Jordi Casamitjana, an animal rights activist, discusses the different types of activism and advocacy for animals and veganism, and which one is the most effective.
It causes me satisfaction.
When I was helping out at the Tower Hill Animal Sanctuary in England, I found a way to do the physical work that satisfied me. This was a one-day event. All staff members of the organisation I was working with at the time (PETA UK) spent the day at this farm animal sanctuary in Essex that looks after many horses and other farm animals. It was maintenance work.
Unfortunately, I could not meet Fiona Oakes, the founder of the sanctuary, who was elsewhere that day. She is an amazing vegan athlete, having broken many marathon records. Fiona has competed in over 100 marathons and finished in the top 20 in two of the world’s Major Marathon series (Berlin and London). She now holds four Guinness recognised World Records in endurance events including being the fastest woman to run a Marathon on every Continent.
But anyway, one of the jobs that we had to do is to stain with water-proof resin all the wooden fences around the many acres of the sanctuary’s land — to prevent them rot when it rains. I took one fence, and my colleagues took others. And after a while, I realise that I was about to finish my fence when my colleagues had not even reached half of theirs — of equal size to mine. Why? Because I found a more efficient way of doing it. I realise that the normal way was not very efficient. Taking the brush and sinking it into the tin with the resin, going to the fence and staining the wood until the brush runs of resin, going back to the tin, and repeating the process. I found a way to save valuable time. By placing the tin at the right spot and moving it while I was advancing on the fence, and by using the motion to take the brush to the tin to stain the plank under it, my brush would not be moving anywhere without staining any wood. In this way, I wasn’t wasting any motion, and I could stain more wood in the same amount of time. This is what being efficient is all about. To produce the maximum amount of work given a set time and resources.
It satisfies me being efficient. You should see me cooking my usual dinner. Wholemeal pasta with seeds and vegetables in a tahini sauce in eleven minutes —not kidding!
I have been an animal protection campaigner for decades for several organisations in different countries, and I also have tried serval types of animal rights activism. And I must say that, on many occasions, I thought we could be more efficient in the way we did it. We could do more with less. But in campaigning, efficiency is not the most important thing of all. Effectiveness is far more important. How well are we achieving the goal of the campaign? How cost-effective our campaigning efforts are? What sort of impact we are having on the world? These are the things that matter to campaigners, and especially to those who manage them and fund them.
If you are a professional campaigner working for an established advocacy organisation, being effective should be an essential part of your job. But these campaigners and organisations are only a small part of the socio-political movements they are under, which operate more organically and without much design or leadership. As such, one could be tempted to think that the grassroots activists of these movements are less effective than well-organised and well-led organisations with many staff, layers and hierarchies. This is not necessarily true. Nature is incredibly effective in producing efficient life forms and ecosystems, and it cannot be more organic and have fewer designers and leaders. So, it is perfectly possible that some forms of animal advocacy that have appeared spontaneously — as opposed to being designed and directed by anyone — are the most effective. I thought it would be interesting to try to find out which types of animal advocacy are more effective, so this is what this article is about.
Activism, Advocacy and Campaigning
I do not make a distinction between animal advocacy and animal activism. I think they are two sides of the same coin. Activism covers the “what” side while advocacy the “why” side. Animal activists/advocates act and do some work (acting) because they want to defend/protect animals and their rights (advocating). So, to be one of these people you just have to do something for the benefit of animals who are not under your care. It doesn’t matter what that activity is, as long as it is done for the animals, not for you, other people or your companions. Some prefer to use the term “activist” for activities that are more active, that are done “out there” in the outside world causing a reaction, while they may use “advocate” for more passive activities which require less to go anywhere doing something that stands out to onlookers. But I consider both terms synonymous, so I will use them in this article to mean the same.
