This guest post is by Hillary Rettig. She is author of The Lifelong Activist: How to Change the World Without Losing Your Way and other works, and a ten-year vegan and vegan activist. She is a cofounder of Vegan Kalamazoo and a member of In Defense of Animals’ Sustainable Activism Council. The views expressed here are hers alone. Visit www.lifelongactivist.com and www.hillaryrettig.com for more on Hillary and her work, and she welcomes your emails at [email protected]
In this article, Hillary examines the strategic value of approaches that call for reduction of the consumption of animal products, rather than their outright elimination, as a stepping stone on the way to abolition.
In 1806, British abolitionists faced a quandary.
For more than twenty years, they had been working to achieve a single overarching goal—to get Parliament to pass a bill outlawing the British slave trade—but had experienced defeat after defeat. Now, in the wake of several expensive and humiliating failed wars, including the U.S. Revolutionary War and Anglo-French War, as well as reports of France’s post-revolutionary Terror, the public and political mood had turned hostile. Even former supporters were now denouncing the abolitionists as “seditionists” and “Jacobins” (after the guillotine-wielding extremist French party).
The abolitionists were “deeply discouraged,” writes Adam Hochschild in Bury the Chains, his terrific history of the movement. But right at that dark moment, abolitionist and naval law expert James Stephen came up with a novel idea: instead of introducing yet another doomed-to-fail abolitionist bill to Parliament, why not instead introduce one that merely made it illegal for British subjects to invest in, insure, supply or otherwise participate in slave trading by France and its allies, including notably the United States? And that legalized the seizure of French and allied slave ships by British navy vessels and privateers?
It was a genius idea for three reasons. First, it would play to post-war nationalist sentiments. Second, naval and maritime interests would love it, since the officers and crew of ships would be entitled by law to claim a percentage of the value of any illegal ship they captured. And third: what Stephen and the abolitionists knew—but what was generally not known by the British public and politicians—was that around two-thirds of British slave ships sailed under either the French or U.S. flag. So the bill, while seeming like an innocuous piece of patriotic fluff, would actually dismantle a huge percentage of Britain’s slave trade.
Nevertheless, the other abolitionists hesitated. Along with the moral question of whether it was right to settle for a partial solution to an absolute evil, there was the strategic question of whether the bill, by eliminating competition, might actually wind up strengthening the remaining slave trade. And there was also the public relations question of whether the public might perceive the abolitionists as implicitly endorsing slavery conducted under Britain’s own flag.
Fortunately, they decided to follow Stephen’s plan. After some adroit political maneuvering – nicely dramatized in the 2006 movie Amazing Grace – the Foreign Slave Trade Act was passed. It was, from an abolitionist standpoint, an outstanding success. As anticipated, it immediately knocked out a huge part of Britain’s slave trade—and, contrary to abolitionist fears, actually destabilized the rest. And it reinvigorated support for abolition.
Small wonder that, a scant year later, the long-sought-after abolitionist bill was finally passed.
This wasn’t the only tough compromise the abolitionists made, by the way. They had made an even tougher one nearly twenty years earlier, when, at one of their very first meetings, they voted to work only on shutting down the slave trade and not on freeing Britain’s (and its colonies’) slaves. They didn’t make that decision lightly—they knew it meant leaving more than half a million people enslaved, most in horrific circumstances in the Caribbean sugar fields. But they considered that battle unwinnable at that time. (They did hope that eliminating the slave trade would lay the foundation for future emancipation—which it did!)
The U.S. abolitionists made a similar compromise when, as depicted in the movie Lincoln, they agreed to give up their insistence on including language mandating full racial equality, so as not to jeopardize passage of the the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery.
And, about a hundred years later, Martin Luther King, Jr., similarly compromised when, despite his hatred for poll taxes, he agreed to support the removal of a contentious poll tax ban from the Voting Rights Act of 1965 so as not to compromise that bill’s passage.
More recently, we’ve seen progressives settle for the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a., “Obamacare”) as a stepping stone to single-payer health insurance, and LGBT activists accepting civil unions en route to winning full marriage equality.
Every social justice movement compromises.
