In animal and environmental advocacy circles, the debate over what makes effective advocacy is a long-standing one that isn’t likely to be resolved soon. But as thoughtful activists, it’s our job to continuously audit our own efforts and make improvements when possible. A recent report from the World Wildlife Fund provides some interesting takeaways for the environmental movement that are also quite relevant for advocates focused on animal issues.
Over the last couple of posts, I’ve mentioned my belief that people change "incrementally" and that advocacy is most effective when it provides incremental steps. Allow me to explain using a quick analogy borrowed from HRC board member Sharie Lesniak. Think about the typical person as minding her or his own business, walking down the safe and paved road that is life. As animal advocates, our goal is to get these people to make a turn down a less-traveled road, a dirt path, if you will. To get these people to make the initial move, the primary goal is just getting their attention, getting them to turn and take a few steps down a more compassionate path.
With this in mind, it is arguably best to use whatever motivations are the easiest or most likely to convince people to take that small, initial step in a different direction. Advocates should then lead with appeals to self-interest if those are most effective (e.g., using health to promote vegetarianism or arguing that alternatives to animal testing are more cost-effective). Once people are on the right path, even for non-animal reasons, they become increasingly open to hearing (and acting upon) other, compassion-motivated reasons that hopefully help move them further along the path and sustain their changes.
While this incremental approach seems like a reasonable description of how people change, it represents only one school of thought. On the other hand, there are those in the animal movement who feel that advocating anything short of total animal liberation is at best a waste of time, and at worst involves selling out the animals. The most extreme proponents of this viewpoint are divisive and do not deserve the attention they sometimes receive, but we still can’t dismiss the ideas entirely. It’s possible that a narrow focus on advocating compassion and justice for animals is the right approach.
The author of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report, “Weathercocks and Signposts: The Environment Movement at a Crossroads,” would seem to concur. His statement that “any successful movement... must be unequivocal in articulating what it stands for” is a rallying cry to use a purer, more values-based approach to environmental advocacy. This contrasts sharply with the idea of getting “quick wins” and encouraging small changes. The rationale is that a deeper personal connection to environmental issues is needed to fend off the gloomy scenario of runaway climate change.
Many will still see the approach outlined in this report as unrealistic. But that perception is changing. Unfortunately, it is changing in part because as our understanding of the severity of the environmental challenges that confront us develops further, current strategies for engaging them seem increasingly inadequate. But WWF is also finding an increasing number of people, not easily pigeon-holed as environmentalists, who are nonetheless embracing a radical change agenda from within their respective sectors. The irony is that the mainstream environmental movement has yet to take on a leading role in responding to this challenge.
If the author’s opinions are true for environmentalism, they are likely true for animal advocacy as well. Most people may not see animal protection as an urgent issue, but the plight of animals is arguably the greatest moral injustice of our time. In the end, I believe that a compassionate world for animals can only be fully realized by appealing to the sense of empathy and justice that most people feel. But the question for animal advocates in the short-term is not about the goals that we all want to achieve, but how to achieve them quickly and effectively. Of course, that depends on your target audience.
For some people, a direct appeal to higher-order values like compassion and justice will probably work very well; others may only respond to some form of self-interest. Decades of behavior change research suggests that people are more likely to make changes that are small and incremental, but there are very few longitudinal studies that measure retention. We may never know which approach is most effective, but it seems clear that animal advocates need to understand both the intrinsic values and the selfish interests of the people we are trying to change.
Here the WWF report author agrees; the notion of gaining “greater clarity on the values that motivate” our target audience is his first piece of advice for environmentalists...
Eight Practical Steps:
Despite my questions about the WWF report’s conclusions, I think these steps are as relevant and important for animal advocates as they are for environmentalists. I also believe that step #8, “making public affinity for animals more salient,” is particularly important for our movement, and this especially includes the welfare of animals that now fall outside of the sphere of consideration for most people (e.g., farmed animals, animals used for testing, feral cats, etc.).
The animal protection movement may be at a crossroads when it comes to identifying the most effective types of advocacy, but don’t panic; we’re going to be here for a while. My advice is to be as thoughtful and mindful of your target audience as possible, and remain open-minded when it comes to potentially improving your advocacy and being more effective for animals.
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