But I do make a distinction between activism and campaigning. I do it based on whether your activism is an important part of your main “job” (what you do most of the working hours of the working week, and what you would write in any form under “occupation”) or is done outside of it normally as a grassroots unpaid activity. A campaigner-type activist would normally be working with an established organisation that does animal advocacy, in a paid job undertaken in offices or official institutions, while a non-campaigner-type activist will work unattached or as part of grassroots groups as a volunteer, often out there in the streets with the general public or where animals are exploited (these could also be called “grassroots activists”). So, activists could be also campaigners if they do their activism as part of their main paid job (but some may not be easily classed if they work freelance and do other things).
In reality, it doesn’t matter whether activists are paid for their activism by an organisation, by donations or are not paid at all, as it is the work they do, and how impactful it is, what counts. However, from a vegan perspective, any activism done by an ethical vegan should be consistent with the philosophy of veganism, and one of its major tenets, ahimsa, which means “do no harm” or “non-violence”. Therefore, vegan activism, or animal rights activism performed by vegans, should be non-violent, and in this article, every time I mention activism, I mean non-violent activism. I will use the term “ethically acceptable tactic” for a non-violent tactic that doesn’t involve exploiting or deliberately harming sentient beings and is not based on deception. In other words, activism is born from compassion, justice and truth.
The Main Types of Animal Advocacy
There are many ways we can classify the different types of what activists can do. I will list the ones that I think are the most well-known:
- Letter writing: writing to companies/institutions either complaining about something related to their products/services or trying to persuade them to become more animal-friendly, as well as writing letters to editors and opinion pieces to be published by mainstream media. This is something any activist can do in the comfort of their homes.
- Online activism: creating online content (social media posts, polls, petitions, images, memes, articles, blogs, songs, podcasts, videos, documentaries, etc.) and spreading them via social media, as well as commenting on other’s posts and signing online petitions. This is something that is becoming very popular, and may be done by individuals from their home (including “professional” activists who live from donations and sponsorships to do this work, such as Youtubers and Influencers), or can be done by organisations that hire freelance activists to do that (such as Vegan FTA).
- Corporate campaigning: engaging positively with corporations to persuade them to change their activities (often by providing alternatives to their practices or highlighting the advantages of changing). This is often done by professional campaigners specialising in this type of work. Sometimes this involves buying shares of a company and therefore acquiring a legal “voice” in their shareholders’ meetings. In some cases, as with the work of Matthew Glover with his vegan chick*n company VFC, one could say that some entrepreneurs creating a new competitive alternative to animal products, and commercialising it to disrupt a consumer market, could be seen as this type of activism if it is not done for profit or as part of animal agriculture.
- Lobbying: a type of campaigning targeting decision-makers, normally politicians or civil servants. It is a truly specialised job best done by professional lobbyists — which many NGOs have on their staff in the form of political or public affairs officers. This can lead to significant advances in legislation and policy (i.e. banning certain types of animal exploitation, like hunting or fur farms, or accelerating the transition towards a vegan world). Networking in the political landscape is crucial for this, and every election may change it. The ultimate form of this type of activism would be to get elected as a politician or hired as a civil servant, and influence policy “from within.”
- Legal advocacy: campaigning in the judiciary by taking part in legal action on behalf of animals or activists. This is done to legally protect them, or to seek the rulings of judges to advance the animal rights cause (as the work of the Animal Legal Defense Fund) or the rights of vegans (like in my litigation that led to veganism being ruled as a protected philosophical belief in the UK). Lawyers and paralegals working pro-bono on such issues also constitute this type of activism.
- Research and investigations: obtaining information and data about the animal exploitation industries and processing it to produce reports, videos or exposés of their activities (including helping in criminal prosecutions). This could be done in hostile conditions, incognito or undercover, or overtly through Freedom of Information requests or through leaks and whistle-blowers. If it is done by qualified researchers and scientists, the analysis of data can produce compelling results that may have a strong influence on policymaking.
- Pressure campaigning: thinking strategically and applying the right “negative” pressure to the weakest point of the animal exploitation companies and industries. This is something experienced campaigners, backed by big organisations, can do with considerable success. On some occasions, though, some of this campaigning may be considered unlawful if it becomes intimidatory or has led to successful legal action by the targeted companies or individuals (and there have been convictions for animal rights pressure campaigning cases).
