Is vegan activism too confrontational?

Is challenging members of the public with the reality of animal suffering and slaughter counterproductive? Vegans Chris Saltmarsh and Hannah Short agree to disagree.

Illustrations — Kate Copeland
Illustrations — Kate Copeland


YES: ‘By focusing on ordinary people’s behaviours vegan activists’ target is misdirected. If our ambition is to transform our food system, our target must be governments and corporations propping up business-as-usual.’
Chris Saltmarsh is a climate and social justice campaigner. He manages Fossil Free campaigns at People & Planet and writes about climate politics and social movements.
NO: ‘While being on the receiving end of slaughterhouse videos and chants may be annoying or uncomfortable, this is trivial compared to the experience of factory-farmed animals.’
Hannah Short lives in London and works for SOAS Students’ Union. She is interested in most things environment-related, and spends her time campaigning, cycling and trying to make the best of things. 

CHRIS: Whether exposing the public to graphic footage of animal slaughter or storming steakhouses chanting ‘there’s no excuse for animal abuse’, the point of confrontational vegan activism is to persuade people to become vegan. Or at least reduce meat consumption.

This strategy of building consumer demand for veganism is itself ineffective. Veganism is a new market for capital to exploit in its perpetually expanding scope of accumulation, but no substitute for the considerable profits of animal agriculture. Within capitalism, more vegan options will never mean no meat.

Eliminating the use of animals for food will require fundamentally transforming global economic and agricultural systems to work for human and non-human animals, not profit. Shifts of such historic magnitude require mass political movements. But the tactics of confrontational vegan activism restrict the possibility of such a movement emerging.

Their narratives construe veganism as a moral red-line – justified by ecological breakdown’s immediacy and/or animals’ right to life – alienating and excluding from that movement so many with deep, legitimate cultural commitments to eating meat. Capitalism makes it impossible to live and consume with total moral purity. Producing activist cultures requiring so much of participants means shooting ourselves in the foot before the marathon begins.

HANNAH: Activism is by its nature confrontational to the status quo, because it questions and challenges existing conditions. Currently, consumer capitalism surrounds us with imagery that normalizes and glorifies the consumption of non-human animals. This dominant narrative obscures the horrific conditions that 56 billion animals killed per year for food are subjected to – while enabling an industry that causes over 15 per cent of global greenhouse-gas emissions and myriad environmental problems, and also negatively impacts on the mental and physical health of factory-farm workers.All for non-essential food items.

As with successful social movements throughout history, a diversity of tactics is required to change hearts, minds and laws around consuming animals. Advancing an anti-speciesist counter-narrative requires engagement at all levels, from promoting Veganuary to showing slaughterhouse footage in public spaces, from handing out flyers to organizing stunts to ensure these messages are heard.

No doubt vegan activism has contributed to a third of Britons claiming they have stopped or reduced their meat consumption, laying the groundwork for a meat tax. This shift in public attitudes is essential to build a wider political movement and social consensus around a more ethical and environmentally sustainable food system – and the fair treatment of animals.

CHRIS: It is right that successful social movements confront the status quo and dominant narratives. However, by focusing on ordinary people’s behaviours vegan activists’ target is misdirected. If our ambition is to transform our food system, our target must be governments and corporations propping up business-as-usual. Our terrain of struggle must also move beyond just changing hearts, minds and specific laws, and towards advancing proposals and demands for structural alternatives.

It is also right to insist on a diversity of tactics to achieve such grand ambitions. However, this truism should not be used to deflect from legitimate criticism of movement strategy. Diversity of tactics does not mean a scattergun approach of random tactics which alienate the people we must welcome into our movement. It means carefully deploying effective tactics to lever existing power and build our own.

The enthusiastic proposal for a meat tax exemplifies the reactionary limits of the current vegan movement’s political imagination. This is a policy entirely consistent with the logic of austerity, disproportionately punishing the poor with financial penalties rather than the rich who propagate and profit from unsustainable industries. These false-solutions are the endpoint of a confrontational vegan activism oriented towards the consumer rather than capital.

HANNAH: I don’t currently see a viable route to this animal-friendly socialist utopia. In a speciesist world, there is no intrinsic connection between socialism and valuing non-human animals. ‘Structural alternatives’ would still require vegan activism changing minds, otherwise non-human animals would continue to be exploited – just not by big corporations. Alternatively, governments and corporations directly stopping all animal agriculture when that is not general consensus is akin to a diktat.

While late-stage capitalism persists, consumer choices are part of the limited power we have. While I agree there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, all consumption is not therefore equally unethical. Eating non-human animals directly creates demand for their slaughter. Already dietary choices result in 400 million fewer animals being consumed annually in the US alone. Before now, considerable profits of other now-unacceptable industries (eg ivory, opium, etc) have been curtailed due to morally based cultural shifts. Cultural norms need to shift anew, and public-facing activism helps that happen.

You appear to believe the encouragement to go vegan at all is ‘shooting ourselves in the foot’, tactics notwithstanding. You also posit that in future we’ll have a presumably vegan society that ‘works for humans and non-human animals’. Which is it?

CHRIS: This debate is not whether we should undertake ‘vegan activism’ at all or if changing minds is worth it. Both are essential to the mass movement I have argued is necessary. The structural changes to global food systems the movement should demand are eminently realistic. Transitioning agriculture to renewable power, drawing on traditional ecological knowledges, and prioritizing the nutritional needs of people could be achieved quickly with the right political will.

But today’s vegan movement substitutes advancing a positive vision of the future with politically disempowering depictions of an insurmountable dystopian present. Disparaging proposals for a socialist economy that transcends capitalism’s destructive obsession with profit at all costs as ‘utopian’ further indicts the failure of imagination by vegan activists. Obsession with this nebulous idea of ‘speciesism’ mystifies the material economic conditions that exploit both humans and non-human animals and obscures the clear path to transforming them.

Popular power is not in our wallets or shopping trolleys. Not while corporations determine demand as much as supply through the power of advertising and forcibly creating new markets.

The route to this future is ordinary people in diverse communities working together to demand it of governments or taking power and building it themselves.

HANNAH: Realistically, I just don’t think global socialism is around the corner, nor do I think such an economic paradigm shift is being stifled by confrontational vegan activism.

What is both realistic and achievable, however, is rapid year-on-year reduction in animal consumption through better consumer choices and vegan activism. Trends in this direction have so far been promising, suggesting that the vegan movement is doing something right.

Which brings us to the original question.

While being on the receiving end of slaughterhouse videos and chants may be annoying or uncomfortable, this is trivial compared to the experience of factory-farmed animals. Or slaughterhouse workers. Or climate change-displaced people. Et cetera. Painful moments of recognition and culpability are key in the transitions of countless vegans, including myself. All tactics play a role in the service of changing minds, from supportive coaxing to honest confrontation – and it isn’t too harsh to show people the realities they are directly paying for.

One thing is certain – in a world where animal agriculture takes up 83 per cent of farmland but only produces 18 per cent of calories, a better food system requires radically downsizing animal production and consumption. And leading the charge to help that happen? Vegan activism.