Ed Winters shares why he’s compelled to champion vegan activism
Veganism is rising across the globe. From vegan chefs creating delicious plant-based cuisine to vegan fashion brands designing eco-friendly clothing as well as vegan businesses selling their wares worldwide. The vegan community can now enjoy mouth-watering food, wear trend-setting fashion, and purchase innovative vegan-friendly products in most shops and online. With so many positives to embrace, the importance of activism can sometimes become overlooked, even though it is at the heart of the movement.
When it comes to animal rights activism, many names spring to mind; Moby, Billie Eilish, James Aspey, Joey Carbstrong and Genesis Butler. In the UK perhaps the most well-known vegan activist is none other than Ed Winters aka Earthling Ed.
Ed has a unique style that is both approachable and impactful, focusing on educating people of all ages, backgrounds and belief systems about veganism, often from an animal advocacy perspective. Ed is currently celebrating the successful launch of his debut novel, This Is Vegan Propaganda: (And Other Lies the Meat Industry Tells You) (widely praised by vegans and non-vegans worldwide) - available in paperback, hardback, Audiobook and Kindle.
We caught up with Ed to get his thoughts on what inspired him to become a vegan activist, what comes next for veganism, and how anyone can get involved.
V- Land UK (V-L): Hi Ed, thanks so much for chatting with us today. For many of our readers, the desire to help animals resonates deeply. How did your journey into animal advocacy begin?
Ed Winters (EW): I’d been vegan for about eight months when I started realising that I should speak up. For me, it became a clear case of understanding the severity of the issues and taking that time since going vegan to learn even more about it: Looking at the ethical cost, environmental costs, the personal health cost, the social health costs. So, I began to learn about all these different issues in more depth, and I realised that it’s not someone's fault if they don't know about these issues, it’s the fault of those that are aware but don't speak up.
It was a case of recognising that as somebody who was aware of the problem and becoming increasingly more aware, I had an obligation to try and spread the message, because I realised that for all those years where I wasnt vegan, I wish I had been. I think one of the biggest regrets that vegans have, is that they didn't go vegan sooner. Yet, we can only process information that we come across.
I had a responsibility and an obligation to speak up. There's an analogy that I find quite effective at summarising this: There is a blind person walking down the street, and at the end of the street is a hole, but the blind person keeps walking down the street and eventually ends up falling into the hole. On the side of the road there is someone who can see, and they are watching this blind person get closer and closer to the hole with each step. So, if the blind person falls into the hole, whose fault is it?
To me, it is the fault of the person who can see what was going to happen but didn't say anything, and I felt that I was that person. Thinking along those lines made me realise that there was something that I could do, more than simply just being vegan myself, and that I could combine that passion I had with the awareness I had gained, to hopefully encourage people to see what was at the end of the road, so to speak.
V-L: What advice would you give to people who want to use their voice for animals but are unsure how to do so?
EW: I think it is just a case of finding what you would find fulfilment from doing. There are so many ways of speaking up for animals and speaking up for veganism. It doesn't mean that you have to do anything that anyone else does, or put yourself in a situation where you don't feel safe, comfortable or confident. It doesn't mean that you have to speak up every time there is an opportunity, it’s a case of taking opportunities when they arise. It could be a conversation with a friend or a family member, a conversation at work or bringing in vegan snacks for colleagues.
One piece of advice I would give is; don't put pressure on yourself to aspire to a level of advocacy or activism that is unobtainable. Aspire to a level that is easily within reach, because it is about small victories here and there and moments where we feel that we’ve made a difference, even if it is realistically a small difference - it is a difference nonetheless. It is these little moments and these small victories that can build up confidence.
Never put yourself in a situation where you are feeling out of your comfort zone, although your comfort zone will change and grow over time as you dip your toes in a little deeper and try out different things. There is no expectation of doing something that pushes you outside of that zone to start with. Education is a really big factor, taking the time to educate yourself about the different issues. What people will say, and what you expect someone to say to you if you were to have a conversation. If you were to find yourself in a situation where a particular topic of conversation came up, how would you respond?
