11. Does the animal rights movement have a veganism problem?

I speak with animal rights activists about whether veganism should be a part of the movement

Welcome back to Giving to Strangers, a newsletter about making philanthropy better, written by me, Anya Marchenko. You can follow me on my newfangled Twitter.

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By way of an introduction 

There’s a quote I haven’t been able to get out of my head for the last half year. I’ve even considered having the damn thing tattooed on my arm. It’s the ending of a poem by Carolyn Forché, from her collection The Country Between Us. I read it because Ta-Nehisi Coates recommended it in the wake of the George Floyd protests. Forché’s poem is about America’s apathy towards the mass atrocities of El Salvador’s civil war in the 1970s. But I believe Forché’s idea is broader: What violence do we ignore because we’ve learned to think it’s normal?

There is a cyclone fence between ourselves and the slaughter and behind it

we hover in a calm protected world like netted fish, exactly like netted fish.

It is either the beginning or the end

of the world, and the choice is ourselves

or nothing.

―Carolyn Forché,  The Country Between Us


10 billion land animals are killed in the United States for food every year (9 billion of which are chickens). Worldwide, 71 billion land animals are killed each year (69 billion chickens). Between 1–2 trillion aquatic animals are killed for food in the world every year. Suppose that even 1% of these animals were golden retrievers — the kind beloved by your average American family — whose flesh was sold saran-wrapped in your local Whole Foods. The mainstream media would call this animal cruelty, and these animals victims of a massacre.

What’s unique about animal rights is that essentially nobody disagrees on the basic facts: that astronomical numbers of factory farmed animals endure immense suffering. Essentially nobody also needs to be convinced that animals are cute, smart, good companions, loving, or any other characteristics that make them worthy of a decent life. Rather, it seems that the work of animal rights is in creating a societal reckoning about something people already largely care about (animals) and believe (that factory farms are bad).

In a recent survey of 1,000 Americans by the ASPCA, 89% said they are concerned about industrial animal agriculture (citing animal welfare, worker safety or public health risks as a concern), and 85% of farmers and their families support a complete ban on new industrial animal agriculture facilities. In a different survey by the Sentience Institute, 49% of Americans agreed with the statement, “I support a ban on the factory farming of animals.”

I find these numbers pretty shocking. I think they’re so high because people don’t internalize the consequences of “banning factory farms” — without the subsidized low prices of factory farmed meat, the average person might afford to eat animal meat only once a month or two. How many of these respondents who support banning factory farms would be okay with chicken once a month? But then, how many respondents would be okay with that if they learned — really learned — about how animal meat is currently “produced”?

Based on what I learned from this issue of Giving to Strangers, the answer is probably more than you might think.

Effective altruism’s animal rights problem

Normally, when faced with a global problem, I turn to effective altruism (EA). But EA historically has an animal rights problem. Until recently, EA’s focus has been on people and places where the “doing good” fruit hangs lower and cheaper (preventable diseases in low-income countries). The omission is curious, because it’s obvious that one can do a lot of good improving animal welfare — even small wins, when they affect 10 billion beings, constitute huge improvements in gross welfare. So EA is trying to fill the gap by looking for high impact animal welfare organizations with a solid track record (see Animal Charity Evaluators). But there’s also a growing recognition that some of the most important changes in society come as a result of social movements, rather than supply chain improvements or a reallocation of resources. 

So that’s why, over the next two months on Giving to Strangers, I’ll be exploring what an effective animal rights movement looks like in America. I’ll be talking to activists (see below!) who work on the front lines of animal rights, white-collar professionals who lobby our government for better conditions for farmed animals, and foundation officers who decide where money should flow to. I’m excited about these conversations, and I hope you’ll join me on GTS in exploring the frontier of animal rights.

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This week: Veganism is not a social movement 

This week, Giving to Strangers spoke with two longtime animal rights activists, Almira Tanner (Lead Organizer) and Matt Johnson (Press Coordinator) of Direct Action Everywhere (DxE). You might recognize DxE from the last issue, where we spoke with DxE’s co-founder Wayne Hsiung

While researching for that interview, I read one of Wayne’s essays, Boycott Veganism. The central thesis of that essay took me down a rabbit hole about the problem of public perception in animal rights. 

