Don’t shoot the messenger: Environmentalism and hypocrisy

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Formula One driver and vegan advocate Lewis Hamilton has been labelled a hypocrite for the industry in which he works (Screenshot via YouTube)

It's easy to find fault in some people trying to help save the planet, but there is a grey area when it comes to hypocrisy, writes Dr Nick Pendergrast.

FORMULA ONE driver Lewis Hamilton has been widely labelled a hypocrite for advocating for veganism on environmental grounds while participating in a sport that has a high environmental impact. These accusations are regularly made against those making the case for positive environmental change, for example, some Extinction Rebellion protesters faced similar backlash for eating at the environmentally destructive restaurant McDonald’s before and after their action.

I'm so sick of these straw man/distraction arguments about hypocrisy whenever anyone is trying to make the case for environmental action.

Let's have a genuine discussion about these environmental actions, rather than highlighting the hypocrisy of the messenger to avoid having this discussion. If someone is advocating for veganism on environmental grounds, let’s discuss the environmental impact of animal agriculture rather than highlighting that the person advocating for veganism drives a car. If someone is advocating for no new fossil fuels, let’s discuss the environmental impact of fossil fuels rather than highlighting that the person arguing against fossil fuels is not vegan.

Anyone living under a capitalist system based on constant consumerism and economic growth who is advocating for the environment is going to be hypocritical to some degree. Of course, it is absolutely worth trying to reduce this hypocrisy through individual changes and this is something that we can work towards, while never fully achieving.

So all these hypocrisy arguments do is discourage people from advocating for the environment, which is possibly the motivation for some on the Right wing, climate change deniers and so forth. But for those of us who are concerned about the environment and climate change, it is important that we avoid promoting similar narratives.

This could include some of those labelling Hamilton a hypocrite, but another example where I have seen those who are concerned about the environment feed into these hypocrisy narratives is environmental vegan activists.

Environmental veganism

The biggest, most visible banner I saw from the “vegan contingent” at the recent Melbourne School Strike 4 Climate march read:

‘How can we expect change from others when we refuse to change ourselves?’

(Image source: Vegan Rising Facebook page)

While I think veganism is a really positive stand to take on environmental (and animal rights) grounds and both individual and structural responses to environmental issues are important, I’m doubtful if such messaging at the climate marches is likely to get through to non-vegan environmentalists. Particularly when the framing is actually fairly similar to critiques of these marches from those who are climate change deniers and/or those on the Right wing who are opposing these activists, which are most likely dismissed by those in these movements.

Examples include climate change denier and One Nation politician Malcolm Roberts suggesting that the structural demands of the march were invalid because some people were using plastic water bottles. There were similar critiques from other Right-wing commentators such as Alan Jones and Amanda Vanstone, suggesting the protestors should take individual actions for the environment. This would include stopping charging their phones and iPads, stopping using air conditioning and not owning cars rather than focusing on the contribution of governments and companies to the climate crisis.

While all of these individual steps are positive actions people can take for the environment, the extent to which those in these movements take them or not really has very little to do with the validity of calls by the protestors to stop the Adani coal mine and shift to renewable energy.

This got me thinking about how environmental vegan activists can make the case that animal agriculture is a significant environmental issue while avoiding feeding into these hypocrisy narratives. I have heard that some environmental activists focus on fossil fuels but not animal agriculture because they don’t want to alienate people who are not vegan.

This is reflective of the demands of School Strike 4 Climate, which are:

  1. No new coal, oil and gas projects, including the Adani mine.
  2. 100 per cent renewable energy generation and exports by 2030.
  3. Fund a just transition and job creation for all fossil-fuel workers and communities.

Such demands seem uncontroversial in environmental movements and are widely accepted. However, people within these movements all use fossil fuels (to different levels) and some even work within these industries. So why are these demands considered non-alienating, while addressing animal agriculture is often viewed as excluding or hostile towards the many people in environmental movements who currently consume products from animal agriculture?

I think this relates to the structural nature of these demands around fossil fuels. Individuals in these movements all consume different levels of fossil fuels (obviously the less the better for the environment), but the demands are not about individual choices, they are structural in nature. So individuals, regardless of their level of fossil fuel consumption, can unite behind these structural demands.

In contrast, demands around addressing the environmental impact of animal agriculture are often framed in a very individual-focused manner, as was highlighted above. However, I question whether this has to be the case. For example, if animal agriculture was addressed in exactly the same structural way as fossil fuels, I wonder if this issue would be more frequently raised in the School Strike 4 Climate marches and in environmental movements generally.

Rather than being focused on individual veganism, the demands around animal agriculture could be the following, based on the existing School Strike 4 Climate demands around fossil fuels:

  1. No new animal agriculture.
  2. 100 per cent plant-based agriculture by 2030.
  3. Fund a just transition and job creation for all animal agriculture workers and communities.

I’d love to see some messaging along these lines from vegan activists at the next climate march, as well as or instead of the more individual-focused vegan messaging. I believe such demands would be more likely to be accepted by members of environmental movements and would also be more likely to be incorporated into official demands.

As with fossil fuels, people within these movements would all consume different levels of animal products (with the less the better for the environment and animals), but they could all unite behind these structural demands on the importance of moving away from animal agriculture at the government, industry and society levels.

More generally, I’d love to see a genuine engagement with a wide range of environmental issues by all of those who care about the environment rather than this tired and unproductive focus on the hypocrisy of those making the case for change.

Dr Nick Pendergrast teaches Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Melbourne and his research is in the areas of social movements, social change and Critical Animal Studies.

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Don’t shoot the messenger: Environmentalism and hypocrisy

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