Counting on campaigning

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Sarah Cook comments on why numbers and stats matter for vegan activism.

Three is the magic number. Lucky number seven, or five if you favour Chinese numerology, or a string of numbers if you are talking about the mathematical concept. I love numbers. I make no secret of it. I’m a data head. It’s not that I’m great at high level maths, I am just a practical person. I like things that can be counted, sorted, compared and shown on a chart or infographic.

And numbers are a part of my veganism.

I can talk about personal numbers such as how long I’ve been a vegan (18 months) how long it took me to become vegan (15 years following a short attempt at vegetarianism). I can talk about larger numbers such as the amount of male chicks killed in the UK each year (40 million) because they don’t lay eggs, and number of male dairy calves killed each week because they don’t produce milk (3,000).

I can talk about numbers that respond to the dreary question of “where do you get your protein”. My answer is seitan which racks up above almost everything else on the planet at 80% protein. However, Vegan Symthe’s video might be a funnier, and faster answer if you are responding to someone online.

I also love to cook and that is where numbers become important in a real and tasty sense. Ratio of aquafaba to sugar for a perfect meringue? 1:1. Same as the ratio of chickpea flour to plant milk for a lovely, fluffy omelette. I also know that 100% of non-vegans who have tried my food have been bowled over by it, meaning I know that my cooking is a successful way of showing people that they can eat wonderful meals without harming animals.

Numbers not only inform my veganism, they strengthen my campaigning and activism. Having a series of numbers at my fingertips that I can share with people when talking about veganism. However, numbers are not without complications.

We like to think of numbers as pure and unsullied. One is one is one, after all. But demonstrating truth through numbers can be a challenge when you are working against public perception. Climate change is a key area where, despite figures from organisations like NASA, there is still widespread disbelief in the problem, to the extent that climate change scientists are highly likely to suffer from depression.

It’s sometimes easier for people to ignore figures that are frightening, or that seem impossibly large. And that can often be the case with the amount of animals killed for food in the UK, or the contribution of animal farming to carbon in the atmosphere. People can sometimes feel disconnected from large numbers or feel hopeless or helpless in the face of them.

Which is where we come in. By becoming vegan we can see, feel and know the impact that we have on the world by simply looking at our plates, in our cupboards and comparing it to before. Individually we are making an active, positive decision not to add to those terrible, huge numbers. Collectively we are campaigning to make a vegan world.

We can create tools to help simplify numbers and make them more personal, such as carbon footprint calculators like this one made by WWF that help people see their contribution – and more importantly, the changes they can make to reduce their impact.

We can also chose to put our weight behind other numbers. Behind the growing vegan businesses, behind the vegan events, meet ups and campaigning groups all around the country. By joining up together with other vegans and like-minded people we can demonstrate strength in numbers.

Sometimes small is beautiful in the world of numbers and activism. Those one-to-one conversations between a vegan and someone interested in veganism can be the most useful. Never underestimate the impact that one person can have on the world. If one person has one conversation a week that helps another person think differently about how they use animals, then that’s 52 people over a year. And if each of those people have one conversation a week then we are well into triple figures.

Finally, it is important to know where the numbers we use come from. Statistics are like lead singers in musical numbers – they need back up. These days we are swimming in data. In response, we have become more savvy and more cynical. We pay attention to where the numbers come from, and think about the motives behind the organisations that are publishing those figures.

As campaigners, we need to be careful about how we use numbers. We need to be aware of our sources and to be sure that the figures we are using are credible. Survey size, method of data collection, the questions that are asked, by who, how and when all contribute to the end result.

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This week, The Vegan Society launched a crowd funder (an excellent way of allowing large numbers of interested people to contribute small individual amounts) to pay for an Ipsos MORI survey to find out how many vegans there are in the UK.

A number like this could be game changing for the movement. The obvious one for me is that each time we have to say “I don’t know” to the question “How many vegans are there?” we admit that we do not understand our own movement, our own strength, our own scope. It makes us look weak, and it makes us look isolated. Whilst we might as individual vegans know that not to be true, when we talk to non-vegans and importantly, policy and decison-makers, we need to be confident, positive and certain.

I’m really looking forward to being able to share with the world just how many of us there are. Using that figure, we can then campaign to encourage more people to make the change, to make more companies realise that they need to cater for our growing movement, and more government bodies see how real, how present and how many of us there are.

By Sarah Cook

You can donate to our campaign 'Stand up and be counted!' here. To learn more about the campaign, click here.

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