Transforming and Creating Culture—A Reflection on the Holidays

What could holidays look like in a vegan world?

Better yet, what new traditions can we create to bring people together?

Thanksgiving, circa 2018

Currently, the majority of people in the United States gather with their families each year on the second-to-last Thursday of November. People drive or fly in from out of town to be with parents, children, and siblings. A big feast is prepared, and everyone sits down at the dinner table together to eat and say what they’re thankful for. It’s a great time to be around family and friends, eat good food, and take a couple days off of work—things that everyone enjoys. (Unless politics start getting discussed.)

This all sounds rather lovely, except that the central part of the feast is almost always a dead turkey.

(One note that I think is really important, especially as we’re discussing this particular holiday: I know that certain holidays and traditions, Thanksgiving being one of them, originate from oppression against humans as well as nonhumans—in this case, a history of violence against the native people of North America. I’m offering the ideas in this post specifically in relation to the movement for nonhuman animals, like animals killed for food, but it’s possible some ideas could be applicable to discussing the human oppression and suffering involved as well. The basic idea of this post is to try to change culture from a psychologically sound place of understanding those who you want to influence. I think a promising example of transforming culture is how some cities are replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.)

What to Do with Bad Culture

An understandable reaction to harmful and oppressive culture—such as any tradition that involves harming animals—is to want to simply reject it outright: “Thanksgiving is a stupid holiday and I will take no part in it. I won’t come, I won’t talk about it, and I’ll pretend it doesn’t even exist.”

This is a common reaction of vegans to things that involve eating animals, and it’s a common reaction of anyone who sees some dominant oppression in society. We think: the oppression is bad, and thus anything associated with the oppression is bad.

Unfortunately, this approach isn’t particularly popular with the majority of people. “You don’t eat animals, and now you want to destroy our holidays with family, too?”

For someone who doesn’t see the violence taking place at a Thanksgiving dinner table, bad-mouthing Thanksgiving is basically like saying, “I hate family and being thankful for things.” Not only does nothing get accomplished about the dead turkey on the table, but people are probably pushed a little further away from acknowledging the core issue, which is violence towards animals.

But to acquiesce and go along with the full cultural tradition is basically to give tacit approval to the act of killing a turkey for dinner.

How can we navigate this territory, making progress for animals without making a whole bunch of people angry or defiant in the process?

Transform or Create

Let’s say you’re trying to kick a bad habit. Should you focus on not doing that habit, or on what you will do instead?

Research suggests that trying to kick a habit by focusing on not doing it can actually be counterproductive, leading us to do the habit more than we had been before. “If I have the urge to smoke, then I just won’t smoke.” This is because by telling ourselves “don’t do that thing”, we’re actually thinking about the thing even more.

So what should we do? Instead of focusing on telling ourselves how much we’re not going to do the old thing, we have to tell ourselves something positive that we will do—a new habit that we’ll put in place. “If I have the urge to smoke, I’ll step outside and chew a piece of gum instead.”

This idea could provide a model for how to deal with negative aspects of culture.

Transform Existing Culture

We have a problem with the dead bird on the table for Thanksgiving.

Following the research above, if we keep talking about the things we want to get rid of, we’re just going to keep reinforcing thoughts of those things. By reinforcing those thoughts, people might become more entrenched in wanting those things, even if they didn’t feel as strongly before.

Reminds me of the saying, “Any press is good press.” When it comes to reinforcing ideas in our brain, that idea is probably true.

So let’s take a look at the other approach—emphasizing something else instead of the negative thing.

One way we could approach the issue is by identifying the positive aspects that we believe the culture or tradition is really about, and then communicating our support for those pieces while suggesting a substitution for the bad parts. (Perhaps downplaying the significance of those parts, if possible.)

Maybe we make the case that Thanksgiving is really about family and giving thanks, and we downplay as much as possible the role of the turkey—while maybe offering up some information about why it’s wrong to kill turkeys, if we can do so in a way the audience will be receptive to.

We then express our wholehearted support for those values—family and giving thanks—while expressing our desire to change just a couple of things. Maybe we could even frame those changes as being more in line with the values of family and giving thanks: “On a day where we celebrate giving thanks and family, we wouldn’t want to take the turkeys away from their families.”

If possible, we can transform the culture to remove the negative aspects while reinforcing the positive aspects—potentially even introducing new positive aspects to the culture, to lessen the feeling of loss of any of the negative aspects. The book Switch by Chip and Dan Heath is packed with good ideas on how to help make changes like these easier.

In time, we could shift culture where a vegan Thanksgiving is more in line with the “true meaning” of the holiday than a non-vegan one.

Create Analogous Culture

Sometimes, it might be really difficult to transform a piece of culture or a tradition.

Maybe we’re getting a lot of resistance to the idea of reframing it, or maybe the idea of animal exploitation is so deeply ingrained that it’d be impossible to remove it.

In these cases, one thing we could try is creating our own new and analogous culture.

For example, maybe we create a new tradition of going hiking on Thanksgiving, or donating to charity. Maybe we start a totally new “Vegan Pie Day” tradition on the Saturday before or after Thanksgiving.

Although this might not succeed at eradicating the negative aspects of the other tradition, it could give people more chances to positively associate with our ideas of creating a better world. Maybe your friend goes to a Thanksgiving dinner and eats part of a turkey, but then he also goes to Vegan Pie Day the next Saturday and gets exposed to the idea of not killing animals. After a few years, maybe some of those ideas have started to sink in. Maybe your friend grows slowly more uncomfortable with the turkey on the table each year because he knows he’s going to Vegan Pie Day a few days later.