The essay argues that animal rights has been equated with veganism, much to the peril of the movement: 

Veganism, far from helping ­animals, is a huge problem for the animal rights movement. If we want to stand up for animals, then we should stop calling ourselves vegan, stop asking others to go vegan, and even stop using the word vegan. When asked, we should state that our fight is for equality, justice, and freedom—not for a plant-based diet.

Why? One reason is that veganism has become an entrance exam for caring about animal welfare. When we spoke, Matt highlighted the ridiculousness of veganism as a “purity test”: 

Could you imagine if you go to a Black Lives Matter rally and they had a purity test where they're like: “Oh, hey, it's great that you're here. But have you disavowed buying anything from any white-owned business?” 

And then you were kind of like “What? I don't understand.”

And [they’re] like, “Oh, that's okay. We won't judge you, just you know, you'll get there. You'll get there. If you need help, let me know. Me and my friends have all done it. Maybe one day you'll get there.” 

That’s a super, super bad dynamic versus saying, “Hey, let's all try to not hurt animals.” Right? Of course that's a better way to go. 

Almira agrees:

It’s as if the climate change movement is now limited to people who don't own cars and don't use plastic straws. I don't want to diminish [veganism], I think there's like this inherently violent thing that comes with eating animals. And I don't think that's necessarily the case with getting in a car. I do think those two acts of consumer choices are a little bit different.

But we have reduced the focus of this movement so much on people's personal behaviors and purity politics, that vegans just started to be these annoying people, and now that's lumped together with all of animal rights activism. So if we can […] refocus animal rights on animal rights and not have the focus so much be on what people are eating and what people aren't eating. And instead be like, “We as a society love animals. We agree that we love animals more than we agree on anything: abortion, guns, anything. We agree that we love animals. We should not harm them. Let's try to fix this problem." I think that that would help a lot.

In his essay, Hsiung argues that what we need to stop animal suffering in factory farms is a social movement, and veganism cannot possibly be the foundation of a social movement. It’s not effective as a way to build community, it doesn’t have an internally consistent theory of change, and it doesn’t activate people politically. He breaks down each way that veganism fails as a social movement builder, so for the detailed argument, you should just read the essay. 

But in short, veganism doesn’t perform any of the functions you’d want from a social movement. Rather, veganism reduces animal rights to consumer choices, which Wayne argues have never been the backbone of a social justice movement: 

As a factual matter, has there ever been a social justice movement that was preceded by a mass consumer movement? Did anti-slavery activists ask people to boycott cotton and tobacco, and hope that a vigorous anti-slavery movement would spring forward from “cotton-free consumerism”? Did civil rights activists create a parallel economy of “segregation-free alternatives,” and expect that people’s purchasing decisions would push them into the militancy of racial equality? Did gay rights activists focus their attention on promoting gay-friendly products, and expect that this would somehow lead to an end to homophobic institutions and ideas?

Or, in all of these cases, was consumer action a tertiary concern—perhaps useful as part of a specific campaign, but never the centerpiece of movement strategy?

You might say that ending the exploitation of animals for food would de facto make everyone vegan. That’s certainly likely. But even then, it’s important how you frame the issue: is it in terms of punishment, and consumer choices? Or is it in terms of a better world, with less cruelty? How many people would come along if it was the latter? 

An obvious contradiction: vegan diets don’t have a spotless moral record

Matt points out that it’s ironic when a vegan diet gets put on a pedestal, as “vegans diets have plenty of harm attached to them”. He cites the “carbon footprint, pesticides, exploitive labor”, among other problems, that are still a part of the food many vegans eat. 

But this debate about whose dietary choices are better is beside the point. The point is not to shame people for what they eat. The point, Matt notes, is to acknowledge that we’re all causing harm in some way and….move on. Endlessly going down a purity spiral is a counterproductive race to the bottom. Instead, Matt believes we need to refocus: “What are our values? And what sort of world do we want to create together?”

