This year, the average person will eat more animals than ever before. It is time to consider the facts in our advocacy for animals.
You might have noticed the schism between advocates for veganism and advocates for animals. There is a significant divide between those for whom veganism is the end, and those who see veganism merely as one possible tool – a means to the end of reducing animal suffering.
For the first group, news, advocacy, and messaging are judged by the criterion: “Does this support my personal vegan worldview?” For many years, that was me.
For the other group, the question is: “What do the facts tell us is the best way to actually help animals here and now?” For this group, our personal views and the reactions of vegans don’t matter. All that matters is what will reach new people, create positive change, and reduce suffering.
The Stark Facts about Suffering
After many years spent in the vegan advocacy camp, the only metric I care about now is the amount of suffering in the world. Thus, I care first and foremost about the facts. Sadly, the facts are stark:
- While beef consumption has fallen over the decades, chicken consumption has risen significantly. After a few years of decline, chicken consumption in the US is currently at an all-time high and continuing to move higher, despite all our advocacy efforts over the past four decades. The indisputable bottom line is that the average person in the US is causing more suffering than ever before.
- The vast majority of individuals (80+%) who go vegetarian or vegan go back to eating animals. They also become active examples against a compassionate diet. (“Oh, I tried to be vegetarian, but I felt unhealthy / couldn’t stand the pressure to be ‘pure’ / missed meat too much”) In part because of this, the percentage of the population that is vegetarian hasn’t really changed in the US (actually declining from 2012 to 2015, but still within the margin of error), despite all our vegan advocacy efforts to date.
If you take away only one thing from this essay, please remember this: Per-capita consumption of animals is at an all-time high, and getting higher. Even if you strongly disagree with everything below, keep in mind that after decades of effort and many hundreds of millions of dollars, animals are worse off today than ever before. Anything we do or say needs to take this into account.
The Public View of “Veganism”
On the flip side, when it comes to promoting lifestyles that reduce harm to animals, the objective facts are equally stark.
In 2015, research at the University of Arizona’s Eller School found that the general public thinks veganism is impossible and vegans are annoying (to put it mildly). This more recent survey found that vegans are viewed more negatively than atheists, immigrants, homosexuals, and asexuals. The only group viewed more negatively than vegans are drug addicts.
Even the simple act of labeling a product “vegan” can cause its sales to drop by 70%.
Of course, if all we care about is pushing our personal views – our “moral baseline” – regardless of consequences, then the public’s attitude toward veganism and vegans is irrelevant. We will continue pushing the pure vegan message, while knowing full well that the vegan “brand” is seriously damaged and that the vast majority of the populace will reject our message without consideration. We can say how wrong the public is and how unfair it is to be judged based on the actions of a few, but our complaints and protestations won’t change the facts on the ground.
I completely understand being frustrated when judged unfairly. I used to care deeply about people’s attitudes towards vegans and veganism – because I thought this attitude reflected on me!
But how vegans are perceived is no longer my concern. For me, the only thing that matters is what will actually reduce suffering.
Being Guided by the Numbers
If we can let go of our desire for personal validation (a difficult prospect for me) and “likes” on social media, we can reconsider our approach to advocacy and judge it in terms of real-world impacts for animals. We can set aside definitions and dogma and strive to reverse the trend of ever-increasing suffering. If we really want to reduce animal suffering, there are four more facts we should consider:
- The vast majority of land animals who suffer in the United States today are birds.
- It takes more than 200 chickens to provide the same number of meals as one cow.
- People don’t make optimal or “perfect” decisions. Rather, almost everyone makes choices based on what is a bit “better” or “good enough.” (This is the insight that won Herb Simon the Nobel Prize)
- Many of the most popular arguments for vegetarianism or veganism actually apply much more to avoiding red meat than to giving up bird flesh – especially environmental and health-based arguments.
This last fact has direct and profound implications for our efforts. For example, looking at the graphic below, most vegan advocates will see that a diet based on legumes and meat substitutes is best for minimizing one’s carbon footprint. But for most non-vegans who care about reducing their carbon footprint, a more obvious takeaway is simply that chicken is much much better than beef.
This is true on just about every measure, from reducing water usage to risk of heart disease. Chicken is noticeably less bad in terms of environmental impact or health consequences.
This applies even to people’s ethical considerations. Given humans’ natural affinity for fellow mammals, many people take for granted that eating chickens is morally “better.” Very few people realize just how wonderful chickens are, or that each one is still a unique individual.
Arguments meant to promote veganism – but which in fact make chicken appear preferable to red meat – have therefore played a role in causing more animals to suffer than ever before, both in absolute and per capita terms. That is the single fact we simply must recognize, accept, and address. I believe it is at best foolish, and quite probably immoral, to simply double down and continue to do the same things that have left the animals worse off than ever.
One Step’s Simple Mission
Given these facts, One Step for Animals’ mission is two-fold:
- Avoid advocacy that has any possibility of leading individuals to replace red meat with chickens.
- Promote a simple message that is accessible, sustainable, and maximally impactful on the amount of suffering in the world.
The average person in the US is responsible for the factory farming and slaughtering of more than two dozen land animals per year. If we could convince that person simply to stop eating birds, that number would fall to less than one!
Isn’t that amazing?
Beyond just numbers, though, we want our advocacy to be psychologically sound. We know a “big ask” is far less likely to lead to any change at all. (And we also know that people who go veg overnight are more likely to go back to eating animals) For the average person, simply taking a break from eating chicken is a vastly more achievable and sustainable step than trying to imagine leaping all the way to veganism.
Regardless of your ultimate goal – whether it’s a world of improved treatment for animals, or a world where all animals are granted rights – the One Step approach is for you. Our fact-based, numbers-focused, psychologically sound method for harm reduction is a powerful way to combat the worst cruelty and reduce suffering right now. It is also a realistic means of moving from our current world – where animals are worse off than ever before – to a world where animals are no longer viewed as food.
Featured image courtesy Kim Bartlett / Animal People, Inc.