Now it’s the vegan and animal rights activists’ (hereafter referred to as “vegans”) turn. A group of activists have announced a new “Reducetarian” campaign designed to get people to, as the name implies, reduce their consumption of meat, dairy, eggs, fish, and other animal products (hereafter all referred to as “meat”) for reasons including animal cruelty and environmental sustainability. Although some vegans have always embraced the “reducetarian” approach–if not the actual name–the creation of a formal Reducetarian movement takes things to a new level, especially as its supporters include such non-vegan notables as legendary human rights activist Noam Chomsky, environmentalist Bill McKibben, and scientists and best-selling authors Birute Mary Galdikas, Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins. These are all people with enormous credibility and influence who, even if they don’t yet share our goal of global veganism, could do a lot to help the vegan movement.
That’s why many vegans, including myself, welcome the Reducetarian campaign. But others are like the 1806 abolitionists: deeply uncomfortable with a “partial solution” that asks people to reduce their meat consumption rather than eliminate it. These vegans typically refer to themselves as “abolitionists,” and I will use that name for them in this article, although it is important to note that the vast majority of vegans, including many pro-reducetarian vegans, share the goal of abolishing animal exploitation. While I think the abolitionists are well intentioned, I would respectfully ask them to consider these four points:
1) Compromise is Fundamental to Societal Change. As the above examples illustrate, the idea that compromise is complicity is ahistorical. It’s also illogical, since all solutions, to all problems, are partial. Plus, as Saul Alinsky wrote in Rules for Radicals, “In the world as it is, the solution of each problem inevitably creates a new one.”
Alinsky also writes: “Compromise is another word that carries shades of weakness, vacillation, betrayal of ideals, surrender of moral principles… But to the organizer, compromise is a key and beautiful word… A society devoid of compromise is totalitarian.”
So, yeah: as beef consumption declined – due to public health concerns, E. coli scares, vegan activism, and other factors – chicken consumption increased. And we’re also seeing the growth of the “humanely raised” meat industry, which (as the abolitionists fear) is almost certainly helping some consumers rationalize their meat eating. Undesirable as these developments are, why would we expect any different? Power doesn’t give up without a struggle. These developments are not signs of failure, as some of the abolitionists seem to think, but of success. We’re changing consumer behaviors, and forcing the meat industries to react.
2) Change, in Humans, is a Process. Alinsky says an activist’s primary duty is to, “see the world as it is.” Reducetarian supporter Peter Singer, in his activist primer Ethics into Action, gives similar advice: “Above all, keep in touch with reality.” Well, here’s the reality about humans: We often learn, and change, slowly. We find it difficult to break bad habits. We crave. We lapse. We’re egocentric. We are susceptible to social pressure and corporate propaganda. And we often choose short-term gratification over a greater benefit delivered over the long term.
These are just some of many behaviors that most of us wish we, and others, weren’t susceptible to. (And they all have reasonable explanations, by the way: the short-term gratification thing—which psychologists call myopic discounting—makes sense given that, for much of our species’ six-million-year history, we lived in such dangerous circumstances that if you delayed a gratification you might not live to experience it.) Is there even one abolitionist who hasn’t committed every one of these regrettable behaviors in one realm or other of her life?
Moreover, the barriers to veganism are substantial and include not just the pervasiveness of animal exploitation in our culture and economy, and the resilience of animal agriculture as a capitalist system, but the central and intimate role that food plays in our lives. A few years back when I attended foster parent training, for instance, the teachers stressed how one of the most welcoming and comforting things you could do for a new foster child was to feed him foods he was used to.
Abolitionists don’t want to hear any of that. Their mantra—“Go 100% vegan. Right now. It’s easy.”–reflects a stubborn unwillingness to accept the realities of human nature and the mechanisms of personal change. As Singer put it in his book: “Too many activists mix only with other activists and imagine that everyone else thinks as they do. They… lose their feel for what the average person in the street might think. They no longer know what is achievable and what is a fantasy that has grown out of their own intense conviction of the need for change.”
Some abolitionists, it’s true, do acknowledge the reality that many people change in stages; only they argue that vegans should never actively promote the incremental steps. However, not providing support for the most common method people will use to attain your goal is a weak strategy. Also – as I hope this article will demonstrate – it’s not difficult to both applaud someone for taking an incremental step while also helping him keep his eye on the prize.