Approach it in a way that feels conducive to what you would be happy to do. Perhaps in a way that you think would have resonated with you before you were vegan, and take some time to educate yourself on the basics of what you think someone will say, because a lot of it is to do with confidence. The more you know, and the more you feel that you have the information at your disposal, the more confident you’ll be.
V-L: As a vegan educator, what has been your most memorable debate so far and why?
EW: My most memorable debate came from a large agricultural college called Texas A&M, one of the biggest colleges in the US. A guy sat down with me who belonged to a denomination of Christianity where every year for forty days, they consumed fewer animal products. I asked him why, and he replied that animal products and meat give us blood lust and dairy gives us wrath: Animal products can create negative emotions in us, so it is a cleanse to rid ourselves of the wrath and the blood lust that has been stored up in our body because we consume these foods.
So, I asked if that is the case, then why consume it? If you are getting blood lust from eating meat, then why not just stop eating meat? That would surely solve the problem. And he said that we need blood lust. I asked him why we need blood lust? He said that if we didn't have blood lust, then we would become weak and susceptible to being attacked and invaded by our enemies. So I asked if he was saying that Americans need to eat meat, because if they didn't they would become too weak to defend themselves from a Communist invasion? He replied yes.
That was a really unique argument that I hadn't come across before and hopefully will never come across again! It speaks to the power of the cognitive distance that can arise from these conversations. We are so eager to defend eating animal products that we will come up with the most outlandish responses to try and justify doing all the things we do to animals, such as this conversation; because we don't want to be invaded by our enemies.
It is crazy and utterly bonkers. Firstly, because being vegan isn't going to make you any weaker, or less able to defend yourself, but secondly it is preposterous that we’d try and use our political fears or the fears given to us by media, to try and normalise the consumption of animals and the harm that it causes. I believe this speaks to the sheer absurdity of how we want to rationalise something which is so obviously wrong. That was definitely one of the most memorable ones I’ve had so far.
Brix and Maas
V-L: You recently launched I.D.E.A Studios, a vegan apparel brand with the aim of spreading awareness for animals through fashion. Do you see business as a viable tool for activism?
EW: Certainly, I think business is a really important aspect of this. The way I see it is that the shift towards veganism requires two main things. The first is awareness and the second is accessibility. Awareness comes from education: public speaking, online content creation, documentaries, literature etc. Essentially anything that builds up awareness around these issues. Then the second thing is accessibility and availability, which stems from business. Examples are food products on supermarket shelves, sustainable plant-based alternatives to clothing items, cruelty free alternatives to toiletries and make up. Basically, everything that creates accessibility and availability. It is businesses that are driving these products to be available to consumers.
We can tell people the reasons why they should stop supporting something, but if there is not the ability for them to stop supporting this - or there isn't a perceived ease of no longer supporting these businesses - how can they be expected to? People need to be able to go into a supermarket or go to find clothing online, or go to buy their toiletries and be given an alternative. I think that one of the ways that we can make a transition to veganism even easier is by having as many alternatives and as much understanding around these different options as we possibly can.
One of the best ways we can get people to stop buying these things is to offer them something else which ticks all their boxes. It is a viable tool for change and for activism, because it is this coupling of awareness and accessibility that will ultimately give people the best opportunity possible to make these changes. We can have these products available, but if people don't have an awareness of why they should buy them, they won't. So it needs both these things.
V-L: Your podcast, The Disclosure Podcast has had some inspirational guests on the show, what words of wisdom have come up in conversations that you feel should be shared far and wide?
EW: One of the things that the podcast does, is that it allows for longer discussions around certain issues. I’ve had conversations with ex-farmers, current farmers and with people who are very knowledgeable about fish intelligence and sentience. I don't necessarily have particular words of wisdom, but I feel what I have learnt from the podcast is personal experiences and anecdotes. People's life work, or previous work within this life, has been instrumental in shaping them in terms of what they know. That's what I have enjoyed most about the podcast. I want to provide an opportunity for people who have investigated issues that I haven’t (or at least in the manner or depth that they have), to then speak out about the things they have learnt.
