The Social Psychology of Veganism – Free-riding

When people support the need for social change but abstain from helping or participating to avoid the perceived costs and risks involved, this is known as free-riding. As rational actors, non-participants suppose that they will eventually reap the benefits achieved by others who participate and incur those costs and risks without having to contribute themselves.

The civil rights movement exemplifies this conundrum. Images of protesters being sprayed with high powered water hoses and attacked by police dogs permeated the news. This certainly discouraged a number of would-be participants from signing up. Likewise, those who come out in support of gay rights face discrimination, and some have even lost their jobs as a result (Taylor and Raeburn 1995). Participation can be scary, and it is easy to rationalize that it would be safer to stay at home and let others do the dirty work.

When protest can be so dangerous, how do movements motivate participation?

The problem for movements is that, if everyone free-rides, the common good cannot be achieved. If many participate, on the other hand, the costs and risks are more widely distributed and social change is more easily achieved. There are several ways that free-riding can be overcome, but I will specifically mention three: appealing to altruistic norms, making individual participation visible, and building a group identity.

Appealing to Altruism

As was discussed in earlier essays, there are several social norms that facilitate pro-social behavior. The norm of reciprocity suggests that individuals can be expected to return favors (so activists giving small gifts might expect recipients to be more easily persuaded). However, the norm of social responsibility finds that people will often help with no expectation of return at all. Clear appeals to would-be free-riders may help overcome the desire to stay back.

Highlighting Individual Participation

Recognizing each contributor is also vital. When individuals are made accountable for their contributions, they are more likely to continue participating. When people are made to feel invisible or are unwelcomed, it isn’t likely that they will be sticking around. Voting is a great example of how this can go wrong. The rational actor recognizes that their individual vote is not likely to sway the outcome of the election, and therefore may feel little incentive to go out of their way to participate. Political campaigns try to remedy this with personalized appeals through post and text.

Social movements have historically overcome this problem with good communication and the deployment of smaller groups. In the 21st century, however, most social movements have adopted a larger, more bureaucratic organizational structure to maximize resource mobilization. This model reduces opportunities for individual-level communication and makes it difficult for participants to feel as though their contributions are noticed and meaningful.

Donating $20 to PETA for an annual membership seems like a drop in a large, anonymous bucket, but donating an hour of time with a grassroots organization has a more tangible impact. The communication, feedback, and community experienced at the grassroots level are far more motivating than generic donation requests and online petitions.

Nurturing Group Identity

Likewise, group identity can be a powerful motivator (Armstrong 2002). Identity creates a sense of belonging and a sense of responsibility to the group. Indeed, researchers have pointed to group identity as essential for sustaining veganism in a world that is otherwise hostile to the practice (Cherry 2006). For movements, there is an imperative to overcome individualistic approaches to social change, as isolation and alienation discourage participation.

Read more about free-riding in the context of Nonhuman Animal rights here.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Foster networks and communities
  • Emphasize why individual contributions matter
  • Acknowledge individual contributions
  • Reduce unnecessary costs, risks, or dangers associated with participation
  • Emphasize rewards to participation

References

Armstrong, E. 2002. Forging Gay Identities: Organizing in San Francisco, 1950-1994. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Cherry, E. 2006. “Veganism as a Cultural Movement: A Relational Approach.” Social Movement Studies 5 (2): 155-170.

Taylor, V. and N. Raeburn. 1995. “Identity Politics as High-Risk Activism: Career Consequences for Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Sociologists.” Social Problems 42 (2): 252-273.

 

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Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.


This essay was originally published with The Examiner in 2012.

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New Package, Same Old Problem: Animal Crackers and Veganism

In a 2016 blog post, I tackled the cheeky but oft-espressed question as to whether or not animal crackers are vegan.  Technically, the ingredients are vegan, but what do these cookies symbolically represent in a society that is deeply speciesist?

In 2018, Nabisco revamped their packaging design to remove the old circus car cages at the bequest of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Although this marketing tactic suggests a greater respect for Nonhuman Animal autonomy than the old packaging which had featured them as inmates, there are a number of fundamental issues that remain unaddressed.

Are Animal Crackers Vegan?

Animal crackers (comprised primarily of wheat flour, sugar, salt, and leavening agents) usually do not contain actual animal ingredients. They are designed for a long shelf-life, and, since animal corpses and fluids are quick to putrify, plant-based cookies preserve better.

Common cookie additives like milk derivatives and eggs add nothing to the flavor but are used instead for binding purposes. These additives are utilized instead of plant-based binders due to their availability; meat and dairy industries sustain themselves and remain profitable through the repurposing of waste products like whey and gelatin. Animal byproducts glut the market and are simply cheaper ingredients for cookie manufacturers.

Although Nabisco’s animal crackers are technically vegan, they certainly capitalize on this glut of cheap animal ingredients for a large variety of other products. Nabisco animal crackers may be vegan, but Nabisco itself is not.

What Do Animal Crackers Mean Symbolically?

