For those who have been active in the veg movement for any length of time the above title must seem almost heretical - but it is actually an interesting question…
Back in January 1995 I started the first website for a national vegetarian society, and one of the first things I put on it was a page of statistics, surveys of the ‘how many vegetarians’ type. Other people were soon putting up similar stats for other countries, a few accurate surveys, others just rough estimates from various sources. The internet had created new possibilities for easily collating and sharing this data in a way that had never been possible before.
After a few years we began to notice something odd – the number of vegetarians was not going up.
It was odd because we could all see a significant increase in the provision of specifically vegetarian foods in shops and restaurants, and business surveys were showing similar significant increases in sales of these products. So, if there were no more vegetarians, who were the people buying all this stuff?
It became increasingly apparent that there was a very large number of what the food industry called ‘meat reducers’, later also known as ‘flexitarians’ – people who liked eating vegetarian meals some of the time, but they were not at all consistent about it.
Many of the surveys were very concerned to check consistency - the commitment of individuals to only eat vegetarian, all the time. And the data we could collect from various countries showed a surprisingly similar level of a few percent in every country of the genuinely consistent veg*ns – usually 1-6%, with just a few dubious estimates going slightly higher.
India appears to have a lot more ‘vegetarians’ – but in reality the vast majority are Hindus just following the diet of the religion they were born into without thinking about it much. Apparently one survey a few years back even claimed that 80% of Hindus would eat meat if they could afford it (though I haven't see the original survey...). The numbers making a conscious, deliberate, consistent and committed choice to be vegetarian or vegan in India are back to the same low levels as everywhere else.
Today, 17 years after I put those first stats online, the figures have still not changed. We still have about the same number of committed vegetarians that we had back then, despite far more veg*n activity being apparent. So has the movement failed in all the campaigns to persuade more people to ‘Go Vegetarian’?
In the sense of people becoming consistent, committed vegetarians – yes, they have very obviously failed. But what they have inadvertently achieved has been to persuade a vast – and increasing - number of people to eat some vegetarian/vegan meals, some of the time. These part-timers seem to like the idea of veg*ism, but they won’t stick to it consistently when it becomes inconvenient for any reason.
I can hear the outrage of moral indignation from those ‘conviction vegetarians’ – and even more so from ‘conviction vegans’. But are they being realistic in demanding that everyone should be as committed to the cause as they are?
Or does all this actually have more to do with personality than dietary or ethical choices…?
I’ve been doing some research into ‘personality types’, and there seems to be agreement that our personalities are fixed by an early age, then don’t change much. It seems that only a small percentage of the population have the type of personality that prefers a total commitment to whatever cause they are promoting. It works the same in politics and religion as it does in veg*ism. There is always a small core of people with strong convictions, and a large number of ‘fair-weather friends’ – the flexitarians who bend with the wind.
In all the great world religions there are millions who keep the faith they were born into just because ‘it seems the right thing to do’ – but they don’t spend very much time thinking about it. People who vote for a particular political party often do that out of habit too.
There is often a problem with the ‘conviction personality’ types being unable to understand why everyone else is not like them. This often results in ever louder and more aggressive ranting about the lack of commitment in others - common in fundamentalists of many religions, and political movements, and we see it in some vegans too.
But most others are not like them because they just have different personalities, and no amount of ranting will change that. If this is right then there will never be more than a small percentage of people who are consistent, committed vegetarians or vegans.
We have, however, seen a significant change over the last ten years in the deepening of that commitment – to the extent that more and more vegetarians are dropping the eggs/dairy and moving closer to veganism.
So it may be that we will never have more than a few percent of committed ‘conviction’ vegetarians and vegans. But if those of us who are committed to the cause can make it easier for others, then there is ample evidence that very large numbers of others would follow. How consistent those others become just depends on how easy it is for them – so a greater variety and quality of vegan food in shops and restaurants, at reasonable prices, would make a huge difference to the numbers who (mostly) follow our lifestyle.
Eventually there would come a ‘tipping point’ – where it becomes so easy to be veg that many will just eat that way all the time, because it ‘seems like the right thing to do’, but without really thinking about it much – just like all the millions of Hindus in India.
For vegan history, see my free e-book: ‘World Veganism – past, present and future.” You can download it for free, or replace your existing copy at: www.ivu.org/history/Vegan_History.pdf (6mb)
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