3) Let’s Skip the Whole Pointless Discussion of People’s Motives. Yeah, research shows that ethical vegans lapse less. That’s one data point among many that are relevant to promoting veganism, and it pertains to some people and situations but not others. (For more on this, see Tobias Leenaert’s excellent talk on why “compassion costs too much” for many people.) In any case, if our goal is truly to reduce animal consumption as quickly as possible, then the solution is to create a mass market for our ideas, similar to the way Apple or Coke or Disney creates a mass market for its products. By definition, that means welcoming people with diverse motives.
Also, as Leenaert points out, ethics don’t just influence behavior, behavior can also influence ethics. We often see this when social justice-, public health-, and public safety-type laws are passed: people comply reluctantly at first, and then more willingly as their views change. Antidiscrimination laws and laws mandating seat belt use are two examples; and it’s also worth noting that the act of parenting itself is probably a universal application of this principle, since it often involves mandating behaviors with the hope that those behaviors will instill ethics.
Since behavior can influence ethics, we should be encouraging people to move toward veganism out of any and every possible motive. Which brings us to…
4) The Vegan Movement’s Immediate Goal Should Be To Create Billions of Reducetarians. A currently popular abolitionist-type graphic shows cows lined up waiting to be slaughtered, with the caption, “Baby steps are cool. We’ll just wait on this line until you embrace veganism.” The truth, however, is that reducetarianism actually offers the best hope of saving those cows. If everyone in the U.S. reduced their meat consumption by just the modest target of one meal per week—around 5%—that would save around 450 million cows and other animals each year in the U.S. alone. To achieve the same result, the abolitionists would have to convert approximately 4.5 million meat eaters to complete veganism (based on the oft-cited statistic that a vegan saves 100 animal lives/year). That number, incidentally, represents more than three times the current total of U.S. vegans.
If I were one of those poor cows, I’d totally support reducetarianism.
To get from the carnist world we’ve got now to the vegan world we want, there will have to be many intermediate steps. Our immediate goal should be to create billions of partial / lapsed / struggling / uncommitted vegans, a.k.a. reducetarians, because that will not only eliminate the most animal suffering the most quickly; it will also lay a strong foundation for future progress.
Yes, we’ll probably have to coax those reducetarians along step by step, probably rebutting loads of misinformation—not to mention, rationalizations and equivocations—along the way.
And, yes, we’ll also have to cope with ever more devious ploys from an animal agriculture industry desperate to maintain its profitability. (Beef fat-fueled airplanes, anyone?)
And, unfortunately yes, we’ll probably have to make some more difficult, and probably even tragic, compromises.
But that is the path we’re going to have to follow, because, contrary to abolitionist fantasies, there simply is no other.
To the Abolitionists: Have Faith
In their ignorance of, or disdain for, history, strategy, and psychology, abolitionists pursue ineffective strategies, the “baby step” graphic’s coercive shaming being one example. Here are two others:
*Glib Theorizing. “One of the deep flaws of [reducetarianism],” wrote one abolitionist on Facebook, “is that it approaches the problem only as if it were a question of quantity while it is a qualitative difference between not being vegan and being vegan… And nobody will have any idea of what animal rights are if animal rights activists engage in this confused talk of meat reduction as if they were not actually talking about suffering individuals.” This comment sounds compelling, and it got the most “likes” of any abolitionist comment in the discussion, but, like many abolitionist statements, it makes no sense. Is a life saved via reducetarianism “qualitatively” different than one saved by veganism?
Beyond that, the statement is factually wrong: the Reducetarian website not only explicitly discusses animal suffering, it lists it as the very first reason to reduce one’s meat consumption.
Another comment in the same thread compared the idea of meat-eating animal-rights advocates (the subject of an article by Reducetarianism campaign co-founder Brian Kateman) to “slave-holding black-rights advocates,” and concluded, “Nope, sorry.” But why would we turn away any ally to our cause, especially if their activism, aside from being useful on its own merits, could actually (as discussed above) bring them closer to becoming vegan? And when, once in a while, someone embedded in an oppressive system actually does make a valuable contribution? I’m guessing the commenter doesn’t know that British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson recruited active slave-ship doctors and crew members as informants to aid in his organizing, or that it was the slaveholder Thomas Jefferson who abolished the U.S. Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Also, where do we draw the line? If someone eats honey once in a while, does that invalidate their credentials as a vegan advocate? How about white sugar (often processed using bone char) or the beetle-derived red food dye cochineal?