Ingredients are only part of the story. When it comes to food, processes of intentional invisibility serve the cultural reproduction of speciesism. Vegan sociologists note that processing, packaging, and labeling are applied to effectively remove any reference to the nonhuman persons killed to provide animal products for human consumption. Furthermore, ag-gag laws in many states in tandem with the 2006 Animal Enterprise Terrorist Act now make it exceedingly difficult for the public to access information about the exploitation and killing of animals. This manufactured and institutionalized invisibility is unique to the animal sector of the food industry.

In the case of animal crackers, however, Nonhuman Animals are intentionally visible. Animal crackers are, as a result, functional in their ability to socialize children with ideologies of human dominance. The consumption of animal crackers reiterates to children their privileged access to the natural world and any subordinates who live within it. By being able to “collect” animals, pick them up, handle them, and eventually eat them, notions of human supremacy are underscored.

Wait, What about Gingerbread Men?

Of course, bakeries manufacture human-shaped cookies, too, but these products usually take on generic forms. If they were designed to specifically resemble persons of African descent and were marketed to white children, for instance, the symbolic inequality manifest in the product and its consumption would be evident. In a white supremacist society within which people of African descent are systematically underemployed, victimized, and incarcerated, it would be morally problematic to objectify and infantilize this marginalized group even further by turning them into cookies for white kids.

The cultural context of animal crackers must be considered. Animal crackers are marked to human children in an anthropocentric society that engages in widescale, systematic violence against animals. As such, animal crackers are symbolically potent.

Is Nabisco’s New Packaging Vegan?

In the new Nabisco packaging, the depicted Nonhuman Animals are no longer categorically separated, stacked, and placed on display for the human gaze. They are now grouped together in solidarity moving toward the viewer with a commanding presence.

Nabisco’s decision reflects a larger trend in American industry. Companies that rely on all sorts of horrible animal exploitations have taken a cue from the Nonhuman Animal rights movement and increasingly frame their exploitation as “happy.” So, while animal crackers still symbolically represent human control over other animals, human consumers can avoid any feelings of guilt and are less likely to question their entitlement since the animals appear to be consenting, happy, and free. This same framing is engaged by zoos, circuses, and meat, dairy, and egg enterprises that oppress actual Nonhuman Animals.

Dropping the imagery of the circus indicates cultural progress since Nabisco’s classic cookies have played a part in the romanticization of an inherently inhumane industry. Yet, Nabisco’s focus on freeliving species in the context of the circus imagery it employed for decades could actually aggravate symbolic inequality. There is an element of thrill associated with the control of persons who are culturally understood to be uncontrollable. It is entirely possible that children will experience even greater feelings of supremacy and entitlement through repeated consumption of Nabisco’s now wild but capturable animal crackers.

 


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Readers can learn more about the sociology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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Are Vegans too Open to Free-Riders?

In an interview with The Atlantic, I present the compelling findings from my publication, “Free-Riders in the Nonprofit Industrial Complex: The Problem of Flexitarianism.” In a meta-analysis of over 40 peer-reviewed journal articles on vegan motivation and consumer persuasion, I find that the pragmatic “reducitarian” approach to veganism and animal liberation that is promoted by nonprofits in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement lacks empirical support.

The Atlantic also interviewed Gene Baur of Farm Sanctuary to gauge the nonprofit perspective on the utility of flexitarian campaigning. Baur insists that incrementalism works, yet, typical of animal charities, offers no compelling evidence to support such a claim. Given the overall increase in “meat” consumption and persistent stagnancy in vegan numbers, his claim is especially suspect. Indeed, Baur points to the 2008 dip in “meat” consumption as an example of successful incrementalism, making the unscientific leap that this temporary decline was due to a Farm Sanctuary campaign and not the historic economic recession. “Meat” consumption in 2018, incidentally, hit a record high in 2018.

Other vegan activists interviewed in the article insist that flexitarianism remains an important tool for reaching a public uninterested in animal liberation who may be swayed instead by appeals to health and environmental sustainability. However, as I emphasize in my research, this “common sense” perspective lacks evidence. Most vegans go vegan out of altruistic concern for other animals, not health or environmental concerns. And more importantly, for those who are not interested in veganism at all, the research indicates that flexitarians, in general, do not substantially cut back on their consumption of animal products. Some even consume more animal products than someone who does not identify as a flexitarian.

In other words, folks are being encouraged by the Nonhuman Animal rights movement (Farm Sanctuary included) to adopt the flexitarian identity, even though this approach has not been proven to convert new vegans or significantly reduce consumption of animal products.

I emphasize that this free-riding (adopting the prosocial identity without changing behavior) is intentionally cultivated by movement elites such as Baur. This is because disinvested pseudo-members provide an illusion of mass support without charities having to share movement power democratically. Why do nonprofits do this? They are beholden to the state and elite-run foundations, both of which have a vested interest in the maintenance of speciesism.

 

Read my interview with The Atlantic here.
Read the original article, “Free-Riders in the Nonprofit Industrial Complex,” here.
Read a summary of the article here.


