Over the last month or so, I have been dipping in and out of the book "How to Create a Vegan World: A Pragmatic Approach" written by Tobias Leenaert, Belgian vegan activist, author, speaker and educator.
Tobias is a co-founder of the Center for Effective Vegan Advocacy and Beyond Carnism, as well as ProVeg International and Ethical Vegetarian Alternative. In this book, he takes a fresh look at the animal rights movement and argues that, given our current situation, we might benefit from a pragmatic approach.
Arguably, there is no more controversial debate in the world of vegan advocacy than what we advocate for. This debate tends to polarise opinion along the following two lines: those who only believe in advocating for total abstention, versus those who believe in advocating for total abstention while also encouraging reduction.
In his book, How To Create A Vegan World: A Pragmatic Approach, Tobias Leenaert refers to these two arms of the debate as idealism and pragmatism, respectively. And, we learn from the title of this book that Leenaert himself leans towards the latter camp. Though, he explains that he has not always been in this camp and sees both perspectives as important in this movement.
For Leenaert, pragmatism is about what works. On the other end of the spectrum, Leenaert sees idealism as what we would like to see work. And, while these are two very different concepts, they each have an important place.
Consider Meatless Mondays, a reductionist call to action. Purely idealistic advocates would argue that because killing animals is morally wrong, it is simply unacceptable to advocate for Meatless Monday’s as it implies that eating animals for 6 days of the week, as opposed to 7, is acceptable. In contrast, a pragmatic advocate would argue that if this approach reduces overall meat consumption, then it is helpful to the cause. Pragmatic advocates might also add that a slow and steady reduction is more likely to result in sustained reduction.
While this argument has, for a long while, been unsupported by scientific evidence, more recent research has added credibility to this argument. In a recent paper, Brodie Dakin and colleagues report that a sustained decrease in meat consumption was not dependent on the meat reduction strategy, vegetarian or flexitarian, employed by the participant. These findings suggest that irrespective of the ask, the simple act of engaging with a reduced meat diet is conducive to sustained behaviour change.
Not just helpful, pragmatic advocates see meat reducers as integral for societal change: saving more animals than vegetarians and vegans, shifting the system quicker, and more likely to go vegetarian or vegan than regular meat eaters.
Idealists can see pragmatists as sell outs, resorting to means that don’t justify the ends, weakening the moral message, and succumbing to the monetary incentives of big corporations who, in their best interests, want weaken the vegan message. Meanwhile, pragmatists can see idealists as too extreme in their approach, expecting too much of people and sparking psychological reactance to the vegan message.
It is important to consider the difference between idealism and pragmatism on a spectrum and not a strict dichotomy. After all, effectiveness and rightness are central values to both. A polarised movement is not a successful movement and so there needs to be an appreciation of both approaches in order for change to happen.
Leenaert argues that right now is a time focus on developing a pragmatic approach and as the movement builds momentum, the time for idealism will then come.
His pragmatic approach is summarised as follows: by encouraging reduction we will be able to reach the tipping point faster with a mass of reducers than a small group of vegans. We ought to allow people to make this change for whatever reason motivates them, not solely animal welfare concerns, but the environment, social justice, and health. Parallel to this, we foster an environment that facilitates change and create a more relaxed concept of veganism that feels accessible to everyone.
So, what does it mean to reduce? Certainly, we ought to be cautious of how wishy-washy this type of term, with recent research calling for greater clarity on some of the common reductionist asks, for example "less but better".
We also know that, as a substitute for actual change, people can convince themselves that they are already reducing their consumption of meat. So, in this regard, idealists may be right to tread carefully.
Indeed, pragmatic Leenaert shares these concerns. He suggests that in encouraging reduction, we must be careful that we provide a call-to-action people can actually follow up on. “Eat less meat” is simply too abstract. Leenaert suggests that when asking for reduction, we ought to suggest something concrete, for example a 5:2 diet; no meat all week, only on weekends. Importantly, a 5:2 ensure that people go without meat in some meals, thus building the capacity to cook and eat plant-based.
In setting out his pragmatic stall, Leenaert tries to wash away the concerns around the corporate world. Vegans can be sceptical of the corporate world and harbour anti-capitalist sentiments, particularly in the case of ,eat giants like Tyson foods. It can feel uncomfortable that an enterprise which makes money from killing animal is now able to make money from the vegan alternative. This leads to questions around whether the alternative is truly vegan because the money spent on these products helps to advance a meat supplier.
In this book, Leenaert is encouraging vegans not to see the corporate world as the enemy, but to see them as an ally. Why? He argues that big companies have greater potential to take a huge market share and reach many people, something that small start-ups might struggle to do. Additionally, the lobby for animal products is powerful. But, as the industry’s financial dependence on selling them decreases and as profits from vegan products increase, we can expect a shift in antagonism to more support for vegan consumption.
We need to decide whether to trust or distrust. Being on guard is helpful, but default distrust is unhelpful. We as consumers ought to continue insisting on integrity, transparency and corporate social responsibility.
Irrespective of your position, whether you lean more towards idealism or pragmatism, this book is packed with important lessons relating to inter-personal communication that advocates of this movement can take away and work into their practise.
Some of the lessons that I take from this book include: first, the simple reminder that vegan communication is not about us, it is solely about the person with whom we are communicating. In such interactions, we ought to take a back seat and allow the conversation to be focused on the individual, much like a therapist would act.
In that vain, advocacy is as much about listening as it is about communicating. And, being a good listener, is making the person feel heard and valued. It is important not to pose our own world view on others as their lives have taken them in different directions to ours and they will ultimately see things differently to us. Rather than define their reality, we allow others to be the expert of their own experience and honour their dignity.
In our communications, impact is not about winning arguments. If a person feels they have lost, this can be counterproductive. Impact is about actual change. The question is not “am I right?” or “is this my truth?” but… “does this work?”.
I would be interested to know, which side of the spectrum (idealism, vs pragmatism) do you lean toward in your own advocacy, and why? Additionally, if you would like my copy of "How to Create a Vegan World: A Pragmatic Approach" for your own reading, please don't hesitate to get in touch using my email address firstname.lastname@example.org.