We Are The Low-Hanging Fruit
You are unique. Too unique, unfortunately.
If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably an animal advocate. As such, you are part of a small minority of people who have meaningfully changed their behavior for animals.
Those of us who believe in minimizing and eventually eliminating all forms of animal cruelty may be a majority of the population (Animal Tracker, 2016). But those of us who take that belief to its natural conclusion (which, to me, means veganism and some form of advocacy) represent only a small minority.
For several decades now, vegan advocacy has focused on educating and persuading consumers. It’s important and necessary work. But to choose vegan education as the only path toward making the world more compassionate is to commit to a very long-term struggle. Changing hearts and minds is aggravatingly slow.
More than four humans are born every second. That’s 360,000 new babies each day. It’s a tall order for vegan educators to keep up with the flow of new people to persuade. This will change as vegans grow in proportion to the rest of the population, but again, it’s a slow process. Right now, less than 2% of people volunteer for any animal issues and about 1% are vegan.
So, we’re back to your uniqueness. Did you become an animal advocate or a vegan because you saw a documentary or read a book? Maybe you had a personal conversation with an advocate or just saw a billboard. But there may have been thousands of people who saw that documentary or billboard, so what was it about you that caused you to change?
It’s possible you’re just different from other people. Maybe your experiences and genes predispose you to being empathetic toward animals. I argue that this hard-to-identify combination of traits makes you the low-hanging fruit, the “easy win.” Unfortunately, I think most people are going to be harder to persuade than we were. I hope that’s not the case, but I suspect it is.
As I wrote almost ten years ago, “In the end, however, persuasion and public education can only get animal advocates part of the way to our goal of ending animal cruelty. All of the research collected by Faunalytics suggests that changing hearts and minds is not only a slow process, but it may also have an upper limit.” We probably can’t educate our way to a vegan world.
In my opinion, there are two keys to breaking through the inherent limits of vegan education. The first is to codify changes that improve the lives of animals whenever the opportunities arise. Persuasion is only as effective as the policy (or systemic change) that results from it. The second is to find ways of changing the game so that persuasion and education are less necessary.
On the first point, we need to emphasize turning more people into animal advocates, not just animal product avoiders. And we need to shift more of our attention from consumer education to becoming citizen-advocates. That means focusing more on influencing both corporate and government policies to create long-term, enforceable change for animals.
My friend and colleague, Kim Stallwood, wrote:
As an animal rights activist, I used to think that if enough people became vegan, like me, we would achieve animal rights. Then, I began to see that not everyone is like me and cares about animals as I do. This led me to realise that optional, personal, cruelty-free, vegan lifestyle choices — as important as they are — will not on their own end institutional, commercial animal exploitation… animal rights is mostly viewed as personal lifestyle choice but increasingly the responsibility of public policy and government
As the low-hanging fruit and a small minority of the population, it will be challenging for animal advocates to gain political power. We need to become politically influential and then use that influence to erode the systems that currently allow – and even promote – animal suffering. Think of the political capital of an organization like the National Rifle Association, but used for good.
Of course, gaining influence and affecting government and corporate policies also takes a lot of time and hence a long-term view. Which brings me to my second point: we need to find game-changers that do not rely on slowly educating consumers or painstakingly building our political capital. We must seek out the bold new ideas that make animal use and abuse obsolete.
The obvious example is “clean” or cultured animal products. By closely replicating animal flesh, milk, and other products, these scientists and startup companies are lowering the persuasion barrier for ethical eating. Particularly when you add in the potential health and environmental benefits of cultured animal products, the choice may become an easy one for many consumers.
For most animal issues, there are potential game-changers – system-wide shifts that we can and should pursue. Perhaps one of the most controversial — and least talked about — issues is human over-population. Simply put, animal suffering increases if there are more people. Working to reduce human population growth is very much an animal protection issue.
The most likely “big idea” for companion animals is non-surgical spay/neuter. Those familiar with the issue theorize that, to achieve sustainability, we need to sterilize 70% or more of free-roaming cats and dogs. Traditional approaches to trap animals or convince their guardians to commit to spay/neuter are limited. A safe, non-surgical option that could be administered in the field would likely reduce the number of unwanted pets to close to zero.
Another area ripe for game-changers is alternatives to the use of animals in research. Better physical models, computer programs, and synthetic human organs will eventually make animal research obsolete. We need to speed up the process by encouraging the advent of better alternatives and working to reduce the use of animals by improving government, corporate, and school policies.
Historically, animal advocates have sought to outright ban certain practices, with mixed results. However, some relatively “fringe” issues are potentially ripe for legal prohibitions. Recent examples have included bans on cetacean captivity, circus performances involving animals, and selling fur or fur trim. Most of these bans are very local in scope, but they provide a precedent for more such bans.
There are other potential game-changers, too, and we need to identify and support them. Advocacy based on education and persuasion is important, but it’s also slow and inherently limited. We should rethink our reliance on these approaches, focusing instead on creating new advocate-citizens and pursuing systemic change that can take place without the need to build a “critical mass.”