To introduce veganism and show what it means to be a vegan, Enza Ferreri of Human Health and Animal Ethics has had a discussion with Robin Lane, a long-standing vegan and animal activist who is co-founder with his wife Alison of the London Vegan Festival, pictured right.
Until a few years ago the only vegan festival in the UK, the London Vegan Festival is held every late summer in Kensington Town Hall and attracts over 2,000 visitors to its more than 100 stalls. The stalls range from vegan food suppliers and caterers to animal associations, from environmental groups to cruelty-free and natural cosmetic producers. There are talks, entertainment for children and grown-ups, music, question and answer sessions on vegan nutrition, food preparation demonstrations, film shows, meditation workshops with massages, vegan beers and cider, even "speed meetings" for strangers to meet.
Robin, vegan since 1982, has been involved in many animal issue campaigns and lives in South London with Alison and their dog Foxy.
We need to define a few fundamental terms.
A vegetarian is a person who does not eat any kind of meat or fish.
There are two fundamental types of vegetarian:
- ovo-lacto vegetarian, who eats egg and dairy products in addition to foods of purely vegetable origin
- vegan, who only eats products of entirely vegetable source.
In what follows, we use the term "vegetarian" to mean "ovo-lacto vegetarian".
Conversation with Robin Lane, co-founder of the London Vegan Festival
Enza: I'd like to start with something that people don't normally associate with veganism or animal rights, something which shows how vegans can be outside the usual stereotypes that the general public has in mind: your conversion to Christianity.
Robin: Yes, I started reading the Bible in 2004 after the death of my mother. I read both the Old and New Testaments, and I was particularly inspired by the Gospels. During the past 6 years I have attended services at no less than 20 churches and I currently attend a Reformed Catholic Church.
I am a follower of Jesus's teaching's, and believe that he was a vegetarian. After my conversion in 2005, I gave most of my possessions to charity. I have become more aware of human suffering and as a result now donate blood.
I have read about the works of Christian figures, and I particularly admire the work of the Earl of Shaftesbury KG and the work of the Salvation Army. Many great advocates of Christianity worked for the advancement of people and animals, and campaigned for social reform in the 19th century. Also, Shaftesbury was a life-long opponent of vivisection.
Enza: I've done a bit of research. The Earl of Shaftesbury was the first president of the Victoria Street Society for the Protection of Animals from Vivisection and he supported Lord Truro's bill in July 1879 calling for the total abolition of vivisection.
Or think of William Wilberforce, who was a leader in the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade and founded both the Church Mission Society and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, later to become the RSPCA, after royal patronage granted by Queen Victoria.
Robin: Exactly. I started 4 groups on facebook. One is Way in the Wilderness, which promotes a cruelty-free way of life and since 2008 we've held stalls outside of Westminster Cathedral in London. It is a major Roman Catholic Church and we distribute pro-vegan information to the faithful, including Christian Vegetarian Association UK (CVAUK) literature, animal rights leaflets, vegan recipes and factsheets. We also give fruit to those who come to the stall. At the last stall we handed out 'Is meat killing the planet' leaflets outside McDonald's. We've had a mostly positive response, with lively conversations with Catholics attending the Cathedral, although some evangelicals consider us misguided. All in all, it has been a very positive experience.
There is also the Christian Alliance for Love and Fellowship (C.A.L.F.), an alliance between Way in the Wilderness and CVAUK. We promote a cruelty-free way of life, oppose all violence, and support human-based charities including Shelter, Wateraid, Fund for the Blind and Livability, in accordance with the ministry of Jesus.
The third group is Vegan Missionaries, whose purpose is for vegan Christians to take the message into their churches, i.e. providing soya milk for after service refreshments, offering to supply vegan cleaning products, discussing the issue with members of the congregation, and displaying leaflets at the back of the church.
Finally, Christian Activist (Peaceful). With this we try to influence our local churches towards the promotion of a more progressive, animal-friendly life. Members who attend church may consider standing for election for the PCC (Parochial Church Council) where issues can be discussed and voted upon. I am a member of the PCC at my church, and with the vicar's blessing, achieved some important changes. I've been met with a good response, and I have contributed to the newsletter.
Enza: I've noticed that you mostly try to proselytize veganism among Christians. What response did you find among your fellow vegans and animal campaigners about your Christianity and Christian beliefs?
Robin: I have come up against some opposition, and there have been instances at the festival where one or two people have objected to the inclusion of Christian Vegetarian Association UK as a stallholder. On another occasion, there was an objection to an Israeli stallholder selling wine. However, at the same festival we had a Palestinian company selling olive oil!
Enza: I'm sure no-one objected to that. Sometimes people have prejudices, and strangely animal rights people can be surprisingly closed-minded.
Robin: There are those who lack knowledge about Christianity, and often make ill-informed comments. However, I have met a number of Christian animal rights supporters and Christian vegans on Facebook.
When we began organising the festival in 1998 (it was then known as the National Vegan Festival due to it being the only one), the attendees numbered 1000. The numbers have steadily increased and now we expect in the region of between 2000-2400. Although we advertise widely, we do seem to get a similar amount of attendees, but this could be due to the maximum capacity of the venue. When we held the festival at the previous venue, some people avoided the festival due to overcrowding. In 2009, we experienced similar overcrowding even though the venue is considerably larger.
