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?
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.
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.)
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.
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.