Protester holding a sign that says “did your dinner lead a horrible life?” Photo by Alan & Pamela Rice, Flickr CC

The devastation of Hurricane Florence is not limited to the loss of human lives. It is estimated that millions of chickens and thousands of pigs died in North Carolina from the flooding. Vegan social movements have pointed to this major loss of animal life as one of the many reasons to reduce our reliance on meat and the consumption of other animal products. However, these groups face a difficult path ahead as factory farming is a massive U.S. industry. A recent article in The Atlantic highlights research by sociologists Corey Wrenn, Nina Gheihman, and Elizabeth Cherry on the many obstacles that can thwart veganism from blossoming into a large-scale social movement.

According to Wrenn, one of the main barriers to mobilization of any social movement is that they allow “free-riders”, or individuals who may identify with the movement but do not change their behavior. In the case of veganism, including “flexitarians” — people who are interested in vegetarianism or veganism but still eat meat and other animal products — waters down the cause’s overall message. Wrenn argues that including flexitarians “maintain[s] the illusion of mass support, [while] real power is reserved for core members.” Wrenn suggests that smoking cessation campaigns provide a key example of how an “all or nothing” approach can bring about meaningful change in consumption behaviors.

In the same article, Elizabeth Cherry and Nina Gheihman push back against Wrenn’s claims, advocating that incrementalism and inclusion of those who aren’t strictly vegan may lead to more success for vegan social movements. Cherry, who has a book comparing animal rights activism in France and the United States, argues that vegan social movements promoting meat reduction rather than complete elimination parallels the often incremental shift by many vegans into a plant-based diet. Gheihman agrees with Wrenn that flexitarianism may damage vegan social movements in the long-term, but also believes that including those at the margins of the movement accounts for the multiple motivations people may have for going vegan. Gheihman expands further,

“I do believe that flexitarianism as an initial approach is worthwhile, as there are many people who are not willing to adopt the ideological stance of the animal-rights movement within a society that does not yet embrace it. As well, they may have alternate motivations for following a plant-based diet, including health and environmentalism, and I believe these motivations are as valid as that of animal rights.”