What Activists are Doing Wrong

effective activism

If you are an activist, you probably spend a lot of time encouraging people to stop doing things. I know I do! ‘Stop supporting animal exploitation’, ‘don’t use disposable plastic’ and so on. And sometimes this approach does a lot to raise awareness and get people thinking. But is it really effective activism? All too often, it seems somewhat lacking when it comes to getting people to actually change their behaviour. And the key problem with this approach is that it focuses on the negatives – ‘don’t do that’ or ‘[insert thing] is really bad for the environment’.

This can sometimes make people feel helpless. They can see why something is bad, but they have no idea what to do about it.

effective activism

At one Earthlings Experience demo I did, a passerby became very upset and frustrated. She could see that the footage was awful, but there were no members of the outreach team available to talk to her. This left her feeling at a loss as to how to avoid the cruelty she had witnessed.

I’ve realised that simply pointing out what’s bad isn’t effective activism – we also need to provide viable alternatives.

Consider the following ways of phrasing a statement, for example.

‘Eating meat is cruel, bad for the environment and unhealthy. Consider eliminating it from your diet.’


‘Eating meat is cruel, bad for the environment and unhealthy. Consider replacing it with alternatives like soya products, or swapping it for lentils and beans in your favourite recipes.’

The difference is that the second option offers a clear pathway to eliminating meat, whereas the first does not. It tells people what to start doing, rather than what to stop doing.

How about:

‘We should stop growing crops as monocultures because it has a negative impact on biodiversity.’


‘We should switch from monocultures to permaculture to help promote biodiversity, increase food production and reduce our reliance on pesticides.’

Which is more convincing?

Applying these lessons

One of the most successful animal activist events I ever took part in was a free vegan food stall. It removed the confrontational element often present in street activism, but more importantly, it helped to show people that there is an alternative to the way they currently eat. We had so many great conversations, and it felt like truly effective activism – it was more positive than any other event I had participated in.

You’ll never convince everyone

Of course, some people remain resistant even in the face of viable alternatives. They will make all sorts of excuses about why they can’t possibly change their behaviour.

There was a segment on the radio the other day about charging more for takeaway coffee cups to encourage people to bring their own cups. One enraged listener phoned in saying there was no way she could bring her own cup because it ‘wasn’t convenient’ and ‘didn’t fit with her lifestyle’.

She also said it was unfair to expect people to pay more for their coffee. When the idea of bringing a flask instead was suggested, she complained that she didn’t want to spend money on buying a flask – even though it would have saved her a fortune in the long run!

Some people just won’t be convinced, no matter how compelling the alternatives. In these instances, it’s probably best to focus on someone more receptive – for the sake of your own sanity, if nothing else!


The takeaway here is that most people want to minimise disruption to their lifestyles, so we must help them to do that if we really want them to change. It may seem selfish when someone won’t  give up plastic for the sake of the environment, for example, but we must try to see where they’re coming from. We can suggest convenient alternatives they may not have considered, like bamboo toothbrushes and metal drinking straws. And lifestyle changes can be contagious. Someone who switches to zero-waste toiletries may take their whole family with them, and those family members, in turn, may influence their friends. Change is far-reaching, so let’s create as much of it as we can.

2 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Some of this reminds me of a recently published book I read this week by Tobias Leenaert called How to Create a Vegan World: a Pragmatic Approach. He talks about focusing on what is effective and how to make the path to a vegan world easier for a wider range of people. With an end goal of achieving a reduction in animal suffering rather than moral purity. When you look at images of protest marches, there are very rarely people showing placards of delicous vegan food! He suggests first teach people about cooking about vegan food, and then use the moral arguments which will more likely work when the person has already seen an easier path to giving up meat.

    1. I think I may have read that book, or a similar one! He may very well be right. It’s certainly thought-provoking.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: