Please Stop Abusing the Poor Little Numbers

I’m not trying to pick on pattrice, I promise. In fact, I thought her keynote was thoughtful and thought-provoking, and that means I actually have something to say about it.

During her keynote, pattrice stated that meat consumption is at an all time high. I can’t argue with the raw numbers. More animals are being killed for food now than ever in the past. But I’m getting a little tired of hearing this fact quoted without any context.

First, I think it’s important to realize that meat consumption has been going up for a long time. I don’t have any facts to point to (I’m lazy), but it’s reasonable to assume that meat consumption started increasing long before there was an animal rights movement. In fact, increases in meat consumption probably date back to the beginning of agriculture, when people were able to raise animals, rather than having to hunt them.

The beginning of the modern animal rights movement is generally placed some time in the 1970s. Many people say it began with the publication of Animal Liberation in 1975. The fact that meat consumption has increased since the movement began is part of a longer historical trend of more people having more money, and also the increased industrialization of meat production. So meat has gotten cheaper, and more people have more money to buy it.

Additionally, since the animal rights movement began, the worldwide human population has increased dramatically. In the US alone, our population went from 200 million in 1970 to 300 million in 2007.

We can measure the success of the animal rights movement in part by measuring the increase in meat consumption against the increase in the human population. If we really wanted to get fancy, we’d also measure it against the percentage of people living in poverty (more richer people means more meat).

Ultimately, I don’t know if we’re winning. I do think pattrice (and many others) are using the wrong metrics, and statements based on said metrics are useless at best, and harmful at worst.

If anyone out there is doing any solid work on understanding trends in meat consumption as part of larger population and wealth trends, I’d love to know about it.