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4th June 2023

Activist Peter Singer speaks out on student protests and veganism

Animal rights activist Peter Singer sits down with the Mancunion to discuss a need for greater student activism and non-violent protests despite their controversy
Activist Peter Singer speaks out on student protests and veganism
Photo: Fronteiras do Pensamento @ Flickr

Peter Singer, 76, is an Australian philosopher, activist and author who serves as a professor of bioethics at Princeton University. His philosophy has focused on charity, civil disobedience, and, most famously, veganism. His 1975 book, Animal Liberation, was among the first books to seriously grapple with the moral implications of killing animals for food. An updated edition, Animal Liberation Now, will be released next month.

As someone with controversial views, Peter has often been characterised as a dangerous radical. And, wearing a black hoodie as I talk to him over Zoom, perhaps he looks the part. But the reality is far from any stereotype of a vegan extremist, Peter is polite, friendly, and considerate.

Articulating his support for veganism, Peter says that plant-based eating is “important both for climate change and animal welfare. It is also important for public health and reducing the risk of spreading viruses from factory-farmed animals. Similarly, antibiotic resistance is a risk posed by animal farming. So, there are lots of reasons for eating plant-based.”

Peter voices his support for student campaigns to make all university catering vegan saying, “I think it’s great when student unions pass motions in support of fully vegan catering [as happened at Cambridge]. And it’s even better when the university actually accepts that principle.

“For climate change reasons alone universities and institutional caterers everywhere ought to be shifting away from beef and dairy, and preferably moving towards only serving plant-based food.”

Of course, this is hardly a new position. Peter has advocated for veganism since the 70s, yet five decades later global meat consumption is higher than ever. Pushed on whether he has seen progress on animal rights over the course of his career, Peter says, “It’s definitely a mixed record. And it’s mixed in terms of where in the world we are looking. I’m encouraged by the fact that the EU has taken steps to prevent some of the things I talked about in Animal Liberation, like the very small battery cages for egg-laying hens. I also welcome the increase in plant-based eating and the greater availability of those products. That’s very encouraging, but the downside is that even in the EU there are still some really bad things happening, like the very bad conditions for chickens intensively farmed for meat.

“There are parts of the world where people are becoming more prosperous and are buying more meat, but where there is no real animal welfare legislation. China is the biggest example of that.”

Given this mixed picture, I wonder if it is naïve to think that people will act empathetically towards animals, especially when many people aren’t even extending their empathy to vulnerable members of our own society. For example, migration and trans identities.

Peter responds that “it is very regrettable that people aren’t including migrants or trans people. But, I don’t know if that actually shows that people will reduce their empathy for animals. For example, in the case of migrants of particular ethnic groups, people can fall for the stereotype that migrants are more likely to commit crimes. Obviously, people don’t stereotype animals. So, I don’t think that does show that people’s circle of empathy is also narrowing for animals.”

Peter’s thinking on animal rights has often challenged conventional wisdom. Perhaps this unconventional thinking is a product of his time as a student in the 60s.

“I went to university in ’64 and for the first two years as an undergraduate, student politics was much more conservative. But, in the later years there was a real rise in student radicalism. I think one important reason for this was the Vietnam War. Conscription was introduced where people were going to be in the army for two years and that had a big effect on students, who obviously didn’t want to be drafted. But the radicalism spread to race issues, black power, equal rights, and feminism. It was a radical time and it lasted well into the seventies. I thought it was significant and in a way, it is disappointing that there aren’t those kinds of mass protest movements regarding climate change.”

In the UK, only a month ago Extinction Rebellion brought somewhere between 60,000 and 90,000 people to London, myself included, to protest the government’s lack of action on the climate crisis. But Peter could be forgiven for not noticing this given that the relatively non-disruptive tactics of that protest led to it being almost entirely ignored by the media and politicians.

Peter responds, invoking another recent wave of protests: “I noticed that the protests against the Israeli government’s plans to make the judiciary less independent brought hundreds of thousands of people to the street out of a population of just under ten million. It is a pity that the climate movement can’t get that proportion of the population into the streets. Because I think that would have an effect. But it may be that things have changed and that politicians are not as impressed by marches as they used to be.

“It’s clear that the climate crisis is becoming more dire and that the actions taken so far are insufficient. And protest provides some ways of standing up to what’s happening, of saying ‘this is not good enough’.

“We’re harming large numbers of people, in particular poorer people who are not producing significant amounts of greenhouse gasses, but are the ones who are suffering most from changes in climate. And we’re also harming future generations who again are obviously not producing any greenhouse gasses but will inherit a world damaged by what we are doing. And that is a terrible wrong. So, I support basically anyone who tries to do something that is non-violent to awaken people to that.”

Peter extends this to students, who he wants to see out protesting against the climate crisis. “I think students today need to be taking actions that are showing their support for strong action against climate change. I’d defend non-violent civil disobedience.”

Animal Liberation Now will be available from June 8 2023. Peter Singer is currently on tour promoting the Book and will be in at the Hackney Empire, London on June 4. Get 20% off when you use the promo code ‘MANCUNION’.

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