I suspect a lot of animal rights activists would disagree with the decoupling of veganism and activism (here’s an essay arguing veganism should be the backbone of animal rights). But let’s make sure that if people disagree, they do so on the right grounds. Nobody here — myself, Wayne, or the activists I spoke with — think eating animals is ethical.

But the point of this week’s GTS is that there’s a difference between individual dietary choices and individual ethical choices, and an even bigger disconnect between individual choices and the large-scale strategies you need to create social change. If a person wants to eat meat, but also cares about animal cruelty, I think they should be welcomed into the animal rights movement. And it’s a loss for the movement, and therefore for animals, if joining the movement is contingent on what is perceived by the average person as a huge personal sacrifice.

I fall into the same trap 

Speaking with Matt and Almira, I wanted to understand how they think about the ultimate goal of their movement. Almira says that DxE wants to achieve a “constitutional amendment, or maybe a Supreme Court decision, that enshrines basic rights and protections for all sentient animals.” While the minute details aren’t set in stone, the bill “would certainly involve animals not being exploited for food, for clothing, experimentation, entertainment for humans.“  

When Almira described the goal of “animal liberation”, I remember pushing back. I recorded the interview, so I went back and listened to my response. Here it is: “So that sounds pretty radical to me, right? I think that there's some disconnect between DxE’s goal as you stated them, and then the fear that people feel at having their current state of life taken away or never being able to eat meat.” Already in my head I was dismissing DxEe’s mission, and wondering what the real (read: less radical, more realistic) goal was.

In response, Matt and Almira gently pointed out that I had already conflated veganism with animal rights. What they had said to me was, “we want basic rights for animals”. But what I heard instead was, “they want to take away everybody’s meat”. Being taught to equate animal rights with a dietary choice made me immediately disagree with the people I was talking to, making it hard to see our shared values.   

When you stop focusing on diet and start focusing on what is actually happening to animals and if you personally are okay with it, it becomes clear that it’s not so radical to want to stop animal cruelty. In fact, America already has animal cruelty laws, that, if applied to farmed animals, would likely end factory farming as we know it.

Joseph Vining, Professor at Michigan Law School, writes in Animal Cruelty Laws and Factory Farming:

[The suffering of factory farmed animals] is seen against the background of laws that make the suffering of even a single animal at human hands sufficient to justify a felony conviction, and, startlingly, mandatory psychiatric treatment in some jurisdictions. Humane treatment of an animal has been a value in itself for a very long time. It does its own work in the individual mind and the legal mind, not unlike the value of human life, indifference to which is the very definition of criminality.  

An Anya aside:

I’m frequently skeptical and borderline dismissive when I come across pie-in-the-sky sounding mission statements. Are these activists, in some sense, kidding? Is it kind of like when an NGO envisions “a world without poverty”, and we all smile knowingly and go back to making incremental changes? Or do Almira and Matt hold a true belief that an “Animal Bill of Rights” will one day pass?

It’s easy for empirically-minded people to dismiss activist goals (“If you understood how the world really works, you’d be a bit more realistic”). But it seems activists do know how the world works — DxE activists have rescued animals from farms, protested at Whole Foods, established animal sanctuaries.

So maybe I’m the one who needs to change my perspective. What are the deeper things about the world that “radical” activists, animal rights or otherwise, understand that I don’t? What have they un-learned that I haven’t?

What’s the source of the continued link between animal rights and veganism?

In climate change politics, so much of the polarization is a result of lies spread by oil companies like Exxon, who have denied the science for years, even while their own scientists confirm it. I wondered if there was a similar phenomenon happening in the animal rights movement, where pork or chicken producers are actively working to maintain their opponents’ “bad PR” by reinforcing the link between animal rights and veganism as a dietary choice.

Almira believes that the media is the source of more misrepresentation of animal activists than industry. Though DxE takes care to not use the word “vegan” during protests, the media assumes it anyway: “Our press releases never say “30 vegans protested”, but then the press will say it in the news anyway.” 

