Reality check: we want everyone to go vegan, but only a tiny part of the population is doing so.
It’s not helpful to complain about this situation, or call everyone who doesn’t go vegan selfish, uncaring or hypocritical.
To see what we can do that’s more productive, look at the figures below. The pie chart on the left represents the small number of people who are willing to make the relatively big effort that is implied today in going vegan. That effort is represented by the steep slope on the right.
What most vegans and animal rights activists try to do is to increase that pie slice by increasing people’s motivation so that more of them want to make (and do make) the required effort to go vegan:This, in itself, is not sufficient to get to a vegan world. I’m optimistic, and I do believe that most people, in their hearts, care about animals and don’t want to see them harmed. The thing is, they just don’t care enough to be willing to deal with too much inconvenience (or what they see as inconvenience).
So, in addition to increasing people’s motivation, we also need to… You got it: we need to work on making the slope less steep:
Making the slope less steep means that we are going to create an environment that offers so many vegan alternatives, and in which the production of animal products becomes progressively harder, that people have to make less and less effort, and thus need less and less motivation.
The gentler the slope/the more vegan-friendly the environment, the more people will go vegan.
Some will only go vegan when it’s like this:
And a few laggards will need it to be like this:
Many vegans find it sad and depressing that we need to make things so much easier before people will do what is the morally right thing to do. I can empathize with that feeling. But consider this: it’s not as if you or me went vegan thanks only and exclusively to our moral motivation. We too needed a certain availability of alternatives, without which we might not have gone vegan. You may think that you only needed to hear the right information or have the right thoughts, but that’s not true: you went vegan when you had enough motivation to climb the slope. Some people might have climbed it when it was still much steeper (let’s say in the 1970’s).
Everyone of us needs the slope to be a certain way. Very few or none of us would have been able to climb this slope
Let alone this one:
It’s all relative. Be happy you were able to go vegan when you did. But realize there were always people who did it before you. And don’t expect everyone else to go vegan today. Work on motivation AND on making things easier.
Many producers of meat alternatives dream of occupying a place among animal products in the supermarket. I mean, literally. They want to be sold where the meat products are sold, instead of in a separate vegan section. Apparently, judging by this picture, Beyond Meat managed to get this coveted position with their Beyond Burger.
Not every vegan may agree that the meat section is the best place for vegan products. Out of a personal preference, vegans may want the vegan products to have their own separate shelf, aisle or island.
I’m using the example of Beyond Meat’s product placement to illustrate the much broader idea of what I call Islands versus Infiltrators. A separate vegan section would be an example of an Island, while Beyond Meat’s burger patties in the meat section are Infiltrators. We can see many other examples – on similar and different levels – of this distinction:
vegan restaurants versus omnivore restaurants with vegan dishes
vegan shops versus general shops with vegan products
vegan cookbooks versus omnivore cookbooks with vegan recipes
vegan dating sites versus regular dating sites with the option to check “vegan”
vegan catering companies versus mixed catering companies
vegan cooking courses or a general course with vegan recipes
You can ask yourself whether you are more pro-Island or pro-Infiltration. Let’s briefly look at some general advantages and disadvantages of both phenomena.
The advantage of Islands is clear. They are cosy and convenient for vegans. If we’re on a vegan cruise, we know we’ll get good vegan food, and everyone else on the cruise is vegan or at least veg-curious. Using a vegan cookbook, we are not confronted with pictures of recipes with dead animals in them (which, obviously, are also useless to us). Eating in a vegan restaurant, we know the chefs and waiters know what vegan is, and that there is no chance of anything “wrong” ending up in our food.
But the advantages of Infiltrators are just as clear. While Islands mainly benefit the vegans, Infiltrators are important for reaching new audiences and buyers. Infiltrators get much more exposure among omnivores, many of whom will never enter a vegan restaurant or specialty shop, and will never buy a vegan cookbook. They also will not go out of their way to find and stop by the vegan section in their supermarket.
