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If only we had the numbers!
Someday we will be in the majority. Then, we can effect real change.
Whether you fight for farm animal rights, to keep plastic out of the ocean, or to ensure equal pay for equal work, this thought has probably crossed your mind.
Using the United States as one small example on the global scale, what do you think the chances are of getting at least another 165 million people to see things exactly your way? Feel free to let out a depressed sigh; I will give you the space.
In the last few years, I have become interested in how we can move society to a future where consumption of animals and their products is at least greatly reduced. It often seems an effort against all odds, considering just three percent of the United States population identifies as vegan.
However, we shouldn’t despair just yet. According to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, critical mass for social change may be a much smaller number than we think. While best known for his analysis of flaws in the global financial system, Taleb applies the same logical approach and acerbic analysis to a variety of subjects. In chapter two of Skin in the Game, he tackles the question of how small groups—religious and political minorities, historical speakers of “second string” languages, and those with dietary restrictions (who only eat halal, kosher, or non-GMO food in his examples) create an outsized impact in their societies.
So what seems to be the theoretical minimum for Taleb’s “dictatorship of the small minority” to take firm root? Something on the order of three to five percent of individuals.
I will repeat that: just three to five percent of individuals.
As Taleb describes, the secret weapon of these individuals and their cohorts is good old-fashioned stubbornness. There is a great visual and simple GMO-related scenario about a third of the way through Taleb’s article. It gives the reader a sense of the exponential effects of our stubborn individual impacts.
Here is a “veganized” version of the scenario:
A teenager respectfully but stubbornly advises his family that out of respect for animals he will only eat plants. In order to keep harmony and make life easier for all, family meals become plant-based (change from individual level to family level).
Now his family, “that weird family who only eats plants,” is off to a neighborhood picnic. To avoid any offense, the other families focus on plant-based foods for the picnic (change from family level to neighborhood level). Seeing the surge in demand for plant-based foods, the local grocer ups his orders of such products with the wholesaler, and ultimately plant-based foods come to dominate the system (change from neighborhood level to community level, and then still larger scales).
The mathematical process Taleb illustrates in his diagram is iterative re-normalization in self-similar groups. Maybe this shampoo commercial from the 1980s will help explain better than I can.
Okay, bring on the arguments.
Veganism is not a religion, so perhaps it may be taken less seriously by family and neighbors than religious interdiction of non-kosher or non-halal foods. And also, while GMO foods have mostly interchangeable non-GMO cousins, it is not quite as easy to make one-to-one substitutions of vegan foods for non-vegan ones. But, there is a profusion of incredible new plant-based products hitting the market every day. This narrows the gap and makes change easier.
The bigger the stubborn percentage, the greater the probability of traction. While the baby boomer crowd may be more entrenched in their dietary choices, the succeeding generations, particularly those younger than my Gen X cohort, are embracing plant-powered living in much higher proportions.
In addition to the vegans, a further eight percent of the population is vegetarian. They are just one taste of Milkadamia milk and Miyoko’s cheese away from converting.
There is plenty of hope for a kinder future, especially if we are willing to try a little stubbornness. That said, when our families and others get on board with the cause, the words are not “Finally” or “Damn straight!” but “Thank you.”