Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Right on the Mark
Mark Hawthorne is a fixture in the Bay Area animal protection community, and the author of the invaluable new book, Striking at the Roots. A book that is both inspiring and informative, it should be required reading for budding activists, seasoned advocates, and everyone in between. Guiding us through the myriad ways we can make a difference for animals, from leafleting and corporate outreach to protesting and direct action, Striking at the Roots provides an in-depth yet easy-to-read look into each type of activism. What’s more, this book is chock full of personal anecdotes and advice from activists across the globe that are sure to resonate with anyone working on behalf of the animals.
Mark took some time from his busy schedule to talk with EBAA's Karin Olsson and Eileen Mello about his own experiences as an animal advocate, his views on the shape of activism today, and the ever important topic of vegan beer.
What are your own personal favorite forms of activism?
I love one-on-one activism -- getting into discussions with one or two people, like when you leaflet or table. Or when you bring cookies into work and everyone is amazed you baked them without eggs or butter and people remark that maybe being vegan isn’t hard after all. A lot of my activism is in the written word: letters, magazine articles, op-eds, newsletters and, of course, my book.
In your research, did you find that a particular form of activism made more of an impact than another in attempting to eradicate animal suffering?
All forms are important, because you never know what is going to inspire someone, and it’s usually not just one thing that does it. Having said that, I think it’s hard to beat leafleting at a college. It’s easy to do, the students are ripe for change and it helps disabuse people of the myth that activists are in some way different from the mainstream.
I think what is really important is how we frame our message to the public, whether we’re leafleting to one person or speaking in front of 200. It is critical that people understand why animals are suffering and how their choices do make a difference for beings who are no different than their dogs and cats – except that abused animals are being raised for food or fashion or vivisection or used in circuses or some other torture. All these animals feel pain, and they all deserve a life free of exploitation by humans. People have to make that connection. Activists have to connect the dots for them.
The title of your book refers to a quote from Walden by Henry David Thoreau: "There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root." What do you believe is the fundamental root cause of non-human animal abuse?
I believe the root cause is the public’s nearly total lack of knowledge about what is happening to animals every moment of every day. This in turn is enabled by animal enterprises like agribusiness and medical researchers, which work to make people feel good about eating animals, using them as test subjects, exploiting them for our amusement and so on. That’s why effective animal activism addresses both the public and the businesses abusing animals. People need to understand animal cruelty is happening all the time, not just when an undercover video is shown on the news, and that our daily choices directly impact how animals are treated. Businesses and policymakers need to know people won’t tolerate animal abuse.
In writing this book, you reached out to activists across the globe. Did you encounter any methods or forms of activism that were new to you, or that you felt American activists would benefit from employing?
I learned a lot about corporate outreach – that is, encouraging companies to adopt animal-friendly policies. In the book, I include restaurant outreach as part of that, since food is such a vital part of veganism and animal rights – food is our common touchstone. Activists in Europe seem to be doing a really fantastic job of reaching out to companies. In fact, Lush, the cosmetics company based in England, even hired an animal-rights activist to help them become 100% vegan.
There’s probably not a company anywhere that at some level doesn’t have influence over how animals are treated. AT&T and Coors Beer both sponsor rodeos, for example, and many pet-food companies, like Iams, kill animals in their testing labs. We can even be doing outreach to our own government, which abuses animals in the military, in research labs, on public land. Heck, the USDA’s Wildlife Services kills animals just for eating flowers or frightening people. And all of this is funded by our tax dollars. So there’s a lot of opportunity for activists to use the outreach model. Writing letters and making phone calls, and getting others to do the same, makes a difference.
How has writing this book influenced both your understanding of activism and the way in which you personally work to aid animals?
Writing Striking at the Roots showed me how large the animal-rights community around the world really is and how even one person can make a difference. Wendy Parsons in Australia, for example, got McDonald’s to stop sponsoring rodeos all by herself.
But more than anything, I learned to go easier on myself. This movement has lost too many good people – people who pushed themselves a little too hard, thinking they were superheroes, and burned out. We have to focus on our victories and not get bogged down in the mire of bad news we hear all the time as activists. Josh Balk at HSUS, uses guilt as a motivator – it keeps him going. Whatever it takes, we need to keep our heads up. If not, the animals lose. So that’s my focus now.
Your book cites methods of activism that range from "small" to "large" acts of support. While doing research, did you ever encounter individuals who believe that activism is only effective or beneficial when performed in a grandiose way? What is your response to that belief?
Actually, I encountered just the opposite. I thought activists would be extolling the importance of large protests, but they were emphasizing the need for smaller, smarter demonstrations, and I agree with them. Patty Mark of Animal Liberation Victoria, for example, told me about a protest they did to raise awareness about whaling. They brought a large, clear box to the ocean, filled it with red water and an activist, and labeled it with their anti-whaling message and Web site address. That image ended up in newspapers around the world. It’s much better to use your resources wisely, like being organized and following up with the media after a protest, than to spend your time trying to get a hundred people to a demonstration.
Of course, as we speak, the world is watching Oprah Winfrey do a three-week vegan detox on television, which may end up doing more for the movement than all the intelligent protests in history put together.
How did you become vegan? At what point did you consider yourself an activist and what actions were you taking? How do you define your own activism today?
After being vegetarian for about 10 years, I read Diet for a New America and began examining my consumer choices. Eggs were the tipping point for me. I really liked eating eggs and baking with them, so I asked Karen Davis at United Poultry Concerns if it was okay to buy free-range eggs. She basically told me, no, if I really cared about chickens, I shouldn’t be eating any eggs. Shortly after that, I went on a tour of Animal Place, a sanctuary for farmed animals here in the Bay Area, and learned more about how hens are exploited in the egg industry. And I got to meet some hens. That was the day I went vegan and started learning how easy it is to bake without eggs.
I had long been a human-rights activist, but after going vegan, I started working to advance the interests of animals. I joined the writers groups for Compassion Over Killing and PETA, and I began volunteering at Animal Place. I also started fostering rescued rabbits. Although I enjoy tabling and speaking to groups, I reach more people with my writing, so that’s probably the model I use the most now. I mean, one article in VegNews magazine might be seen by 150,000 people.
What is your favorite beer?
That may be your toughest question! Unfortunately, a lot of beers aren’t even vegetarian. I used to love Guinness stout, for example, but they use gelatin from the swim bladders of fish to refine the beer. I enjoy having seasonal beers at local breweries, and my favorite bottled beer right now is probably Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.