When I asked on Facebook where the Beyond Beef (and other) products should be in the supermarket, many people answered they should be in both sections. Apart from this probably being difficult to realize (as far as I know, producers pay for shelf space), we also shouldn’t underestimate the impact of us going to the meat shelf and picking out a vegan product in front of other people. The best predictor that a beggar in the street will receive a gift from a passer-by is that the person walking ahead of them dropped something in their hat. The same applies here: the more people see other people picking up the vegan products, the more they might be more inclined to take a look, buy and taste them.
Maybe you’ve experienced how often omnivores seem to think that just because something is vegan, it is not for them (kind of like how ordinary vegans might be deterred from choosing a dish labeled “suitable for diabetics”). The problem today is still that vegan stuff is seen as stuff for vegans. So often, media articles, reviewing a new vegan restaurant, product or service, write something like: “Now, vegans can…” or “Now, there is x for vegans!”, as if it’s only vegans who can profit from it. We need to get rid of the idea that vegan is just for vegans. Infiltrators help counter this idea; Islands are often likely to confirm it.
If you are thinking of setting up some service or selling a product, you can consider whether you want to launch an Island or an Infiltrator. Chances are that as a vegan, you will feel much more comfortable with Island products and services, but the question is whether that is the most impactful.
But also as a consumer, you may consider what you want to spend most of your money on: the vegan restaurant or the vegan dish in the omnivore restaurant, for instance. Again, eating at the vegan restaurant is more convenient. But ordering the vegan dish in the omnivore restaurant signals that there is a demand, offers opportunities for conversation, for critiquing the dish so that the chef can improve it, etc. You also help keep the dish on the menu, increasing the chances that more people will be exposed to it.
That is, of course, not to say we should stop visiting vegan restaurants or other vegan businesses. On the contrary, they deserve our support. Moreover, Islands may have a symbolic function. They say, “Look, we can do it without animal products and still be viable”. They also may have media value: they may be covered by journalists, because they are new and exciting.
At least for the time being, we’ll have both Islands and Infiltrators. You choose where your money goes. I hope to have given you some arguments to use to think about your options more thoroughly.
One of the default figures by which the animal rights/vegan movement wants to measure its success, is the number of vegans. But is this the most important metric? I think there are other indicators telling us much more about how far we have advanced than the number of vegans. The latter remains very small, so much so that it is actually hard to measure without a significant margin of error. Reducers, on the other hand, show up big on the radar when we are polling the population, and they might be much more significant. But how do reducers compare to vegans in terms of impact?
More specifically, I’d like to ask the following concrete question: are two semi-vegans just as good as one vegan? (I’m obviously talking in terms of their short or long term impact on sparing animals). In case you think there is no such thing as a semi vegan, or a 70% or whatever vegan, read this article.
If we understand a 50%-vegan to be a person who chooses vegan alternatives only half of the time compared to a vegan, then it seems that two of these 50%-vegans would have the same impact as a vegan as far as their consumption goes. But there may be some additional, complicating, arguments to make.
One thing to consider would be these people’s “value” in influencing others (see The fetish of being vegan for the argument that communication is potentially much more important than your own consumption). At first sight, the vegan might be much more motivated to go out and win hearts and minds – and she will almost certainly be more vocal about it. She might feel the holy fire burning inside her and become a very committed activist. When we look at our movement, at the people making things happen, it seems that most of them are obviously vegans.
But let’s think this over. The vegan may spend more time on outreach than the two semi-vegans, but will she necessarily be more successful? Maybe people get more inspired by reducers than by vegans, to start reducing themselves (of course, for those among us who don’t believe reducers are a good thing, this is not an argument). The mere fact of being vegan may have a deterring effect on others – as for many people it seems such a difficult thing – which being a reducer may not have.