- Animal care: volunteering to help animals in need, such as working in an animal sanctuary, fostering rescued animals looking for a home, adopting animals who need help with their care or even creating and running genuine animal sanctuaries, rescue centres, animal shelters or wildlife rehabilitation centres. Veterinarians who work pro-bono beyond their practices could be considered part of this activism. People who go out to rescue animals after a natural or human-made disaster would also qualify, as well as volunteers for animal sterilisation or vaccination programmes (involving both domestic and wild animals, such as badgers).
- Outreaching: organised actions taken place in the street or in particular venues aimed to encourage passers-by or attendants to do a particular action (i.e. boycott some animal exploitation activity or sign a pledge) or to take veganism seriously (and hopefully help them to become vegans sooner rather than later). The latter is known as vegan outreach.
There are many types of outreach activities with different degrees of complexity that have been labelled with particular names. For instance, leafleting, which is handing leaflets or flyers to pedestrians in public places, such as the entrances of stations, which normally doesn’t involve speaking to anyone. If the activity involves a table where more literature or items are displayed (sometimes also vegan food to try), then this is called tabling (and it could also be part of a bigger event where the table becomes a stall, among many others). Or if the activity is mainly about drawing messages on the floor with chalk, then it is called chalking.
Outreach events can become more sophisticated than that. The most complex forms of vegan outreach involve events such as The Earthlings Experience, with devices that show footage of animal exploitation (such as laptops, large screens, projectors or virtual reality sets) held by immobile activists (often with masks) creating some sort of attention-grabbing performance, while other activists (the outreachers), with plenty of knowledge and conversational skills, engage in relatively long friendly chats with bystanders who stop to watch. Some of these events, inspired by the Cube of Truth characteristic of the grassroots animal rights organisation Anonymous for the Voiceless, are now called Cubes, because the activists with signs or screens place themselves in a cube configuration showing four symmetrical sides where the information is displayed in all directions.
- Protests: public attention-drawing actions performed by more ‘militant’ activists where the emphasis is on a ‘negative’ message (i.e. highlighting the cruelty of those who are being protested against). These are normally more ‘passionate’ and often take place in front of those who are the targets of the complaint. Activists may express more openly and loudly their feelings of sadness or anger, which may create hostile reactions. They may be demonstrating with signs or banners outside premises or events, perhaps with megaphones and chanting. They may also be mobile and take the form of “marches” or “demonstrations” with many activists, or be very eye-catching and performative to attract the media in the form of “publicity stunts.”
- Disruptions: directly interfering with an animal exploitation activity disrupting it in a significant manner or stopping it altogether. For instance, entering the target premises and protesting inside, such as the nonviolent disruptions in restaurants or supermarkets performed by activists of the grassroots organisation Direct Action Everywhere. Another type of disruption is a “vigil”, where for a few minutes, activists stop lorries with live animals before they enter a slaughterhouse to say “goodbye” to the animals and record videos. This is organised all over the world by the grassroots group Animal Save Movement. Another type would be “sabing”, such as members of the Hunt Saboteurs Association directly preventing foxhunters and other types of hunters from killing their intended prey, or anti-bullfighting campaigners jumping into a bullring to stop the bullfight.
- Resistance activism: actions performed by more “militant” activists consisting of blocking roads, buildings or events in protest, often chaining or glueing themselves so the police cannot easily remove them. This is the speciality of the grassroots group Animal Rebellion, which was inspired by the environmental group Extinction Rebellion. Other activists may ‘invade’ the inside of farm buildings or slaughterhouses for some hours as a ‘sit-in’ non-violent protest (often recording the event and broadcasting it on social media), which sometimes includes the rescuing of individual animals in particularly bad shape (what is known as “open rescue”).
- Animal Liberation: Perhaps the most “extreme” militant form of activism involves entering premises where animals are kept captive and either freeing them so they can escape into the surrounding areas or taking them out and relocating them elsewhere (often in an animal sanctuary). As this is often done by breaking the law it may lead to arrests and convictions, so it is done in a more clandestine way than open rescues. This was the signature form of activism of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF).