One of the more upsetting things around the issue of what we do to animals, is that there seems to be no end in the knowledge about what we do to them. Things will always surprise me. Anecdotes and stories will always disturb or enlighten me in a way that I had not previously been enlightened. Whether it's the harrowing stories of ex-farmers or the uplifting and remarkable stories of fish in the oceans.
An episode with best-selling author Jonathan Balcombe, who wrote the book What A Fish Knows, discussed the incredible intelligence of fish that we often disregard and view as irrelevant. This issue of the podcast with Jonathan gave me a whole new understanding of the complexity and the inner lives of fish, and how undervalued they really are. For me, that was certainly one of the most memorable aspects from a positive perspective, but also a negative perspective. The coupling of that increases awareness around the amazingness of fish but then also the sobering reality of recognising that we are killing trillions of fish every single year and the horror that goes alongside with that.
Fish are remarkably intelligent, it would be easier if it turned out fish were not sentient - that would make the reality of what we do to them far less harrowing than the truth. The truth is that fish are undervalued. Their intelligence is far higher than we ever properly considered and we’ll probably learn even more about it in the future. Yet, we do all of these awful things to them, which is made worse when we know they have these experiences and capacities that we currently have refused to acknowledge. All of that contributes to an enhanced sense of wisdom that I have managed to gain from the podcast.
V-L: Your debut novel, This is Vegan Propaganda, has been widely praised by both vegans and non-vegans. What place do you see literature having within veganism, and is there a gap in the market that could be filled?
EW: I wouldn't necessarily say there's been a gap in the market. I think there has historically been, and currently is, a lot of great content around this issue, going back to Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation in the 1970s and the works of people like Gary Francione. Maybe in the current context we have become so used to visual content, be it TikTok, YouTube or even documentaries, so we don't necessarily view books in the same way that we used to in terms of their ability to be important parts of social change and social awareness. That's not to say people don't view books as being instrumental, because clearly, they do - maybe we don't view books in the way that we used to because of the emerging visual fields that have taken over, especially when you look at short-form content that we see in the likes of social media.
Books are important because they enable you to delve into issues and give you the ability, as a reader, to imprint your experiences within the text. I think what sometimes can happen with documentaries and films is that you are relating to the narrator or to the presenter, and books give you the space to feel more as an individual, based on who you are, and to imprint yourself into the text. Especially something that's more objective or takes the position of being more of an informative piece, rather than a biography for example. Literature can lay out the information in an objective manner that allows you to come to terms with the information on your own.
While you can read books in one sitting, books are normally something you come back to. You’ll read a couple of chapters, perhaps take a few days’ break and come back to it again in the future. That gives you the space to mull over the content. You’re not watching a documentary that is 90 minutes to two hours long and then you’re done. This is a book that you will probably spend a few days with, maybe even a couple of weeks, depending on how quickly you read, or what your schedule is like. That longevity of experience can be really powerful in allowing you to absorb the information. You can read a chapter, think about it, and then read the next chapter and think about it. That is unique when it comes to books, giving your undivided attention to this piece of work over time. Books are a great medium for delving deep into topics and a great way of allowing the person consuming that content to have a really thoughtful experience.
What was different for me when writing This Is Vegan Propaganda compared to my usual content, is usually I’d make a ten to twelve minute video, and in that video I’d need to hit as many points as I possibly can. I don’t have the luxury to dwell, or to go on tangents, or to take the viewer off in a different way, because we often have shorter attention spans when it comes to online content. Our expectations are on what that content is going to deliver for us. With the book, it gives the space to explore different ideas, to be more comprehensive and I like that. What I really enjoyed about writing This Is Vegan Propaganda was that I could go down these rabbit hotels, in ways I haven't been able to do with videos, because I didn't have the same limitations.
