Chanted Morals or Deep-Fried Tofu?

I received this question regarding Paul Shapiro’s Introduction to The Accidental Activist:

I found a particular passage here and would like your thoughts:

“In many ways, it boils down to this question: Do we want a social club, or do we want a social movement? If we want a social movement, we need to open our arms and have a big tent.”

This is interesting. I agree with you on inclusivity, certainly. But I’m not sure why we should be a movement “that welcomes people where they are, applauds them for taking the steps they’ve taken.” While I agree gains come from compromise, I can’t think of a single successful social movement that has taken this incremental, consumer-based approach. Can you? If not, why do you believe its the best way to effect change rather than following the successful movements of the past that focused their efforts on strong messages and systematic, moral change?

There are a number of things we can learn from earlier social justice movements, as discussed in Welfare and Liberation. But it is important to understand the significant differences between our work and previous campaigns.

In the end, we all want a world where animals are not exploited, but rather respected as individuals. Animal liberation, for short. The vast, vast majority of cruelty to animals comes from animal agriculture.

From Animal Charity Evaluators.

To a first approximation, animal liberation would be achieved when everyone stops eating animals. This won’t happen through societal-level changes: no law or amendment will abolish killing animals for food as long as the majority of those in power eat animals. Therefore, animal liberation will necessarily happen individual by individual; laws will follow behavior change, rather than create it.

The question then is: What is the fastest way to get people to stop eating animals?

Lessons from the Relevant Data

Since the determining factor is individuals making different choices, the relevant information comes from psychology and sociology, rather than politics or war. Why people do or don’t make cruelty-free choices is the central question, not how slavery was ended or how women won the vote. (And the animals are in deep trouble if it is going to take a civil war for animal liberation to occur.)

If we want to bring about animal liberation, we need to look at how and why people who currently aren’t eating animals got to that place, as well as understanding why other people don’t currently make compassionate choices.

Over the past quarter century, I’ve personally interacted with thousands of vegetarians, and heard from tens of thousands of others. Very, very few went right from a standard American diet to vegan upon being told, “Go vegan!” I know a handful who went vegan overnight and maintained that change. But I know many more who instantly went vegan and are no longer even vegetarian.

This isn’t a negligible problem. Some of the failed vegans I know were close friends. One was a founding Board member of a major vegan group; he now isn’t even close to vegetarian. He was driven away because of the self-righteousness of many vegans: “I grow weary of the term ‘vegan.’ It seems to become just a label for moral superiority.”

(Unfortunately, that is not an uncommon reaction. Obviously not all vegans are self-righteous, but veganism often attracts the self-righteous. And they tend to be loud.)

On the other hand, the people who have made the biggest difference for the animals  with their choices, their example, and their advocacy  are almost all individuals who have evolved over time. If we want people to get to being vegan, and stay vegan, the lesson is clear: instead of insisting on the last step, we should celebrate every step anyone takes that helps animals.

We’re Already on the Same Page

One unique aspect of our work for animal liberation is that we actually don’t need to change people’s ethics, unlike the abolitionist or suffrage movements. The vast majority of people already oppose cruelty to animals. But we know, from everyday experience and through decades of research, that the vast majority of people simply don’t make decisions based on ethics. They make decisions based on habit, convenience, social norms. To quote Cleveland Amory, we have an infinite capacity to rationalize, especially when it comes to something we want to eat.

Luckily, there is a great deal of psychological and sociological research into people’s choices. Specifically: how and why they change habits when they do, as well as why they don’t, even when they say they want to. This research, as it applies to helping animals, is discussed in The Animal Activist’s HandbookChange of Heart, and in some of the essays in The Accidental Activist.

In short, we have four facts regarding the majority of the population (the people we need to reach):

  1. People already share our moral revulsion at cruelty to animals.
  2. People rarely act based on their ethics if it conflicts with habit and the norms of their friends and family.
  3. People who make real change and maintain that change do so incrementally.
  4. Animal liberation must necessarily be achieved from the ground up, person by person.

Given these facts, the movement for animal liberation is inherently an incremental, consumer-based campaign. And if we truly want to do our best for the animals, we must understand and work with the psychology of consumer choices.

For this reason, everyone is a potential ally. With allies, we work constructively. Together, we will continue to shift the consumer landscape such that it is easy for everyone to act on their ethics.

