By James Hurren
In the middle of the High Street, the masked protestors hold up screens displaying video of pigs wedged in cages barely larger than their bodies and chickens packed into warehouses; the camera cutting between the squalid housing and their festering sores. Stopping passersby, they interrogate: “But you wouldn’t eat a dog” or “Would you eat meat if you had to kill it?” At home, masks off, the demonstrators share the footage, spreading it to the timelines of unsuspecting friends and relatives. It is this kind of scorched earth, shock-value campaigning that has recently been plaguing the vegan movement.. Indeed, these activists have chosen to fight their cause on the sentimental battlefield, in an attempt to trigger people’s emotions, specifically guilt and pity. Whilst the majority of vegans are not this demonstrative, their cause has been defined by those who are.
For a movement that has always prided itself on holding both the rational and moral high ground, this type of campaign makes little sense. Studies by the United Nations and Oxford University have both indicated the need for reduced meat and dairy consumption. The reasoning is sound, and the evidence is clear: land must be cleared for livestock to be held, then further land cleared for food for the livestock to be grown all the while livestock emit greenhouse gases themselves. This is not to mention the environmental costs of packaging, transportation and refrigeration which are higher with animal produce. Due to their high meat consumption, there is not enough arable land on earth to support the average American diet; a person can reduce their carbon footprint by over 1.4 tons per year by not eating beef; 70% of deforestation in the Amazon is done to provide land for cattle ranches.Furthermore, meat-alternatives have never been more available. The average person’s recommended protein intake is lower than the insta-gurus and pyramid-scheme health brands would have you believe, and the host of plant-based protein options make it easily attained.
The rational arguments are compelling. Consequently, those that care about the environment yet still have a high in animal product diet are left with two excuses: laziness (or a reluctance to change) and emotional attachment to certain foods. The ground of the former is retreating rapidly, with the aforementioned availability of plant-based protein and vegan alternatives. The latter is both more stubborn and more compelling. Tofu and quorn can substitute at the level of the macronutrient but the emotional connection to fish and chips and a roast on Sunday is not so readily forgone.
The histrionic intransigence of the militant vegan movement does not promise to make progress on this front. Painting the debate as black-and-white, good versus evil, with any digression or compromise considered unacceptable further estranges their cause. Any reduction in animal product consumption, in particular beef and dairy, should be celebrated and encouraged. The false dichotomy perpetuated by vegan activists, of adhering to their cause or being morally void, deters the moderate from the kind of lifestyle change that leads to meaningful progress. Engaging at an emotional level with shock tactics and pleas to people’s emotions pits them against traditions rooted deep within society, where they can offer no alternative, whilst reinforcing the notion that plant-based diets are for pretentious hippies rather than rational pragmatists. The enjoyment derived from traditional meat-based meals is as much a social thing as it is an emotional one, that of sharing a meal of cultural significance with friends and family. This is not an argument for regular meat consumption, merely a recognition of the emotional attachment to certain meals in society and the subsequent weakness of emotional arguments when persuading people not to eat meat.
There is the practical side to becoming vegan too. The time and energy necessary for the kind of change that a vegan diet constitutes should not be underestimated. Combined with more pressing factors like working full time and childcare, it is unsurprising that those adhering to the movement are doing so through some kind of privilege. Framing the debate as vegans against those unwilling to care for the planet alienates people who would otherwise be open to taking steps to become more sustainable. The prospect of becoming vegan can seem so daunting it discourages people from making any kind of pro-environmental lifestyle change, reducing the appeal of arguments that drove many become vegan in the first place.
The failure to recognise both the obstacles to becoming vegan and the benefits of more moderate campaigning undermines a movement that has the ability to make a significant contribution to curtailing the climate crisis. Avoiding the emotional manipulation and favouring a more objective stance lends credence to their cause and is ultimately more persuasive. Without this, the rational arguments are weakened by the negative reputation of the obnoxious few.
James Hurren is a final year Politics student at the University of Surrey.