Fighting for animal liberation and an end to speciesism
Many vegan advocates, including Vegan Outreach, say that going vegan or reducing our consumption
of animal products will directly save lives. Is
this really true? Don’t subsidies keep the
number of animals killed up artificially, even if
Subsidies can distort market signals, but can’t eliminate them. Because of changes in what people
buy, there was an increase in the number of animals
killed for many years. Likewise, there has recently
been a decline
in the number of land animals killed for food
in the U.S. in spite of continuing subsidies. See
Being a Vegetarian Really Save Animals?
Vegan Outreach focuses on leafleting to college students, and you estimate that about 1–3% of people
who take a brochure will actually change their diet.
Can we somehow increase this percentage by targeting
different and maybe more open audiences with specific
There is a trade-off on cost and specificity. We could, for example, hand out full-color books which
might have a higher change rate, but only afford to
hand out 1/100th the number. Or we could hand out
many more one-page black-and-white leaflets, but they
wouldn’t have the power to move people to make
Everything is subject to a cost/benefit analysis. Vegan Outreach does, for example, have a music-specific
cover for leafleting the Warped Tour in the summer,
and we have both Even If You Like Meat and
Compassionate Choices for leafleting. But
we have to realize that there is no magic message
that will move everyone. We have to reach those willing
to change, and realize that no matter what tactic
or message, this is only a fraction of people.
New figures show that about 2% of the U.S. population eats a vegan diet (not counting honey). I assume
this is the highest percentage anywhere in the world.
Is this Vegan Outreach’s work? How can other countries
I don’t know if the U.S. is highest; the U.K. might have a higher percentage. I know Vegan Outreach’s
work is changing a lot of people, and that this type
of grassroots education is really important in increasing
the number of people who choose a compassionate diet.
The U.S. may be able to provide a good example of the importance of changing advocacy focus. For many
years, the focus here was on fur and vivisection,
and the number of animals killed every year skyrocketed
(land animals slaughtered went up by many, many billions).
In the early 1990s, Vegan Outreach started
arguing we should focus on the 99% of animals
generally ignored – those butchered to be eaten.
Now, vegetarianism is common and growing, and factory
farms are widely condemned.
I think Vegan Outreach’s Adopt a College
program is the only one of its kind in the world.
Do you have any tips for people who want to start
something similar in their own countries? In many
countries there are no free or cheap full-color
brochures available, and people are afraid that
spending a lot of money on printing leaflets and
brochures could be just a waste of their money.
Many activists are unhappy with the results they are currently getting, but uneasy about changing away
from what other activists are doing. But there is
a saying: If you want a different result, you have
to try something different. So my first tip is to
question the status quo, what type of activism is
the “norm.” A long-time member once wrote:
Since becoming vegan in 1995, I have distributed tens of thousands of Vegan Outreach leaflets in
a dozen states (and counting). Although I started
using VO literature early on in my activism, I still
felt that leafleting by itself wasn’t as effective
as protesting every weekend. I couldn’t have been
more wrong, especially when I looked at the amount
of time I spent organizing protests, calling activists
to attend the protests, making signs, etc. Maybe
I felt that since I had invested so much time and
effort, protesting had to be more effective than
simply handing out leaflets for an hour or two.
Thank goodness that Vegan Outreach continues to
steer activists in the right direction!
We should look at our options in terms of payoff per dollar spent and hour worked, rather than what
is simplest, cheapest, and/or most common. We always
need to be focused on the bottom line of reducing
as much suffering as possible.
In my experience, most vegans are not “activists.” Many maybe think that actively promoting veganism
would be an exhausting sacrifice and that in the
end it wouldn’t make a difference. Could you
please comment on this?
And just look at the numbers: “VRG’s 2009 poll estimates 3.4% of the U.S.’s adult population are real vegetarians.
This is up from 2.3% in 2006. If you extrapolate to
the population as a whole, this would indicate more
than 3.5 million new vegetarians between polls.”
If your main goal is to reduce animal product consumption overall, why don’t you use health and
environmental arguments, like e.g. the “Meat
Free Mondays” campaign? Wouldn’t this
be more effective? Don’t most people go vegetarian
for health reasons?
Our main goal isn’t to reduce consumption, it is to lessen suffering. For many decades, groups
and individuals thought they could trick people into
making compassionate choices. But the “health
argument” and various
environmental arguments have led to many people
switching from eating a few large animals to many smaller
– and more intensively raised – animals
like chickens. This has led to a great deal more suffering.
We focus on the animals because they matter. If we are going to reduce the animals’ suffering,
we need people to recognize and consider their suffering.
The ethical case for vegetarianism is simple, straightforward,
and indisputable. A member recently spoke to a college
class and reported:
My talk was was not what they expected. Many said the argument – reducing animal suffering –
had no holes or flaws in it, essentially leaving
them with no questions about why one should not
eat animals. Many of the students decided to write
about the issue, and are rethinking the way that
We talk more about why we take the approach we do here.
