HYPERACTIVISM: THE PHENOMENON OF DOING WITHOUT ACHIEVING
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 1996:
by Henry Spira
While recognizing that
most people care deeply about the
well-being of animals, it’s crucial to
remember that right thought and
right speech, by themselves, are not
enough. For activists who want to
make a difference, thinking must be
linked with doing.
But for some time the animal
rights movement has been
trapped in the nightmare in which
you run as hard as possible, yet
can’t move forward. For all its
growing resources and considerable
energy, the movement is barely
scratching the surface of animal suffering
This is a tragedy given the
remarkable progress made in the
1970s and 1980s, when activists
convinced society that animal suffering
matters. Polls now suggest that
more than 95% of Americans care
about the well-being of animals.
Active supporters of animal protection
in the U.S. are counted in the
tens of millions; committed activists
number in the hundreds of thousands
or even millions. In the past two
decades, the animal rights movement
has built a high profile, raising
hundreds of millions of dollars in the
process, achieving some notable
successes along the way.
Twenty years ago, animal
activists challenged the status quo in
animal testing, focusing on the
Draize rabbit blinding test and the
LD-50 death tests. The victories that
followed reshaped scientific and corporate
thinking, and encouraged the
rise of a new science: perfecting
alternatives to laboratory animal use.
For animal protectionists, an important
bridge was crossed. But instead
of moving on to tackle areas of even
more animal suffering, many
activists keep running back and forth
over the same bridge.
Looking at the universe of
animal suffering in America today,
we see pain dominated by the more
than eight billion farm animals, who
suffer roughly 95% of all animal
misery. Many spend their short
pathetic lives in cages or enclosures
barely larger than their bodies,
unable to move, stretch, turn
around, or even spread their wings.
They are the routine victims of violence
in handling and transport.
Many become so sick they must be
dragged to slaughter.
Why then has the movement
allocated only a fraction of its
time and resources to the plight of
farm animals? Only now, slowly,
is this starting to change. Often it
seems as if more time is spent discussing
whether the public functions
of animal organizations should be
vegetarian than is spent fighting to
protect farm animals––whose suffering
is on the increase.
How can so many activists
with so much in the way of
resources achieve so little?
This problem is not unique
to the animal rights movement.
There is a tendency among most
social change organizations to repeat
old strategies that have produced
success in the past, rather than
thinking ahead to the future. Lack
of imagination and bureaucratic
inertia become the norm, and organizations
just keep doing more of the
same, year after year.
Rather than moving ahead,
looking for new horizons, animal
protectionists too often settle into the
creeping routinism for which we
criticize animal researchers.
Campaigns such as the ongoing
bashing of cosmetics companies
have evolved into mindless ritual
without beginning or end. What,
other than raising funds, is gained
by activists continuing to attack
companies which have spent tens of
millions of dollars responding to the
issues raised nearly 20 years ago?
Clearly, this discourages the corporate
world from being responsive to
new activist concerns. In addition,
it encourages cynicism inside and
outside the movement.
Ironically, the financial
success of many animal protection
organizations may be the largest barrier
to progress for farm animals.
Having to maintain budgets and
infrastructures, many organizations
choose campaigns on the basis of
popular appeal, rather than on the
urgent needs of suffering animals.
Farm animals, the victims
of 95% of animal abuse in this country,
are not as popular a cause as the
causes of many other animals. If
Jeremy Bentham had lived today,
instead of observing that the question
is not whether animals think,
but whether they suffer, he might
have observed that, “The question is
not whether animals suffer, but can
their suffering raise money?”
If the public is more predisposed
to open wallets for bunny
rabbits than for chickens, it is
because the animal protection movement
has not yet made a compelling
enough case for the misery of eight
billion farm animals––not because
farm animals are any less deserving.
It’s worth remembering
that 20 years ago, the public did not
seem concerned about cosmetic testing
on animals––until the issue was
spotlighted through full page advertisements
in The New York Times.
Failure to assess priorities
and undue emphasis on lesser problems
can also muddy the real issues.
Environmental organizations have
wallowed for several years in their
victory of persuading the fast food
industry to switch to more environmentally
friendly hamburger packaging.
Yet the contents of the packaging
represent the real environmental
threat: raising eight billion
or more animals for food every year
pollutes our environment far more
than styrofoam packaging, while
factory farming gobbles up limited
resources with an insatiable appetite
for land, water, and energy. All
this is largely ignored.
Much of the above would
suggest that the animal rights movement
lacks a common goal. While
none of us can define exactly what
an overarching strategy should look
like, we can probably agree on certain
fundamentals. One such fundamental
should be to acknowledge
that the general awareness-building
which was necessary in the 1970s
and perhaps in the 1980s needs to be
refocused: the most urgent need is
to improve the lives of billions of
In that regard, the emphasis
should now be on persuading the
public to include all animals in its
circle of concern. In an April 1
cover article, B a r r o n ’ s, the Dow
Jones business and financial weekly,
says that, “Surveys show seven out
of 10 American pet owners now
think of their pets as children, and
they are willing to spend on their
pets as if they were children.”
There is no unbridgeable
gap between companion animals and
farm animals, though it may be convenient
for those who eat animals to
think there is. Cannot the public
share some of their affection for
their nonhuman roommates with
these animals’ close relatives?
The needs and opportunities
have never been greater. And
95% of the American public wants
to end animal suffering. Within that
framework, we must assess how to
use our energies more productively.
Let’s get out of the past
and quit ignoring the vast majority
of animal misery. We need to recall
our objectives and why we do what
we do. This involves realistic recognition
of problems, a sense of
what’s possible, the ability to seek
out and seize opportunity, and,
when necessary, to switch gears.
This all fits within the context of a
stepwise, incremental movement.
Rather than daydreaming about perfect
and absolute solutions, activists
need to push for the most rapid
progress. Above all, we need to
continually assess what difference
we are making. Are we achieving
all that we can to reduce the universe
of animal pain and suffering?
Clearly, we have the
tools. But do we have the will?
(Spira, founder and presi –
dent of Animal Rights International
and the Campaign for Non-Violent
Food, in 1976 placed the New York
Times ads that made animal testing
a national issue.)