The Future of Vegan Advocacy
All activists have limited time, energy, and resources. Given the unfathomable vastness of the suffering in the world, we have to maximize the possible payoff for our efforts. We cant be satisfied with just working harder at what has been done before; we have to work smarter.
Before Vegan Outreach, I pursued whatever issue arose: fur, product testing, animal experimentation, rodeos, circuses, zoos, etc. Eventually, I realized that focusing on veganism would do the most good with my limited abilities and resources. Not only do 99%+ of animals killed in the US each year die in order to be eaten, but the annual increase in the number of birds and mammals is approximately ten times the total number killed for fur, in shelters, and in laboratories combined.
Advocacy on behalf of these billions of animals is different than campaigning against other types of exploitation. Instead of focusing on a company or the fur-wearing minority, every single individual in society is our target audience. Ending the atrocities of factory farms and industrial slaughterhouses requires people to change a fundamental aspect of their life, alter life-long habits, go against tradition, set themselves apart from friends and family, sacrifice convenience, etc.
Dedicating yourself to vegan advocacy is a difficult decision. The animals killed for food are hidden away; eating animals is pervasive and widely accepted; the inertia of habit and peer pressure is overwhelming. Furthermore, there are no visible victories to inspire or provide energizing feedback the lives changed are unseen and unknown. Yet I believe if we are concerned with maximizing the impact of our efforts, we must make hard choices.
However difficult our path, we must remember that we are the lucky ones. We are not standing day after day in a tiny space, breathing the stench of our own waste, waiting only to be slaughtered.
Choosing how best to advocate for veganism is difficult to determine. There are many variables: your target audience, how many people can be reached with a particular tactic, whether you will be able to provide easy follow-up, the amount of effort required, what else you could do with the time and resources, your personal strengths, etc.
Despite societys general understanding of vegetarianism and even animal rights (at least as sound bites), the average number of animals eaten per person in the US continues to increase each year. We should recognize that, for the vast majority of people, a placard or single graphic image wont be able to overcome the pressures of habit, family and friends, convenience, etc.
Vegan Outreach believes that the basis for vegan advocacy at this time is the distribution of honest, comprehensive, and compelling literature. Activists around the country have barely tapped the ready audience of people who will take copies from displays at libraries, health-food stores, restaurants, etc. It can be assumed that at least one person will read each copy picked up from displays, yet only a small fraction of possible locations around the country are regularly stocked with Why Vegan and Vegetarian Living.
Other ways exist for reaching interested people, including tabling and leafleting at concerts, outside conventions, and at dismissal times at high schools. College campuses, where Vegan Outreach has its roots, are nearly bottomless sources of outreach opportunities. If a student group is active, tables with videos are also good ways to catch attention. Some colleges allow outsiders to table in a prime location for $25-50. But you dont need an official invitation, a TV, or even a table. For example, nearly every week for a number of years, Joe Espinosa and / or Marsha Forsman have distributed hundreds of copies of Why Vegan at campuses around the Chicago area. I was recently asked to lead an Environmental Ethics class at a local college because the teacher saw me leafleting.
There are two other notable outreach techniques of which Im aware. The first is the use of mobile video units to capture peoples attention and show the cruelty of factory farms in a more powerful format than still pictures. Big TVs in vans (Faunavisions, first popularized by Eddie Lama) and smaller mobile units (faunettes) have provided vegan advocates with a powerful new tool that will allow for a greater voice to a broader audience.
Related to this are feed-ins, where activists distribute free vegan burgers or chicken nuggets, in addition to showing video footage and providing information. Feed-ins can address both the taste and convenience concerns that the public has regarding vegetarianism.
Just as is the case with leafleting and displays of literature, these means of outreach displays, tables, leafleting, multi-media presentations, and feed-ins could be used much more than they are currently, and could reach a very significant portion of the U.S. population.
An example of how young, grassroots activists and groups can lead the way to new advocacy methods are open rescues, performed first in this country by Compassionate Action for Animals. In 2001, Compassion over Killing performed an open rescue, documenting cruelty, rescuing animals, providing video and pictures (some used in Why Vegan), and receiving good press. Nathan Runkle of Mercy For Animals followed with an open rescue in Ohio, which also achieved widespread notice and success.
