Genesis Butler has quickly become one of the world’s best-known animal rights activists — and she’s only 17. She’s leading a global movement of young people fighting factory farming’s impacts on animals and the climate.
Butler’s story began, like it did for many animal advocates, when she was a small child: She stopped eating animals when she was 3, after finding out where her then-favorite food — chicken nuggets — came from. By 6, she’d converted her family to veganism. She has activism in her family — she’s the great-grandniece of famed labor organizer César Chávez — and her mother helped her find ways to become involved in the animal rights movement. She began protesting corporations that exploit animals for profit, like Ringling Brothers Circus (which has since announced it’ll stop using animals in shows) and SeaWorld. At 10, she started attending vigils at a now-shuttered pig slaughterhouse in southern California: a form of activism in which animal advocates bear witness to animals arriving on transport trucks at meatpacking plants (often giving them water, because animals endure long journeys to slaughter without food or water).
“It’s one of the last moments that pigs have with humans,” Butler told me about the vigils. “So at least they’ll have an interaction with humans that care for them.”
As public concern over climate change surged over the last several years, Butler saw an opportunity to connect it with animal advocacy. When she was 10, she gave a popular TED Talk on animal agriculture’s outsize contribution to global carbon emissions. She worked on increasingly high-profile actions: In 2019, she asked Pope Francis to go vegan for Lent, generating widespread media coverage that drew attention to the meat industry’s role in climate change.
Climate had become a hugely important youth movement, with iconic activists like Greta Thunberg leading millions of students to walk out of school as part of the Fridays for Future campaign. But most of that energy, Butler noticed, was focused on fossil fuels, not on animal agriculture, a leading and often underestimated driver of the climate crisis, and an immense source of suffering for billions of the planet’s creatures. Hoping to bridge that gap, Butler founded Youth Climate Save in 2020, a coalition of young people around the world working to make food systems and animal rights a part of climate reform, and learning from each other about how to talk about animal agriculture with their communities.
Today, Butler is a sought-after public speaker, with a large social media following that she’s used to change the conversation on climate change and veganism. She runs a nonprofit, Genesis for Animals, which raises money for farm sanctuaries that care for animals rescued from the meat industry — places that Butler sees as essential to the movement, and that are often chronically underfunded. She’s also worked with the California-based group Social Compassion in Legislation to help pass a law banning cosmetics tested on animals in the state, and a law requiring state health care facilities and prisons to offer plant-based food options. In the future, Butler says, she wants to deepen her legislative and lobbying work.
It’s become a cliché to say that young people will save us from the crises that they’re about to inherit. But it’s also kind of true. If the world ever becomes less unrelentingly bleak for nonhuman animals, it’ll be thanks to people like Butler, who are leading the next generation of animal activists and helping build bridges to new movements and communities.