Rather than always fighting the bad aspects of what we don’t like, we could experiment with creating some new, associated positive traditions—Vegan Pie Day or otherwise.

Creating New Culture

Another powerful thing to think about is how we can create completely new culture centered around animals or veganism.

I think Veganuary has done a great job of this, creating a “culture” of people trying out veganism in January, and I’m excited to see it continue growing. Vegan Outreach and others have also created—or adapted from others—a culture of leafleting within the movement. I think the Liberation Pledge is another example of trying to create new culture by uniting people who don’t sit at tables where animals are being eaten and adding a physical element (the fork bracelet).

Or consider the new culture that animal sanctuaries have created.

Previously, any place that kept animals such as cows, pigs, and chickens would only have them there in order to exploit them and eat or sell their bodies. Sanctuaries have created a whole new model, allowing animals to live full lives as freely and healthfully as possible. Sanctuaries also sometimes let the public come and meet the animals and learn about the ways in which humans exploit other animals. For many people, this is their first time ever meeting a cow, pig, or chicken.

In addition, there’s a third component of the new culture sanctuaries have created, which is that of volunteerism and vegan refuge from an emotionally challenging world. I hear this all the time from people who volunteer at one of our local sanctuaries here in Colorado, Luvin Arms.

(Side note—Luvin Arms has also recently started the Open Sanctuary project, open sourcing everything they know about starting and running a sanctuary. I think this is a phenomenal example of an organization investing in movement building.)

Sanctuaries are often run at least in part by volunteers, people who care about the mission and want to pitch in. Volunteers also sometimes come just for their own emotional health, which many people have told me is a large part of why they volunteer.

In sanctuaries, we see a very thorough example of new culture: creating a safe place for animals, not an exploitive one; creating an opportunity for public education around the issues; and creating a place for animal advocates to volunteer in a physical, hands-on way and to recharge their emotional batteries.

It’s this kind of culture that’s going to endure far into the future.

New Cultures We Could Create

Let’s take a couple of minutes to noodle on some types of new culture and tradition we could create.


Everyone loves a good holiday. Why don’t we create our own, and have some associated activities with it?

It could be “Advocate Day”, where people who consider themselves animal advocates get together and share a meal and tell stories.

It could be “Vegan Pie Day”, where we all make or buy vegan pies and give them to non-vegan friends or family.

Maybe it’s “Animal Liberation Day”, where people get together and talk about all the progress that’s been made for animals. We could tell stories about all of the people who have advocated for animals through time, and tell stories about what kind of vision we have for the future.

Whatever it is, keep in mind the things that people like. People like food, friends, family, drinking, giving and receiving gifts, playing games, telling stories, engaging in meaningful rituals, singing, dancing, and laughing. (And of course, some people don’t like several of these things.)

Some days do already exist, like World Vegan Day (November 1st), World Vegetarian Day (October 1st), World Day for the End of Speciesism (date changes each year), etc. It seems like we have a long way to go, though, to successfully create new traditions that both naturally invite participation and also positively impact society for animals.


Certain types of activities can be baked in various cultures. For example, in many religious traditions, the activities of donating money (tithing) and traveling to spread the religion (mission trips) are big parts of what it means to be a member of that religion. People living in Boulder, where I live, have a strong culture of outdoor recreation like hiking, climbing, and skiing. High school boys where I grew up had a culture of getting together to play video games and eat at Waffle House.

We already have a culture of participating in sanctuary work, which is a great example of new culture being created. But what other positive things could we create?

We might also create a culture of donation, for example, where vegans and other animal advocates donate some percentage of their money to organizations working on animal issues. Maybe we have a culture of getting together with others weekly and writing letters to people in our local communities, encouraging them to adopt animal-friendly stances and policies. Maybe “Vegan Drinks” becomes a new monthly tradition, where every city around the world has one night a month where vegans come together to socialize and catch up. Maybe weekly potlucks or other types of weekly gatherings could become more of a norm.

Traditions for Your Group or Platform

If you’re part of a group, or you run a website, or you have a platform of any kind, you can create traditions and culture that are specific to your platform and your audience.

Veganuary is a good example of this, where the whole organization is built around a certain type of tradition. (The tradition of people trying out going vegan in January.)

Maybe you run a website or a social media page related to animal advocacy or veganism. You could create new culture or make up a tradition around anything you think is important.

Let’s say you really care about fish advocacy, because so many fish are killed each year and most people are very far from including fish in their moral consideration. You could have one week a year—let’s say you call it “Fish Week”—where you hold events and encourage specific actions related to fish advocacy. You could tap into human psychology and include some kind of celebration, and some kind of competition.

Or maybe you want to have a culture of vegan mentorship. One way to really emphasize that could be to have one day a month that’s always devoted to discussing mentorship, checking in with mentors and mentees, encouraging people to sign up for the mentoring program, etc.

There are a lot of opportunities here. Here are a couple of questions you could ask yourself:

  1. What are things we think are really important? What do we really care about?
  2. Is there a way to create some culture around those important things, where everyone in your community knows that they’re supposed to care about something? Or that they’re supposed to do something?
  3. Can you set up your culture in a way where doing the right thing is the easy thing, because it’s baked into the foundations of who you are?
  4. Is there a new tradition you can create to help bring attention or awareness to something important? How can you make sure it’s naturally appealing to people while still conveying the meaning you want?

