Rise of the vegan activists

It’s no secret that veganism - once practised by a minority - is on the rise. 350% more vegans live in the UK compared to a decade ago, and sales of vegan food have increased by 1,500% in the last year alone. It’s a young movement (42% of UK vegans are aged between 15 and 34) fuelled by the rise of social media and interest in conscious living (markedly, only around 14% of vegans are over 65). ​

Yet, with this remarkable rise, comes pitfalls. The rise of the ‘vanity vegan’ (think airbrushed instagram meals and hashtag bandwagons) has drawn criticism from the hardcore. Beyond the shiny, cosmopolitan endorsement of celebrities like Beyonce and Gwyneth Paltrow, advocates firmly reassert their ability - indeed their duty - to change the world.

Activist Ed Winters, AKA Earthling Ed, has a strong stance on the difference between veganism and vegan activism - which he explains is intrinsically anti-establishment. “Veganism is merely recognising oppression and removing it from your life,” he explains. “Vegan activism is about highlighting oppression and injustice in the world. It’s about accepting but dissolving your own ego. It’s incredibly empowering to put that pressure on yourself.”

“You have to reject a lifestyle you have been brought up with and the very notion of our political power,” he continues. “As vegan activists, we have to reject the mainstream political system. Our war comes within an unconscious society against ignorance and apathy. It’s about revolting against conformity and society norms. People are really afraid of breaking away from conformity - we have to ask people to question their conditioning which is incredibly hard.”

Natalie Cargill, author of Sentience Politics, similarly differentiates veganism from a lifestyle choice or diet. She argues, “We risk veganism being a diet rather than an ethical movement. Veganism is not about you; it is about saving the lives of animals - as many as possible, however we can. 70 billion land animals are killed every year, and for every year that you are vegetarian, you will save 100 animals. Dietary change is the beginning but it is very far from the end.”

The arguments for veganism are convincing. Advocates of the movement point to studies hailing it as the answer to feeding our growing population (expected to number 9 billion by 2050) as it uses fewer resources than rearing animals. United Nations experts concluded that the world’s 1992 food supply could have fed around 6.3 billion people on a purely vegetarian diet, 4.2 billion people on an 85% vegetarian diet or 3.2 billion people on a 75% vegetarian diet.

Veganism would also remove a reliance on animal agriculture that some experts have concluded is unsustainable. A 2016 State of Nature report found that intensive farming has an overwhelmingly negative impact on our wildlife, with project leader Richard Gregory explaining, “We have assessed the status of 4,000 British wildlife species, looking at the threats and pressures they face. What emerges is that there are many threats to Britain’s wildlife but by far the biggest is the steady intensification of farming, which leaves no room for wildlife and is driving many species towards extinction.”

Editor of The Vegan Magazine, Elena Orde argues, “Animal agriculture is wreaking havoc on our planet. It is a leading cause of climate change, habitat destruction and species extinction. As if this wasn’t enough, we could soon be contending with widespread antibiotic resistance due to the use of the strongest antibiotics rising to record levels on European farms.”

As founder and director of vegan charity Viva!, Juliet Gellatley has been studying the rise of antibiotic resistance and intensive farming. She says, “We give far too many antibiotics to farm animals. Because pigs and chicken are so diseased they are given drugs practically throughout all their lives and these are only withdrawn before slaughter.

“What is happening on farms is coming back to bite us - big time. Factory farming is unsustainable. A review under David Cameron found that these drugs needed to stop being used on animals and what happened? Absolutely nothing.  I’ve never heard scientists talk in the language that they do about antibiotic misuse. ‘Catastrophe’ is the word they use.’ Veganism is the only way we can take back power.”

Take back power. In vegan activism circles, this message comes up again and again. Ed sees veganism as the answer to what he calls the evils of capitalism which teach us to assume dominance over animals. He explains, “Capitalism and the financial salvation that we are promised through getting a job and ownership is a lie we are taught. We continuously strive to reach standards which do not exist. If you ever want to be happy we have to look beyond wealth.”

Passion for animals, health and the planet drives this community of activists. Veganism, it appears, goes beyond self-imposed denial of foods to rejection of social norms and human nature. Ed concludes, “We want to put our own selfish desires first, but if we value humans as less than us, then of course we’re going to value animals as less than us. We’ve been conditioned to believe that all beings, including humans, are beneath us. It’s the ultimate symbol of dominance - it doesn’t matter if you can’t get their job or home because you can eat an animal. We are told to live a life where we engage in violence and oppression, and so we think it’s acceptable to kill trillions of animals each year.”




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about 3 years ago

I can't help but think that any reason for going vegan is a good one for the planet. I became a vegan very recently because I think it's morally right but I can't understand the need for other vegans to have a 'correct' motive. What does it change? Being passionate about the environment and other animals is wonderful but you can't let passion turn into elitism because that scares others away when the aim is to encourage them to join you in making changes.