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March 2004
HyperActivism: The Phenomenon of Doing Without Achieving

By Henry Spira


While recognizing that most people care deeply about the well-being of animals, it’s crucial to remember that right thought and right speech, by themselves, are not enough. For activists who want to make a difference, thinking must be linked with doing, Henry Spira explains in this article, originally published in the June, 1996 issue of Satya.

For some time, the animal rights movement has been trapped in the nightmare in which you run as hard as possible but can’t seem to move forward. For all its growing resources and considerable energy, the movement is barely scratching the surface of animal suffering and misery.

This is a tragedy, given the remarkable progress made in the 1970s, a period in which activists convinced society that the suffering of animals matters. Today, polls suggest that more than 95 percent of Americans care about the well-being of animals.

Twenty years ago, animal activists challenged the status quo of lab animal testing, focusing on the Draize blinding test and the LD50 death tests. The victories which followed reshaped scientific and corporate thinking and set the stage for alternatives to the traditional use of laboratory animals. For animal protectionists, an important bridge was crossed. But instead of moving on to tackle even greater areas of animal suffering, many activists continue to run back and forth across the same bridge.

Looking at the universe of animal suffering in America today, we see pain dominated by the more than seven billion farm animals. Roughly 95 percent of all animal misery is endured by animals raised for food. Why then has the movement allocated only a fraction of its time and resources to their plight? This is something that is only now, slowly, beginning to change. Sometimes it seems as if more time is spent discussing whether or not the public functions of animal organizations should be vegetarian than fighting to protect farm animals. Meanwhile, farm animal suffering is on the increase.

Many of Us, Few Achievements
How can so many activists with so many resources achieve so little? Of course, this problem is not unique to the animal movement; there’s a tendency among most social change organizations to repeat old strategies that produced success in the past, rather than thinking ahead to the future. Lack of imagination and bureaucratic inertia become the norm and organizations just keep doing more of the same, year after year.

Rather than moving ahead and looking for new horizons, animal protectionists too often settle into the creeping routine-ism for which we criticize animal researchers. Campaigns such as the ongoing bashing of cosmetics companies have evolved into mindless rituals without beginning or end. What, other than raising funds, is gained by activists continuing to attack companies who have spent tens of millions of dollars responding to the issues raised nearly 20 years ago? Clearly, this discourages the corporate world from being responsive to new activist concerns. In addition, it encourages cynicism inside and outside the movement.

Ironically, it may be the financial success of many animal organizations that is proving to be the largest barrier to progress in the farm animal arena. Faced with the need to maintain budgets and infrastructures, many organizations are pressured to choose campaigns on the basis of popular appeal rather than the urgent need to fight animal suffering.

If the public is more predisposed to opening its wallet for bunny rabbits than seven billion chickens, it is not because they are any less deserving but that the movement has yet to make a compelling enough case for their misery. It’s worth remembering that some 20 years ago, the public did not appear concerned with cosmetics testing on animals until the issue was spotlighted through full-page advertisements in the New York Times.

Failure to assess priorities and undue emphasis on lesser problems can also muddy the real issues. For the last few years environmental organizations have wallowed in their victory in persuading the fast food industry to switch to more environmentally friendly hamburger packaging. The fact of the matter is that the contents of the packaging represent the real environmental threat, yet this continues to be largely ignored.

Focusing on the Fundamentals
Much of the above would suggest that the movement lacks a common objective. While none of us can define exactly what an overarching strategy should look like, we can probably agree on certain fundamentals. One such fundamental, it seems, would be to acknowledge that the general awareness-building which was necessary in the 1970s and perhaps in the 1980s, needs to be refocused. Right now, the urgent need is to focus on making a difference in the lives of billions of farm animals.

We should try to persuade the public to include all animals in their circle of concern. In its April 1, 1996 cover story, Barron’s, the Dow Jones business and financial weekly, reported that “surveys show that seven out of 10 American pet owners now think of their pets as children, and they are willing to spend on their pets as if they were children.” There is no unbridgeable gap between companion animals and farm animals, though it may be convenient for those who eat animals to think that there is. Is it not possible for the public to share some of their affection for their nonhuman roommates with their roommates’ close relatives? The needs and opportunities have never been greater. And 95 percent of the American public wants to end animal suffering. Within that framework, we need to assess how to use our energies more productively.

Let’s get out of the past and stop ignoring the vast majority of animal misery. We activists need to remember our objectives and why we’re doing what we’re doing. This involves a realistic recognition of the problems, a sense of what’s possible, the ability to search out and seize opportunities as they appear and, whenever necessary, to switch gears. Rather than daydreaming about perfect and absolute solutions, activists need to push for the most rapid progress. Above all, we need to continually assess what differences we are making. Are we accomplishing all that we can to reduce the total universe of animal pain and suffering? Clearly, we have the tools. Do we have the will?

Henry Spira was the coordinator of Animal Rights International and a regular contributor to Satya. An activist for more than 50 years, Spira is the subject of a documentary and book by Peter Singer,
Ethics into Action: Henry Spira and the Animal Rights Movement. Henry Spira died of esophageal cancer on September 12, 1998, at age 71. This article originally appeared in the June, 1996 issue of Satya.


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