Vegan Activism

Here's how to be a more effective vegan advocate.
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Embracing a vegan lifestyle inarguably saves animals, but the number of animals saved pales in comparison to what is achievable through activism. You can literally save hundreds or even thousands of times more animals through activism than you can through your personal food and lifestyle choices.

Please understand that I’m in no way belittling the value of becoming vegan (you’re reading this, after all, on Vegan.com!) Being vegan may be the single most rewarding lifestyle change you can possibly make, and it protects large numbers of animals over a lifetime. But if your goal is to save as many animals as possible, you simply must bring activism into the mix. Let’s crunch the numbers to see why activism is such a crucial task.

The number of lives you can save through being vegan is pretty much limited by the amount of meat, milk, and eggs that one person can eat. That obviously varies by person, but this rigorous estimate calculates that the average vegetarian saves about 25 animals per year. So let’s keep the math simple and say all vegetarians live to 100 and therefore save 2500 animals over their lifetimes.

In contrast to the 2500 animals your personal food choices can save, there’s no upper limit to the number of animals your activism can save. Every little effort you make, and every behavior change that results, makes a difference. And the numbers quickly add up. If you convince a friend to cut his meat intake in half, that’s twelve animals you’ve saved every year for the rest of your friend’s life. If you persuade someone to stop eating chicken, that’s probably going to save about twenty animals per year moving forward. And don’t forget that even tiny changes made today often lead to much bigger changes tomorrow. Oftentimes you will never find out that someone has made a significant change all because of a brief conversation you once had.

Becoming Well-Informed

Most serious activists would probably agree that the whole point of animal advocacy is to protect as many animals from as much harm as possible, with the ultimate goal of one day bringing about a world devoid of cruelty and slaughter. Change begins every time you convince someone to modify his or her existing behavior, so as to reduce or eliminate animal exploitation.

So it’s all about persuasion—specifically persuading as many people as possible to adapt more compassionate food choices. And if activism is built on persuasion, then every good activist must know what she’s talking about so that the things she says deserve attention.

Unfortunately, much of what people think they know about food and diet is flat-out wrong—and this goes for vegans as well as omnivores. Nowhere is this more true than in regard to nutrition—many vegans have drunk the Kool-Aid in terms of believing that, by not consuming animal products, they are exempt from having to pay much attention to nutrition. Every vegan activist needs to be informed about nutrition basics, and perhaps the best starting-point is the book Vegan for Life by Jack Norris and Virginia Messina. Two more excellent vegan nutrition resources are Norris’ VeganHealth.org website, and Messina’s blog.

And of course, knowing about the plight of farm animals is key to being able to speak compellingly on their behalf. Two rigorously researched books on the topic are Eating Animals by Foer and my own Meat Market: Animals, Ethics, and Money.

Climate change is likewise a powerful reason to move towards a plant-centered diet. In fact, former Vice President Al Gore went vegan largely because of the evidence that raising livestock is strongly linked to greenhouse gas production. Climate change affects us all, but factory farms are also devastating to the communities in which they’re located, particularly in regard to groundwater pollution and airborne ammonia emissions. David Kirby’s Animal Factory is a meticulously researched exposé on that topic.

Assessing Your Strengths

If you want to do animal protection work, a great way to start is to take a personal inventory of your skills. We are all great at something. And whatever our talents, you can usually find an opportunity to plug a hole in the movement and make a unique contribution.

Why not take 30 minutes to reflect on and write down all the things you’re good at, or could be good at if given time? Some of these things may be what you studied in school, while others may be inborn qualities. Maybe you’re just by nature a super-well organized person, or perhaps you’re a social butterfly who is great at making people feel liked and included. Talents like those—however intangible they may seem—can always be put to great use!

Once you’ve written your main abilities, you’ll be much better equipped to decide how to get involved in animal advocacy.

