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The Vegan Future

An interview by Mat Thomas with Matt Ball, Vegan Outreach’s co-founder and co-author of The Animal Activist’s Handbook.

In your essay “One Possible Future,” you placed vegan activism within “the long arc of history” that encompasses progress in all social movements especially since the Enlightenment. You also outline a scenario that provides activists with a map pointing the way to a future where veganism becomes the accepted norm instead of the exception. So, how possible do you think this proposed future is, given the state of the world and the movement?

I think it is inevitable that factory farming ends, for a number of reasons. In the long-term (100-200 years), humanity will change such that eating animals is no longer relevant – we’ll either reach the singularity (see, non-fiction, The Age of Spiritual Machines; fiction, Accelerando), or we’ll destroy ourselves (see Bill Joy).

In the medium term, eating animals is just too inefficient, especially as human population grows and developing countries consume more calories. Once there are economies of scale, Morningstar Mealstarters and Gimme Lean will be much cheaper than actual animal flesh; eventually, the technology will make in meatro cheaper, too.

As discussed in OPF, these advances will be driven in large part by demand, and veg advocacy will drive the demand, determining how soon veg meats are close to indistinguishable from and cheaper than animal flesh.

Do you feel that the movement as a whole is basically going in the right direction?

I went to my first national animal rights event in 1991, where veg advocacy was basically non-existent. In 1995, The Economist pointed out that while animal advocates in Great Britain focused on farmed animals and vegetarianism, in the US, the focus was vivisection and fur. The vegetarian movement in the U.S. was a “movement” in name only; more accurately, it was comprised of establishments set up for support / mutual praise.

Now, most animal advocates realize that about 99% of animals killed each year in the US die to be eaten. There are many groups doing great farmed animal / vegetarian advocacy, and big groups are evolving their focus (just look at the changes at HSUS and PETA).

What are some ways that we are counterproductive, and what would the result be if such actions continue in the future?

A large and growing number of advocates are focused, effective, and productive at bringing about real change in society. If I were to pick a few things I occasionally see (and I see these less and less every year, as more activists focus on efficient advocacy), they would be:

1. Some of us are sometimes more concerned with justifying our own personal veganism, rather than reducing as much suffering as possible. Since vegans are, for the most part, still a small minority and are sometimes hassled, this focus on defending one’s personal choices is understandable, but it doesn’t make for effective advocacy.

Similarly, there are vegans concerned with how much they can give up / how far from the mainstream they can get, instead of bringing the mainstream to veganism (and vice versa). However, this is much less a problem than ~15 years ago.

2. We sometimes uncritically accept and repeat claims that appear, to us, to be anti-meat (see, for example, The Health Argument, Is Vegan Outreach Pro-Egg?, Animals as the Bottom Line, and Vegan for the Health of It?), rather than focus on honest information that will have the greatest impact for the animals with the public. It can’t be stressed enough: we can’t base our advocacy on what appeals to us — rather, we have to honestly evaluate how our efforts will actually play out with the meat-eating public. The bottom line isn’t if we seem to have another argument for veganism, but rather for fewer animals to suffer.

3. Related to #2, despite the lessons of history, many of us just can’t give up on the idea that there is some perfect argument that will magically convince everyone to go vegan. We waste a great deal of our limited time and resources based on what seems like it should work, rather than what we have actually seen work. (See also: Creating Maximum Change)

4. Often, we think that we have to convince everyone to adopt our philosophy, politics, health regimen, worldview, etc., when we actually just need people to reduce their suffering footprint by eating fewer / no animals. For optimal impact, veganism can’t be presented as a part of some larger package – that makes it too easy to dismiss. The message must remain simple: buying meat, eggs, and dairy causes unnecessary suffering.

5. Some of us seem to spend more anger and energy focused on a relative handful of vegetarians who are currently consuming dairy, or the miniscule number of people who say they eat “free-range,” than on the hundreds of millions of Americans who know nothing about modern agribusiness and who have no problem gnawing on an actual chicken leg.

6. We sometimes worry too much about what other advocates say / are doing, instead of actually doing effective, focused veg advocacy.

These things matter because they are a waste of our limited time and resources, and also make it easier for the general public to ignore the realities of factory farms and industrial slaughterhouses. But as more and more people focus on effective advocacy for the animals, the distractions of others will matter less and less.

Do you think there will be more unity or more discord (or both) in the movement in coming decades?

First, let me say that the animal advocacy movement has some of the finest people in the world – intelligent, thoughtful, compassionate, dedicated individuals working selflessly and with great focus every day. As I’ve said, there is greater focus on the animals now and more effective, efficient outreach now than ever before.

