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TO THE RESCUE: The vegan movement has failed; it’s time to build an animal rights movement around ‘rescue’

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Rescue is crucial to enact change for animal rights. It is the strongest narrative battleground for us to push for change, because it focuses on individuals, and in the most dire and sympathetic circumstances. It allows us to force the issue in our political system in dramatic, and radical, ways. Above all, it links our movement and its spirit more directly to the victims by keeping those who represent the animals close to the problem.

WAYNE HSIUNG: This week, the MIT Media Lab published a randomized controlled trial testing the impact of the word “vegan” on a person’s willingness to try a vegan product. The study was conducted among registrants to events at the Media Lab, where free food was provided. Registrants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions: the labeled condition, where a vegan option was labeled with that word; and the non-labeled condition, where exactly the same option was presented but without the word vegan.

And, shockingly, the two conditions had dramatically different results, with the option labeled “vegan” being chosen at about half the rate as the same option without the label. While the study has many significant limitations, it’s only the latest in a long line of evidence showing that the vegan movement simply hasn’t succeeded. Take, for example, some of the following data:

Veganism, accordingly to unbiased polls, is not growing. Gallup, the nation’s most well-known polling agency, found that the percentage of vegans and vegetarians is mostly unchanged since 2012… Most vegans and animal advocates don’t think, or even know, about this data. And yet it paints a disturbing picture for the future of animal rights, to the extent we have linked our future to the vegan movement. And through most of the animal rights movement’s recent history, that linkage is hardly even a question; veganism and animal rights are considered one and the same…

In the early 2010s, effective altruism (EA) was just beginning to capture the attention of animal advocates. A few high-net worth individuals within the EA space began to contribute massive amounts of money to farm animal advocacy, shifting the nature of the movement. And the number 1 intervention that was recommended, at the time, was vegan leafleting. The techno-libertarian ethos of EA made a focus on consumers, market, and money a natural fit. And vegan consumer activism also fit well with the EA focus on measurable results. But EA also brought something else into the animal rights space: an emphasis on evidence and data…

And anyone with training of that sort could see pretty clearly that the EA and animal rights consensus of the early 2010s, around vegan outreach, was clearly wrong… A closer examination of good scientific research around leafleting and other forms of so-called impersonal outreach, i.e., trying to persuade someone you have no other relationship with, showed dismal results…

The problem with vegan consumer advocacy was that it focused entirely on individual change. But if individuals are not the driving forces of human society, but the interactions and norms and policies that exists between individuals, then the focus on individuals is bound to fail. To create change, we needed to shift our focus to these networks and interactions, rather than individuals.

This was the shift that began to happen, in both the animal rights and environmental movements, in the early 2010s. And it has led to historic results for both movements — and a resurgence in political power. Among other systemic approaches, we have seen enormous success in corporate campaigns, focusing on animal welfare policies at powerful institutions; groundbreaking legislative campaigns, including bans on gestation crates across the nation and even a complete ban on fur in California; and, perhaps most importantly, shifts in social norms driven by changes in public discourse. There have been more opinion pieces in top mainstream news outlets in the last 5 years, arguing for animal rights, than I had seen in my prior 15 years of animal rights activism combined. And it’s not even close.

But there is one particular strategy and tactic, more than any other, that… will be the greatest driver of change… This is not based on anecdotes or personal experience, but by the evidence from history. That strategy is the strategy of rescue. And if we build a movement for rescue, it matters not at all how many vegan consumers we have…

Rescue is crucial to enact change for animal rights. It is the strongest narrative battleground for us to push for change, because it focuses on individuals, and in the most dire and sympathetic circumstances. It allows us to overcome huge obstacles in other efforts at systemic change, like regulatory capture and inertia, and force the issue in our political system in dramatic, radical, and shockingly successful ways. And, above all, it links our movement’s incentives, and its spirit, more directly to the victims. It solves the “alignment problem” of animal rights, by keeping those who represent the animals close to the problem.

And there is plenty of data to back up these arguments. Open rescue has been crucial to previous surges in animal rights; indeed, it’s almost as if the movement for rescue is on a clock, waiting ten years to inspire the next wave…

High risk activism has always been a key part of social movements. With no risk, there is no change. And movements historically have cultivated and honored their most courageous adherents. But today, that seems to have almost completely changed. Even within activist movements, people fight over greater claims to vulnerability and victimhood, not courage. Social status accrues to the parties that win this race to the bottom. Resilience, strength, and bravery, in contrast, are practically looked down upon. That has to change, if movements are going to take on powerful systems and win. SOURCE…

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