In the 1980s, PETA brought the issue of animal rights onto the table, for the first time in this nation's history, with groundbreaking investigations at Silver Springs and the University of Pennsylvania. The controversy surrounding these campaigns rallied thousands of activists – mostly focused on vivisection – on to the streets in the fledgling animal rights movement, and there was an air of hope and change in the air. And yet, over that same decade, the number of animals killed for food, and per capita meat consumption, continued their steady growth. The surge in “animal rights” activists had no effect at all on the big picture issue.
These trends might be reason for despair -- we had so many people, and they accomplished so little! -- except for one vitally important fact: the movement, in those days, was not a liberation movement. It did not focus on fundamental issues such as species equality, or the injustice of killing, but rather on specific practices in particular industries. And it largely dared not challenge the 800 pound gorilla in the room – killing animals for food.
A study published in the flagship journal Psychological Science by Professor Scott Plous demonstrates this. In 1990, a sample of the most dedicated activists -- people willing to fly across the country for a single demonstration -- showed that a mere 18% of activists were vegan. And 54% believed vivisection was the highest priority for the movement (compared to 24% who chose food). It's not surprising that a movement with such a composition failed to stem the tide of violence. As a close friend of mine put it, in discussing his initial hesitancy in joining the animal rights movement: it's hard to take a movement seriously when it is complaining loudly about one form of violence, while turning a blind eye to even-more-horrendous violence supported by the movement's own adherents!
But something has been happening to the movement in the past couple decades. In part due to the concerted efforts by groups such as Vegan Outreach, and activists such as Gary Francione, there has been a real shift in the ideological composition of this movement. Instead of seeing animal abuse as a disgusting thing that is only done by scary men in lab coats, or rich men in suits -- that is, by people we can decry as "others" -- there is growing recognition that animal exploitation and speciesism are deep, widespread, and systemic problems. To confront this violence, in turn, we can't resort to focusing on peripheral industries and people, we have to be ready and willing to take an honest and confident message… to take direct action... everywhere.
In a follow up study, published in 1998, Professor Plous showed that the composition of animal rights activists had shifted considerably, even by the late 1990s. The percentage of vegans had jumped to 36% (from 18% initially). And farm animals were now the primary focus (48%, versus 38% for research). At the recent Earthlings March, in talking to dozens of new activists, I did not meet a single one who was not vegan. I am sure the composition has shifted even more in favor of increased focus and commitment.
I do not believe veganism, on its own, has much value for our movement. However, the changing commitment and conviction of activists is a sign of significant progress -- and one more reason to think that the future is bright for this movement. Animal rights activists are finally getting serious about, well, animal rights. And that new-found conviction provides a strong foundation for us to create a movement of real and permanent change.