And if we keep working on transforming existing culture and creating new culture, piece by piece we will create a better future for animals—family and holidays included.

What are your thoughts? Please feel free to leave a comment below or reach out using the contact form. And if you have ideas for future topics for AMP, I would love to hear those too!

The Animal Movement Project (AMP) is a platform dedicated to building the movement for animals.

We share thoughts and ideas that can take the movement for animals from x to 10x. Our focus is predominantly on animals exploited for food since they account for more than 99% of the animals exploited by humans. The topics covered are often about ways to tie the pieces of the movement together or to fill in the gaps. We focus on connecting people, ideas, and resources to each other.

Recidivism: Or, Vegan and Back Again

Despite my best efforts, I almost didn’t make it into the movement.

Going Veg, Attempts #1-6

In high school, I saw factory farm footage and thought it was terrible. I dabbled in vegetarianism for a bit, then went back to eating animals. Let’s just say that suburban Georgia wasn’t a very supportive place to be vegetarian around that time.

(Maybe it’s gotten better with the recent explosion in veganism.)

In college, I basically repeated this. I watched a documentaryI think it was Food, Inc.—and was again horrified at how we treat animals, so I tried going vegetarian for the second time. College life remained relentlessly busy, though, and I didn’t have a ton of spare mental space or energy for a big lifestyle change: I had a demanding job, my math major classes could be brutally difficult, and I was spending every spare minute starting and growing a band with my close friend.

Once again, due to lack of support and lack of continued exposure to the issues, I gradually slipped back into eating animals.

It was just easier to not stress over what I ate. Apart from the things I saw on a screen once every few years, there was no real tangible benefit that I noticed to being vegetarian—and there were very real benefits to not being vegetarian, like having two dozen sandwich options to eat at Subway instead of one.

Besides, humans are social animals. I could only blaze this path alone for so long before burning out, and I had basically been alone in my efforts each time I tried.

I repeated this cycle about three more times, each time getting a little more serious about making a few more connections. I went vegetarian, then back—then I went vegan, then back—then I started getting more involved in activism, then back. It was only when I moved to Boulder, Colorado about four years ago that I completely committed to the process and finally made some good friends in the movement.

All in all, it took me about a decade of exposure to the issues and half a decade of trying to get involved before it really stuck. It was never easy, and I might as well have given up at any point.

Rampant Recidivism

All of this is to say, I can see how easy it would be for someone to go vegan or vegetarian and then give up. I mean, I gave up half a dozen times. 

According to a study by Faunalytics, somewhere around 84% of people who go vegetarian or vegan end up going back to eating animals—53% of them in the first year.

(Maybe some of them end up coming back to it later, like I did.)

It’s not like these are all people who say “You know what? I decided I actually don’t care”. There are immense pressures in society to conform to what’s seen as normal—in this case, not being vegan or vegetarian. You basically have to put up with always being different and occasionally (or daily) being made fun of in subtle or not-so-subtle ways. You’re not allowed to ever get sick or feel bad, because people will tell you that your diet is killing you. (They’ll tell you your diet is killing you even if you don’t get sick.)

Given the full weight of society pushing against you, and probably not much social support pushing you back the other way, it’s easy for time to take its toll. It’s easy to slip back into the mainstream.

Two Possible Futures

Let’s do some math! 

This isn’t going to be perfect of course, but let’s just construct a simple mathematical model of recidivism and see what happens.

I’m going to use the Python programming language and a Jupyter notebook, but you could also run something similar in Excel or Google Sheets if you wanted. (It’s fine if those words don’t mean anything to you, I’ll explain all of the results.)

Let’s assume that around 80% of people who go vegan end up going back to eating animals within a year, and then the rate drops off after that. Let’s also assume that vegans create more vegans, and that you probably create more vegans each year that you’re vegan. (These assumptions could be wrong, but let’s just go with it for now.)

How much impact are we missing for animals due to recidivism?


Modeling 3,000,000 Vegans in the US

Let’s start at the present day, assuming that 1% of the United States is vegan—about 3 million people—and let’s create two different futures. In the first future, the recidivism rate stays at 80% in the first year before dropping off—in other words, lots of vegans go back after the first year, but the rate of people giving up goes down after that. I’ll plug this into the model as an 80% probability of the person not being vegan after year one.

In the second future, we as a movement figure out how to drop recidivism to 50% in the first year, with the exact same drop off after.

I’ll also say that vegans create one vegan for every year they’ve been vegan. If someone has been vegan for 10 years, they create 10 vegans that year; if someone has been vegan for 3 years, they create 3 vegans.

“Creating” vegans sounds a little weird, but I think it’s probably better than “convert”. We might need some new language here.

Let’s take a look at the difference over 20 years.

Here’s the model: Simple vegan recidivism model in Python

One quick note. The model returns slightly different numbers with each run because of the use of probability, so the numbers I list here might not exactly match the ones you see in the linked model.

(If anyone wants to help me make this model more visual and interactive, please reach out.)


Future #1: 80% recidivism rate over 20 years

The first thing that we notice is that in this model, there’s a massive drop-off in year one because 80% of people drop off immediately, and no one is creating new vegans yet. (People who have been vegan for zero years don’t create any new vegans in the model.) So after year one, we’ve gone from 3,000,000 vegans down to 560,000.

Then, because the recidivism rate drops off and people start creating new vegans, we begin the climb back up. By year 10, we’re back up to 1,018,000 vegans, and by year 20 we’re at 1,616,000.

