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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 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.