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Can Flexitarianism Facilitate a Vegan World? Research Suggests Another Agenda

Can flexitarianism build a vegan world? In a meta-analysis of dozens of articles on vegan motivation, flexitarian dietary patterns, and consumer psychology, I conclude that the ideology of semi-vegetarianism promoted by the vegan/Nonhuman Animal rights movement is not supported by evidence.

Research does not support that flexitarianism facilitates meaningful change, but it does support a conservative movement culture that is conducive to industry, state, and elite interests. Activists frequently default to “common sense” mantras of “pragmatism” promoted by movement elites when deliberating strategy, but movement success will ultimately rely on objective analysis of social change processes independent of bureaucratic, institutional, ideological, or celebrity hearsay.

Research supports that most people who go vegan and stay vegan do so out of concern for Nonhuman Animals. Nonprofits, however, often focus on the health benefits of veganism. This is not supported by the research as a major motivator for behavior change. Nonprofits focus on health because it is less political and threatening than the idea of animal liberation.

Nonprofits mask this rationale by claiming that folks operate on self-interest and are more likely to be swayed by appeals to their own health. Research does not support this. Humans are more likely to be motivated by compassion and altruism when it comes to relations with other animals. Therefore, by promoting veganism as a moral obligation, nonprofits would be far more likely to affect change.

The Free-Rider Problem

In my body of research, I have suggested that nonprofits intentionally engage strategic blunders because nonprofit goals are generally distinct from radical social change goals. Could the vegan/Nonhuman Animal rights movement also be intentionally alienating the public from veganism even though veganism is an unavoidable necessity to end speciesism? I think so.

Historically, social movements have had to grapple with the problem of motivating people to participate. This is a problem because, theoretically, a rationally acting individual is more likely to want to sit on the sidelines and let someone else do the risky and costly work of activism. Activism can entail social stigma, risk of arrest, and career damage. It could even simply turn off folks who do not want to be bothered with crowds, bad weather, walking, calling up politicians, etc. If someone else is willing to do that work, why not just leave it up to them?

As one means of overcoming free-riding, collectives have begun to professionalize to ensure a dedicated cadre of activists working full time on a given social problem. Since the late 20th century, movements have taken on a bureaucratic, corporate form which allows them more stability and state support at the cost of their radical politics. Industries working in tandem with the state now funnel money into nonprofits as a means of soft control. Radical politics, as a result, are simply starved while moderates are glutted. What I suspect is that social movements today are actually encouraging free-riding in order to maintain control over movement organizations and the social movement arena itself. In effect, they are helping industries and the state to neutralize and deradicalize politics.

If a movement can facilitate a public that supports its cause but is not encouraged to actually participate beyond donating intermittently, this manufactured free-riding strips the democratic essence of a movement and ultimately weakens it. Movement organizations that use this strategy can expect institutional longevity, but the ability to create meaningful social change with power centralized in this way is stifled.

Why Unstructured Incrementalism is Less Effective 

These structural influences shape a social movement’s claimsmaking. The Nonhuman Animal rights movement’s leading nonprofits mask their allegiance to conservative cash flow by making appeals to common sense notions of behavior change. Rather than asking someone to make the big leap to veganism, nonprofits insist, ask them instead to make a few changes and ease their way into it. However, social psychological research has demonstrated time and time again that “common sense” explanations are frequently misleading. Humans are far less rational than we think we are.

Although the United States is a country with major economic, political, and social ties to exploiting Nonhuman Animals, values of freedom, fairness, and compassion mean that few Americans want to see themselves as someone who is cruel to other animals. Flexitarianism, then, is a form of incrementalism that allows people to keep participating in exploitative behaviors as the system encourages them to do, while also enacting deeply held values about compassion. America is a country of animal lovers who want to keep eating animals—charities can appeal to this cognitive dissonance by promising folks that they can identify as an animal lover without having to make any real behavior changes. This is the very definition of a free-rider.

In “Free-Riders in the Nonprofit Industrial Complex: The Problem of Flexitarianism” published in Society & Animals, I have explored dozens of studies on vegan motivation and consumption change. In many cases, those eating flexitarian are not really eating any less animal products and they are less committed, more likely to exhibit characteristics of eating disorders, and sometimes actually eat more animals than people who did not identify as flexitarian.

Other research finds that participants asked to eat prescribed diets of omnivorism, flexitarianism, and veganism experienced similar levels of satisfaction and adherence to the diet—so why not go for the gold and ask folks to go vegan? After all, veganism has a bigger impact on the well-being of both Nonhuman Animals and humans.

The research, in short, does not support that asking folks to go vegan repels them, but the movement repeatedly assures activists that it will. Something else is fueling this rationalization since the evidence explored in my meta-analysis is not lining up.

Evidence to the Utility of Vegan Campaigning

Some research from tobacco cessation programs supports the importance of being straightforward and honest about the desired change. Participants in some studies, for instance, who were asked to quit immediately were more successful than those asked only to cut back. Furthermore, participants who were given a scheduled means of reducing toward cessation were successful, too, since behavior change can be cognitively straining. Vegan organizations, however, are more likely to promote vague ideas about cutting back and never mention the word veganism.

