Meat Consumption As A Social Phenomenon
A recent article in WIRED magazine got me thinking about the importance of social interactions when it comes to advocating meat reduction, vegetarianism, and veganism. The article focuses on increases in obesity and reductions in cigarette smoking, which I believe provide useful examples of the trajectory that meat consumption might follow. With smoking in particular, marginalization of the behavior has come quickly and abstinence from smoking has seemingly reached critical mass.
The WIRED article goes into detail about the obesity epidemic: “Weight gain had a stunning infection rate. If one person became obese, the likelihood that his friend would follow suit increased by 171%. The data exposed not only the contagious nature of obesity but the power of social networks to influence individual behavior.” For vegetarian advocates, I believe the most important lesson from this article is that our greatest power lies in leveraging social networks rather than relying on the interactions with strangers that are so common with vegetarian outreach.
More than obesity, eating meat is analogous to smoking cigarettes. Both are serious public health issues; like smoking (and obesity) meat consumption is a major contributor to obesity, diabetes, and cancer, and therefore is certainly a significant personal health issue. And just like second-hand smoke, the secondary effects of meat consumption are far from inconsequential: animal suffering; environmental devastation, increased healthcare costs, etc. While smoking is considered an ethical issue by some people, however, meat consumption has far more ethical implications given the implicit suffering of animals. But cigarette smoking has become increasingly stigmatized by society, which so far is not true of meat consumption.
Is it possible for animal advocates to be as successful with promoting meat reduction as anti-smoking advocates are with promoting smoking cessation? Probably not in the short-term, but the marginalization of smoking – especially socially – is a model that vegetarian advocates might seek to emulate in the long-term. Per the WIRED article, I believe that eventually only small clusters of people will consume “real” animal flesh that actually requires some sort of animal slaughter. With luck and persistence by animal advocates, the majority of the population will consume only vegetables and/or meat analogs.
So how do we get from the current situation, where roughly 98% of U.S. adults consume meat, to the “critical mass” where the majority of people are vegetarian or vegan? Obviously we should start by appealing to those who are closest to us; a wonderful resource is Carol Adam’s Living Among Meat Eaters. According to one reviewer, “Adams shows how using humor, being patient, and accepting the fact that general society values eating meat can deflect pointless arguing and begin to raise consciousness of others.” Personally, I have found patience to be particularly important because of my background in activism, but I’m also fortunate to have had some influence on both family and friends.
In so many ways, meat-eating is a social phenomenon. Even if you’re not comfortable being an advocate for vegetarianism or veganism, at least consider encouraging those in your social circle to reduce their meat consumption – for their personal health, for the animals, and for the environment. With good reason, your friends, family members, and colleagues will trust you more than they will ever trust someone trying to hand them a leaflet on the street.