Disruptions, resistance activism, sabing, open rescues and animal liberation operations are generally lumped together under the term “Direct Action”. I guess we could call the rest “Indirect action”, but all activism involves some action in one way or another.
For more than 20 years, I have tried most of these types of activism (except for the most militant direct-action types, including those which may involve unlawful actions), having done a fair amount of research, investigations, lobbying, legal advocacy and outreach. And I am currently using the Online Activism route to channel most of my activism needs — this article is an example.
Each type of activism/advocacy is just a different tactic deployed to achieve the overall strategy of freeing all sentient beings from exploitation and cruelty as well as creating the vegan world. Particular logistics and local socio-political circumstances have determined which tactic has been used where, and with which frequency and level of success, but history, tradition, preference, experience, and knowledge have also influenced the choice of tactic.
What Does it Mean to be Effective in Animal Advocacy?
The big difference between an animal activist and an ethical vegan who is not an activist is the “action”. You can be a vegan by simply rejecting animal products or any form of animal exploitation, but not doing anything else that has a direct impact on individual animals — or making anyone notice that you are a vegan. In other words, non-activist vegans can live in mainstream society virtually “undetected” (especially if they consume replicas of carnist products difficult to tell apart from what they try to imitate). And they may not use the word vegan — or even plant-based — to describe who they are or what they believe. As veganism is a philosophy, you become a vegan at the very instance you adopt it as the main philosophy that will inform you about your choices, even before you made any choice or acted in any way.
However, to be an activist, you need to act. You will become an activist from the moment you did something with the specific intention to help, protect or defend animals, or their rights (right now or in the future), and that action has caused a reaction or an impact on someone other than yourself or your close group of family and friends (the idea of acting “out there” I referred earlier). Therefore, the term activism is linked to positive impact — or attempt to have an impact — and the success of the activist’s actions should be measured by measuring such impact. An ineffective advocacy action will have a very small impact on anyone outside your close group of friends and family (including your companion animals), while the most effective advocacy will have a strong lasting positive impact on many sentient beings all through the galaxy.
There is a relatively new movement (and an organisation that started it and represents it) that very much deals with this issue: Effective Altruism. It is a philosophical and social movement that advocates “using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible, and taking action on that basis.” Philosophical principles of effective altruism emphasize impartiality, cause neutrality, cost-effectiveness, and counterfactual reasoning. It has strong philosophical roots in utilitarian ethics, which prescribes actions that maximize happiness and well-being for all affected individuals (so, it’s all about quantifying such well-being).
The term effective altruism (EA) came from the umbrella name for Giving What We Can (GWWC) and 80,000 Hours (80k). GWWC started in 2009 as a giving society to encourage people to give 10% of their income regularly to alleviate world poverty. 80,000 Hours was founded in 2011, and it aims to provide career advice for young people who want to have a larger social impact through their careers. The result was the Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA), which became a registered charity in the UK in 2012. The mission of CEA is to create a global community of people who make helping others a core part of their lives and to do good as effectively as possible. They currently have more than 300 chapters around the world.
I think EA is very much designed from a “donor” perspective, informing donors which charity cause and organisations would be best to donate to — often based on rankings created by organisations such as Animal Charity Evaluators, in the case of animal advocacy. However, as many organisations depend on those donations, it has shaped the way they operate, and which issues they campaign about. Some animal rights and vegan organisations may be now receiving funding from EA donors or foundations, and they may have changed their campaigning accordingly.
However, the EA approach has been criticised for a tendency to focus on single actions and their proximate consequences and on simple interventions that reduce suffering in the short term, neglecting coordinated sets of actions directed at changing social structures that may be the cause of the suffering. It has been said that the Animal Charity Evaluator’s 2019 ratings seemed to favour welfare improvements in the conditions of farmed animals rather than abolitionist approaches that are better goals in long term. Another more philosophical critique is that it is very difficult to arrive at single judgments about how to do the most good, as values are intertwined into the texture of the social world and that EA misses detecting them by being too simplistic in its measurements. In other words, that reality is far more complex and interconnected and it is difficult to predict with enough accuracy the amount of positive impact of any action if we think of the long-term and the wider collective effect of all actions.