Tobacco cessation research supports that either asking folks to quit altogether or providing them a clear plan towards a clear goal is effective, but Nonhuman Animal charities do neither. The reason for this is that nonprofits—as businesses–are ultimately more interested in financial stability and institutional survival than they are interested in actual social change. This is a basic sociological observation found across many industry sectors.

So long as nonprofits are beholden to foundations and the state for support, it is unlikely that vegan programming will ever be designed according to evidence-based scientific research. This is because the nonprofit goal is to promote generic, promotable social services for the purpose of ensuring its survival, not to promote radical social change which would threaten the elite-run foundations, the state, and the nonprofits themselves. Promoting flexitarianism allows the charity to appear to be doing good works without really mobilizing any radical change.

The Imperative of Critical Thinking and Scientific Accountability

Nonprofits with a genuine interest in creating a vegan world will need to reconsider the role of the public in pushing for change. Relying on foundations and the state for financial support creates an inherent conflict of interest. These organizations will also need to engage with scientific evidence to support their proscription for social change.

This research must be objective. Increasingly, nonprofits produce their own in-house research to draw on the legitimacy of science to lend credibility to tactics and strategies that, when studied objectively by outside parties, would not demonstrate effectiveness. In other words, nonprofits recognize that science helps sell their strategy as effective, but, since science cannot support their ineffective tactics, they simply create their own science.

A new movement culture that genuinely wishes to address the crisis of speciesism should, therefore, nurture unbiased, replicable research that is designed to benefit effective Nonhuman Animal liberation. Research manufactured by nonprofit staff with little to no scientific training with aims of improving the institution’s appeal to elite-run foundations is not the sort of research that will achieve a vegan world.

Ultimately, nonprofits present a serious conundrum for effective activism. Nonprofits have essentially become an extension of the state, making their long-term utility to the movement questionable. Large sums of money are too frequently thought necessary to enact social change, but this economic logic of growth has protected the nonprofit industry from necessary scrutiny. Sociological theory has demonstrated that capitalist structures both create and aggravate inequality. Grassroots mobilization that challenges hierarchical movement structures, the hegemony of capitalist interests, and concentrated decision-making could allow for an openness to strategies supported by the science.

 

Readers can access the entire article here.
A condensed version of this research in the context of wider vegan movement studies was covered by The Atlantic.

 


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Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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How Effective is the Vegan Lecture? Exam Scores Tell a Horrifying Story

How Many Animals Killed?

Can you estimate how many animals are killed for food in the United States each year?

In 2015, I added this innocuous extra credit question at the end of an exam in my Introduction to Sociology course. Since we had discussed violence against animals in class, students had been assigned readings on the topic, and it was explicitly listed in the study guide, I expected that most students would guess in the ballpark of several billion. Instead, many were reporting numbers in the several millions, or even several thousands. The lowest guess was just 2,000.

I was so utterly astonished by the exam results, I was compelled to repeat the question on future exams. I have shared my findings in an open-access article with the International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food. Over the course of seven semesters, I eventually presented the question to nearly 200 students. All students (presuming they did not skip class) had been exposed to an 80 minute lecture on human/nonhuman relationships. This lecture clearly stated the FAO statistics on the numbers of animals killed in the United States (about 10 billion). I even made sure to linger on the sheer magnitude of individuals killed.

Results

Sixty-six percent of the class significantly underestimated the number of animals killed, and only 29% offered a reasonable estimate of between several billion and trillion (I clarified in lecture that FAO statistics do not include aquatic life). About 1 in 5 students were not even confident enough to hazard even a guess. Because 2% of students grossly overestimated the number of animals killed, the class average was skewed. However, the median response was in the millions. The bottom 10% of student responses averaged just 24,667. About that many chickens are killed every one and a half minutes in the United States (or 9 billion annually).

Predictably, students who scored A’s and B’s were more likely to guess an appropriate number. This suggests that students with good classroom behavior and study hygiene are more likely to retain information (at least up to the exam date). There was no significant correlation with gender.

Low Food Literacy

Low food literacy is well-documented across developing countries by food justice organizations, states, and industries which work to manipulate consumer decisions and public nutrition. Sociologically speaking, the systematic killing of other animals has been effectively removed from our social sensibility. Most consumers only relate to other animals as packaged products and menu items. Psychologically speaking, people employ a number of cognitive barriers to avoid uncomfortable knowledge.

The reasons for low food literacy are many, but the results presented here are especially sobering. Afterall, these are college-educated adults who have been trained to think critically and are exposed to current events, global trends, and multiculturalism. These are also college students who had been specifically exposed to information about nonhuman experiences in the food system. This suggests to me an inherent limitation to lecture as a means of lasting knowledge transmission.

Are Lectures Effective?

My suspicion is that, as Sociology 101 is a survey course, I am obligated to cover a large variety of sociological theories, concepts, and trends. I am not able to frequently return to each and every concept to aid with retention–that privilege is granted to key theories and paradigms. For vegan lecturers outside of academia, these results suggest that one-off lectures may not be sufficient to persuade. However, in research I conducted in 2017, I did find that a significant number of respondents became vegan after having watched a film or read a book on the topic.

