Five fatal flaws of animal activism

There are a few things that have kept me going, and kept me proud of how I’ve been living over the decades. Pretty near the top of the list is being a vegetarian for ethical reasons. That was deeply unfashionable back in 1977 when I abandoned meat-eating and went on to make The Animals Film. I was over the moon when that film had a greater impact than I’d dreamed it would; and then I went back to human concerns in my creative work. It wasn’t until some 30 years later at the suggestion of the BBC World Service that I returned to this terrain for the radio documentary series One Planet: Animals and Us. But I’d remained a vegetarian, and so hoped to discover that the exploitation of animals for food and science had been reduced since the 1980s.

What I found, however, was more than disappointing — a complete absence of decisive progress. Austria with several new laws has come closest to meaningful change, but even there the number of animals suffering for human needs and pleasures is undiminished, and the industrialised exploitation of animals for food is spreading across the globe.

There has been one unarguable advance, though, and that’s been the progressive “normalisation” of vegetarianism over the years.

When I first settled in Britain, restaurants seldom offered vegetarian choices; supermarkets barely catered to my needs at all. London’s main vegetarian restaurant was named Cranks, and that said it all. Today, by contrast, families happily pop out to the corner shop to buy vegetarian foods to host my young daughter, and “veggie” options are steadily becoming staples in school lunch halls.

In light of this, one New Zealand-based listener’s criticism of my work for the BBC World Service stood out from enthusiastic responses to the programmes. “So disappointing to hear Schonfeld is still a vegetarian after so many years,” she complained. What she was underlining is that I had not become a vegan. Though I concluded the series with Professor Gary Francione calling for vegan education as “the moral baseline” for animal rights, that still left the question: what about me personally, and the way I live now?

I had stopped short of removing milk and eggs from my diet and all leather and wool from my clothing. I’d had my rationales for this, the main one being that I hadn’t wanted to impose too zealously nonconformist a lifestyle on my family. Also, in the 1980s, one of the traps for the animal rights movement was marginalisation. So when I was interviewed about The Animals Film and journalists thought they’d caught me out in personal inconsistencies, I’d say I wore leather shoes or took milk in my coffee so that the implications of the film couldn’t be dismissed by labelling the filmmaker a fanatic.

But now in the 21st century supermarkets routinely cater to vegetarian food buyers, restaurant menus regularly display vegetarian symbols, and the harm to health and the global environment caused by factory farming has become established knowledge. It’s time for vegans to become vocal. Even free range eggs and organic milk production entail significant suffering and the animals are killed when their productivity goes down.

Yet we are socialised from early childhood to use a plethora of animal products without thinking. To follow a vegan path requires daily thought and effort. Here’s what I’ve realised: getting to that ultimate zero-exploitation goal may be elusive, but the continuing efforts are empowering.

So, on an individual level I’m hopeful. But the Animals and Us series made vivid that the organised group efforts on behalf of animals have been largely fruitless to date, in terms of the end goals, and campaigns for small changes are quite possibly counterproductive. The organised activism is sorely in need of fresh perspectives. Thus I submit here for scrutiny five fatal flaws of animal activism:

1. Instead of promoting animal rights goals as a major plank within broader social change movements, animal organisations insist on going it alone. Yet the Green party’s animal rights goals are as radical as any animal rights organisation’s.

2. One of the world’s largest animal rights organisations routinely employs naked young women, including porn stars, to chase mass media attention. Would a human rights organisation stoop so low?

3. Animal rights organisations have been handing out awards and lavishing praise on slaughterhouse designers and burger restaurant chains after “negotiations” for small changes that leave the systems of exploitation intact.

4. Instead of animal rights organisations promoting a clear “moral baseline” that individuals should become vegans to curb their own demands for animal exploitation, groups have given their stamp of approval to deeply compromised marketing concepts such as “happy meat”, “freedom foods”, “sustainable meat”, and “conscientious omnivores”.

5. Tactics of violence and personal intimidation have at long last fallen out of favour, but activists now pour energy and resources into organisations that lack any real strategy for bringing an end to animal exploitation, whether for food or science.

Animal activists have not been asking themselves the difficult questions, and organisational self-promotion stunts substitute for the less glamorous work of figuring out how to help each of us change the way we live. Much noise, little change. Perhaps it’s time to reverse that. –

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