The world isn’t quite the vegan utopia we might dream of (yet!), but veganism is certainly becoming a much more mainstream concept. You only have to look at the growth in vegan-related Google searches to see this in action! For instance, Google searches for the term “veganism” have doubled in America, tripled in Australia, and quadrupled in Sweden since 2015.(1)
However, veganism isn’t confined to the internet. The number of people shifting to a vegan lifestyle is also on the rise! For example, in the UK in 2016, The Vegan Society reported that there were approximately 542,000 vegans, making up around 1.05% of the total population. Then in 2021, The Vegan Society reported that there were an estimated 1.5 million vegans, which would have made up about 2.2% of the population.
Yet, we can’t discuss the many successes of the modern-day vegan movement without celebrating the people who set it on its path! Here, we consider some of the many inspiring trailblazers who we can thank for shaping the vegan philosophy as we know it today with a blog aimed at looking at modern Veganism and the incredible people who have shaped the movement.
Donald and Dorothy Watson
No discussion of modern veganism would be complete without the mention of Donald and Dorothy Watson, the two people we can credit for founding what has since become the most widely-recognised vegan organisation, The Vegan Society.
Founded in 1944, The Vegan Society was, at the time, the world’s only vegan charity - existing with just 25 members! It has since become the world’s most prestigious vegan charity, with its iconic Vegan Trademark present in more than 100 countries around the world. We can thank The Vegan Society for its instrumental role in shaping attitudes towards veganism and making animal-friendly products much more accessible to consumers everywhere, and celebrate the Watsons for founding this extremely influential organisation.(3)
Donald and Dorothy were progressive in their approach to living a vegan lifestyle and campaigning for animal rights. They were also pivotal in promoting veganism as a philosophy, rather than a diet, and encouraging like-minded people to set up similar organisations in countries across the world.
Donald Watson, who passed away in 2005, first gave up eating meat when he witnessed his uncle slaughter a pig. This was a pivotal experience that shaped many of his beliefs about animals and their treatment. 18 years later, he decided to give up dairy after learning about milk production and the industry’s cruel treatment of cows.(4)
A true animal rights advocate who believed wholeheartedly in treating all species with kindness and respect, Donald refused to consume any product with links to animal exploitation - and this includes medication. Living to the age of 95 was meaningful to him, as it allowed him to prove that living a vegan life has many health benefits.
Like many influential vegans, Donald Watson tried to live as ethically as possible. He was a pacifist and conscientious objector during World War II, which perfectly demonstrates how compassion governed his life.
Although many discussions of modern-day veganism celebrate the courageous acts of her husband, Dorothy Watson also played a crucial role in shaping the discourse of animal rights. Some publications even suggest that it was Dorothy who conceptualised the term “vegan”, a move that has helped to distinguish veganism from vegetarianism.
We can thank Dorothy, along with Elsie Shrigley, Eva Batt and Fay K. Henderson (three close friends of the Watsons) for guiding the beginnings of modern veganism towards a philosophy that still holds such a poignant message today.(5)
One of the most revered animal rights activists of the modern-day, Peter Singer is an Australian philosopher who has dedicated his life to researching and contributing to the academic field of ethics. His work in the field of ethics has been incredibly meaningful for both animal and human rights, with Singer credited for shaping moral philosophy in a major way.
Within the animal rights field, Singer is perhaps best known for writing Animal Liberation, which although published in 1975, is still one of the most comprehensive analyses of global animal exploitation. Singer believes there is only an “arbitrary” link between humans and non-human animals and is widely credited with bringing the term “speciesism” into mainstream discourse.(6)
Controversially, Singer has described himself as a “flexible vegan”. Despite this, it would be remiss to ignore the undeniable impact he has had on the animal rights movement.
Proving once again that animal and human rights are intrinsically linked, Singer has advocated for bioethics, campaigned against world poverty, argued against the death penalty and fought for the rights of surrogate mothers.
American philosopher Tom Regan, who passed away in 2017, was an unstoppable force within the modern vegan movement. His work greatly shaped philosophical thought regarding the treatment of animals, with his 1983 publication The Case for Animal Rights remaining an extremely influential text within its field.(7)
Within this essay, Regan introduces the idea that some animal species are what he calls “subjects-of-a-life”, meaning that they “have beliefs and desires; perception, memory, and a sense of the future, including their own future”, amongst other criteria. Consequently, he argued that the animal species deemed “subjects-of-a-life”, such as mammals, hold the same intrinsic value as humans, and therefore should be treated as such.
Regan’s activism mainly stayed within the pages of his academic essays, but his insight revolutionised how many viewed animal rights theory. It is an extension of Regan’s theory - one that must consider all animal species as subjects-of-a-life - that will surely guide modern veganism towards a more inclusive future.
From Regan’s autobiography, Bird in a Cage, it is also clear that he was a staunch social justice advocate.(8) Although this didn’t receive the same attention as his work in the field of animal rights theory, his academic record demonstrates a true commitment to fighting for human and non-human animal justice.
Modern veganism and its links to social justice
The Watsons, Singer and Regan truly have paved the way for veganism to keep developing and evolving as a morally driven philosophy and ethical way of life. Like many influential animal rights activists, they also have an impressive track record of advocating for social justice.
If we’re to continue rallying against the oppression of animal rights with the same passion as these proponents of modern veganism, we must follow their lead in also fighting for better human rights. One thing is abundantly clear: we cannot ignore the safety and wellbeing of humans in our mission to create a better world for animals.
1. "Interest In Veganism Is Surging", The Economist<https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2020/01/29/interest-in-veganism-is-surging> [Accessed 11 April 2021].
2. Miranda Larbi, "3.5 Million Brits - Or 7% Of Brits - Now Say They're Vegan", Metro, 2018 <https://metro.co.uk/2018/04/04/3-5-million-brits-7-brits-now-say-vegan-7439337/> [Accessed 11 April 2021].
3. "Statistics", The Vegan Society<https://www.vegansociety.com/news/media/statistics> [Accessed 11 April 2021].
4. "Obituary: Donald Watson", The Guardian<https://www.theguardian.com/news/2006/jan/14/guardianobituaries.food> [Accessed 11 April 2021].
5. "The Women Pioneers Of The Movement: Rarely Out Of The Shadows - Vegfestuk", Vegfestuk <https://www.vegfest.co.uk/2019/09/01/women-pioneers-movement-rarely-shadows/> [Accessed 11 April 2021].
6. Peter Singer, Animal Liberation, 1975.
7. Tom Regan, "The Case For Animal Rights, By Tom Regan", Animal-Rights-Library.Com, 1985 <http://www.animal-rights-library.com/texts-m/regan03.htm> [Accessed 11 April 2021].
8. "Tom Regan – Culture And Animals Foundation", Cultureandanimals.Org<https://www.cultureandanimals.org/about/tom-regan/> [Accessed 11 April 2021].