There are a number of methodological shortcomings to this research. For one, my Introduction to Sociology course is aimed at first-year students, meaning that many respondents were still finding their academic footing. Second, I offered no control group. The estimates provided by my experimental group were so very low, however, I would find it hard to believe that a control group would have done much worse in having not been exposed to lecture.

I also did not conduct a post-test to measure if the knowledge was retained beyond the exam. After the exam, I went over the extra credit results with the class. When I explained how numbers so low could not possibly be accurate given that several thousand nonhumans are killed just to sustain the university cafeteria each semester, many students laughed and nodded. I would be curious to know if this debriefing had any effect on knowledge retention.

Readers can access the entire article here.

 


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Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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Why Food Justice is a Feminist Issue

In an interview with Alternet’sHere’s Why Our Food Systems are a Central Feminist Issue,” I was asked to elaborate on women’s contributions to critical food justice and how current sexual politics inhibit or even invisiblize women’s contributions today.

Both the Nonhuman Animal rights movement and the environmental movement, I note, were established by women who strategically employed stereotypes about women’s proper role in nurturing and caring. This strategy was necessary to gain access to the public sphere in an era in which women were expected to remain inside the home and well outside of politics.

Unfortunately, this feminization persists in modern food justice efforts. Sociological and psychological research supports that environmental and vegan campaigns and products are less likely to find male support simply due to this feminization. This gender divide translates into a serious barrier to success given that men’s recognition is necessary for a movement to gain legitimacy in a patriarchal society.

Rather than celebrate women’s contributions to anti-speciesist efforts, the vegan movement has opted to elevate men in campaigning and leadership. This, to me, is indicative of intersectional failure. Patriarchal bargains are unlikely to liberate Nonhuman Animals given the historical relationship between sexism and speciesism:

… the fact that men have to be involved to bring legitimacy to a cause demonstrates that we still haven’t come to terms with the underlying ideological roots to oppression.

Readers can access the entire interview here.

 


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The “Deserted Island” Vegan Scenario is a Reality for Millions

What’s in a Meme?

When presented with veganism, nonvegans may be understandably curious about the limitations of vegan principles in real-world scenarios and conflicts (“Would you swat a mosquito?”). Sometimes, however, nonvegans present fantastical scenarios to truly test these limits. Perhaps one of the most frequent scenarios employed by nonvegans asks vegans how they might survive if they found themselves on a deserted island.

Top half of meme pictures an island in the ocean and reads, "Next time someone asks you...'What if you were stranded on a desert island, and all there was to eat was animals, would you eat them?"; Bottom half of meme pictures a bounty of fruits and vegetables in a market stall and reads, "Ask them...'What if you lived in civilization where there is an abundance of food of all kinds, would you choose to kill animals for no reason?'"

This particular thought activity makes little sense on its surface. After all, how many of us are likely to find ourselves on a deserted island adrift in the ocean? For that matter, folks in real-world survival situations have been known to engage in all manner of morally questionable behaviors. This includes everything from killing and eating dogs to killing and eating humans. The point is that we may understandably make exceptions to our ethics when we are under extreme circumstances.

Being presented with this variant of the “what if” scenario is something of a rite of passage for many vegans. Accordingly, the vegan community has reclaimed the trope for a laugh.

Picture of a man and a pig on an island; reads: "Then the inevitable happened to Paul"Image from Vegan Chowhound

Real-life Deserted Islands

Although these memes are well-meaning, they provide an interesting example of white and middle-class privilege in vegan claimsmaking. As has been argued by Dr. Breeze Harper, mainstream vegan discourse too often defaults to a post-racial, “colorblind,” or classless approach to outreach efforts. This approach overlooks important demographic differences regarding the applicability or appropriateness of vegan proscriptions for change.

Picture of a distressed woman; reads "I want to go vegan but I keep getting stranded on deserted islands"

In a world still bound by a legacy of colonialism and racism, “deserted islands” of oppressed communities abound. It is a fact that millions of folks in developed and developing countries do live in emergency situations. Food deserts, which disproportionately impact poor persons and people of color, are real-life “deserted island” scenarios. Those living in food deserts experience structural inequalities that make healthy and ethical food choices nearly impossible.

The hypothetical “deserted island” scenario is meant to test the limits of veganism. If one was to find themselves so isolated and limited in resources, would one, lacking any alternative, consider eating something (or someone) that compromised one’s scruples? Yet, for a large section of the human population, this is no thought experiment. Food security is a real-life, on-going, unrelenting emergency.

Subsequently, in order to realize a vegan world, activists must contend with capitalist exploitation, structural inequality, and environmental racism. Those living in society’s”desert islands” do not have the same access and resources as privileged folks living on the “mainland.” Rather than interrogate those who are trapped on figurative islands, activists should support efforts to increase access and affordability.