However, as also indicated above, animal rights and veganism attracts some people who are very angry and unable to get past their anger. The movement also attracts many with an extremist / fanatical personality – people who obsess over purity, personal aggrandizement, intellectual and moral superiority, and / or the latest extreme health fads / scams.

Because of this, there will always be angry / fanatical people “in the movement,” and those who spend their time attacking others who don’t believe exactly the way they do. We serve the animals better if we realize this and get past it – focus on the work, not the disagreements. Agribusiness will do enough to attack us and try to discredit our efforts for the animals – we don’t have to spend our time worrying about other vegans.

I am interested in the issue of violence and terrorism used by some in the name of animal rights, and how broad, sweeping government repression efforts might affect us: like will mainstream activists be arrested under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act or some version thereof?

This is a concern, but I’m not in the best position to comment on it. My personal opinion is that we need to do our best to work as effectively as possible for the animals with our society as it is, rather than use our limited resources raging against the machine. For example, a leafleter told to leave a public campus could spend hours, days, or even months fighting that university. Or they could spend that time leafleting elsewhere. Is it “wrong” that these universities are breaking the law and violating the First Amendment? Yes, but our limited time needs to go to reducing as much suffering as possible, rather than fighting every injustice we come across.

Can you tell me more about your vision of an ideal world (say, half a century from now) in which the “tipping point” has been reached. Do you have a sense of how many vegans/activists we’d need to reach a tipping point?

It will vary by location – Berkeley vs. Omaha, for example. I don’t have a good sense of the numbers, though. Some theories indicate that change can occur suddenly and relatively unexpectedly (I’ve seen estimates of as low as 15% of the population). If I had to bet, though, I think it will be largely dependent on the replacement of older generations with newer – people who grow up with veg meats widely available and lots of vegetarians in their social circle.

What would be the cultural, economic, political, and psychological impacts of this transformation on society as a whole?

Some vegans like to think that we will bring about a major change in society, altering people and institutions at a fundamental level that will leave our country unrecognizable from what it is today. But looking at history and the nature of eating animals, I don’t think there will be huge impacts along these lines. As discussed in OPF, we will still be a capitalist, consumer society. Yes, segments of agribusiness will fight our efforts, but overall, the multinationals will see they can make money selling vegetarian products.

Society, as a whole, won’t be composed of animal advocates. In the future, everyone won’t think like many vegans do today. It will simply be that eating veg meats and in vitro meats will be the norm, because it is cheaper and in no way a sacrifice.

Will veganism be better integrated into related social justice movements?

I would love to say yes, but anyone who has looked at the past can’t, I believe, honestly believe this is sure to happen. Hundreds if not thousands of animal advocates have worked for decades and decades for this integration; I don’t know how anyone can’t realize that it has been, by any objective measure an inefficient use of our limited time and resources.

Again, we need to give up our sense of “should” (e.g., “Environmentalists SHOULD embrace veganism!”) and get on with the work we know has an impact. We’re simply not going to change the old guard that head up these organizations. Integration could occur as young vegans work their way up within these movements. This will happen as we systematically reach out to the younger generation with the animals’ plight.

Given, for instance, the devastating impacts of meat eating, why are so many environmentalists not already at least vegetarian?

See this video (not work-safe).

Do you think they’ll convert in greater numbers as the meat-based diet’s effects on global warming, resource depletion, species extinction, deforestation, etc. accelerate?

When I originally answered this question (summer, 2008), my answer was: All signs point to “No.”

It seems like there is more “vegetarianism” connected to “environmentalism” out there, but looking a little deeper, all I see are vegans pushing this argument. I don’t see any environmental group recognizing reality and calling for their members to go vegetarian (and I don’t expect to, for a variety of reasons, including financial). Vegan Outreach hardly ever receives emails or letters saying people have gone vegan for environmental reasons. No one ever comments on the environmental aspects of our booklets – the horrible cruelty is what motivates them (We cut our “three-prong” booklet Try Vegetarian because it was so clearly our least effective booklet). We’ve seen this for 15 years now.

Again, I have great sympathy for the thought process that says, “Environmentalists SHOULD embrace veganism! Look at all these statistics! Eating meat is destroying the Earth!!” But the animals can’t afford for us to base our efforts on their behalf on “should”s – we have to be ruthlessly honest about human nature and what really creates change, and work from there.

And, of course, as discussed in Animals as the Bottom Line and Vegan for the Health of It? we can’t make arguments that seem, to us, to support veganism, but will be taken by the public to support eating more chickens.

