In an earlier life, I was a Special Education teacher. I have always loved working with kids, loved their positivity, creativity, and general hilarity and I was absolutely thrilled to have a career where I felt I could have a positive impact on the world I lived in.

There was one problem: No matter how much I could do to support each of my students, no matter how much I loved them and wanted them to have futures filled with endless possibilities, the cards were, in every way imaginable, stacked against them.

The criminal level of inequity in the US education systems is well documented. It meant that no matter how much I tried to give my students the tools they needed to pave their way in front of them, what I had was always out-of-date and we always seemed to be running out of what we needed to keep moving. And, what I was given kept decreasing. The number of obstacles along their way seemed endless and many existed outside of my realm of influence — gun violence, inadequate health care, and a lack of resources were just some of the symptoms of deep, systemic levels of inequity and injustice.

The system was rigged against them and, while I worked within that system, my ability to support my students in finding the future they had a right to was greatly diminished.

And, now, after spending years researching veganism and earning a PhD looking specifically at campaigns promoting meat reduction and vegan, I return to where I started: The system is rigged.

This is not to discount any of the incredible work being done by activists, non-profits, and researchers around the world, but to recognize that if we only focus on changing individuals within a broken food system, that food system will remain broken.

Subsidies — which disproportionately support the production of animal food products — help to make sure these products are and will remain cheaper than they should be. Advertisements will continue to promote the consumption of the least healthy foods, things like fried chicken, hamburgers, cheese, and ice cream. The environment will continue to be destroyed by unsustainable farming practices. Consumption will continue to be based on a choice economy, where the best consumption means there are more and more choices and we are consuming as much as possible.

While promoting a vegan lifestyle and helping people reduce the suffering they cause animals by changing their diets and purchasing habits is an important way for us to grow support, shift cultural norms, and drive demand for vegan goods, if we focus all of our attention on the individuals, we forget about the systems in which we exist.

When thinking about individual impact, I generally encounter two types of arguments: (1) There’s no point in me changing what I do, because it won’t make a difference anyway! and (2) If we all thought that way, nothing would ever change.

There’s a bit of truth in both of these claims. Those of us living in high-income countries, those of us with the privilege of making choices about what we consume, should certainly do what we can to minimize our impact on the suffering of human and non-human animals. But, if all we ever focus on is what we and those around us are doing, we will never be able to do enough to stop the destruction of our planet and the continuing abuse of our planet’s resources and human and non-human animals.

With the impacts of climate change worsening daily and billions of land animals and trillions of aquatic animals killed each year for human consumption — not to mention all of the others going extinct and suffering due to continuing deforestation and destruction of natural habitats, I am eager to look at new and different approaches.

This isn’t to say that people shouldn’t go vegan or promote veganism. It’s, instead, to say that we need to think about what change we actually need in this world and how we can create it.

It’s as though I woke up today and smelled smoke. I went outside and found a fire, so grabbed some water and put it out. However, as the day went on, I kept finding more fires around me. I kept trying to put them out, but more and more fires kept emerging. I might talk to people around me, try to get others involved, but the fires just kept appearing. Eventually, the fires became a normal part of daily life and people just accept them. We can’t remember a time before the fires and we don’t think the fires will ever stop.

Now imagine I was able to try to understand the source of the fires: I was able to go beyond my vantage point to look at the whole planet. And there I discovered a giant, alien space ship that had malfunctioned and had been starting fires all over the Earth for decades. Now, instead of tackling individual fires, I am empowered to understand and stop them at their source.

Within any system, there are leverage points — places where our minimal resources can have the biggest impacts on the issues we are addressing. What are the points in the systems we are looking at where a change can result in maximum long term impacts for animals and the planet?

I am excited about how a systems-thinking approach can be applied to the world of animal protection. I want to know how we can identify and collaborate with unlikely allies — those fighting the spread of antibiotic resistance, those fighting against de-forestation, and all of those working on different parts of the same system — to build alliances, find common goals, and maximize our impact.

As wild as it may seem to some: How can we question what we are doing, the root of what we are doing and the assumptions underlying it, the many other factors and players influencing what we are seeking to change, to find the weaknesses in the system and have an even bigger influence?

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