 

A version of this essay was originally published on December 7, 2013 on The Academic Activist Vegan.


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Can Veganism Save the World? This is Hope

Although human relationships with the environment grow increasingly of interest to the scientific community, this same community resists a serious consideration of the role that Nonhuman Animals play in human ecology. In the green discourse, Nonhuman Animals are either objectified or ignored altogether.

As such, the critical exploration of human-nonhuman relationships in the context of climate change and environmental justice is largely relegated to activist scholars. One such researcher is Will Anderson, who’s This Is Hope: Green Vegans and the New Human Ecology presents the first comprehensive book in which Nonhuman Animals are included in the discussion as meaningful agents. Arguably, Anderson’s work acts an environmentally-focused version of Singer’s Animal Liberation. Its central thesis is that environmentalism makes no sense so long as humans persist in their systematic violence against Nonhuman Animals.

“Managing” Nature and Other Animals

The bulk of environmental literature speaks of Nonhuman Animals, not as individuals, but as abstract species categories. When individuals are lost from consideration, any number of injustices can be enacted upon them in the name of “conservation.” This includes “hunting” and lethal “wildlife management.”

In This Is Hope, readers learn how “hunters” artificially remove individuals from the environment to the effect of tampering with evolution. “Hunting” ensures that genes are systematically eliminated from populations in ways that would not otherwise occur naturally. This surely occurs when “hunters” target males, specifically those with larger bodies or more impressive antlers.

Subsequently, humans intentionally create fragile ecosystems that will require human management. The projects of “humane washing” and “green washing” are leveraged by animal exploiters and apologists to justify this forced management. As a result, continued exploitation is abetted while the more ethical (and logical) vegan solution goes ignored.

Environmental Injustice for Other Animals

Anderson’s book offers an extensive overview of how Nonhuman Animals, both domesticated and free-living, are impacted by human activity. This predominately occurs through a process of otherization. The division currently existent between humans and other animals is, as he indicates, socially constructed by humans.

His approach to this thesis is personal. Anderson shares many of his own interactions with various Nonhuman Animal communities and environmental groups to support his claims. Readers learn how Nonhuman Animals matter to the environmental discourse through case studies, research reviews, scientific evaluations of sentience, and the emotional power of anecdotal stories.

There is a discussion of the complexities involved in human and nonhuman oppression. Poverty, ecocide, misogyny, speciesism and other oppressions, he insists, are all interrelated. He also touches on the complexities involved with navigating violence against Nonhuman Animals among indigenous populations.

A fundamental issue of environmental justice for other animals is what Anderson refers to as “neo-predation.” Human predation on Nonhuman Animals is exacerbated because it is based on the increasing human population and its increasing consumption. In simply taking up space, creating noise pollution, laying roads and structural barriers, and introducing invasive species (like cows and crops), humans inflict wide-reaching damage.

A Vegan Ecology

Many significant obstacles to creating a vegan ecology exist. For one, environmentalists are wary to adopt veganism for fear of appearing too sentimental. This problem is one that is faced by many feminized social movements. The nonprofit industrial complex also seems to be at work, since so many professionalized, funding-dependent NGOs dominate the arena of conservation. They are evidenced to stifle radical discourse.

According to Anderson, differing cultural beliefs regarding the environment and Nonhuman Animals means that change-makers have no agreed upon goals. This, in turn, makes collaboration difficult. The nonprofit industry’s hyperfocus on membership and financial support is another complicating factor. “Hunters,” being important funders, enjoy the protection of their interests and a silencing of anti-speciesist ideas. Likewise, professionalized groups generally skirt association with veganism to avoid seeming unreasonable. Finally, the wealth of counter-claimsmaking promulgated by “fur,” “fishing,” and “wildlife management” industries also inhibits progress.

Points to Consider

Empathy

Anderson’s thesis is predicated on his case for the critical importance of “empathy.” However, “empathy” strategies could overshadow the material strategies necessary to truly protect and respect other animals. I would suggest that the logic of social justice and rights may be more effective or should at least be incorporated.

Empathy, while foundational to social justice efforts, could actually maintain human superiority if not buttressed. For instance, feminists do not argue that women deserve recognition and protection only because men should empathize with them. Instead, most feminists insist that women matter because they are sentient beings in their own right who deserve to be free of violence. For some two hundred years, women have rallied to codify this recognition in law and culture. Empathy is important in motivating concern, but I would hesitate to build a theory of social justice on wavering emotional states.

Carnism

Second, Anderson liberally draws on the language of “carnism “coined by Dr. Melanie Joy to describe neo-predation and anthropocentric human ecology. As I have argued elsewhere, “carnism” is a corruption of the more inclusive accurate term “speciesism.” Carnism refers specifically to consuming Nonhuman Animals for food, but a truly vegan approach would recognize that violence against animals entails much more than what humans eat. Animal liberation also extends to what humans wear, how they entertain themselves, and how they exploit other animals for labor, science, and so forth.

