The Future of Vegetarianism
(speech given at the 1984 World Vegetarian Congress in
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
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
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