It’s the (Animal) Economy, Stupid
This past weekend I was one of the presenters at “Speaking Their Truth,” the 23rd Annual International Compassionate Living Festival. The topic was economics as it applies to animal protection campaigns, and our panel covered a range of different issues relevant to economic matters. Here is a summary of my part of the presentation, which touched on capitalism, current global trends in animal consumption, and using economic data to measure the success of programs and campaigns for animals.
Capitalism: The Dominant Paradigm
Capitalism is clearly the dominant form of economics in the world today. In the U.S., where capitalism is arguably more dominant than anywhere else, animals are reduced to the status of mere “production units” and companies are rewarded for ignoring their interests. Jennifer Fearing, Chief Economist for the Humane Society of the U.S., once wrote, “Animals on factory farms do not gain weight, lay eggs, and produce milk because they are comfortable, content, or well cared for but, rather, because they have been manipulated specifically to do these things through genetics, medications, hormones, and management techniques.”
Corporations are mandated to focus on profits – the “bottom line” – in order to maximize value for their shareholders. It’s only a fairly recent phenomenon for businesses to think about their “stakeholders,” which is a much broader group than just stockholders. And let’s be clear: corporations don’t think of animals as stakeholders. At best, businesses think about consumers who care about animals, and they act to win over those consumers with typically modest improvements in animal welfare. They also argue that keeping animals happy and healthy is vital for them to keep making a profit. Of course, most of us know this is a fallacy.
Under capitalism, the profit motive trumps ethics toward animals. And although capitalism probably isn’t going anywhere soon, there are opportunities to make corporations accountable to animals in the same way that they are becoming accountable to the environment. So called “true-cost economics” can help ensure that the price of consumer goods reflects the actual cost not only of producing those goods, but also the impact on animals and the environment. Although it may be impossible to assign dollar values to animal suffering, increasing the cost of animal-based products would be one way to reduce demand for those products.
Affluence and Animal Consumption
One of the main reasons that economics matters for animals is because a more affluent economy, all else being equal, consumes (and abuses) more animals per person. By “consumption” I don’t mean just eating animals, but consuming them in a more general sense, including any type of use of animals from farming to animal testing to decimation of wildlife. As animal advocates, we have to reconcile our desire to see people’s standards of living improve with the fact that it inevitably leads to an increase in animal consumption.
For instance, the average person in the U.S. consumes more than 15 times more meat than the average person in Ethiopia. Of course, we also euthanize more companion animals, buy more fur coats, and do more testing on animals than Ethiopia. Much of this difference can be explained by differences in economics and standard of living, and the trend is clear when looking at industrialized vs. “developing” countries throughout the world. In the short term, global animal consumption will increase as the affluence of people in developing countries increases. In the long term, the goal of animal advocates must be to slow and eventually reverse that trend.
Economics as Metrics for Evaluation
There is a wide variety of economic data that is potentially important for animal advocates to track as measures of our progress in pursuing a cruelty-free world. Shown here is a selection of different metrics that would be meaningful for animal advocates, based loosely on an article I wrote for HSUS’s State of the Animals series.
- Income and profit for companies and industries that use animals
- Financial support for anti-animal trade associations
- Trends in consumer demand and supply of animal products
- Trends in financial support and service income for animal groups
- Grantmaking for animals as a proportion of total philanthropy
Obviously there are more economic metrics that are important, but these are some of the big ones. Of course, the financial success and impact of various companies and industries can be a particularly important measure for certain evaluative purposes. In the U.S., all publicly held companies are required to file financial reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The data aren’t perfect, but they can be very helpful for measuring the impact of campaigns focused on specific companies or a set of companies representing the bulk of revenue for a specific industry. For instance, tracking revenue for the top 10 U.S. agribusiness companies would be interesting.
Although the data are harder to come by, it’s also critically important to measure consumer demand for various animal products and the impact that demand has on supply. This is the beating heart of economics and advocates owe it to themselves to understand so-called “market forces” and what they mean for animals. Some of these data, along with financial information, can be found by searching online databases. One example is the CRISP system from the National Institutes of Health, which provides data on both funding for animal research as well as the numbers of animals used for specific research protocols.
Financial support for animal protection might be a more self-evident metric for many of the people reading this. I imagine most animal advocates are keenly aware of the state of their own finances, whether for a specific campaign or an organization. But I would argue that advocates need to take a more “zoomed-out” view and look at the trends in funding for the overall movement. Whether funding is rising or falling over time is an important signal of support from the public and other areas. It is also necessary to understand the level of “working capital” available to the animal protection movement, the growth of which is essential to our long-term success.
Finally, my main point is simply that animal advocates can do a much better job of making economic arguments and metrics work for us rather than against us. But that can only happen if we accept the importance of economics and also strive to understand those forces better than we do currently.