Overpopulation

Third, Anderson runs into problems with his focus on human population. He mostly discusses human population growth in the abstract sense, yet it is developing countries where this growth is specifically occurring. Population has largely stagnated or even declined in the West, where individuals have greater wealth and access to social services. Thus, those who politicize human population should be careful to consider just which groups of people are under scrutiny. It is usually the world’s poor and disadvantaged.

People of the Third World bear little responsibility for the destruction and occupation of nature. That responsibility is placed squarely with privileged Western populations. Anderson acknowledges global social inequalities throughout the text, but he, unfortunately, fails to do so in the context of population discussion. Population growth needs to be stopped and reversed, he insists, but exactly how this plan will be implemented goes unexamined. In reality, anti-population growth initiatives violently target poor brown peoples, specifically vulnerable women.

Privilege of Place and Movement

Anderson also suggests that people living in areas in which food must be transported at high cost or in areas that require large amounts of energy for heating and cooling should consider moving. Yet, this is an option generally only available to the socially privileged.

Indeed, a similar shortcoming arises when Anderson suggests that all populations of the world are “uniquely responsible” for the environmental crisis: “There are no exceptions” (303):

Rich and poor, indefensible over-consumers and low-scale consumers, all are drawn into the fray because we each have our varying degrees of impact that require responses. (304)

However, the majority of the world’s human population is so incredibly impoverished that its most pressing responsibility lies in basic survival. Furthermore, Anderson’s narrative of shared responsibility overlooks centuries of Western domination that has manifested this dramatic inequality. Anderson calls for change-makers to adopt “humanity” as their primary identity over nationality, ethnicity, or tribal identification. But, this position overlooks serious social and global hierarchies.

Hope

Although This is Hope repeats many problematic tropes endemic to the vegan movement’s failure to think intersectionally, its merit lies in its faith in change. Veganism, Anderson insists, is the most important means to diminish social inequality and suffering in human and nonhuman societies. For this reason, it remains a vital text in climate change resistance strategies.

A version of this essay was originally published in 2013 on The Academic Activist Vegan.


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the politics of overpopulation in vegan rhetoric in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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Veganism “At All Costs” Costs Animals

As my academic interests have turned to intersections of human and nonhuman inequality, I’ve come to recognize that many entanglements of oppression operate unchallenged within social justice spaces themselves. Unfortunately, the Nonhuman Animal rights/vegan movement presents a rich case study for sexism, racism, sizism, and classism. It also perfectly demonstrates the callous engagement of victim-blaming to protect this violence.

Once confronted with criticisms intramovement violence, many activists react by doubling down on discriminatory attitudes. Others simply ignore the problem altogether. Acknowledging intersectional failure is too often framed as “bad for the cause,” “drama,” or “attention-seeking.” This reaction is almost predictable given that the movement is dominated by those occupying positions of gender, race, body, or class privilege. Subsequently, the notion that veganism should be promoted at all costs, regardless of who it hurts, emerges as the movement mantra.

Violence in anti-speciesism efforts is a political problem. For one, it silences and intimidates existing activists. Silenced and intimidated activists are hardly effective ones. This violence also works to repel newcomers from participating. The strategy of pushing veganism at all costs while ignoring violence in the ranks means that new recruits will enter the movement only to bounce right back out. Worse, they may become victims, too. There is an imperative for activists to get their own house in order before welcoming new participants if the goal is to retain and sustain new vegans. It is even more important if the goal is to undermine violence rather than replicate it.

In The Revolution Starts at Home, activists across the social justice spectrum have observed that accusations of “creating drama” are employed so as to avoid airing a movement’s “dirty laundry.” This strategy is indicative of victim-blaming. By blaming the victim for the structural problems the victim identifies, the activist community attempts to redirect guilt and culpability. For instance, should they point out problems of racism, they are likely to be accused of racism themselves for the audacity of bringing up race in a society that is supposedly post-racial. Women who critique sexist patterns in the movement may be accused of hurting Nonhuman Animals with their selfishness. Victims are made to feel illogical, unreasonable, and insincere as a result. This is, curiously, a defense strategy that vegans themselves face when confronting nonvegans. The irony, however, is lost.

As a tactical matter, oppression cannot be undermined within a social movement community with willed ignorance.  As a philosophical matter, it is simply counterintuitive to proclaim that violence against animals should be combatted “at all costs” while simultaneously failing to address the more accessible suffering of human animals within the community. If the anti-speciesism movement cannot be a safe space for activists, it cannot be a powerful force. Instead, it only contributes to the culture of violence so abhorred by vegans.

The expectation is that presenting a false front of unity and cheerfulness will be more enticing to newcomers. But, again, ignoring the problem does not eliminate the problem. New activists lured under false pretenses are not likely to remain in the long term.

A version of this essay first appeared on the Academic Activist Vegan on December 4, 2013.


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the nonprofit industrial complex in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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The Problem with Milk Not Jails

Food Justice and Prison Abolition

The American prison system threatens not only urban communities but extends into rural areas as well. The food justice movement has become increasingly aware of this association and has aligned with other collectives focused on prison abolition. Strategies often entail combatting incarceration by providing employment and economic growth. They hope to accomplish this by reconnecting the community with value-added food production and mindful consumption.