Studies show that young people represent the largest proportion of vegans & vegetarians. Therefore, will there be more vegans and vegan activists in the future?

There is no doubt in my mind.

If so, what proportion of the population?

An ever increasing one! 🙂

Of course, not all young people will (or do) maintain their vegetarianism into adult life. But as there are more vegetarians, and it is subsequently more common and convenient, a higher percentage will maintain their change.

How will today’s young vegans change the world when they come of age?

By helping to make veganism “normal,” common, and convenient.

That is, what effect will growing up vegan in a vegan-friendlier world have on their future thinking, living and forms of activism?

They will not give into peer pressure and go back to eating animals at the same rate as people who currently go veg in high school. Veganism will be more a part of who they are, rather than the manifestation of a rebellion, or a “phase.”.

What will the nature of activism be like?

I don’t know in detail; as discussed above, things have changed immensely in just 15 years. Certain people and groups have had a profound and even startling effect on activism. For example, Peter Singer, Ingrid Newkirk, Bruce Friedrich, Wayne Pacelle each altered animal advocacy in this country in profound, fundamental ways – the movement would have been very different without them. So things clearly can alter in unforeseen ways.

I can only hope that activism continues to focus more and more on the animals, rather than on veganism and vegans’ anger and superiority. As Jack Norris pointed out years ago: We want a vegan world, not a vegan club.

(See also, below, as to the necessary ultimate goal of activism.)

Will the movement be dominated by massive corporation-like advocacy/lobbying organizations that can raise billions of dollars?

There are things HSUS can do that Compassion Over Killing can’t. There are things PETA can do that Vegan Outreach can’t. But that doesn’t mean that the work of smaller groups won’t be absolutely vital – it will be, and will probably continue to provide the animals with the greatest “bang for the buck.”

What will be the role of grassroots and DIY activism?

Right now, the vast majority of people don’t know the realities of factory farms and industrial slaughterhouses. For there to be the vegan world we want, a majority (if not a vast majority) will need to know these realities – that is the simple reality. As Jack and I write here:

“We must reach and influence the people who might be willing to go vegan; reach and influence people who might be willing to go vegetarian; reach and influence the people who won’t (now) go veg, but who might stop buying meat from factory farms — and help support all of these people as they continue to evolve as consumers. Outreach efforts to all of these people are necessary if we are to help a large and diverse society evolve to a new ethical norm.”

I don’t foresee a reasonable scenario where veganism spreads in any other way. It is simply not something that will be imposed from the top down, and veganism isn’t, as Jack points out, something that spreads by itself.

Do you think the majority of animal activists will focus most of their energies on vegan/farm animal advocacy over other issues?

Yes, I think the current trend will continue, as I think the case for pursuing veg advocacy is overwhelmingly compelling (for reasons pointed out in A Meaningful Life and The Animal Activist’s Handbook ). This trend is key to a better world, where we prevent as much suffering as quickly as possible.

Given the ways that technology (computers, cell phones, digital media, etc.) has already impacted activism, what do you think the future holds? How will new and developing forms of communication and media change the way we do activism?

There will be new ways to inform people about the realities of modern agribusiness and the alternatives. There will be new ways for activists and new vegans to connect and support each other. Since grassroots education is essential, these new means of communication are going to be critical.

Also, I have one other question for you to clarify one of the points in my other email. What will the newly-created job roles of the future vegan activist be?

It will vary a lot. Look at, for example, what MFA does, COK, Vegan Outreach, PETA, and HSUS. There is a great range of things, from handing a booklet to a person, to local advertising campaigns and creating city/region guides and support systems, to ballot initiatives and legislation and corporate reforms. Right now, there is a ton of work to do just to inform new people and to take advantage of / codify advances we make with increased awareness. In the future, there will be the development and marketing of veg / in vitro meats, as well.

What do you think the movement will need then (based on our conception of the future) that we don’t have yet, or that we need more of now?

In addition to donors willing to fund the relatively slow work of grassroots education, we will quite probably need a lot more food scientists and the marketers. We will also need honest nutritionists who can help people who don’t immediately thrive on a vegan diet. It is perhaps one of the dirty secrets of the vegetarian movement that many people don’t thrive when they try a vegan diet. We regularly hear from these people; I got an email along those lines while working on this. Jack writes more about that here.

Overall, given the increased focus and the great people involved, I’m very optimistic about the future – much moreso than I was in 1991!

Vegan Outreach
P.O. Box 30865
Tucson, AZ 85751-0865

VO is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization; all donations are tax-deductible.


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