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The Future of Vegetarianism

(speech given at the 1984 World Vegetarian Congress in Baltimore, Maryland)

What is the future of the vegetarian idea? In the short run, the outlook for vegetarianism is not especially good. But in the long run, the chances are quite good. There are important social and economic factors which are making it increasingly costly to eat meat. We are spending hundreds of billions of dollars on medical care for problems such as heart disease and cancer which are perfectly preventable on a vegetarian diet. In the third world, the flames of revolution and social chaos are being fanned by an agricultural system which squanders agricultural resources in order to provide meat for a few and starvation for millions. And there is moral outrage over the treatment of animals and the factory farms which produce a hell on earth for billions of animals each year a hell which is only terminated by the slaughterhouse. Food is going to be the big social issue of the upcoming years, and it is likely to dominate everything else as an issue by the year 2000. A vegetarian world is within our reach.

What are our strategic objectives? Our ultimate objective is to convince everyone in the world to become a vegetarian. But how are we going to do it?

In my opinion, we will need several things: (1) a long-term perspective; (2) an ecumenical point of view; (3) a proliferation of local vegetarian societies, and (4) democracy within the vegetarian movement.

First of all, we need a long-term perspective. We will need to recognize that the process of creating a vegetarian world is going to take a long time. Even under the most favorable circumstances, to create a vegetarian world will take decades. So I think we ought to prepare for a long struggle, not a short one.

We also need an ecumenical viewpoint. We can and should appeal to a variety of different interests. There are many different reasons for becoming vegetarian, including nutrition, ecology, and ethics. All of these should be utilized. Both nutrition and ethics have received a great deal of attention at this Congress. Perhaps the greatest untapped issue in the vegetarian movement is the ecology issue. Surely the soil erosion, global deforestation, and groundwater depletion due to livestock agriculture which now threaten the basis of our food system are political issues. Surely the death of 15 million humans due to hunger each year is a serious concern. And surely the fact that a vegetarian economy would solve these problems is an important reason for putting ecology on the vegetarian agenda.

There are people who cannot be bothered to lift a finger for their fellow humans, much less for suffering animals; but they may be terrified of the thought of cancer. Some people can be approached at an intellectual level; others respond to emotional or religious appeals. A successful social movement succeeds because it appeals to people with a variety of different issues. There are as many paths to vegetarianism as there are individuals.

But even if we have a long-term ecumenical viewpoint, how are we going to get to a vegetarian world? What we need to do is to know who our audience is, and to know how to approach them.

We need to promote persuasion through human contact. And what this will require, beyond all shadow of a doubt, is a vast proliferation of local vegetarian societies.

We need human contact, and we need it desperately. People sometimes become vegetarians in a vacuum. Suddenly, one day, they spontaneously become vegetarians, without ever having met one. But this is quite rare. Usually, a person who is converted is converted at least partially because they know other vegetarians, have met other vegetarians, or have had the ground prepared by conversations with other vegetarians. I can speak from both my own experience and from the experience of others. It is one thing to read about vegetarians. It is another thing to meet them and talk with them personally. We need to maximize the opportunities for personal contact between and with vegetarians. And for this purpose a strong local vegetarian society is necessary.

We need to build the vegetarian community. It is hard to take a radical step such as rejecting meat consumption, a habit practiced by 95% of the U. S. population, completely alone. It takes courage to be different. This is especially true when none of your friends or family are vegetarians, and are likely to regard you as part of the lunatic fringe as a consequence of your diet. We ought to make it as easy and as pleasant as possible for vegetarians and the public to meet other vegetarians.

There is a final need for a vegetarian world. And that need is for democracy within the vegetarian movement. Without democracy we will not make any substantial progress. Today many friendly groups outside of our movement are experiencing serious difficulties because of the lack of democracy in their organizations. But even vegetarian organizations have not been as democratic as they should. We must try to learn from the mistakes of the past. In this way we will grow and mature not only as individuals but as an organization. And if we show that we have matured as an organization people will join our cause.

How can we come together as a movement? We need democracy, but we need more than that. We need the willingness to make democracy work. Specifically, we need several things: we need to use common sense, tact, and diplomacy in dealing with others. In a movement with so many diverse points of view and diverse personalities, we need to be tolerant of others who may seem different from us. We should not ostracize or censure persons simply because they have different opinions. We should be slow to anger and quick to forgive. We also need to adhere to the procedures of democracy. There is more to democracy than just having elections. Democracy means that everyone concerned has a vote in the first place, and that the procedures to insure that everyone has a voice are followed. We must have a specific understanding over who is a member and how decisions are made. A small organization may be able to operate more informally, as a small circle of friends. But in an organization much larger than 5 and 10 persons, we cannot operate as a small circle of friends. We must transcend the personal level. A movement is hundreds, thousands, and ultimately millions of people. The vegetarian movement is not a small circle of friends. 

The third requirement for democracy is that everyone must be kept informed. The line of communication among the members, and between the members and the leaders of the organization, must remain open. This means not only that the leaders should be kept informed, but also the members themselves. The members have a right to know what decisions their leaders are making. The leaders of the organization should take the initiative in being open about the decision-making process. In this way trust will be established between the members and their leaders.

We can achieve a vegetarian world. We can achieve it in this generation. We have people, we have ideals, and we have something even more important: the truth. Let us strengthen the democracy within the vegetarian cause. Let us build vegetarian societies and the vegetarian community. Let us work together for a vegetarian world.