Speaking Up for Animals

The greatest mistake made by new activists is that they often use a one-size-fits-all approach—they urge veganism and nothing less than veganism upon anyone who will listen.

You can certainly accomplish much for animals by sticking exclusively to vegan rhetoric, but you’ll likely have a far greater impact if your dialogs open up a broader set of possibilities. You’ll discover over time that most people are currently unwilling to consider an overnight switch to a vegan diet—but they often are willing to consider making smaller steps. Beyond asking people to go vegan today, and to stay vegan for life, there are any number of things you can potentially ask for:

With all these possibilities, how on earth are you supposed to choose what to suggest? That’s easy: you listen. Many activists—particularly those just starting out—haven’t yet cultivated the habit of listening. And that’s what all truly effective activists have in common: each and every one is a great listener.

When you talk about food politics to people, they’ll usually make clear the things they care about and the things they don’t. Your job as an activist is to identify what matters to your listener, find common ground, and build a bridge. Sometimes this is easy work and sometimes it’s more challenging. You will frequently encounter omnivores who expresses profound concern for animals, and great misgivings about the morality of using them for food. For these sorts of people, it’s sensible to talk about how easy it is to transition to a part-time or full-time vegan lifestyle. It may be wise to lend these people some of your favorite vegan guides or cookbooks. The more you can get them express their feelings and concerns—particularly about the perceived difficulty of a vegan diet—the more helpful the advice you can offer.

Much of the time, however, your listener will be a poor candidate for a vegan diet. It’s disappointing, but, while most people do care about animal slaughter and suffering, they often don’t care a heck of a lot. But maybe your listener does care about the very worst injustices meted out to animals, such as battery cages and gestation crates. Or perhaps your listener cares immensely about climate change. Or maybe it’s a desire to become more fit, overcome type-2 diabetes, or just drop that stubborn last five pounds. Whatever the case, the more you’ve read up on every topic related to veganism—particularly the things that don’t necessarily interest you—the more likely you’ll be able to communicate ideas that inspire meaningful behavior change.

Probably the single most valuable thing to keep in mind for effective advocacy is to never present veganism as an all-or-nothing choice, because when you frame things in this way the vast majority of people will choose to take no action whatsoever. Instead, consider it your job to constantly offer encouragement to people to take another step away from animal products. Jonathan Safran Foer talks about the importance of helping people take the first step rather than the last step. Foer’s advice meshes nicely with the “foot in the door” technique, which is perhaps the single most effective technique an animal advocate can use. The foot in the door technique is based on a wealth of sociological research that has found that if you can get someone to take even a tiny step in the direction you advocate, that person will be much more receptive to taking far bigger steps in the future. Going cage-free today may lead to going egg-free tomorrow. Or committing to Meatless Mondays today might ultimately lead to full-time vegetarianism. With examples like this in mind, the importance of inspiring even tiny changes of behavior cannot be overstated.

The best activists never lose touch with reality. It’s going to take much, much longer than we would like to gain a vegan world. But the way there is to relentlessly encourage people to take the next step they’re ready to take. Don’t scorn people for where they are imperfect—celebrate the good things they’re already doing and encourage them to take another step.

Social Media

One thing to never lose sight of is that while you have great control over the number of people you reach, you have zero control over who exactly responds to your work. Many activists get wrapped up in the idea of their parents going vegan. And while that’s certainly exciting news when it happens, the fact is that older people tend to be much less receptive to changing their diets. In particular, they have a tendency to resist taking food advice from someone whose diapers they’ve changed. Stories certainly abound of activists convincing their parents to go vegan, but it’s worth bearing in mind that most of the top activists and writers in the vegan movement have failed to inspire their parents to become vegan.

The same goes for specific family members, friends, and, sadly, significant others.  Try to keep in mind that who you convince to go vegan is something you’ve got no control over, and it’s far less important than the number of people you inspire to make changes. In the end, activism is a numbers game. And there’s no better tool for an average person to reach large numbers of people than through effective use of social media. You could almost say that services like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram were designed for vegan advocacy.