I guess there is a gap in the market. The more books and more content the better, that is obvious, but I always think that there is something unique about books, which make them an important part of my advocacy as well as the movement's advocacy in general.
V-L: With the ever-impending threat of the climate crisis and the urgency to protect nature and animal welfare standards, what do you see as the next step for animal advocacy in the UK?
EW: I don't think we have an urgency to protect animal welfare standards. I think we have an urgency to eliminate animal farming. I don't want there to be animal welfare standards because I don't want there to be animal farming. I think that is part of the next steps for animal advocacy, we have to move past the idea that this is the most palatable way of creating change. There should be an incentive to advocate for abolition and doing so in a way that isn't alienating or isn't necessarily going to make it seem extreme, but advocating for abolition in a way that incentives the merits behind it in a positive manner. People are now in a position in society where we can be more forthright and push for the urgency of elimination. We need to get rid of it.
The next steps I think, are going to be twofold. Firstly, as advocates, we need to champion the individual stories of animals. One of the things I would like to focus on more, and one of the things as a movement to focus more on, is not on scale or individual practices, but more on animals and who they are. One of the things that I believe is really powerful about dogs and cats is the relationship we have with them. We see them as individuals and we know their personalities. The reasons why we hate Yulin, the dog meat festival in China, is not about the scale. Most people you ask won’t know how many dogs are killed at Yulin, because we don't see that as the issue. I believe it is normally approximately 10,000 dogs - which is obviously a huge number, but 10,000 is a tiny number compared to 1.2 billion, which is the number of land animals we kill in the UK every single year. Or, 85 billion, which is the number of land animals we kill globally every year for food.
Sometimes when we talk about animals and the issues with animals, because we make it about scale, what we do is say that if it was done to 10,000 chickens it wouldn't be so bad, but because there are 1 billion chickens in the UK alone, that's why it is bad. There we see the problem, because when we talk about dogs and talk about Yulin, we don't think it's unacceptable because it is happening to 10,000 dogs. We think it is wrong because it is happening to dogs full stop. I think that is one thing we need to deal with in regards to farmed animals in this country, we need to get people to understand that the issue isn't the scale. The issue is because it is happening to chickens, to cows, to pigs, full stop.
In the same way that we recognise that the issue with kicking a dog is that one dog is being harmed, we should have that same mentality with cows, pigs and chickens. The reason we have that mentality with dogs is because we have come to view them as individuals, and so the experience of one dog is something that we care about, but the experience of one pig, or one cow, or one chicken isn't. Because we are talking about the issue of scale, or the issue of industrialised farming, that's actually the symptom of the problem - we refuse to view the animal, or at least pigs, cows, chickens, turkeys, lambs or fish, in the way that they should be viewed, which is as an individual who deserves the right not to be exploited by us, in the same way that dogs and cats are also individuals who shouldn't be exploited by us. One of the things we should be doing is highlighting that a little bit more.
Highlighting what these animals are capable of, who they are and why they matter. Then on top of that, the next steps would be things like precision fermentation and a reforming of our subsidy scheme. Things like that will play a huge part, especially in the foreseeable future - so that would be the next steps. Food technology and heightened conversation around animal rights from the position of advocating for individual animals being harmed. I think that's a good thing to do.
V-L: We think so too. Here’s to the hope that someday, equality will be attainable for all species. From those that live in the sea, to those flying in the skies, to the many wriggling under the soil, or those of us that walk above the earth, whether two-legged, four-legged or more - hopefully, in time, all species can enjoy freedom and live as nature intended side by side as earthlings.
Whichever way you choose to use your voice or talent for vegan advocacy, the more of us that do, the more animals we can help, and the better this planet will become for all that inhabit it. If you’re looking for more inspiration to step on the vegan activism ladder, check out creative career choices that contribute towards activism and unique UK animal rights activism approaches.