So obviously, our model isn’t perfectly reflecting reality here. According to the survey data we have, the number of vegans and vegetarians in the US definitely hasn’t fluctuated this much.

But we’re not going for perfection, just an interesting model. So let’s carry on!


Future #2: 50% recidivism rate over 20 years

Our initial drop-off is much less, because the first-year recidivism rate is much lower. After year one, we’re down to 1,343,000 vegans.

More vegans lasting through year one means that all those people will start creating more vegans in year two and beyond. By year 10, we’re up to 2,202,000 vegans, and by year 20 we’ve got 3,929,000 vegans in the US!


In our very imperfect model, we ended up with 2.4 times as many vegans when we learned how to shave down the recidivism rate. Although I could spend months trying to create an accurate model of the growth of veganism in society (and still have a horribly inaccurate model), the basic idea here is the same: 

84% of people giving up on being vegan or vegetarian is huge. Reducing that number as much as possible will have significant effects, immediately and in the long-term.


Solutions: Shaving Recidivism

So, given the huge potential here (including endless spillover effects we probably can’t even anticipate), how can we make progress with this problem?

Let’s imagine recidivism as a big bearded monster, and our goal is to shave that monster as much as possible.

Actually, let’s maybe not continue this metaphor any further. 

So how do we address recidivism? Although some of the causes of recidivism have been documented, there hasn’t been much (or any?) research in addressing those causes. But, I think that we can make educated guesses about the solutions based on what we know some of the problems to be.


The Foundation Behind the Solutions: Matching Supply and Demand

Harish Sethu at Humane League Labs has a really great way of thinking about advocacy that he presented at the 2018 Animal Rights National Conference in sunny Los Angeles.

He posed something like this question to us: Is it better to focus on demand-based advocacy, such as influencing people to go vegan, or supply-based activism, such as the development of plant-based food products or encouraging companies to carry more vegan options.

The answer? Trick question—we need to match supply and demand, otherwise our efforts will be wasted.

Let’s say we develop a million different types of vegan food products, but nobody wants them. Too much supply without enough demand means that the products will fail, and we won’t help many animals. Everyone will keep buying what they usually do, because they don’t want vegan alternatives.

Similarly, if we encourage a million different people to go vegan, but there aren’t resources there to support them (like high availability of vegan food products), then those people will be fighting an uphill battle. After too long of this, they might give up and go back to doing what’s normal, what’s mainstream. Too much demand without enough supply is also a problem.

Here’s what I consider to be the most important point: This analogy works not only for food products, but also for emotional and social “products”.

(Thinking about this blows my mind a little.)

If we encourage 1,000,000 people to go vegan (which we have), but we don’t adequately provide “products” for their new emotional and social needs, what happens? People get frustrated and give up.

I think in some ways, this is where we currently are as a movement.

We’ve spent literally decades focused almost exclusively on creating demand for a new future. We tell people “go vegan, go vegan, go vegan…” and then they do, and we say “congratulations!” and we move on to the next person.

Meanwhile, that person is left with new needs. They need to have a social environment that supports them. They need to know how to deal emotionally with the newfound knowledge that humans brutally exploit animals. They need ways to feel hope that a better future is possible, ways to feel like they’re making a difference to solve the problem.

These are all “products” in some sense—social and emotional products, not to mention the physical food products that we’re all aware of—and we as a movement haven’t focused much energy on creating these products. We haven’t built up enough supply for the demand we’ve created.

It’s like we’ve been encouraging people to get an education, but we haven’t been building schools or training teachers. We’ve been telling people to recycle, but not creating recycling plants.

We need to think more about the full life cycle of a vegan: Not only do we need to get them there, but we need to create the support systems for them afterwards as well.

You can think of the solution ideas below as being focused on one or more of these “products” that I think we need to create. This is just a starting list; there are plenty more things you could think of.


Solution #1: Increase Social Connection

As I mentioned in the blog 30 Million Vegans about people empowerment, our social connections can dictate or reinforce a lot of our behavior. What we do is often a matter of who we’re connected to.

There are four types of social connection I think could be valuable here:

  • Face-to-face peer connection. Connect a vegan with another vegan already in their community, and ideally someone who they would naturally be friends with. Meetup groups can help facilitate people meeting each other, but there’s a lot of room for more work to be done here.
  • Online peer connection. Connect a vegan with another vegan online, once again ideally someone who they would naturally be friends with. Facebook groups and other platforms of that nature provide space for this, although there are two problems here currently. First is that most people in these Facebook groups aren’t actually connected to other individuals within the group; they don’t have real relationships. Second is that these groups can often be quite hostile or focused on personal perfectionism instead of real impact for animals, which isn’t a good environment to be in (especially for people who might be prone to recidivism).
  • Mentoring connection. Connect a newer vegan with someone who’s been vegan for a while. This could happen online or in-person (ideally in-person.) I know that Vegan Outreach has done some work in this area (and others might have too), although I don’t have the stats for how successful their program has been.
  • Online non-peer connection. Connect a vegan to a volunteer or staff member at an organization who is volunteering their time to talk to newer vegans. The Veg Support program at Mercy For Animals is a great example of this, as is the Challenge 22+ initiative.


Solution #2: Provide Coping Mechanisms

What are the common problems that new vegans face, and how can we create “products” that help them cope with these problems? There’s a lot of psychological and sociological research that we can draw on.

