Animal Rights Zone

Fighting for animal liberation and an end to speciesism

Reducing is a good thing. Reducing animals to food is not. 

By Mario Burbach

We shouldn’t be so fast to give up on veganism. In a number of ways, the soft rhetoric is unsuitable for an animal rights movement.

Reducing harm is a positive thing. Every reasonable person wants to see lower greenhouse gas emissions, less child mortality, and decreased consumption of animal products.

But one negative thing that comes along with the “reducetarian” approach is its reduction of animals to nothing other than food-machines. (One chapterof the recent book even promotes proteins made by killing massive numbers of insects.)

“How does it feel to be part of the ‘Reducetarian Solution’?” — “Totally great …”

The “reducetarian” approach appears at odds with a movement that aims to secure rights for animals. But nevertheless it is still supported by organizations that call themselves animal rights advocates — so I must pose the question: What is the reason for believing that a “Reducetarian Solution” can advance the cause of animal rights?

“Reducetarianism” is sold to animal rights supporters using a rhetoric of “effectiveness.”

And the strange idea of somehow promoting veganism by neither defining or mentioning it is nothing new. Such an approach is apparently pushed, for example, by the Center for Effective Vegan Advocacy (CEVA). But despite its association with Effective Altruism, the “reducetarian” approach appears to be grounded on very limited evidence. Maybe animal rights advocates should have more rigorously analyzed it before giving up on advocacy of animal rights.

Nowadays, it is increasingly normal for animal welfare institutions not only to frame veganism as solely a diet, but to loudly praise meat producers for proclaiming minor changes to their practices that will take a decade or more to be implemented. Vegan meat substitutes, which corporations can profit from, are promoted as substitutes for animal rights.

Veganism has already been sold as ‘just a food thing.’ So how much lower will the mainstream “animal movement” go to misrepresent veganism?

Veganism is really much, much more than just a “plant-based diet”. It’s also much more than just a health or lifestyle choice. Yes, vegan cookbooks are rising in popularity, and the profitability of vegan substitutes is rising. These are promising trends, and whilst they are also supported by animal rights activists to a degree, it is naïve to think these trends alone will lead to animal liberation.

Reducing animals to food

A by-now-tired narrative pervasive in the Effective Altruist community is the idea that “reducetarianism,” or some variation of it, could be a foot in the door for a subsequent conversion to veganism. And in fact, I have no evidence to prove otherwise. But this idea has not been seriously tested, and despite this has been sold to activists as “scientific”. There are reasons to doubt that it is the best approach for vegan activists.

In much of the mainstream “animal movement,” a soft approach is considered superior. According to Mercy for Animals the “v”-word should be avoided in part because of unscientific, never-peer-reviewed studies that were considered to suggest that equivocal messages would be “more effective” than messages promoting veganism.

In fact, the body of evidence used to support this kind of “effectiveness” is systematically flawed. Empirical support for the effectiveness of soft messaging is lacking. Moreover, recidivism rates suggest that in the long run, a message that downplays ethics may result in people returning to animal consumption. See here some examples why longtime vegans stick to the cause.

Given that “reducetarianism” is explicitly a replacement for veganism, it’s especially implausible to view the “Reducetarian Solution” as a foot in the door to veganism or support for animal rights. There is no vision — no intention of ending animal agriculture. There is no suggestion that animal agriculture is wrong. It’s framed as merely undesirable, like using plastic grocery bags. Everyone knows that an effort to reduce plastic waste will not lead to the abolition of plastic, nor is it intended to. So why imagine “reducetarianism” will ever lead to animal rights?

“Reducetarianism” is a speciesist approach. It condones and validates harm to individuals and it doesn’t advocate giving them serious consideration as moral subjects.

If we just focus on Brian Kateman’s book and webpage, we may get a glimpse of how he sees animals …

(webcapture of — 05/2017)

… products, ingredients, and things we can “reduce” like water usage and paper waste.

In my opinion, the book itself is just another guide on how it might be cool to reduce this and that, in the spirit of countless mostly-ineffective initiatives to reduce consumption of environmentally damaging commodities. It ignores the fundamental right of animals to be something other than commodities. For many, it’s validation of violence to animals, and conspicuous disregard for the very concept of animal rights might actually become an excuse to continue consuming animal products. This might even be true of the author himself.

Conscious consumption of products doesn’t save our planet.

Environmentalists and animal rights activists both may aim to get people to entirely rethink their lifestyle. This includes switching to a plant-based diet, and also includes other changes, like not using products tested on animals. There are also other issues such as wasteless-living, traveling as little as possible, sharing or repairing instead of buying, switching to eco-friendly electricity, and using public transport services instead of buying a car — to name only a few things.