In your advocacy you usually don’t mention the “basics of why vegan”: that no matter
HOW eggs are produced, there will be useless male
chicks, and that no matter HOW dairy is produced,
there will be forced pregnancies and male calves
that cannot produce milk. Why do you leave this
In his interview with Erik Marcus, Jonathan Safran Foer makes two key
These are central to Vegan Outreach’s approach: not justifying our own views or cataloging all cruelty,
but creating as much real change as possible in a
society where eating an actual chicken leg is rarely
even questioned. “Rights,” “veganism,”
and other human constructs are irrelevant –
all that matters is reducing as much suffering as
possible. This isn’t something I came to realize
Why do you not directly promote animal rights? Isn’t this necessary to establish a permanent
change in the way we relate to animals and also
to avoid the suffering of animals in the future?
We are seeking to reach as many non-vegans as possible where they are in society as it actually is today.
Very few people will go from eating meat to thinking
in terms of animal rights. On the other hand, a large
majority of people already oppose cruelty to animals,
regardless of their personal philosophy or religion.
Again, our advocacy isn’t about the last step – it is about the first step. As you know, people
evolve over time, and if we can get them to take the
first step, Vegan Outreach’s Guide
to Cruelty-Free Eating and our website provide
tools to help them learn and take further steps. Similarly,
societies change over time, and the optimal advocacy
message will, in turn, change over time. But now,
few people will change when exposed to a totally foreign
philosophy, compared to those who will be moved when
they see the hidden realities of modern agribusiness.
In my experience, promoting veganism often leads people to only go vegetarian. People choose
their own steps and their own pace anyway. Why do
you think it is necessary to tell people that opposing
cruelty to animals is not an “all-or-nothing
proposition”? I’m sure many vegans feel
it is wrong to say that it is “OK” to
“only eat LESS meat, eggs or dairy.”
It isn’t our goal to document all cruelties and injustices in the world. We aren’t out to
say what is or isn’t “OK.” We’re
not about preaching or dictating morals. We don’t
seek to explain or justify our views, or celebrate
Furthermore, opposing cruelty to animals simply isn’t an “all-or-nothing proposition.”
No one is perfect – no vegan is pure. Everyone
is causing suffering at some level, and no one is
doing their absolute best to prevent / eliminate suffering.
Not only is it less effective to act like there is some ultimate answer or perfect diet, but it simply
As you point out, people evolve over time. Our purpose is to start that change, not to present the most complete
case for our own personal views. We’re not the
point – maximum change for the animals is what
matters. The key to this is recognizing that only
meat eaters are in a position to save animals from
the horrors of factory farms, so their
mindset and motivations are what matters.
Vegan Outreach activists have personally dealt with many hundreds of thousands of individuals in various
situations, and have consistently reported people
who have had knee-jerk reactions to the word “vegan.”
E.g., “Oh, I could never be vegan,” or
“I know a vegan, and s/he is a fanatic.”
Thus, they close themselves off to considering the
message and making any change.
Bruce Friedrich, my coauthor on The Animal Activist’s Handbook and VP of
PETA, has had personal interactions with literally
thousands of individuals over the years (quite possibly,
he has had more one-on-one conversations about animal
issues than anyone else in the U.S.). He recently
I actually think that using the word “vegan” (other than perhaps with youth) may be counterproductive
to helping animals, relative to using the word “vegetarian.”
As a species, we are given to seeing things as “all
or nothing," and I can’t tell you how many
times I’ve had discussions with people who write
off making any changes because they believe they
can’t go vegan.
That’s why I no longer wear my “Ask me why I’m vegan” shirts – I wear the vegetarian
ones, and the conversations have gotten SO MUCH
BETTER. Where people used to be all about what vegan
means and how hard it is to give up dairy (which
saves 1/10 of an animal/year), now we talk about
fish and chickens (saving many dozens of animals/year).
I used to hear stories about dour and angry vegans;
now I hear stories about daughters and cousins who
This is anecdotal, of course, but it’s not theoretical – this is real-world and OVERWHELMING.
I have FAR more people respond to my shirt now and
approach me to ask questions. Before, I generally
talked about what vegan means and the evils of dairy
(still good, of course, but not nearly as valuable
in helping animals). Now, I often have people tell
me on the basis of one conversation that they will
My long experience shows the word vegan scares many people, but the word vegetarian interests them
(we also see this overwhelmingly when leafleting
– people want vegetarian information far more
than vegan information). Ironically, I’ll bet we
get far fewer vegans by using the word vegan, since
many vegetarians do go vegan, once they see how
easy it is and start down the path of compassionate
Vegan Outreach is all about getting results. Not about theory, or to say what is wrong, or which words
philosophers prefer. But what experience shows, what
psychologists and marketers have found works. The
bottom line is simple – more change, fewer animals