New York-based collective Milk Not Jails is one such initiative. Small farming in the United States has become less and less profitable, while, in contrast, the exploding private prison industry offers many tantalizing opportunities for profit. Milk Not Jails posits that the decline of animal agriculture has encouraged impoverished rural areas to switch from the mass incarceration of Nonhuman Animals to the mass incarceration of people of color. Subsequently, it advocates that communities switch out prisons with more dairies as a measure of resistance. It also engages in heavy community outreach to increase the demand for dairy and sustain the model.

Intersectional Failure

As with many anthropocentric food justice campaigns, Milk Not Jails exhibits a limited intersectional perspective. While Milk Not Jails hopes to alleviate the systematic exploitation of vulnerable lower class communities and communities of color, it does so by bolstering the systematic exploitation of vulnerable nonhumans.

Intersectional failure is a term that legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw applies to situations in which activists prioritize relatively privileged groups in social justice campaigns. Her work, for instance, has examined how the Black Lives Matter movement prioritizes men of color, giving scant attention or leadership opportunities to women of color.

Social movement theory supports Crenshaw’s concerns. Researchers have observed that a lack of intersectional awareness and poor coalition-building decrease a movement’s ability to resonate, gather resources, and reach goals.

Dairy and Environmental Inequality

Milk Not Jails exemplifies this intersectional failure in several ways. First, dairy production (and any Nonhuman Animal production for that matter) is not sustainable. Even localized farming practices create large amounts of waste and pollution. Nonhuman Animals made “livestock” consume massive amounts of water and grain, regardless if they lived on small farms or factory farms.

Climate change is the inevitable result of these farming practices. Indeed, the United Nations has identified animal agriculture as the leading contributor to greenhouse gas, surpassing even that created by transportation. Climate change is an injustice to all of Earth’s inhabitants, but it disproportionately harms vulnerables in the Third World.

Domestically, Nonhuman Animal agricultural operations are usually located in areas of poverty. They disproportionately impact poor whites and people of color who do not have the political power to resist stinky, polluting, dangerous agricultural facilities. Milk Not Jails may be only aggravating this environmental injustice.

Dairy and Colonial Conquest

Second, diets based in Nonhuman Animal products are rooted in a colonialist history. Sociologists have observed that colonial expansion was largely fueled by the desire to expand animal agriculture. This refers not only to the expansion of production but also the expansion of consumption. The traditional diets of many colonized people (such as those living in Asia, Africa, and Latin America) are plant-based. As colonized peoples were absorbed into settler cultures, their traditional diets were undermined and replaced by Western dietary expectations.

As a result, people of color living in the West today suffer the ill effects of animal products dumped on their communities at artificially low prices under the guise of healthfulness. Dairy is especially suspect, as most people of color are lactose intolerant. Biologically, people of European descent are more likely to exhibit the genetic glitch that allows them to consume the breastmilk of another species far past the age of weaning. Given its roots in white settler culture, dairy is promoted as “normal” and “natural” even though most humans cannot safely consume it.

Dairy and Class Oppression

Third, the consumption of dairy (and other Nonhuman Animal products) is directly linked to cancer, heart disease, diabetes, gout, obesity, and a litany of other serious, life-threatening illnesses. Diet related diseases already disproportionately impact poor persons and communities of color.

Dairy and Species Oppression

Fourth, dairies are themselves prisons. From a vegan perspective, Milk Not Jails truly advocates Nonhuman Jails Not Human Jails. Farmers forcibly impregnate young cows repeatedly in order to produce breastmilk for human consumption. These mothers, still babies themselves, must endure the intense grief and anxiety of separation from their children. Calves are most frequently removed within the first 24 hours and fed on formula so that all of mother’s milk can be redirected to humans.

Today’s cows, due to genetic manipulation, produce about ten times the amount of breastmilk they otherwise would. As a result, about 1 in 4 dairy cows suffers mastitis, a painful infection of the udder.

Although cows live about two decades without human intervention, their bodies become so worn out from dairy production that most are deemed “spent” and sent to slaughter before they reach the age of six. Many of them are too sick and disabled to walk to their death. These victims are termed “downers” and are often pushed to slaughter with forklifts.

Female calves are doomed to the same fate as their mothers. Male calves are jailed in veal crates. Veal facilities typically imprison babies in isolation and darkness. Their diet and movement are restricted to ensure that their muscles remain anemic, underdeveloped, and “tender” for the consumer. Consequently, many babies are too weak to walk to slaughter. Many go lose their sight, wits, and lives before their execution.

Milk Not Jails hopes to bring justice to vulnerable communities. By relying on nonhuman breastmilk to achieve that goal, it demonstrates a critical instersectional failure. By promoting dairy, activists are inadvertently promoting the continued oppression of people of color, peoples of the Third World, lower class persons, and nonhuman persons.

 

A version of this essay first appeared on the Academic Activist Vegan on September 23, 2013.


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about intersections of gender, race, and class in vegan politics in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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