For me, as a scientist who has been a professional campaigner, I am totally in favour of trying to quantify impact — rather than output, as it use to be the norm before EA came along — and make strategic and tactical decisions based on objective facts and solid evidence. But I am also very aware of the limitations of such measurements, and how some important impacts would not be able to be measured when decisions need to be made because they will be long term and dependent on many other factors. Measuring to evaluate progress makes total sense to me, but to make strategic decisions on the “value” of actions and tactics is a far more ambitious goal that I am not sure the EA approach has managed to conquer yet. Therefore, for this article, I would not rely upon their criteria — just in case.
What does it mean to be effective in animal advocacy, then? Impacting positively to a maximum number of sentient beings in the long term and on the widest scale possible. It’s a “bigger picture” thing. If we, wisely, need to move away from evaluating our activism by measuring our outcome (what we do) and instead measure our impact (how much we actually helped those we intended to help), and we also need to focus more on the animal victims we want to help and find out what is good for them (more than just guess it based on preconceptions), then try to measure the impact of our campaigning on the animals is the way to go.
But this is easy said than done, and often this measurement may not be comparable when we evaluate different activities with different methods. Therefore, although we may be able to conclude that we “improved” in our activism when we analyse it over time, in many cases we may not be able to say which type of activism is more effective, because their impacts may not be comparable.
And if we try to model our tactics to successful historical movements, we will find that, despite there may be many academics who claim they know what was the key to their success, in reality, it is all speculation. Which was the most effective tactic of the campaign for civil rights in the US? The ones used by Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, A. Philip Randolph, or Bayard Rustin? Who was the most key player in the success of that movement? Any of the mentioned above, or Abraham Lincoln, Dwight D. Eisenhower, or Shirley Chisholm? Who knows what would have happened if any of these would not have been there, or would have chosen different tactics. The success came from their combined overall impact — and considering what happened to George Floyd, some may argue that their collective achievements did not go far enough. And perhaps that impact cannot be replicated because it was only achieved with that combination of tactics that only worked well together in a particular time and place.
Which is the Most Effective Animal Advocacy Tactic?
If it is difficult to evaluate the long-term impact of an activism tactic when it is just one of many tactics applied at the same time from different frontlines which interact with each other synergistically in a constantly changing socio-political environment, how can we evaluate which is the most effective tactic? We will have to rely on what we know.
We know that activists are the ones acting, so having more activists lasting longer will increase the chance that they perform the most effective tactic at a given time and place — even if we cannot predict which. Also, we can then have a higher variability of actions operating at the same time, allowing for the creation of the synergies that may produce a stronger impact than just the sum of the impact of each tactic in isolation (such as the “good cop-bad cop” model). Therefore, we want loads of activists, who become better at their activism by trying it and learning from it, who last longer as activists doing activism (so, they don’t burn out after a short while or are forcibly removed from activism — by being taken to prison, for example), who are ethnically, culturally and tactically diverse, and who have sufficient resources and support to continue being activists.
Considering this, the more effective form of activism must be one that manages to “secure” this diverse group of activists trying all these ethically acceptable tactics everywhere. The success may lie in numbers and variety, as happens in the natural world and its designer-less organic processes (biodiversity and reproduction drive biology). If enough people are trying, the average collective tactical output may become the right one, as is the case of what is known as ”the wisdom of the crowd” — although several factors need to be aligned for this to work.
In the end, each activist, and each tactic, are just parts of a much bigger movement, so their “value” should be evaluated in relation to what the entire movement is achieving (very effective tactics pushing the movement in one direction happening at the same time than very effective tactics pushing it in the opposite direction in equal measure would stagnate the movement). As such, evaluating the tactics separately without evaluating the global strategy of the movement can only lead us to the conclusion that the best tactics are the ones that make more and better activists.