For example, social isolation is a big problem: feeling alone, or feeling different, or being the butt of jokes.

What research exists that we can leverage to help people who are facing this problem? How can we turn that research into recommendations, and then get those to the people who need them?


Solution #3: Emphasize the Importance of Action, Not Perfection

There are two concepts we need to bake into our culture as a movement:

  1. It’s better to do something than to give up completely.

n>0 is better than n=0, where n is the amount of positive impact someone has for animals.

If someone is having a hard time being vegan because there’s cheese in everything, then that person should know that it’s okay to just do the best they can rather than give up completely.

We’d rather have 1,000 people eat cheese occasionally than totally give up and go back to eating chickens. We need to help people not be demoralized if they feel like they’re failing to meet some standard.

Of course, this doesn’t necessarily work if people eat more of certain animals. For example, eating chickens or fish instead of cows drastically increases the number of animals who die each year, a fact that now seems fairly well-established in the movement thanks in part to the work of Matt Ball and others. Chickens and fish also suffer a great deal because of how often they’re kept in extreme confinement.

(Aside: It might be the case that it’s easier psychologically for someone to give up eating mammals, then birds, then fish, then get more involved in activism, so the long-term impact here is highly uncertain. But we should at least keep these facts in mind when making decisions.)

  1. Our impact on society is much bigger than our personal purchases.

This might be a little counterintuitive and weird, but hang on with me.

Imagine someone who works full time to end the exploitation of animals for food. They devote every waking hour to it and, in fact, each year they have a huge positive impact for animals.

Now imagine that they also eat McDonald’s hamburgers for every meal.

Weird, right? I’m not sure that this person would actually exist, but imagine that they did.

Despite the strangeness of this situation, their net impact on animals is still massively positive. In fact, most of their impact comes from the positive work they do for animals, and the McDonald’s hamburgers every day contribute only a very small amount of negative impact. Maybe their work helps end animal farming in our lifetimes.

Of course, in real life, we might assume that someone who eats animals for every meal isn’t actually doing work that creates significant positive change for them, and this assumption would probably be justified.

(I actually could imagine a hyper-utilitarian person in politics who works toward major reductions in animal farming while eating a standard American diet, in order to appear more “normal” and have greater political sway. But it’s still a strange concept.)

But the point is that each person is…well, only one person. If they change their own life, that’s only one person changed out of billions.

This is still very important of course—but now imagine that one person influencing 100 other people. Most of that person’s impact for animals comes from the beliefs and behaviors of those 100 people, not from their own personal actions.

I still believe that, generally speaking, it’s best to embody the change you want to see as much as possible. The spillover effects of embodied belief are probably significant. (Nobody likes a hypocrite.)

But I think that we as a movement need to do a better job about getting people to keep the big picture in mind, and to remember that to truly create a difference for animals we can’t just be happy with our own personal behavior change. (And that some behaviors, such as spending significant energy on eliminating every animal byproduct from our lives, probably aren’t worth it compared to higher impact behaviors.)



We do a lot of work to get people to care about animals and make choices that have positive impacts on animals.

However, we risk losing 80+% of that work if we don’t simultaneously focus on keeping people there once they change. It’s possible that veg recidivism has been responsible for us losing the vast majority of the impact we could have had via individual diet change.

For anyone working on individual diet change, keep the problem of recidivism top of mind. Ask yourself, “When I’m successful at getting someone to go vegan or to take meaningful action for animals, what am I going to do to make sure they’re supported? How am I going to make sure they don’t go back to how they were before?”

Once we’re all asking this question, maybe we’ll recapture that 80% lost impact.

Imagine what kind of world we’ll create when that happens.

What do you think? These posts are for you, so please leave a comment below with your thoughts!

Do you want more depth? Less? Longer posts, shorter posts? Comment below, or you can reach me through the contact page.

If you have information about this topic that you think I should have included, please let me know and I can potentially make edits for future readers.

If you have ideas for topics to cover on the AMP blog, definitely let me know those too.

The Animal Movement Project (AMP) is a platform dedicated to building the movement for animals.

We share thoughts and ideas that can take the movement for animals from x to 10x. Our focus is predominantly on animals exploited for food since they account for more than 99% of the animals exploited by humans. The topics covered are often about ways to tie the pieces of the movement together or to fill in the gaps. We focus on connecting people, ideas, and resources to each other.

30 Million Vegans – Empowering People in the Movement for Animals

We’re sitting on top of a gold mine of potential impact for animals called “people empowerment”. All we have to do is start digging.

Vegans, 1950 vs. 2018

Let’s say you’re a vegan back in 1950. You probably live in the UK (where Donald Watson and The Vegan Society were), and there are probably only a few thousand of you. You’re part of a virtually non-existent social group that no one knows or cares about, except to occasionally criticize you for your diet (which they think you’ll die from). No one knows what the word “vegan” means—it was only invented a few years back after all, in 1944—and there definitely aren’t any companies self-identifying as vegan or creating vegan products.

The total influence of you and every other vegan in 1950 is almost exactly zero.

Fast forward to 2018, and things are a little different. Veganism has become a global trend. It’s discussed on late night talk shows. Celebrities and politicians are doing it. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of organizations devoted entirely to promoting veganism and ending animal agriculture. And even those who would never dream of going vegetarian still know what the word vegan means.