If someone stops consuming one of these things or reduces the amount of it, that’s a good thing as far as it goes. However, false justifications and moral licensing can be counterproductive. It is unhelpful for people to feel that it is acceptable to kill some animals because they already reduce their consumption.

Sure thing, reducing use of animal products might be a good idea. However, there’s no need to stop there. Eliminating use of water impossible. Eliminating use of paper is impractical. Eliminating use of animals’ bodies is totally achievable for nearly all people. Meat in general is a luxury.

“No one likes a ‘hammer in the face’ tactic.”

Some variant of this statement is the most common response to any objection to soft messaging. People seem to think that vegan advocates want to condemn and accuse people. Sticking to clear principles is often confused with shouting.

Consider how this discussion would appear in the context of anti-smoking activism:

We could use a radical approach and assert: Smoking kills.” Alternatively we could take a soft approach and say: “Reducing your smoking might be good for you.” Both messages are accurate, but there’s a huge difference in how they may be perceived. The latter message is not very clear and focused. It invites people to rationalize their bad habit and negotiate how much they smoke. It may also fail to convey the severity of the problems with tobacco.

Both are somehow against smoking. Both might lead someone to smoke less. But after many years of campaigning against smoking, I suggest that anti-tobacco campaigners know which one works better. (Hint: when was the last time you saw an ad asking you to reduce your tobacco consumption?)

“Animal exploitation will not end overnight.”

Another common response is that a total end to animal use in the near future is simply unrealistic. And I would agree. However, if it is ever to become realistic, people do need to advocate for it.

Keep in mind what most animal rights activists on the streets hear from what seems like every omnivore they speak to:

“I only eat a little meat. And if I do, it’s all organic or at least I try to know where it comes from.”
  • A “reducetarian” might answer: “Great! Have a nice day!”
  • A rights advocate might begin by saying : “It’s great you’re thinking about these issues. How do you feel about some of the alternatives for meat?”

Which approach could get us closer to abolition?

We can’t live in a vegan, cruelty free world tomorrow morning — that is for sure. But if we campaign to cut meat production to 50 % in 2050, it might be too late for the environment. And even worse: trillions of land and aquatic animals will suffer and die until then. In 2010 the UN urged the world to stop consuming meat and dairy. For animal rights activists to take a softer approach than the United Nations is an irony — and it’s not pragmatic.

“But we could give it a try.”

Yes. I agree: we could let meat eaters tell other meat eaters to try to eat less meat.

But that doesn’t mean vegans need to tell them it’s okay to eat animals’ bodies in moderation.

If my friend wanted to reduce the amount of meat in his diet, I would not object to him doing this, and would answer every question about veganism and animal rights he had. As an animal rights activist, though, I would tell him the truth about dairy and eggs, and not hide my view that it’s simply unfair to value your own convenience, habit, or tastes over the lives of other thinking beings.

(webcapture of Reducetarian-Facebook-Page — 05/02/2017)

Sadly, “reducetarianism” and variants thereof are already supported by many nominal animal rights organizations. ProVegAnimal EqualitySentience Politics and other individuals in the mainstream “animal movement” are all trying to jump on this reduce-train to get some attention.

Why should animal rights activists consider this rights-free approach a good strategy? Once again: where’s evidence for it working?

Is it because certain animal advocates contributed to this book? Is it because the main author is a nice guy? Is it because there’s a good advertising strategy behind it? Maybe it’s all of that.

And if you are friends with the right people, you will hit the bookshelves — even if your book features meat recipes.

(Note: “beef” and “pork” is, by the way, speciesist language.)

It’s not like meat eaters don’t already have access to recipes that call for a pound of meat. This makes no more sense than an anti-smoking advocate providing advice on where to buy tobacco.

Final thoughts

As an animal rights activist, it’s not easy to debate with people who think that veganism is only about food. It’s even harder to discuss with friends you share core values, and yet have been misled into believing that only soft approaches are effective and supported by evidence.

And it’s not surprising that people think that, when almost every mainstream group is advocating Meatless Mondays and the like, and often collaborating with corporations they once opposed.

These days it’s not so easy to turn against the reduction of animals to things. But those of us who realize that the way to protect animals is to secure rights for them must do so.

We can bring people to reduce animal products without condoning violence against animals. We can demand systemic change, and eventually, we can get change, without losing the core principles of animal rights.

Mario Burbach is a visual storyteller from Berlin. You can read more from Mario on his Facebook page HERE

You can join people who feel similarly by protesting the “Reducetarian Summit” on May 20:


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