Another important idea to take into consideration may be what I call the spread-factor. The one vegan’s impact and efforts, both in terms of consumption and activism, will be more concentrated (as she is but one person) than the impact and efforts of the two semi-vegans (and certainly than five 20%-vegans). I’m not a mathematician and I haven’t thought this through in depth, but maybe the higher this spread-factor, the more people – (both consumers as well as suppliers) will get in contact with some kind of vegan demand.
You could also wonder if the same volume of demand coming from multiple persons might not have a bigger effect than when coming from one person. Imagine you are a restaurant owner. Who would be most likely to influence you to change your menu: one vegan or two semi-vegans? You might think that the semi-vegans could eat everything in the restaurant, but they wouldn’t come there for their vegan meals, so you lose two customers. Two customers (or say the five 20%-vegans) might be more worth making an effort for than one vegan, who you might just ignore.
This may seem like a bit of an academic and abstract discussion, but my purpose here, as often, is to make our movement see the value and importance of meat reducers, and to avoid focusing on vegans alone. As I have written in several posts on this blog, I believe many reducers will create a tipping point in society faster than a small percentage of vegans can (see What vegan can learn from glutenfree). It’s the many reducers that drive the demand, forcing suppliers to respond with more and more good vegan options, and thus making it easier for all of us to go full-time vegan. In addition, for those who are afraid these reducers don’t have the by-us-much-desired ethical motivation: their moral development may very well come after their behavior change.
This is, of course, not to say that increasing the number of vegans is not necessary or important. I think vegans are much more prone to commit to serious activism, spend money on vegan causes, make vegan documentaries, open vegan restaurants, etc. But I suggest a two-pronged approach: increase both the number of vegans and the number of reducers.
Do you have other arguments for why we might value one vegan more, less, or the same as two semi-vegans? Let me know.
Suppose every vegan made one vegan in five years, and those new vegans did the same thing in five years, we’d have a vegan world in no time.
Ever heard that argument? It’s one of those things that sounds good at first sight, but gets problematic once you spend some time thinking about it.
Somtimes this argument is used to argue for the position that we don’t need any big animal rights organizations, or laws, or big companies… but that we can realize all the change that we want by just having vegans talk to other people about animal rights and moral obligations.
But if it would be that simple, why don’t we have a vegan world yet?
Some would answer this question by saying that, quite simply, it’s never been tried. They would tell us that we have never, consistently and as a movement, given omnivores the straight vegan truth and the go vegan message. In this sense, veganism, for some, is like communism: it’s never been tried hard enough.
Of course that’s not true. Surely, for as long as there have been vegans, many or most of them (at least the “ethical vegans”) have been trying to convince other people to join team vegan. And at times they were probably successful.
But still, no vegan world. Why not?
Let’s dial the numbers a bit. Let’s start with an extremely low present number of vegans: one. Yes, one vegan. Imagine that there was just one vegan, but that this vegan would make one new vegan in one year, and that each of those would do the same in one year. The whole world – the whole WORLD! – would be vegan in… 38 years.
With exponential functions, everything goes very fast. But that doesn’t mean much. Multiplying ourselves is not as simple as it looks. If it were, there would have been many sects who would have conquered the entire world by now. But the fact is we haven’t been all convinced to become Jehovah’s witnesses or Scientologists.
Maybe we think for veganism it’s different because our argument makes more sense, and potentially more people would buy it than they would buy some dogmatic religious idea? Maybe, some day. For now it didn’t work yet. For now there’s many more people buying weird religious ideas, for instance, than our rational vegan ideas.
One problem of course, is that not all of us are expert communicators and that the way we talk about veganism is not always attractive (in the worst case we turn more people off than we attract). Another point is that vegans seem to fall off the wagon almost faster than we can “make” them. For every vegan there’s three or four times as many ex-vegans. One step forward, two (or three, or four) steps back, it seems?
