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 documentary—I 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.
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:
- 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.)
- 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.
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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.