The problem with books on veganism is they’re all quite depressing. The death, the guts, the gas chambers, the end of the planet – reading about the torment of billions of animals can make one downcast. Pigs, for instance, are typically stunned with an electrical current before their throats are slit. Occasionally, however, the stunning doesn’t work and the creatures are still conscious when lowered into a “scalding tank” of hot water that loosens their skin. Then there are the dairy cows sent to slaughter while pregnant. When they’re gutted, sometimes a foetus will fall on to the excrement-covered floor of the slaughterhouse before being beaten to death.
It’s no surprise that many people prefer to think their food comes from farms where animals frolic on lush pastures. The reality challenges meat-eaters’ view of themselves as compassionate, or at least not wantonly cruel. People claim to love animals but are happy to pay for their slaughter and mistreatment.
In This is Vegan Propaganda, the popular vegan activist Ed Winters, known online as Earthling Ed, argues that this cognitive dissonance helps explain why vegans are so reviled. “Vegans make the status quo feel that bit more uncomfortable,” he writes. “Suddenly the consumption of meat comes with the label of being an ‘animal eater’ as opposed to just being ‘normal’.” Vegans make meat-eaters aware of their incompatible beliefs, Winters argues, and people hate them for it.
It’s a compelling point in this digressive but well-researched introduction to veganism. Winters recounts his journey from KFC addict to vegan educator before detailing the main arguments for veganism: it improves your health; it combats environmental destruction; and, most importantly for Winters, it stops the mistreatment of animals.
Winters is sharp when describing the conditions animals are forced to endure, but relies on platitudes to underline his point about them. (“I know which option I would choose – what about you?”)
[See also: The vegetarian in the abattoir]
Elsewhere, he displays his ethical purity with pedantic anxiety – a trait he shares with sections of other social justice movements. After citing research that establishes animals’ intelligence, he is fretfully quick to reassure the reader that he does not condone such studies, “which were undertaken to satisfy human curiosity, not to help animals”. Although his earnestness is tempered by some laudable if only half-successful attempts at levity, a list of pointers for “more effective conversations about veganism” does not help to dispel the perception of vegans as solemn proselytisers.
But what is most stark is the way Winters places responsibility on the individual. “If we want to protect wildlife,” he writes, “the best way to do that is to change what’s on our plates,” adding: “Every time we eat, we have the power to radically transform the world we live in and simultaneously contribute to addressing many of the most pressing issues that our species currently faces.” While the growing availability of vegan products suggests that a consumer-based approach to promoting veganism has had success, Winters neglects the role that other actors (the state, business, or any institution at all) must play too.
This places a huge weight on the individual: veganism requires near-constant enaction in a world where consuming animal products is the norm. We eat, drink and make purchases every day. Vegans cannot escape these decisions or live up to their beliefs by attending a protest once a year. And if they err, they are complicit in what they deplore.
This is not an argument against veganism. Doing the right thing is difficult. But the commitment veganism requires can damage personal relationships. When Winters became vegan, members of his family mocked his decision and his relations with them suffered. He chose not to join his grandparents’ 60th wedding anniversary meal because he felt that attending would implicitly condone animal exploitation. He writes that this was the hardest part of becoming vegan, and his is not an isolated case: the rise of veganism has been met with a barrage of opposition, with one study suggesting that only drug addicts face the same level of social stigma. While Winters grandly argues that vegans have the power to change the world, he rightly acknowledges that attempting to do so can exact a considerable toll. Still, at least vegans are not the ones being boiled alive.
This Is Vegan Propaganda (And Other Lies the Meat Industry Tells You) Ed Winters
Vermilion, 320pp, £14.99
This article appears in the 09 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Sunak's Game