The point I mostly want to make here though, is that a one-on-one approach, based on moral arguments, is never going to cut it. It’s not that we haven’t been trying it. It’s that it’s not enough, and not even the most important thing we can do.
So the “imagine if every vegan makes one more vegan…” argument is not an argument that would justify only focusing on one-to-one outreach and grassroots activism, as some would have it. We need much more than that. We need lobbying and product development. We need laws. We need supermarkets and restaurant chains to work with us. We need the power of big groups. We need to fundraise a lot of money. We need to be present in the education system. We need influencers in all domains of society, from celebrities to business leaders to politicians, who can help many more people change their behavior and their minds. And above all, we need to think about strategy and psychology, so that our one on one advocacy can be effective.
I think within our movement we so often forget we’re all working for the same things. There may be minor differences in the envisaged outcome, but basically the animal rights/vegan movement wants a world where animals are not being used or killed by humans.
The differences are about how to get to that situation. Having a clear and concrete objective doesn’t imply we also know how to make it a reality. On the contrary, sometimes having a clear objective can be misleading, in the sense that it makes us think the way to get there should just be based on our aim. If we want x, we ask for x. But that’s not necessarily the best, the easiest, the fastest way to arrive somewhere.
In the movie Lincoln, there’s a discussion between Abraham Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens about how to pass the amendment for the abolition of slavery. Stevens talks about our “inner compass”, which should point North (showing where to go, what is right, etc), but in many people doesn’t. Lincoln’s reply goes like this:
“A compass, I learnt when I was surveying, it’ll… it’ll point you true North from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps and desert and chasm that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp… What’s the use of knowing True North?”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 cigarettesandanimal 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.”
This is our challenge: we need to get all remaining non vegans (red) – about 99% of the population – to go vegan (green).
One way to do this is by trying to convince them one by one. It has been and will be a very slow process.
The one-by-one approach should be combined with a reducetarian approach: we can ask people to reduce. Many more people will respond positively to this ask.
A combination of a small amount of vegans, together with a much bigger, critical mass of enough meat reducers, will tip the system much faster. Demand drives supply, society becomes much more accomodating, norms change, going vegan becomes a lot easier.
This is a somewhat longer article that gives a summary of the strategy you can also find in this talk. It first appeared in French here.
How to veganize the world
Let’s assume that if you’re reading this, you agree that, apart from all kinds of other changes, your ideal world is a world where animals are not used for human purposes, be it food, clothing, research, entertainment, or whatever. A vegan world, in short.
Can we ever achieve a vegan world? Right now, it doesn’t look too good. To use Melanie Joy’s so called “three N’s of justification”, meat is natural, normal and necessary. And to add two more N’s: it’s nice (tasty) and it’s not the first and only thing we worry about. Also, demand for meat, dairy and eggs is expected to grow a lot in the coming decades, because of the increasing purchasing power of people in upcoming economies, like China and India, which together represent one third of the global population.
Still, I’m optimistic. I think a vegan world is an obtainable goal (although it of course depends on what we consider to be a vegan world exactly, but let’s not have that discussion). The question then is: how do we reach that goal?
The most obvious idea, and the strategy that gets the most emphasis from both individual vegan/animal rights activists as well as from most organisations is simple: try to convince as many people as possible to go vegan, by explaining them that animals suffer or deserve respect and even rights. This is an important part of the strategy, but it is definitely not the only required part and it is maybe not even the most important part. I believe the social struggle for animal rights is the biggest and most challenging struggle of them all. To win it, we’ll need different tactics. But first, let’s see why this struggle is so difficult and different.
The struggle for animal rights is different
We love to compare the movement for animal rights with several human rights causes, such as the anti-slavery movement, the fight for women’s liberation, anti-racism, and so on, but it is important to note that, while there certainly are similarities, there are also big differences. The first among them is that in our case, the beings campaigning are not the same as the victims. We, their supporters, speak for beings who can’t speak for themselves. And we are still quite a small group. The public support for our cause is by far not as big as it was or is for let’s say the struggle for black people or women’s rights, exactly because in those cases respectively people of color and women were and are to at least a significant extent part of the protest. In the words of author Norman Phelps “we are attempting to be the first social justice movement in history to succeed without the organized, conscious participation of the victims.”
