aim of the boycott today. However, there is also a greater goal, in that boycott can be used—together with other tactics—to undermine the social, economic, and political structures upholding our oppressive animal-based agricultural complex and catalyze a just transition toward a nonviolent and sustainable food system.
While the animal rights cause has been called elitist, the reality is the contrary. The prominence of white vegans in news coverage, celebrity circles, and social media has helped perpetuate the idea that the animal liberation movement is privileged, but even in the United States, polling data indicate that vegans and vegetarians are disproportionately working class and people of color. On a global scale, these trends are yet more stark, demonstrating that high rates of animal consumption are a luxury of wealthy nations. Globally, our imperialist agricultural system allocates more than 1/3 of crop yield and more than 3/4 of agricultural land to farm and feed animals, calories and nutrients flowing predominately from South to North. We use more than four times as much land as necessary to feed the planet, which could otherwise be used for purposes such as installing solar panels and wind turbines or rewilding ecosystems to conserve biodiversity and draw down atmospheric carbon. Even though annual harvests are sufficient to feed 10 billion people, we continue to allow one-in-four people on Earth to suffer from hunger. More food is lost in the process of farming animals for human consumption than all food waste combined.
Of course, not all the animals we eat are farmed. Many of them are extracted from the wild, most often the sea. Wildlife trafficking follows similar colonial trade routes, often relying on impoverished or enslaved workers to set the snares or haul in the nets. They sell their catches for a pittance compared to the prices fetched in restaurants and supermarkets of industrialized nations. International trade analyses estimate that between 1/3 and 1/5 of marine life imported to the United States is caught illegally, most often extracted from waters surrounding poorer countries. Nearly half is thrown away. Commercial fishing fleets pose the greatest threat to Earth’s marine ecosystems, leaving four times the destructive footprint of agriculture, capturing an average of 40 percent non-target species, and precipitating plagues of poverty and famine that spur mass emigration from subsistence fishing communities.
This global capitalist agro-industrial system is subsidized by governments worldwide, which undergird the power structures most directly responsible for the environmental, ethical, and public health calamities associated with animal farming and wildlife extraction—even bailing them out with public funds when they collapse. In this context, it is reasonable to feel that the actions of an individual are immaterial. As the now ubiquitous adage reminds us, “100 corporations are responsible for 71 percent of global emissions.” However, this assertion is incomplete for several reasons. First, it is an ecological oversimplification. Greenhouse gas emissions are far from the only anthropogenic shock to our planet and using emissions as a proxy for environmental impact overlooks equally urgent concerns such as air and water pollution, habitat destruction, and public health. Furthermore, it is a factual oversimplification. The 2017 CDP Carbon Majors Report from which the statistic originates does not actually analyze all global emissions. Authors estimate the study’s scope covers “about 70% of total global anthropogenic emissions,” excluding “carbon dioxide relating to land-use change, and methane deriving from farming, landfills, and other non-industrial sources.” Finally, it is an ethical oversimplification. While it may be possible to trace the origin of pollution, there is no consensus around how to ascribe responsibility.
The CDP Report itself illustrates the dilemma of discerning blame for carbon emissions. Designed as an exercise in attributing emissions to fossil fuel producers, as opposed to countries, the report offers a direct way to trace emissions to corporate power structures. However, the offenders on its list are upheld both by state subsidies upstream and distribution channels downstream. They are not lone actors, but cogs in a vast macroeconomic machine. The top offender, for instance, is the Chinese state coal industry, but its clients span across the globe. The products manufactured using energy from the coal it extracts are shipped to vendors and used by consumers worldwide. Would China burn the quantity of coal that it does were it not for the demand chains below it? The answer is complex because the system is interconnected and while the economic dynamics can be parsed in many ways, with some methods certainly better than others, consumers ultimately play a role. Most have some form of agency to weigh the external costs of commodities against one another, but their opportunities are complicated by intangible factors such as access and culture, making responsibility effectively impossible to quantify. Fundamentally, the moral liability of consumers for the conduct of corporations they finance may be more a philosophical than empirical question.
Yet would it even make a difference if we coordinated an effort to reduce consumption? Haven’t the COVID-19 lockdowns shown that changes in consumer behavior are insignificant? That assertion may be oversimplified as well. Consider that while 2020 global emissions amounted to 93 percent of those in 2019, the decrease observed over this period was 70 times the magnitude of the increase between 2018 and 2019. Plus, we must again consider more than greenhouse gas emissions alone. During the initial lockdowns, researchers around the world measured significant abatements of air, water, and even noise and light pollution—to the extent that public health experts estimate that tens of thousands of deaths were averted by mitigating pollution in addition to those that were saved from the virus.
Despite these silver linings, it should be clear that we are not going to lockdown, let alone boycott, our way out of the global ecological crisis. But what if the value of organizing collectively exceeds its immediate, quantifiable impacts? In the context of mass movements, it’s possible for boycotts to impel broader social change. In 1970, the grueling five-year Delano grape strike finally won when working people across the country joined César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, and the United Farmworkers of America in boycotting grapes to show solidarity with exploited Filipino farmworkers. A decade prior, women like Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. to lead his congregation and community in a boycott of the racially-segregated Montgomery bus system, culminating in a Supreme Court ruling within the year. The global anti-apartheid movement that brought Nelson Mandela to lead the Republic of South Africa began as a consumer boycott organized in London by exiles like Vella Pillay. Indian independence activists like Mohandas Gandhi and Sarojini Naidu stood on the shoulders of their communities, who grew their own food, harvested their own salt, and wove their own textiles in defiance of British colonial rule.