The effects of the movement ripple out into broader society in big ways:

“Sales of plant-based meat in the US increased 23 percent in the past year. Sales of plant-based foods now exceed $3.7 billion in the US alone. A study done by Waitrose shows that one in five adults follow a flexitarian diet, or reducing the amount of meat they eat.”


And depending on who you ask, somewhere around 1% of the entire United States population now identifies as vegan. (New contradictory numbers seem to come out every year, so I’m just going to stake a flag in the number 1% for right now.) Just for a little perspective, that’s a greater percentage than the number of self-identified Buddhists in the US, and almost as many Mormons.

Around 325 million people live in the US, which means that 1% of the US population is over three million people—over three million vegans.

Globally, there are probably at least 30 million vegans.

So. Where are they?

Where Are the Vegans?

I’m incredibly fortunate in that I get to spend all of my working hours each day on animal advocacy, something that I know many people dream about doing. I work at Mercy For Animals as the analytics and research manager, and we as an organization have a little over 100 staff. We get thousands of applications each year and can only accept a very small number of new employees, so I remind myself every day how lucky I am to be here.

Even with only about 100 staff, MFA is a pretty large organization within the movement—there are only a handful of organizations in the movement globally that have more staff than we do. (For comparison, Google has around 85,000 employees.)

Tallying up the staff counts of several of the organizations I know of and then boosting that number a bit for anything I’m missing, we could roughly estimate that there are around 1,000 full-time advocates working on promoting veganism, reducing farmed animal suffering, or ending animal agriculture. That’s probably not very close, but I would imagine it’s not off by an order of magnitude.

In addition, there are all of the volunteers for the various organizations that exist. Using some more rough math, I’ll calculate that to be 10,000 people.

And then, finally, there are other activists and advocates who just do their own thing. Let’s say there are 100,000 people like that.

Putting it all together, that’s still only 4% of the number of vegans in the US alone. Globally, this means that less than 1% of vegans are active in the movement.

That’s a lot of impact for animals being left on the table.

Jodie the Vegan

Let’s take a look at Jodie. Jodie is someone with a randomly generated name, because I needed one (thank you random name generator), and she’s a vegan living in the US.

Why the US? Because that’s where I live and I know it the best. Feel free to have Jodie living elsewhere in this story, if you think she’d like it better there. (Jodie informed me that she likes having seasons, so keep that in mind.)

Anyway, Jodie is vegan and has been for about a year, but she’s not particularly involved in anything. She knows a couple other people who are vegetarian, but she doesn’t actually know any other vegans, although she does follow some people on Instagram.

Jodie is at a bit of a transitory time in her life. She just got a full-time job in her field—perhaps cliodynamics or exo-meteorology—moved into a new apartment, and doesn’t have too many hobbies or anything set just yet. She stumbled across factory farm footage online a year ago (which is why she went vegan) and she would love to help out, but she doesn’t know how and she hasn’t looked into it too much.

Time goes by. Life is full of a lot of interesting and important things, and slowly Jodie gets invited to various events, or she comes across things on Meetup. Most of them are social events, or community sports teams. Some of them are related to political matters, things that are important issues in the area where Jodie lives. She gets involved in salsa dancing, pickup softball, and local city council meetings.

None of these things are related to helping farmed animals. (Although Jodie does start volunteering at the local shelter with a friend.)

More time goes by. Jodie is more solidly rooted in her new habits, her new life. She’s still vegan, mostly, but none of her friends are. The importance of farmed animal issues wanes in her mind, simply due to lack of engagement and lack of continued exposure to the issues.

Maybe Jodie stays vegan. Maybe she goes back to being vegetarian, or after a few more years tries a paleo diet, which her friends are all trying out. She starts dating someone who isn’t vegetarian, they get married, and slowly things slip back to the status quo—day by day, year after year.

Impact for animals, lost.

But what if things went differently?

Let’s rewrite this history a bit. What if when Jodie came across the factory farm footage, she was able to get connected somehow, even if only just a little bit? Maybe she signs a petition, or signs up for an email list, or donates to an animal rights organization.

But that’s not the end of the story, it’s only the beginning. From there, we as a movement figure out the question: How does Jodie want to help? What does she care about, or enjoy doing? What is she good at? We make answering that question a central part of our work as advocates for animals, because we know how much impact Jodie can create for animals if she’s empowered.

Through a people-first approach, we get to know Jodie and help her gradually get more involved in the movement—first just in whatever ways she wants, to help get her plugged into things, and then eventually in higher impact ways.

We know that social connections are maybe the most influential and important part of someone’s life (for example, the number one predictor of smoking is living with someone who does), so we make sure to connect Jodie with other vegans and people in the movement, both locally and globally. Through these connections, she builds new friendships with people who are also committed to changing the world for animals. She and her friends support and challenge each other to stick with it.

Maybe one day, her group of friends has an idea for a new initiative, a new type of activism, a new organization. Maybe it’s the creation of speciesism education workshops for high school students, or a vegan podcast production company, or a plant-based chicken product.

Whatever it is, we as a movement have planned for this inevitable progression which we welcome with open arms—we need all of the diversity and innovation that we can get. We connect Jodie and her friends to resources that can help them prototype their idea, and then turn it into something bigger. After a few months, their idea shows some success. Maybe after a few years, it’s a whole new organization creating a different type of impact around the world, and employing more full-time advocates.

Even though she started with no knowledge about the issues and no motivation to do anything about them, Jodie has progressed into an activist and leader who is now making a major difference for animals. With her efforts, we’re able to reach our goal of changing the relationship between humans and other animals faster—we end the exploitation of animals for food sooner. More animals are helped because of it.

