The ‘Preachy’ Environmentalist: Counterproductive Cliché or Inevitable Consequence?

Button on sweater reading 100% vegan

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Q: How can you tell if someone is a vegan?
A: Don’t worry. They’ll tell you, again, and again, and again.

The vegans among us have likely heard this old — and not that funny — joke a thousand times already. While it might be a slightly tongue-in-cheek poke at dietary virtue signaling, I have come to quite dislike the idea it represents. And that dislike stems from one very simple reason: I’m not particularly sure it’s true.

Sure, I have met vegans who will preach to any and everyone about the evils of animal products and the industrial food complex. Yet the overwhelming majority of vegans in my life aren’t all that interested in preaching or judgmentalism. They just eat what they eat, and then get on with trying to make the world a slightly better place in whatever way they can.

Zaria Gorvett investigated the psychology behind anti-vegan sentiment for The BBC last year, asking why vegans are so often subject to prejudice, bias, and snide jokes like the one above. Talking to social scientists, what Gorvett discovered was that vegans face negative stereotypes to a similar degree as other socially marginalized groups. People struggling with addiction, for example.

One of the primary reasons they face this prejudice is not actually because they act in a preachy manner toward others – but rather they are perceived as doing so. And that perception comes from the fact that most of us are increasingly aware of the horrors of industrial meat production. As such, we may actually agree with their basic worldview and yet are not quite ready to take the leap to veganism ourselves.

Essentially, Gorvett says, we are “threatened by people who have similar morals to us, if they’re prepared to go further than we are in order to stick to them.”

It’s a lesson I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, as I’ve been working on a book that explores the intersection of individual behavior change and more systems-level interventions. During the course of that writing, I spoke to a number of activists who had taken significant steps – eschewing all flying, for example – to cut their own emissions. Yet, I wondered: If those strategies will inevitably be perceived as preachy or judgmental, how do we mitigate for that fact?

One option is to package these efforts differently. Rather than framing them as an exercise in personal carbon reduction – which by implication has an element of moral purism or absolution to it – we might want to talk more about the idea of mass mobilization.

That’s the case I made, for example, when I said that we were thinking about flying all wrong. Rather than insisting that nobody can ever fly, we could celebrate those who don’t fly at all but also encourage those who do to fly differently and fly less often.

As such, the focus is less on the purity of the individual, but on the collective impact of our various efforts. Similarly, rather than insisting that everybody goes vegan, we might want to seek common ground between vegans, vegetarians, and reducetarians – focus efforts on a collaborative pursuit of tipping points, which would then make plant-centric eating easier for all of us.
Another option is to go out of our way to make it clear own personal efforts should not be used to cast judgment on others. That appears to be the approach Greta Thunberg took recently. When asked about celebrity activists who still use private jets, she responded both decisively and dismissively: “I don’t care.”

A third option, however, is to simply accept that this perceived judgmentalism is part of the game we are playing. Rather than explicitly counteract it, we might want to actually embrace it as a sign of pent-up demand for our ideas. In other words, instead of worrying about whether or not we’ll be perceived as preachy, we might want to simply celebrate the notion that people are coming around to our worldview, whether or not they are ready to fully walk the walk. (Let’s face it, very few of us are actually fully ready to walk the walk.)

That’s the lesson I drew from a conversation with Steve Westlake, a UK-based academic who gave up his high-carbon, aviation-intensive travel itinerary as part of his effort to cut his carbon footprint. As part of his research on social influence, he surveyed individuals who knew someone else who had made a similar commitment not to fly.

The results were rather impressive. Of those people who had social connections that had given up flying, a full 75% reported a change in attitude about the importance of climate action and lower-carbon behaviors. Fifty percent even reported flying less themselves. The numbers were even higher when the person in their network was in some way influential or high profile – say, a climate scientist or a celebrity.

Westlake himself said he was very careful not to actively shame or judge those who continue to fly unless that someone is actively bragging about their high carbon lifestyle. However, he was also not willing to give up on shame or shaming (real or perceived) as part of the movement’s arsenal.

“Guilt and shame are highly motivating, potentially," said Westlake. "And this is where I believe that the rather simplistic idea, that we should never engage with that discourse, is wrong. They can be a force for change, both personally and collectively.”

What matters is not how any single one of us is perceived. Instead, it’s how what we do influences those around us. And given that we inevitably measure our own behaviors by comparing them to those we know, we might want to embrace our reputation as preachy vegans and accept it as a sign of progress.