We know how to do this: through our person-to-person outreach, advocates drive increasing demand for cruelty-free options. This in turn improves the quality and availability of supply, which allows more people to get on board. Thus, we create the virtuous feedback loop that will bring about animal liberation.

As I’ve pointed out before, the vegan future is here, it is just unevenly distributed. Almost every vegan has heard, “If all vegan food was this good, I’d eat vegan all the time!” Or, as “a carnivore all the way” said about a vegan restaurant:

Wish they were in my neighborhood, ‘cause I’d be one happy fat vegan cat eating some deep fried tofu with their crazy good tartar sauce. Not kidding.

We will do this. Not kidding.


Ginny on Preventing Failed Vegans

Thanks to Ginny for permission to reprint this.


It’s no secret that many people give veganism a try only to quickly abandon it. But the findings from last month’s Humane Research Council survey were especially sobering.

According to their study, a cross-sectional survey of 11,400 U.S. adults, nearly three-quarters—70% to be exact—of those who have tried a vegan diet end up abandoning it. The numbers are even higher for vegetarians. Alarmingly, the survey found that there were five times more ex-vegetarians/vegans than current vegetarians/vegans.

Now this is a single study that has not yet been peer-reviewed. As such, it’s not the final word on ex-vegetarianism. Also–and I think this is important–the survey did not ask people if they had gone vegan or vegetarian for weight control. Those in pursuit of weight loss often hop from one diet to another. If we could weed out those chronic dieters, the numbers might look a little different.

But this was certainly a good study that asked a lot of crucial questions. It provides important perspective on why people abandon meatless and vegan diets.

HRC found that people who adopted their plant-based diet exclusively for health reasons and those who transitioned very quickly to vegetarianism were more likely to return to eating meat. Those who make dietary changes for their health often “start strong, and quickly fade.” In fact, more than a third of ex-vegetarians gave up pretty quickly, having tried their diet for less than 3 months.

Twenty-five percent said they weren’t sure they were getting the best nutrition and an even greater number said that their health suffered on a vegetarian or vegan diet. Many felt that their health improved after they added animal foods back to their diet. More than one-third of ex-vegetarians craved animal foods and were bored with their food choices.

Finally, people were more likely to give up on a vegetarian or vegan diet when they didn’t perceive it as part of their identity.

In short, people gave up on vegetarianism or veganism for all the reasons you would guess—inconvenience, food cravings, not feeling well, concerns about nutrition and a lack of conviction.

Fortunately, we have the tools to address a lot of these issues.

It goes without saying—and is largely what this blog is about—that we need to promote sound, evidence-based information to help people feel confident that they are meeting nutrient needs. Downplaying the need for appropriate supplements and for focused food choices doesn’t do any good for vegans or for farmed animals.

We need to help new vegans discover the foods that make meals easy, pleasurable and varied. This means that we want them to know that they can choose from a wide range of foods which includes soyfoods, veggie meats, some convenience products, vegetable oils, and a few treats now and then.

Cravings for animal foods appeared to be a problem for many ex-vegetarians and vegans. This is something that I believe is almost always about texture, flavor and familiarity rather than nutrient shortfalls. I’ve written before about the importance of adding umami to vegan menus, and I also think that veggie meats can help a lot for those who like them.

Helping people make a realistically-paced transition is key as well. (Although more than half of current vegetarians/vegans had transitioned quickly, so clearly this works just fine for many people.)

More than anything, activists need to provide sympathetic support. New vegetarians and especially vegans are bound to falter now and then as they work to bring their choices in line with their beliefs. A lot of ex-vegetarians and vegans said that they found it difficult to stay “pure.” But, lapses and mistakes don’t mean that someone has “failed” at being vegan. Most of us acknowledge that being vegan is not always a breeze and that the transition is rockier for some than others.

Some obstacles are more challenging, though. Ex-vegetarians/vegans were more likely to say that their diet made them feel conspicuous. And even 41% of current vegetarians and vegans said that they disliked that their diet makes them “stick out from the crowd.”

I think this is a big issue and not an easy one to solve. But it does tell us that vegans need to support each other and help each other and mentor each other. And, along with great food and foolproof nutrition guidelines and a realistic plan for adopting a vegan diet, maybe we can help more people stick with veganism for the long-term.

For the sake of the animals, we have to do better not just in convincing people to try veganism, but also in helping them stay vegan. I’d love to know your ideas for how we can help more people make successful and permanent transitions to a vegan diet.


VegFund is very fortunate to have Ginny on our Board!