This limited method meant less success for the French vegan movement, Cherry says. But she observes that the vegan movement has indeed stalled. She claims that people sometimes identify as vegetarian without significantly reducing or eliminating animal products from their diet, and notes the U.S.’s all-time-high meat consumption. She also argues that many flexitarian organizations don’t actually encourage people to eat less meat; they merely encourage them to eat more other things, which might not end up in people actually reducing their meat intake.
Nevertheless, Cherry says she’s not 100 percent convinced that by promoting meat reduction, the vegan movement is setting itself up for failure. “I interviewed almost 100 vegans or vegan animal-rights activists and most of them went vegan in stages rather than all at once, so I don’t think that accepting veganism as the end stage of several other steps is actually a problem for the animal-rights movement,” she says.
Gene Baur, the president of the animals-right nonprofit Farm Sanctuary, says that incrementalism can work in most cases, especially when it’s not just people’s hearts you’re trying to change, but a social and economic system. In the ’90s, Farm Sanctuary reached out to local restaurants, urging them to serve more plant-based foods. One of those local restaurants was Burger King. “They decided to sell a veggie burger, and that became a nationwide veggie burger,” Baur says. “So in my mind, Burger King having a veggie burger is a good thing when it comes to promoting the goal of plant-based eating.”
When California’s Proposition 2, which placed regulations on how tightly animals are allowed to be packed into cages, passed in 2008, Baur adds, “there was a decline in meat consumption and, generally speaking, a decline in animal production.”
Still, Baur acknowledges that meat consumption rose this year, an issue he thinks stems from the huge agricultural industry. “When these foods are cheap and accessible and highly marketed, people tend to eat them,” he says.
Nina Gheihman, a doctoral student at Harvard who studies veganism, agrees with Wrenn’s findings that flexitarianism, as an acceptable end goal within the vegan and vegetarian movements, is damaging. But Gheihman says that the movement should be welcoming to those at its boundaries who may not be ready to dive right into veganism. “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.”
In Wrenn’s view, “becoming bureaucratic” stifles social movements’ “ability to create meaningful social change.” But Baur argues that it’s more complex than that: Some organizations do become successfully bureaucratic, bigger, and more mainstream, while others lose integrity and are co-opted. “It is personal and also systemic and structural,” he says. “It’s a legitimate thing to be aware of and concerned about, but I don’t think it applies across the board.”