Is vegan activism too aggressive?

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Is vegan activism too aggressive?

Is it a bad idea to challenge people with the idea of animal suffering and slaughter? Vegans Chris Saltmarsh and Hannah Short discuss.

Chris Saltmarsh is a climate and social justice campaigner. He manages Fossil Free campaigns at People & Planet and writes about climate politics and social movements.

Hannah Short lives in London and works for SOAS Students’ Union. She is interested in most things about the environment, and spends her time campaigning, cycling, and trying to make the best of things.


Illustrations — Kate Copeland

CHRIS - YES: If we want to change our food system, we must talk to governments and corporations.

HANNAH - NO: Watching videos about animal slaughterhouses may be shocking, but this is nothing compared to the experience of factory-farmed animals.

CHRIS: We can show people videos of animal slaughter or we can go into steakhouses shouting ‘there’s no excuse for animal abuse’. But the reason for vegan activism is to persuade people to become vegan. Or at least eat less meat.

The idea of persuading people to be vegan and making a new market is not a good idea. Veganism is a new market for corporations to use for profit, but it is no substitute for the big profits of animal agriculture. With capitalism, more vegan choices will never mean no meat.

Stopping the use of animals for food needs big changes in the global economic and agricultural systems to work for humans and animals, not profit. These big changes need mass political movements. But the actions of vegan activists make it less likely for there to be mass movements. The activists see veganism as a moral red-line because of ecological breakdown and/or animals’ right to life. This turns away so many people with deep cultural commitments to eating meat. Capitalism makes it impossible to live and consume with morality.

HANNAH: Activism always challenges the situation as it is. Capitalism shows us images all the time that make eating animals seem normal. This does not show the terrible conditions of the 56 billion animals killed per year for food. And this helps an industry that causes over 15 per cent of global greenhouse-gas emissions and many environmental problems. And it is also bad for the mental and physical health of factory-farm workers. And it is for food we don’t really need.

As with successful social movements in history, we need many different kinds of activity to change the way people feel about eating and using animals and to change the laws. To protest we can, for example, talk about Veganuary, show slaughterhouse videos in public places, give out flyers, and make sure people hear all these messages.

No doubt a result of vegan activism is that a third of Britons say they have stopped eating meat or eat less meat, and so we are ready for a meat tax. This change in public ideas is essential for a bigger political movement and a food system which is environmentally sustainable and gives fair treatment to animals.

CHRIS: It is right that successful social movements challenge the situation as it is. But to try to change people’s eating habits is not the best way. If we want to change our food system, we must talk to governments and corporations. And a meat tax punishes the poor and not the rich.

HANNAH: I don’t see a way to this animal-friendly socialist perfect world. There is no clear connection between socialism and valuing animals. Vegan activism is still necessary to change minds or people and corporations will still exploit animals. And governments and corporations directly stopping all animal agriculture when most people do not agree is like dictatorship.

While we still have capitalism, consumer choices are part of the power we have. I agree there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, all consumption is not therefore equally unethical. Eating animals directly creates demand for their slaughter. Because people have changed their diets, they are eating 400 million fewer animals each year in the US. Things are different now with less profits from ivory, opium, etc because of moral changes.

Chris, you appear to believe that encouragement to go vegan is not a good idea. You also say that in future we’ll have a vegan society that ‘works for humans and animals. Which do you believe?

CHRIS: The question is not whether we should have vegan activism or whether changing people’s minds is a good idea. Both are essential to the mass movement which I think is necessary. The changes to global food systems that the movement should ask for are very possible. With political support we could quickly change agriculture to renewable power, use traditional ecological ideas, and put the nutritional needs of people first.

Popular power is not in our wallets or in our shopping trolleys. Not while corporations decide what we want to buy and what they supply through advertising and creating new markets.

The route to the future is for ordinary people in different places to work together to demand governments take action or taking power and building the future themselves.

HANNAH: I don’t think global socialism is coming soon and I don’t think vegan activism is stopping global socialism.

But what we can do is to eat less meat year by year through better consumer choices and vegan activism. Changes like this are happening and this tells us that the vegan movement is doing something right.

Which brings us to the original question.

Watching videos about animal slaughterhouse may be shoking but this is nothing compared to the experience of factory-farmed animals or slaughterhouse workers or people displaced by climate change. Everything we do helps to change people’s minds – persuading people and showing the truth about what they are paying for.

One thing is certain, animal agriculture takes up 83 per cent of farmland but only produces 18 per cent of calories. A better food system must mean we produce and eat less meat. And vegan activism is leading that change.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)