And it only happened because we as a movement decided to help people like Jodie as much as possible, every step of the way.


How Much Impact Are We Missing?

A huge amount.

It doesn’t matter how you slice it, we as a movement are currently not empowering people like Jodie to progress as advocates for animals, and that translates to a lot of untapped impact.

Getting plugged into anything is a mixture of internal drive and external circumstance. If you and I hadn’t been as motivated, or if we hadn’t met the right people at the right time, we might not be here in the movement.

We need to increase the probability of someone having those chances and opportunities like we did. We need to make sure that when someone happens to get connected to the movement, we do everything in our power to help them stay in it and grow in it.

So how much impact are we actually missing, in quantitative terms?

It’s all guesswork, of course, but let’s say we could figure out how to empower even 1% of the vegans in the world—one percent of 30 million vegans globally is 300,000 empowered activists.

Remember—there are probably somewhere around 1,000 full-time advocates right now. What could we do with another 300,000?

The answer is an incredible amount. Much more than we’re currently doing.

Who’s Working On It?

So who is working on this currently?

Despite our room for growth as a movement, there are people doing some really fantastic work right now, and I would be remiss to not mention them.

Melanie Joy and Tobias Leenaert run activist trainings through the Center for Effective Vegan Advocacy. The Humane League runs webinars for activists, as does Mercy For Animals. Direct Action Everywhere has focused much of their entire existence on people empowerment. Vegan Outreach also has a long track record of focusing on empowering people.

In addition, some other groups like The Save Movement and Anonymous for the Voiceless have built up distributed models of activism, even if the model itself is still limited to a very specific type of activity. They’re innovating on the types of activism available, expanding the menu of options for people to get involved. At MFA, I think our Veg Support team has also done a great job of providing a new method of online activism. This is a really, really great thing, providing more ways that someone can help.


Moving Beyond What We’ve Always Done

But on the whole, our movement has a lot of room for growth. Historically, and even today, the main ways we have for people to get involved are leafleting, tabling, and a couple forms of online activism. If someone wants to help out in ways other than that, most of the time they’re on their own.

Is this because of a lack of actual opportunities to create an impact? Definitely not—we’ve barely scraped the surface of tactics, strategies, and organizations that could be created and scaled up. I know from personal experience that if you sit down a handful of activists in a room together and ask them what the movement needs or what’s missing, the ideas will come flying. Each new idea—and especially each idea that is the most different from what the movement usually does—is an opportunity to bring in and empower a whole new segment of people working for animals.

As just one example of how I personally could be doing better at this, I love all things data analysis and data science—a hot topic these days. I could be working harder to unify advocates in the data science space and create opportunities for newer vegans to get involved if this is what they’re interested in.

Of course, this is a pretty small and technical audience, but imagine if all of us were thinking more along these terms: activism opportunities for media creators, chefs, entrepreneurs, coders, athletes, teachers, truck drivers, parents, students.

Imagine a world where each activity and interest and group of people had an analog in the movement.

Essentially, the challenge is this. If we want to truly change the whole world for animals, we need all the help we can get in every domain possible. How can we ensure there are good opportunities for everyone in this movement, according to their skills, interests, and what will create the most impact?


Potential Solutions

Enough talking about the problem. Let’s talk solutions.

Here are some things I think we could do to start empowering more people. While I think these ideas are good, the truly important thing is what gets you excited, and what you think you can do to help take our movement to the next level.

Each of us can’t do everything, but we can all do one thing.


Digital Technology

It’s no secret that digital technology has revolutionized humanity in the past few decades. Think about the world before smartphones, before Google, before the internet. Almost everything has been impacted.

As a movement, we have a truly colossal opportunity here that we so far haven’t really been tapping into. I’m going to be writing a whole post about this in the future, but for now here are some opportunities that we could develop:

  • Native apps / web apps
  • Online ads / search engine optimization
  • Data science / machine learning / artificial intelligence
  • Websites / social media / digital content
  • “Internet of things” / drones / physical tech
  • Social networking / social apps

Now with something highly technical like this, how do we develop our skills as a movement and attract people with those skills? My good friend and colleague Em Heppler has the advice that “if you think the movement needs more lawyers, leaflet at a law school”.

I think we need to do a better job of “leafleting the tech community”—influencing those with tech skills to use them for animals. I also think we have room for people within the movement to spend the next few years building up their technical abilities, to raise the bar of the whole movement.

We can also find people already doing this work within the movement and help them improve their skills through funding, training, etc. There are already quite a few websites and apps out there related to veganism and animal rights—but, with few exceptions, I don’t think most of them are quite at the level we need them to be to gain widespread use. I think a little bit of User Experience (UX) training could go a long way.

We don’t always need to reinvent the wheel by creating a “vegan version of ______”, and usually we should see if we can utilize existing tech. But sometimes it could be worth the time and effort to create something new. (HappyCow is a knockout example of an incredibly useful app, and the ChooseVeg blog shows up in a huge number of Google searches about vegan options.)


Facilitating Connection

Let’s say you’re a new vegan. Or, you’ve been vegan for a little while and you move to a new city.

What do you do?

This question has gotten a little easier to answer recently thanks to vegan groups on Meetup, but there’s still a ton of room for improvement here. I’ve heard countless stories of people going vegan and then waiting years before they find a group to get connected to. Sometimes it’s years before they even meet another vegan. We need to cut that time down to weeks, days, or even hours.