Take into account also the incredible degree to which our society is dependent on animal products. Most people, especially in the western world, have animal products at every meal. That’s three times a day, every day. Huge economies depend on the consumption of animal products, including also big parts of the clothing, research and some entertainment industries. We are invested in the (ab)use of animals to a degree that we probably have never been invested in the “use” of for instance black people, women or children. This obviously makes the whole system suffer from a very high degree of inertia. It’s good to take that into account.
Another reason for inertia is this: the main behavior (in terms of volume) that we are trying to change is eating behavior. Our food habits are sort of ingrained in us, maybe more so than anything else. What we eat is tied to emotional and psychological factors. We can be addicted to food, and some researchers believe that some food products or ingredients may have a level of addictiveness comparable to hard drugs. When it’s about food, we don’t think with our mind but with our taste buds or our stomach. Meat eating has been part of our history for hundreds of thousands of years. Many people experience some part of primary craving for it.
Conversely, what makes our challenge even bigger is that our opponents have it quite easy: their message (that eating animals is ok, normal, healthy…) is one that the large majority of the public wants to hear. It’s a message that the industry throws out their with billions of advertising money.
The above factors (as well as others) should be taken into account when strategizing about our movement and how to get to a vegan world. This is not to say that no comparisons are valid and that there are no similarities, but it means that we shouldn’t be too quick to draw conclusions based on what happened in other movements. We are largely in uncharted territory.
Moral and non-moral factors
When we look at the factors that can influence individuals (and society as a whole) to go vegan or progress towards veganism, we can make the following distinction: there are moral factors and non-moral factors. Concern for animal pain and suffering is the main moral factor or argument that we use. We hope that by considering the plight of the animals that they eat, people may change their behaviour. Non-moral factors are factors that can motivate or help people to eat or go vegan as well, but which have in and of themselves nothing to do with morality. For instance the environment in which individuals find their food and eat can be conducive to them eating vegan or not. A wonderful selection of great tasting meat and dairy alternatives could convince people to choose them without any thoughts of the animals being involved. Concern about one’s health is also a non moral factor (though I would never call it selfish or egotistical, as some people do).
We think moral factors work best
In our movement, we focus mostly on the moral factors. We spend a lot of time telling people that animals are sentient beings, that they have a right to life etc, saying that that is reason enough for them to change their eating habits.
Why do we focus on these moral factors? In part, because we think this focus is the most effective thing we can do. And we think they are effective because they are what convinced most of us who are vegetarian or vegan at this point. That we were moved by those factors, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that others will be too. Indeed, if it worked for everyone in the same way, we should have a lot more vegans already, obviously. You could see the present day vegetarians and vegans (a couple of percentages of the population) as the innovators and early adopters on the “diffusion of innovation” model. The rest of the population – the so called early and late majorities, and obviously the laggards) might very well need different ways to be convinced – because they are different people, with different interests – than us. Briefly put, when we advocate, we should always keep the following in mind: that you are not your audience.
The right thing for the right reasons?
Not only do we believe that these moral factors work well, we also want them to work well and we want people to be convinced by these moral factors and nothing else. We want people to be vegan for the right reasons, which is to say: because they care about animals. I guess this is because we believe that only people really caring about animals provides real and lasting protection for them. We have doubts that a vegan world will ever come about as a result of a lot of health or foodie vegans, and for good reason. There may be other reasons too, more personal ones, but I’m not going to start psychoanalyzing.
So because 1. we think a focus on moral arguments works and 2. because we want people to do the right thing for the right (moral) reason, our movement has very explicitly focused on it for the past few decades.