Today, boycotts are socially contentious. They invoke the agency of the consumer, who is systemically disempowered in a capitalist economy. Most of us are intrinsically averse to supporting corporations that violate our values, but we are coerced by a corrupt and consolidating market, constantly forced to compromise in the context of limited choices. Given these challenges, we generally resign to the notion that boycotts are ineffective. Even so, we don’t actually seem to find that a compelling reason to disengage from them entirely. One might passively shop Etsy instead of Amazon, ride Lyft instead of Uber, drink Dos Equis instead of Corona. It is, of course, naïve to imagine that these alternatives are infallible or that these decisions alone are an adequate solution to the underlying issues driving the monopolization of web commerce, disempowerment of gig workers, or expropriation of water resources. Yet it is the practice of this economic discipline that strengthens our solidarity with the victims of capitalist exploitation. When we suppress this solidarity, we practice a form of apathy.
At present, the growing boycott of animal commodification exerts a steady pressure on all associated industries, despite significant subsidization from national governments. Dairy, in particular, is struggling. Though sales of all milks spiked in 2020 amid coronavirus lockdowns, dairy milk sales in the United States have been steadily declining for half a century. Revenues fell $1.1 billion in 2018 and in 2019, the largest milk processor in the country filed for bankruptcy. Its CEO issued a statement, reading, “Despite our best efforts to make our business more agile and cost-efficient, we continue to be impacted by a challenging operating environment marked by continuing declines in consumer milk consumption.” While the failure of enormous, heavily-subsidized agribusinesses merits little sympathy, 2019 also saw the closure of more than 3,200 U.S. dairy farms, most of them small. This raises a complex issue for the animal rights, environmental, and food justice movements driving the boycott of dairy products. To ignore this mass loss of livelihood is to sacrifice the support of communities that depend on it.
Vegans and vegetarians cannot afford to relish the failures of small farms as karma for animal cruelty. The success of the movement in cultivating a sustainable agricultural system hinges upon its ability to demonstrate viable alternatives to commercial animal farming and build political power in agricultural communities. Visions of future food systems must articulate pathways for the reintegration of working class people who have been edged out of the agricultural economy by consolidation and automation. They must include reparations to Black farmers and First Nations. They must establish equitable models, such as co-operatives and land trusts, that can be scaled up to meet the challenge of ending hunger. They must envision a Green New Deal of careers in public service for rural folk, including not only building housing, health care, education, and clean energy infrastructure, but also reseeding endangered flora, reintroducing endemic grazers, and regenerating wildlife habitat on formerly farmed land.
There is no way to avoid it: the inevitable decline of entrenched and unsustainable industries such as fossil fuel and animal agriculture puts people’s lives in precarity. These realities must be approached with compassion, as these populations play an integral role in developing solutions, but we must also consider who is harmed when the wages of our labor underwrite these industries. In the midst of ecocidal arson to clear land for agriculture, Indigenous Amazonian peoples have called on the world to boycott products grown by destroying their forests, including soy, timber, and especially cattle—grown on both pastures in Brazil and in feedlots around the globe importing Brazilian soymeal or owned by Brazilian agribusiness. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the League of United Latin American Citizens organized a boycott against meat produced in the United States, where upwards of 280 slaughterhouse and meatpacking workers have died from COVID-19. These workers have been overwhelmingly people of color and comprise approximately 75 percent of reported COVID deaths in the U.S. food system, according to data compiled by the Food & Agriculture Reporting Network (FERN). Despite over 50,000 recorded cases in the meat sector, the majority are thought to go unreported. The industry has also played a leading role in vectoring viral spread throughout the country. Communications records show that meat industry executives ghost-wrote a federal executive order to exempt them from lockdowns, and a lawsuit filed by floor workers at one plant accused managers of placing bets on the number of them that would fall ill. Surely, if anyone recognizes the futility of appealing to consumers, it is those who are abused and exploited, displaced and disappeared to produce consumer goods. Yet they still call on us.
Those without positions of power do not bear the predominant responsibility for the state of our planet, yet we have a moral imperative to take action within our power to protect it. We cannot afford to downplay the role of the ruling class in devastating the Earth or the complicity of those in government. Yet we also cannot afford to eschew any tactic we can use to fight back, especially the collective actions we can take every day. Of course, we must vote, organize, and provide mutual aid. But we must also take every opportunity at our disposal to control the flow of our wages through the economy and support the mass boycotts against the worst polluting industries that are waging war on our world. We must divest from the multinational financial establishments that bankroll this destruction and reinvest what economic power we hold into credit unions and public institutions. We must blockade the banks, lock down the bulldozers, break into the factory farms.
For while we deliberate the nuances of consumer liability, our fellow humans are on the ground taking up this fight. They are routinely arrested and locked in cages. Often, we read their stories and express our solidarity, yet continue consuming uncritically, funding the very systems that criminalize them. Changing a routine trip to the grocer is nothing compared to the sacrifices made by those on the frontlines of historic struggles for justice, but consider that few of those struggles would have succeeded without support and participation from the masses. Boycotts are inadequate, as are electoral campaigns, litigation, and direct action—when practiced alone. But these tactics in concert can alter the course of history. Will it work? How can we know? Should we try? How can we not?