Ed Winters is a familiar face on the vegan scene, perhaps best known for the conversations he has with non-vegans and shares on his YouTube channel.
Alongside this, Ed creates documentaries, runs animal rights marches, speaks in media interviews and, most recently, has been touring the UK’s university campuses with his Big Vegan Activism Van.
When did you start thinking about animal rights?
The only time vegetarianism was really brought up in my upbringing was as a joke – it was never something you took seriously. I remember being in an English Literature class around 11 years ago when the concept of vegetarianism was brought up. I put my hand up in the air and said all vegetarians are pale, weak and skinny and people in the class laughed. There was only one girl in my class who was vegetarian, and I remember she looked at me like she was angry and I couldn’t work out why because I didn’t think I’d said anything wrong. And it’s kind of ironic, because I was pale, weak and skinny myself.
And then, four years ago, I saw an article about a truck carrying 7000 chickens to a slaughterhouse. The truck had crashed across the M52 in Manchester and hundreds of birds had passed. What struck me even more was the ones who were still alive and had broken wings and broken bones. At that point it dawned on me that I was a hypocrite. The only reason the birds were on that truck on their way to the slaughterhouse was because I literally paid for them to be there. I thought about the way I viewed the animals I ate – and they’re just the same as the animals I loved. They have the capacity to feel and think and they have a preference to live.
When did you get involved in activism?
It’s funny because at the beginning I was really scared and didn’t want to be labelled as preachy. I was at university at the time, and I was really worried my friends would alienate me or cause problems and arguments, so I stayed quiet and didn’t ever speak up about it.
But then I kind of got an urge that I needed to do something about it. My partner kept pushing me to start a YouTube channel, and I remember saying that I didn’t want to do it, that I was horrible in front of a camera. I didn’t feel confident or capable and didn’t know what I would say, but one day I decided to do it.
My first video was just dreadful – it was an introduction to my channel which was so awkward. My arms were just flailing. But it went from there. I knew that obviously veganism was right and it was the only ethical, moral and environmental way to live. But I just didn’t have all the answers to back that way of thinking up, so I made it my mission to read as much and watch as many videos and do as much as I could, and I decided I needed to share that information with people.
How do you think you have changed since then?
I don’t really recognise the person I used to be. It’s a bit of a cliché about veganism, but it opens your mind to so many things. It’s not just about abstaining from animal products – it’s a new way of thinking, a new way of looking at life. Veganism really grounds you and makes you realise that life is not just your own.
I really feel so different. I think I’m a lot more self-aware and more compassionate. Veganism is a conscious decision in that it involves morality. It involves looking at the impact of your actions and a whole host of things that you never considered before. It opens up all of these other elements of oppression and injustice. It humbles you to know that there’s a lot more that needs to be addressed in this world.
In the videos you share on YouTube you’re often speaking to non-vegans who disagree with you. One of your key strengths is that you are able to stay so calm and rational – have you always been this way?
A lot of people have asked me how I have that kind of temperament. It isn’t something I was lucky enough to be born with – I started off quite angry, to the point where I had to work on it. I could come across a bit aggressive, and that never ended very well. Reflecting on it, I thought that I didn’t do a great job. I want the people that I’m talking with to turn to veganism. And I fundamentally failed at that in that I got angry and satisfied my ego instead.
But it’s about learning from that situation and asking what it was that made you angry, whether it was a comment or body language. So then in another confrontation you know how to respond in a better way. It was definitely something I had to learn, and to practise. I want to emphasise to people that we all make mistakes in any aspect of life, and activism is no different.
Is there a particular conversation that you’ve had with a non-vegan that sticks out in your mind?
Yeah, we had this conversation with a farmer at an event called Anonymous for the Voiceless at the end of last year. I’d been aware of him because he’d been talking to other people and I got the sense that he’d been a bit aggressive and confrontational. I wandered over to him to see if he’d listen and we got into this big impassioned debate.
At the end of it we shook hands and acknowledged that even though we come from different sides of the spectrum, we could find common ground in what we wanted to achieve. And I really respected that. Even though we have such opposing views on the way that he treats animals on his farm, inherently we both want a world in which he could have his livelihood while not harming animals.
Could you tell me a bit about the production of your film, Land of Hope and Glory and any future plans for documentaries?
It was a project we’d been wanting to do for a while. It really came out of frustration, because a lot of the films we were showing at events weren’t from the UK, and we had a lot of people saying, “That doesn’t happen in this country; they look after the animals here.” We wanted to create something that was really simple and that showed the truth behind animal farming.
It took us a long while to do, because we had to create all the footage and that involved working with animal rights organisations. It was quite a process to be dumped with hard drives of horrible footage and having to wade through it and see which parts would go in the film to illustrate the points we were making. It took about six months before it was completed. It was really something we felt had to be done because we want people to see that this is happening right on our doorsteps and that we’re directly responsible for it.
It sounds like an incredibly gruelling process.
Absolutely, though it’s quite scary because we became quite desensitised to it. You know, the first time we watched it we would cry and then you watch it a few times and it’s not affecting you any more – you become immune to it and your thoughts shut off and you look at it more as a work project. It makes sense why it happens but it frightened us a bit that we became quite immune to the footage itself. You want it to draw that emotional reaction and compared with what the animals go through it’s very insignificant.
More recently you’ve been speaking on live radio and TV – do you enjoy doing that?
I think it’s the burden of responsibility that’s hard. It’s all about practice and having the confidence – you’ve got to have made sure you’ve addressed everything; having conversations in that sort of situation really helps boost confidence. The farmers all tend to have the same arguments and the same excuses, and if you can work out how to respond to those you’re quite well-equipped for most situations.
I did an interview for the BBC earlier this year, and what really riled me up was the farmer I was debating came over to me just before we went on air and said, “We’re not losing sleep over you.” In that moment I decided I wasn’t nervous anymore. It was the arrogance in the way he said it. Why are they so defensive if they’re not scared of us?
The amount of shows that have reached out and are representing vegans globally shows that it’s not a fringe movement anymore; it’s very much a movement for the mainstream that everyone’s doing. We’re making it more normal.
Would you say you’re optimistic about that momentum continuing and building?
Definitely. I think the number of people going vegan at the moment is really humbling. And it’s happening very quickly, for so many reasons as well – the environment as well as ethics.
I think the press that we get won’t always be positive – there will still be the rhetoric of angry vegan extremists thrown at us, so that’s something which we need to be prepared for. But that negativity, in a way, shows that we are being successful – they’re having to try and claw back.
For more information and links to his further work, visit earthlinged.com.
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