The key to making the greatest possible difference is to use these services to leverage your social capital. People are presumably following you because they like you, so find ways to let the positive image they hold of you become associated with compassionate eating. There’s no single right way of doing this but let me offer advice that works well for most people. You never want to pester people with constant requests because that will burn off goodwill. Instead, you want to use these social media websites as they’re intended: to make interesting posts about a variety of topics. Your animal rights or vegan posts should be rare but carefully chosen.

Whatever you do, avoid becoming “that vegan” who posts eight different graphic photos of animal cruelty every single day to Facebook. Nobody wants to see that sort of barrage of horror in their newsfeed, and it’s a sure way to have most of your friends block you. Instead, use social media platforms the way they’re intended: give people inspiring glimpses into your life and the things you care about, and then on rare occasions drop in a carefully-chosen vegan item with a well thought-out and tangible request. The exception to this advice involves photo sites like Instagram or Snapchat. If all you want to do is post a torrent of photos capturing vegan deliciousness in all its forms, have at it.

Local Activism

Activism is like life: if you don’t ask you don’t get. This applies to in-person conversations with friends and family. It applies to social media. And it especially applies to the activism you do in your community. Of all the forms of animal advocacy, local activism may be the most important and it’s certainly the area that is most neglected.

One person can literally transform the vegan-friendliness of an entire town or city. I’m not saying you can turn Oklahoma City into Portland, but you can certainly transform a place with pathetic vegan options into one that’s pretty good, or you could transform a city that’s already pretty good into one that’s outstanding. All it takes is systematically approaching every restaurant or coffeehouse in town, and asking for an improvement that would be easy to make. Sometimes that means adding something new to the menu, while other times it may involve asking for a prominent menu item be reformulated to be vegan-friendly. For instance, your local Thai restaurant might make fresh curry pastes for their red, green, and yellow curries, with each paste containing a tiny amount of ground up shrimp. If you could get them to reformulate their red curry paste to be without shrimp, the restaurant would instantly turn into a great option for vegans.

Just as one-on-one advocacy often involves identifying a small and easy step, and offering suitable encouragement, the same goes for working with local businesses and other institutions. Almost every little thing you can think of is potentially a big deal, whether it’s persuading your local coffeeshop to offer soy creamer, or convincing your local bagel shop to offer vegan cream cheese. The “foot in the door” concept we reviewed earlier for one-on-one activism works equally well for businesses. Restaurant owners obsess over Yelp reviews, so praising the best vegan options at local restaurants or noting room for improvement is a terrific way to inspire change.

One of the easiest and most exciting local activism opportunities is to use the Meetup.com platform to start a monthly vegan dine out or “vegan drinks” event. There are over a hundred different vegan groups in the North America that use Meetup.com to organize these sorts of events. Vegan meetups in restaurants pay off in at least two ways. First, they are great for participants—building a sense of community while inspiring people to make greater commitments toward compassionate eating or vegan advocacy. Second, the money spent during these gatherings offers an important cash infusion to vegan-friendly restaurants, while demonstrating to non-vegan restaurants a demand for vegan items.

If you want to do campaign-oriented activism on a state or city level, the Humane Society of the United States is a great resource. Start by visiting their Farm Animal Protection Campaign to familiarize yourself with their current initiatives. Then visit this page to find and contact your state’s director, to express your interest in volunteering.

Leafletting

If you want to save large numbers of animals by volunteering just a little time, leafletting local colleges is a great way to go. It takes no special skill. All you’ve got to do is visit any college, and hand out booklets between class changes. Vegan Outreach pioneered this approach through their “Adopt-A-College” program, which has so far distributed more than 15 million booklets on college campuses throughout the United States.