The problem with moral campaigning however, is that it’s not enough. One thing we can learn from other movements, and in particular from the anti-slavery movement (and here is a parallel with other movements which I think we can draw), is that the good fights are not won (if they are ever won) with moral arguments alone. In the case of slavery in North America, not only was it ended by an actual war, but also other things were really important, like the invention of the steam engine which could automate certain tasks and could make them cheaper than working with slaves.
Morality alone won’t do it
In the case of the animal rights movement, these non-moral factors are arguably even more important. If you would draw the case for the moral arguments to its logical extreme, you would argue that we have a duty always and everywhere to avoid animal products (let’s restrict ourselves to diet here), even in the case of us having only water and bread as our only meal for the rest of our lives. Now, that may morally make sense, and many present day vegans would not turn their back from veganism even if all they could eat was water and bread. However, we can easily imagine that every advance in alternative products (both in quality as well as quantity or availability) makes it a lot easier to further evolve on the scale towards veganism. To put it another way: as the offer of alternatives for animal products improves and increases, the required moral motivation or concern shrinks. This is a good thing, because we don’t have people’s motivation directly under our control, nor do we control their compassion or discipline to change.
Behaviour change may precede attitude change
For those of us who want people to go vegan for the right reasons and actually care about animals, there is good news though: attitude change can follow behaviour change. Let me explain. In our movement, as in most social movements, we usually work like this: we want to change people’s attitudes or beliefs about something, and hope that these changed attitudes will make them change their behaviour. In our case: we try to change their attitudes about animals by informing them about how animals are sentient beings who can suffer, deserve rights and respect, etc. We hope they understand this and then take the next step, which is to stop eating animal products. This works sometimes, but probably not often enough. Not only are we unable to make many people care (we don’t have much control over their caring), but some (maybe many) of the people who actually do care, will not change their behaviour (this is called the attitude-behaviour gap). Indeed we may assume that deep down, most people do care about what happens to animals in e.g. factory farms. Most people, however, are not vegan. They are not putting that caring into practise. The reasons for this are many, but one of the main ones is undoubtedly that it’s generally not convenient enough to do so.
When people’s behaviour changes first though (i.e. without their beliefs having changed), this behaviour change can influence their beliefs. You may notice the parallel with what I wrote about before: moral reasons and non-moral reasons. People can change what they eat for non-moral reasons: they may be in an environment where there’s great vegan food, they may be eating it because someone else prepares it for them daily. In the future there may be vegan alternatives just about everywhere. In some situations vegan food could be the default option and people may choose this option without thinking.
Now what happens is that once they experience that vegan food is good to eat, is doable, affordable, etc, they get more open to the animal rights arguments because they are no longer afraid of losing something. They know and have experienced already that there are great alternatives for animal products, so they don’t fear missing out. This time they are less prone to avoid reading an article on animal suffering or avert their eyes when they see coverage of factory farms on TV. They are less likely to dismiss it.
Let me illustrate how behaviour influences beliefs with a concrete example. Imagine a bullfighter and a slaughterhouse worker. These two people basically do the same thing: they kill cows. Now if you would ask non-vegans who of the two persons they feel most angry with, the answer will be: the bullfighter. Why is that? In part it is because many people see bullfighting as senseless violence while they see slaughtering an animal for meat as a necessary thing to do. Food is in their eyes less trivial than entertainment. I think, however, that this is not the main factor at play here. I think the main difference is this: most people are not involved or invested in bullfighting (they don’t attend bullfights or don’t watch them on TV), but are invested in the slaughtering of animals because they eat meat. Behaviour influences beliefs. It is much harder to judge or condemn something you do yourself. It is easy for most people to condemn fur because they are not wearing fur.