Potential Pitfalls: An Example
Instead of spending our limited time on constructive and creative outreach, many people, myself included, have spent a great deal of time criticizing some of Petas campaigns. What I failed to consider was how many people contact Peta for more information because of these campaigns. A more appropriate yardstick for judgment may be how many people move further towards vegetarianism, vs. how many would have otherwise considered vegetarianism but who will forever be indifferent to animal cruelty because of Petas actions. By this yardstick, I think that many of Petas controversial campaigns are ultimately progressive.
Regardless, it is probably best to spend our time developing advocacy appropriate to our situation, instead of critiquing others. It is entirely possible that there are more great ideas out there, waiting to be discovered. We should always be evaluating our efforts and trying to consider new angles. Again: we need to work smarter, not harder.
Reason for Hope?
Finally, we should ask ourselves: Is there any reason for optimism?
Each individual in a factory farm, living in filth, waiting to be slaughtered, is a tragedy. That hundreds of billions have lived and died in these conditions is a blight upon humanity. A compassionate person, I believe, would want to do anything to end this as quickly as possible. The fact that the number of animals suffering has been increasing in recent years can lead one to doubt that there is any hope for the future.
Despite the fact that there have been vegetarian advocates since the ancient Greeks, it could be argued that an actual movement dedicated to the promotion of vegetarianism as a means of animal liberation has been in existence for only about twenty years, compared to tens of thousands of years of animal exploitation, millions of years of organized hunting for meat, and tens of millions of years of primate evolution.
Indeed, the case could be made that there isnt an organized national vegetarian movement, but rather a collection of support-communities, relatively minor campaigns at the periphery of major animal rights organizations, and dedicated local activists. Relatively speaking, very little time and resources have yet been dedicated to promoting veganism, compared either to any other social movement or to the tradition and inertia being faced.
Anyone interested in creating a fundamental change for the future is advised to take the long view at least longer than the next school year, or even decade. While it is frustrating how slow (or even negative) progress has been during the career of activists, change in the past century has been shocking and unprecedented. As Bruce Friedrich points out:
- 1633: Galileo tried for crime of heresy for proposing earth is not center of physical universe.
- 1900: no country allowed all adult citizens to vote; now, more than 150 do.
- 1900: no one in the U.S. had ever been prosecuted for child abuse (your kid; your concern).
- 1865: 13th amendment (blink of an eye ago)
- 1920: 19th amendment (spirited debate: will the Union dissolve?).
RememberPlato was writing 2500 years ago. Jesus' ministry began 2000 years ago. Shakespeare was writing almost 500 years ago. (See the book Riot and Remembrance, and the Economists Technology and the Poor, Dec. 8, 2001 more examples of how far weve come in less than a century.)
Of particular note is the long historical trend toward more efficient economic markets. The combination of this with technology has been very bad for the animals to date, with the efficiencies of factory enclosures and industrial slaughterhouses replacing family farms. Yet it is inherently inefficient to feed grain to animals so as to eat the animals, especially with an increasing human population. Combine the demand for efficiency with technologys advance, and it is unlikely that the agriculture of the future will even remotely resemble that of todays.
Indeed, looking only at the world a mere 100 years ago, when even the richest person was worse off than nearly everyone in the U.S. today by many measures (infant mortality, life expectancy, likelihood of disease, etc.), shows the folly of trying to predict the world in another hundred years, let alone a millennia from now!
Along with M.L.K.s dictum The arc of history is long, but bends toward justice, the acceleration of change in human civilization makes it seem that there is reason for a great deal of optimism. We have the great and singular opportunity to make the Economists prediction come true: Historically, man has expanded the reach of his ethical calculations, as ignorance and want have receded, first beyond family and tribe, later beyond religion, race, and nation. To bring other species more fully into the range of these decisions may seem unthinkable to moderate opinion now. One day, decades or centuries hence, it may seem no more than civilized behavior requires.