I have personally handed out a couple thousand pamphlets for Vegan Outreach, so I have a pretty good idea of the impact a little leafletting can have. On a busy campus, it’s easy to pass out 100 or 150 pamphlets in an hour. Over that time, I will invariably see a half dozen students who have just received a pamphlet sit down nearby, spend twenty minutes, and read the entire pamphlet cover-to-cover. I’m sure that at least a few more of these pamphlets get read by people when they’re out of my sight (just as I’m sure the majority of pamphlets get thrown away unread or only glanced at), but even if we say that only six students read the booklets cover-to-cover, this strikes me as a great use of time and money. If even three of those six people make make substantial dietary change, you’re looking at a cumulative lifetime impact of several thousand animals being kept from slaughter. All this for perhaps $20 worth of pamphlets and an hour of your time. I think the scenario I’ve outlined here is extremely conservative, and underestimates the likely impact of an hour’s leafletting.

Recommended Reading

Just as spending a few hours reading a beginner’s chess book will improve your game immensely, reading a book or two on activism is mandatory for every vegan advocate who wants to make a big difference.

Start with Uncaged, which is a collection of essays by top activists—this short eBook will give you a good foundation about the varieties of approaches that effective activists can take. Then move onto either Striking at the Roots or The Animal Activist’s Handbook, which goes into a lot more detail about the nuts and bolts of serious animal advocacy. I consider Nick Cooney’s Change of Heart to be a graduate level text for people who’ve already mastered the basics, and who want to explore the finer points of being effective.

Once you have mastered the basics of activism, the techniques behind NVC (Non-Violent Communication) can take your effectiveness to the next level. This field was pioneered by Marshall Rosenberg, and his newly-revised book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life remains the classic text in its field. NVC teaches you how to avoid saying things that trigger defensive reaction, and how to keep from needlessly personalizing issues. The payoff for reading this book can extend well beyond activism, and can improve your relationships, career, and friendships as well.

The more good you do for animals, the more criticism you’ll likely receive from vegans who think we can accomplish everything overnight. So it’s a good idea to read an essay like the late Norm Phelps’ “One Track Activism,” and you’ll also probably find my essay, “Animal Rights & Animal Welfare—an Introduction” to be worth your time.

Activism, particularly being exposed to a barrage of disturbing images and information, carries some emotional costs and hazards. I have therefore written a free short eBook titled, Self-Care for Activists, which is available on Kindle, iBooks, Nook, and Google Play. I hope you’ll check it out. Hillary Rettig’s The Lifelong Activist is another book that offers advice on how to avoid the emotional pitfalls that accompany long-term animal advocacy.

After reading texts like these you’ll be much better equipped to do great work on behalf of animals.

Animal Millionaires

Animal advocacy is like any other skill: the more you practice, the better you’ll become. If I could reduce animal advocacy to two principles, I’d say it all boils down to this:

  1. Constantly work to find common ground and win people over. Strive to achieve friendly victories in private, and only resort to public campaigns as a last resort.
  2. Always think in the largest possible terms, and choose your requests and campaigns according to what is likely to protect the greatest number of animals.

In a world of more than 50 billion farm animals going to slaughter each year, we need as many activists as possible to have the courage to think as big as possible. Conversely, in a world with 50 billion animals going to slaughter, even a relatively tiny victory can result in huge numbers of animals saved. If you can move the needle just a little, the number of animals you protect will be enormous.

Now that you understand the sort of impact you could potentially have, please check out my article on animal millionaires. The idea here is that just as you become a millionaire when you accumulate a million dollars, you could consider yourself an animal millionaire once your efforts have kept a million animals from slaughter. Don’t let the ambitiousness of this goal scare you off. There are many, many activists who have saved upwards of a million farm animals from the ordeal of factory farms and slaughterhouses. Given that the average American eats more than 2000 land animals during his or her life, that means you can become an animal millionaire by influencing the food choices of about 500 people.

Factory farming is an enormous and imposing castle built on the shakiest of foundations. It is going to collapse in our lifetimes, and you have a key contribution to make.