Should a pescatarian be prohibited from speaking out on the plight of chickens?
*Making Things Up. One abolitionist recently claimed—again on Facebook—that increased meat prices (a goal of humane reforms) don’t reduce meat consumption: “People will buy it if they want it regardless of price. People who smoke will bitch and moan about the cost of cigarettes….Yet they still smoke.” Leaving aside this person’s trivializing of the realities of tobacco addiction, a two-minute Google search would have showed that he was wrong about both cigarettes and animal products.
Another recently wrote, “The science of habit formation speaks stronger for going vegan and getting used to it rather than keeping reducing meat.” I’m currently writing a book on weight loss and have read more than fifty books and countless articles on that subject, and I can promise you that NO reputable expert would say that. Most, in fact, would say the opposite: that trying to change everything in your diet all at once is a recipe for failure. For example, in Thin for Life, her comprehensive survey of weight loss research and strategies, author Anne Fletcher notes, “Many people…feel overwhelmed when they try to make multiple changes all at once.” For that reason, her recommended diet plan, “has you take things one food group at a time.”
And societal change also happens gradually! Citing evidence from the civil rights and gay rights struggles, Charles Duhigg, in his best-selling book The Power of Habit, says that “small wins,” as he calls them, tend to synergize and wind up having, “an influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves.”
Although abolitionists are quick to accuse others of speciesism, in my view the willingness to dismiss—especially on such flimsy grounds—tactics that demonstrably save nonhuman lives smacks of human privilege. So does their dismissal of welfarist strategies, like the elimination of battery cages and gestation crates, that have the potential to greatly reduce nonhuman suffering. “Suffering matters,” as the late animal activist Norm Phelps said.
What these examples also demonstrate is how much the abolitionists fear and distrust not just non-vegans—which, besides being unfortunate on its own merits, will make it hard for them to influence anyone—but the process of activism itself.
I urge them to be more optimistic. Dr. King’s arc of history bends towards justice not just because most people’s hearts incline toward justice, but because the fight for justice has always attracted the best—smartest, wisest, most creative, most passionate, and most persevering—people. We also have the advantage of (as Harry Potter reminded his friends during the darkest hours of their fight) “something worth fighting for.”
Moreover, we’ve inherited, from prior generations of activists, a set of best practices—including compromise, inclusiveness, and eyes-on-the-prize pragmatism–that, if followed, will guarantee a win. It won’t be a “complete” win, because that never happens. (There is still human slavery even today.) And it won’t happen as quickly as we would like—it never does. But probably, especially if we all work together, it will happen faster and more thoroughly than now seems possible.
To the Reducetarians: Go Further
At the end of his monumental history of the decline of violence in human societies, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Reducetarian campaign supporter Steven Pinker writes, “To review the history of violence is to be repeatedly astounded by the cruelty and waste of it all, and at times to be overcome with anger, disgust, and immeasurable sadness….It would be terrible enough if these ordeals befell one person, or ten, or a hundred.”
So, to Pinker and all the other Reducetarian supporters, I say the following, with the greatest possible respect:
You have done a wonderful thing by publicly advocating for people to reduce their meat consumption.
However, now that you’re on record as understanding that animal agriculture is cruel and wrong, I urge you to go vegan as quickly as you can, and to encourage other reducetarians to do the same.
Some might argue that because life itself is a series of moral compromises—we’re culpable every time we drive, fly, pay taxes that fund warmongers, or buy any non-organic or non-fair-trade item—occasional meat-eating is acceptable. But it’s likely that eating animals is by far the cruelest and most destructive behavior you directly engage in.
Besides, for every bite of meat you give up, you’ll gain something infinitely more profound and satisfying: the knowledge that you’re not just listening to your better angels, but are, once more, on the right side of history.
 Per Asher, Green et al., vegans currently represent about .5% of the U.S.’s population of 320 million, or approximately 1.6 million persons.
 http://ps.oxfordjournals.org/content/90/1/229.full. “In most cases, egg production has decreased in European countries like Germany that have enacted stricter housing standards or banned cages altogether…Egg production in Germany declined by approximately 13% from 2000 to 2007.”