Another way behaviour change comes before concern for animals is of course when people go vegetarian or vegan for health reasons. Research shows that in a significant part of the cases people who go veg for health reasons develop (just in the way I described above) a concern for animal suffering, and often ethical vegans started out as health vegans. I think the concern of some vegans that health is not a good motivator or argument to talk about veganism because it is less “sticky” (i.e health vegetarians or vegans will be more prone to give it up) doesn’t hold much water, because without the health argument we might have had way less vegetarians or vegans in the first place, and secondly many people, as I stated, evolve in their motivations over time. This objection is mainly a reflection of us wanting people to do things for the right reasons. (On the other hand, health benefits of veganism shouldn’t be exaggerated, and potential nutritional pitfalls should be explained).
The importance of incrementalism
As you may be able to see, what I described above is not about making people vegan directly. By experiencing vegan meals and products, people slowly change their behaviours and beliefs, and many will eventually arrive at being full fledged vegans because they care about animals. However, this is not to say that all the people who reduce their meat consumption are of no value in and of themselves. On the contrary. I believe the fastest way to a vegan world is to emphasize the reduction of animal products (in tandem with a “go vegan” message that is carefully targetted at some audiences and in some circumstances). People will be a lot more inclined to actually do something when you ask them to take a step they can imagine really taking. For most people, the question to go vegan will be a non-starter. That doesn’t mean there should be no outreach material or groups or individuals that are using the “go vegan” message. It just means that there should also be a message out there to reduce (and maybe this message should be more prominent than the go vegan message). The important thing here is that a big group of meat reducers is the fastest way to increase demand, and thus supply. The more meat reducers there are, the more veg products will appear everywhere, and the more easy it will become to to go totally vegan. It is crucial to bear in mind that many of us may be vegan thanks to the fact that it is now a lot easier than before, and that it is a lot easier thanks to… the big group of meat reducers asking for veg products (rather than the still tiny amount of vegans).
To put all this together: apart from the “go vegan for the animals” approach, there should also be an approach that focuses on behaviour change first. This behavior change can be for whatever reasons (health; the availability of great alternatives…), and to whatever degree (meat reduction, vegetarianism, Meatless Mondays…). Just like people can evolve in terms of their motivations, they evolve in terms of their frequency of meat consumption. A big group of meat reducers will increase the supply, making it easier for everyone to go vegan. When vegan products and meals become even more available, and certainly when they come closer to being the default option, spreading the animal rights message will be much easier, as by then both individuals and society as a whole will be less dependent on animal products. This also means that at this point in time, it is extremely important to focus on creating amazing alternatives for animal products, both in supermarkets and in restaurants.
This is a greatly updated version of my presentation Making Compassion Easier: a strategy for achieving vegan critical mass. I gave it at the International Animal Rights Conference in Luxemburg, sept. 2015.
Keywords of this strategy are moral vs nonmoral, pragmatism, incrementalism, meat reduction.
Your comments are welcome. I’m continuously updating my thoughts, so this strategy is entirely a work in progress.
Reading Facebook comments about Beyonce’s announcement about her food choices made me think that a big part of our movement has lost it. I read hundreds of vegans complaining about Beyonce and criticizing her. This great videoblog by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, in which she refutes the criticsm, makes you see the craziness with which some of us approach all things (non) vegan all the more clearly. I urge you to watch it. It’s a breath of fresh air.
I think some of us have stopped thinking. Having an ideology, even if it’s a nice one, can be damaging for one’s ability to think. Veganism seems pretty clear cut in many ways. It seems straightforward, there’s few real counterarguments one might bring in against it, it seems consistent, etcetera. So we’re tempted to think the thinking is done. That it has been done for us, already decades ago.
Maybe that’s the case. Maybe we have some sort of complete and clear definition of what is and what is not vegan, what is and what is not a vegan, etcetera (even though I doubt it). But surely, we are not done thinking about the best way to bring veganism to the masses. The way we define veganism and the way we try to mainstream it are intertwined. We need to think about both. We need, above all, to be strategic and not dogmatic about being vegan and about communicating about veganism.