As each geographical and temporal circumstance is different, and historical achievements in social movements cannot really be extrapolated in such a way that we can accurately evaluate the individual contribution of each tactic separately, I don’t think we can know which animal and vegan type of activism is the most effective.
I don’t mean that you cannot evaluate the effectiveness of a tactic in the confines of the goals of a particular single-issue organisation. If a group or organisation have very specific quantifiable smart goals (and its donors expect them to use their money to achieve these goals and not others), it is possible that the impact in relation to those goals can be measured and evaluated, and decisions can be made in terms of which tactic should be employed. For instance, if you are the only organisation working on the issue of the exploitation of monkeys in the coconut industry, and after your activism, more monkeys are being exploited and are suffering more, you can conclude your activism is not effective. But when you start adding variables (for example, more organisations working at the same time with different tactics, in coalition or competing against each other, several jurisdictions with different rules, or different species of monkeys in different countries experiencing the exploitation differently) then the task of evaluating impact becomes more difficult. And when you talk about an international movement aiming to change the paradigm of the human-animal relationship everywhere in the world, such evaluation may become impossible.
And I don’t mean that all tactics are equally effective either. What I mean is that, in the context of an overall long-term impact of a socio-political transformative movement (which is the context that matters here), with the current information we can gather about their impact we cannot really know which one it is more effective. We can guess, and some guesses may be better than others, but we cannot know with a sufficient degree of confidence to make effective decisions about which ones should continue and which ones should not. Therefore, I am not going to guess, because I have neither the knowledge nor the insight to feel confident in my guess.
I could ask somebody else who may know, though. In an interview I had with the American author and animal rights activist Mark Hawthorne, who wrote a book about animal activism called Striking at the Roots: A Practical Guide to Animal Activism in which he lists the different types of animal advocacy an activist can try, I asked him which type of activism he thinks is the most effective. This is what he replied:
“The answer is more complicated than it might seem because my feeling is that the most effective form of activism is the form that you find the most rewarding — because we need to be in this fight for the long haul. We need to be in this movement our entire lives if we’re fighting for animals … because it’s so easy to get burned out. I don’t think that we should be spending our time on forms of activism that are not rewarding for us.
For example, if you’re somebody who’s an introvert, if you’re too shy to table or to leaflet, or some other face-to-face type of activism, although I would encourage you to try it just to test your boundaries — because I think we need to push ourselves — I would say that if you find that it’s not rewarding for you, don’t do it. If you’re introverted, you might prefer writing letters to editors. You might write op-ed pieces or write books. I was really more introverted when I started off than I am today, but the whole reason that writing appealed to me is because I’m pretty shy. So, whatever form of activism it is that you find to be the one that makes you feel the best, that’s the most effective form of activism.”
I agree with Mark. If we evaluate activism based on how satisfied and fulfilled the activists doing it feel, we may end up having enough diverse activists doing enough ethically acceptable tactics for a long time that, overall, make the movement more likely to advance towards its strategic goals. If we use a diverse set of ethically acceptable tactics and, over time, we see that the movement is growing in size and diversity — and we have good reasons to believe it is getting closer to achieving its strategic goals — I think we can say that such a set is good enough. If then we add or remove some tactics and we see the opposite (fewer activists and less diverse), then I think we can say that the initial set was better. But we need to continue experimenting with new sets of ethically acceptable tactics because there may be a combination of them that is even better than the one we thought was the best.
We can do the same individually. As activists, we all can try different types of activism to discover which is the one that we find more rewarding. And once we find it, after a while we may try others to confirm that one is still our favourite, even if circumstances have changed. And if we choose to do several tactics at the same time, that will increase the chance that we always can feel the reward of our work, and get energised to do even more.
Look at what Fiona Oakes is doing. She has been doing vegan outreach for years by raising awareness through the sport she enjoys and is excellent at, but she also runs an animal sanctuary and looks after many rescued animals she loves. This must cause her enough satisfaction because she has been vegan since she was six years old, and she is still a vegan activist almost five decades later.
That’s a good role model to be inspired by.