Enza: That could be part of the reason, but nevertheless it looks to me, prima facie, that for a while you gradually increased the number of people attending partly, maybe, due to the growing numbers of vegans and partly because not all your potential attendees had been fully reached by your message, then you have recently arrived at a plateau because you have saturated the pool of people to whom your message is of interest, that is, generally speaking nearly all the people who could be interested in it are already attending.
I have a hypothesis here about the reason for that. Could it be because you exclude from holding stalls anyone who is not at least vegetarian personally, and you exclude from other forms of promotion anything who is not strictly vegan, no matter how good their organization or whatever else they promote is, and as a consequence you always preach only to the proverbial converted?
Robin: Our policy is that all stallholders must be at least vegetarian. We have held this policy since 1996 when the event was first conceived. Over the years there have been prospective stallholders asking for stalls, but who did not meet our requirements. We suggest that they become vegan, which of course will benefit them also. As this is a vegan festival we feel it would be inconsistent to include flesh-eaters to the line-up, and we do not want vegan attendees having to give their money to non-vegetarians on the day. Whilst primarily the festival is designed to encourage non-vegan attendees to adopt a vegan way of life, it also acts as a 'day out for vegans' who can be free of the usual constraints associated with living in a non-vegan world.
Enza: This is exactly what I mean. If you only allow in the same circle of people, you'll always end up with the same circle of people, which as you say corresponds to the same number of attendees.
You did the same with this website. I suggested that I would give out leaflets about Human Health and Animal Ethics site and you refused because on it there are mentions of Quorn, a vegetarian product which contains traces, i.e microscopic amounts, of milk and egg.
The point I'm making is this. At the Festival the number of people allowed to hold stalls or events or promotions will have to be restricted, obviously. But where do you draw the line? If you make the number too inclusive, you risk diluting the message excessively, and if you make the number too exclusive, you risk stagnation by not expanding your audience. The task is to draw the line in the best possible way between these two risks, and in my opinion - it's only an opinion, nothing more and nothing less - you have drawn the line in a way that excludes more people than you need to.
If you allow, say, somebody who is not personally vegetarian to hold a stall that promotes anti-shooting, a message on which you agree (he was not promoting his meat eating after all), or, as in my case, you allow the promotion of a website which is 99.99 percent or more vegan, you enlarge the circle of people revolving around the Festival, who might then bring in other people as visitors and so on, without any significant sacrifice to the Festival's message.
Don't get me wrong. I have a great admiration for what you accomplished with the London Vegan Festival, you've really achieved a lot with such a big event going on all these years.
If I make these observations, they are meant as constructive criticisms, simply because I'd like you to do even better.
Robin: Contrary to the statement that we preach on the converted, people from all walks of life attend the event: non-vegetarians, vegetarians and vegans.
Since 1998, we have advertised in a diverse range of publications, both within the vegan/animal rights movement, as well as national, local newspapers and mainstream magazines. Whilst we often re-invite stallholders, we also invite first-time stallholders, so no festival is a repeat of the previous one.
As it is a vegan festival, we only promote veganism, and Quorn is a non-vegan product.
Enza: And I told you that I understood you, partly because you said that over the years you have had people creating problems at the festival, so you try to avoid situations that may encourage trouble-makers, as it happened at the 2009 festival - so you wish to avoid, for example, that a vegan attendee might be shocked that you are promoting Quorn at a vegan festival -, and partly because I accept your viewpoint even if I disagree with it. Understanding is not the same thing as agreeing.
I have a different approach to things. I think that we should enlarge and widen our perspective audience as much as possible, and between sacrificing vast segments of the public that we can reach and a strictness which borders on purism, I would sacrifice the latter. Think of this. Is it better to have 10 strict vegans or 100 people who are vegan half of the time? In terms of effects it's equivalent to 10 vegans versus 50 vegans.
Robin: People who eat vegan food for half of the time are not vegan; they are vegetarian so there would not be 50 vegans instead of 10.
Enza: Yours is a literal way to look at things, mine is a consequentialist one. I am looking at the consequences for the animals.
First of all, I didn't say that the people who eat vegan food half of the time are vegetarian. In my hypothetical example, they are omnivorous half the time and vegan half the time.
Imagine 2 groups of 100 people, group A and group B. Group A is made up of 10 strict vegans and 90 people who eat the average, normal omnivorous diet. Group B is composed of 100 people who are vegan half of the time and omnivores the other half.
What's the amount of food of animal origin consumed by the 2 groups?
Group A consumes 90 "shares" of animal food (90 omnivores x 1 share each).
Group B consumes 50 shares of animal food (100 half vegans x 1/2 share each).
If what we want is to prevent as much animal suffering as possible, group B is definitely the way forward, that is, it's much more important that a larger number of people reduce their intake of animal products than that a smaller number of people can be defined as "vegan".
Robin: Whilst I promote veganism, I am supportive of those who become vegetarian or cut down on their consumption of animal products.
THIS ARTICLE IS IN 3 PARTS: → Part 2 What is Vegan Part 2 of conversation with co-founder of London Vegan Festival Robin Lane | → Part 3 How to Be Vegan Part 3 of conversation with co-founder of London Vegan Festival Robin Lane
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