Imagine if anytime someone visited a vegan blog, they were greeted by a chat window with someone who could help them find a local community. Imagine if we created a model that people could use if they wanted to start a new Meetup group: weekly potlucks, monthly activism, monthly special event, etc. Imagine vegan groups and networks in every city around the world. Imagine knowing how to get plugged into the movement, no matter where you go.

There’s a lot of intersection with technology here. Apps like Facebook and Meetup help facilitate a lot of human connection that wouldn’t happen otherwise. How can we use these tools to connect vegans together? Are there new tools we can build that would help?


Empowering New Ideas

For every idea that you and I have, there are thousands of people out there also having their own ideas. How can we help make it easier for people to try out ideas that could help animals? And how can we especially empower people whose ideas are completely different from anything the movement is currently offering up?

This is a big question, but here are some innovation-fostering ideas for you to chew on:

  • Incubators & Accelerators. The tech sector is big into having startup “incubators” and “accelerators”. Incubators are places for people to test out the viability of their ideas with deep support from experienced entrepreneurs and learn all about business. Accelerators are programs where proven ideas get funding and support to massively scale up, again with a lot of support. Could we have an animal advocacy incubator and accelerator?
  • Competitions. Competitions have often been used to encourage people to think about solving a particular problem. Some examples: the inaugural XPRIZE competition led to the first privately-owned spacecraft flying in orbit around the Earth; competitions by the British government (and others) in the 1700s led to an eventual solution to the problem of determining a ship’s longitude at sea; and even the use of potatoes as a staple food was partially brought out through a competition. An example of a competition in my state is Go Code Colorado, and many machine learning students use Kaggle competitions to learn about making predictions with data.
  • Conferences & Hackathons. Conferences, hackathons, and any other events that bring people together can be good for connecting people and encouraging new ideas.
  • Seed Money & Grants. Seed money and grants can be used to financially support people with good ideas who demonstrate that they’re ready to actually build something.


Humans As Social Creatures

This is related to facilitating connection, but it’s something that we all really need to remember anytime we’re thinking about activism, which is why it gets its own section. 

Too often our movement has put the tactic first and then tried to get people to participate in that tactic. This is fine for people who are really dedicated or who are able to put in the time needed to start liking the tactic, but it doesn’t work when thinking about how to empower large numbers of people.

If we’re trying to get more vegans to be active in the movement, we need to put the people first.

And when thinking about putting people first, we need to remember that humans are fundamentally social creatures. We do what people around us are doing, and we’d usually rather be wrong in a group than right by ourselves. Loneliness is as detrimental to our health as smoking.

When we want to empower someone to take action for animals, one of the first questions we should ask is, “How can we get this person connected to someone else?”

Get people involved first, get them connected to others, and then we’ll have the space to figure out how to increase their level of engagement and the amount of good they’re doing in the world.

(And honestly, people might be fine to do whatever tactic if they’re adequately connected to people. I think a good example of this is how activists in Direct Action Everywhere participate in uncomfortable and disruptive actions that they probably wouldn’t do otherwise because of the social support they find through the community of activists. However, I think for the majority of people, the qualities of the tactic are going to be an important part of the equation.)


Bringing the Options Together

For people who want to get involved, it can be very hard to find the existing options that are already out there. There’s opportunity here for some kind of method to bring the existing activism options together in an easy-to-find-and-search manner.

Of course, organizations and groups typically want people to participate in their types of advocacy, so it might be hard to convince any one organization to create a list of everything that’s out there. But, this might be an opportunity for an app similar to HappyCow that instead of listing and rating restaurants, lists and rates activism opportunities.

It’s possible that this isn’t a great solution to the problem, but I’m not sure what is. A simple web page could suffice, if it were easy to search and update.

Additionally, showing the full range of advocacy options might encourage people to start creating their own initiatives—to “fill in the holes on the map”, so to speak.


Making Progress

So—how do we actually make progress here?

If you work at one of the larger organizations, elevate the conversation around people empowerment. Ask yourselves, “How can we empower the thousands, or even millions of people who are already on our side?” If you think you can help push the movement in one of the big directions listed above (technology, facilitating connection, etc.), then devote resources to working on it.

If you’re a funder, look for opportunities to fund initiatives that empower people. Also, ask the question to those who you’re funding—“What are you doing to empower the large numbers of people who are already vegan?” Look for opportunities to fund people working on the ideas listed above.

If you’re a blogger, YouTuber, podcaster, or author, think about how you can bring up this idea to your followers. Not only that, but see what opportunities you could create for them. How can you empower your followers to get connected and to take action?



No matter who you are, keep this idea in mind as you keep working for animals. There are millions of people—literally millions—already on our side. That’s a truly huge amount of impact we could be having for animals if we figure out how to more effectively empower these people to take action.

So let’s figure it out.

What do you think? This is for you, so please leave a comment below with your thoughts!

Do you want more depth? Less? Longer posts, shorter posts? Let me know! Comment below, or you can just email me through the contact page.

Also let me know what topics you’re interested in that you think would tie the movement together or have a big impact for animals.

The Animal Movement Project (AMP) is a platform dedicated to building the movement for animals.

We share thoughts and ideas that can take the movement for animals from x to 10x. Our focus is predominantly on animals exploited for food since they account for more than 99% of the animals exploited by humans. The topics covered are often about ways to tie the pieces of the movement together or to fill in the gaps. We focus on connecting people, ideas, and resources to each other.