Matt and Almira believe that it’s advantageous for agribusiness to portray activists as “vegan extremists”, because “they know that that's the kind of thing the average person is going to hear and be turned off by.” If instead the companies said that the people who rescued chickens from their slaughterhouse wanted to “help animals from being horribly exploited and slaughtered”, the average person would be on their team. 

Which strangers should you donate to?

I currently donate monthly to one of Animal Charity Evaluators’ top charities. These are organizations like The Humane League and Albert Schweitzer Foundation doing corporate outreach, and The Good Food Institute supporting the development of alternative proteins.

Donate to an effective animal charity

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Want more?

Below I’ve picked some fascinating bits of my conversation with Matt and Almira that didn’t fit in the main text.

What are two or three of DXE successes that you are most proud of?

Matt: DxE helping enact California’s fur ban.  

So there was a fur ban in West Hollywood in 2011. And then in 2017, we passed the fur ban in the city of Berkeley, and then in 2018, a fur ban in San Francisco, and then in 2019, a statewide fur ban in the state of California. 

How did you enact the fur ban? 

[We go to the city of Berkeley and say] “We’re your friendly neighborhood animal rights activists. We love you until you give us a reason not to. So what about a fur ban? Okay, thanks.” 

There was a supervisor in San Francisco, Katy Tang, who was personally impacted by this article that Glenn Greenwald wrote about us and that made her inspired and that led to the fur band in San Francisco. 

A sub-achievement that I'm really proud of that DXE was able to do: that fur ban in California almost did not happen. Because as it's going through the California legislature, there's like seven different votes that need to happen. And as it was halfway through, it almost got struck down because all of these people suddenly showed up and were really offended at the notion of a fur ban. [They were saying] “we need to support our free choice”, and “this is racist to be trying to ban a symbol of prestige in the black community”.

And so long story short, we blew that whole thing open and this kinda shady group [was] behind the scenes was paying these people $100, $125 to just show up and say they oppose the fur ban.

Almira:

This probably will sound weird, but getting the FBI to raid sanctuaries, looking for pigs that we rescued, was a huge win. Not because I actually wanted those pigs to get recaptured, which they didn't, but just the fact that we were able to do an investigation, rescue animals from the Smithfield farm in Utah, and piss the industry off so much that they actually sent FBI agents looking for the piglets. That was probably one of the biggest turning points in D’xE’s history, where it went from “this group is doing some stuff” to “Holy shit, real serious journalists are really looking at our work.”

On an open rescue at Sunrise Farm:

Another thing that comes to mind is the first, like really big daylight rescue that we did in 2018 at Sunrise Egg Farm, which is a Whole Foods supplier in Petaluma.

And we had 500 people show up. And this is by far, the most people we've ever had at some sort of action. About 100, 150 or so people are going directly onto the property [and] start rescuing animals in broad daylight.

And people went in, they got some chickens and they walked out of that farm. And the cops were there and I think they were like, “what is happening?” Just like this idea of, “Nope, these animals are going to be rescued today” [was really powerful], and we pulled it off. So that was pretty amazing.

Matt:

I would say one of our big long-term achievements is the way that our community has not only endured, but has responded and gotten even stronger in the face of repression. Because when they got FBI agents raiding farm animal sanctuaries and chasing grandmothers and grandkids home, and throwing felony charges with decades in prison hanging over people's head, that's obviously a major attempt at intimidation. And those attempts by the government are often quite successful.

And so our ability to, to rise up in the face of that and continue taking action, it's not like a one-time achievement, but an ongoing success.

What are some sister organizations who are also working on animal rights that you think are doing really good work?

Almira (with Matt in agreement):

Mercy for Animals and The Humane League who do corporate campaigns.

Animal Liberation Victoria, which is an organization in Australia that […] started the idea of open rescue. Patty Mark is an activist [who] founded Animal Liberation Victoria, and I believe was the first activist to participate in open rescue. First people to just go in and be like, “you know what, we're just going to go rescue some animals because it's the right thing to do. And we're going to show our faces and we'll deal with the consequences when they come.”

Of course, PETA with their protests have inspired us a lot.