The brutal battle for the soul of veganism

Veganism has never been more popular, nor its activists more organised. But behind the scenes a battle is being waged, with purists at odds with moderates on how best to end flesh-eating culture.


By Tim Elliott, The Age (Australia)

July 6, 2019


Like born-again Christians and recovering alcoholics, many vegans credit their awakening to some kind of epiphany; a pivotal, before-and-after moment which allowed them to see the world for what it is, its true essence unmasked, their animal-free futures unfurling before them with rapturous clarity. For some vegans, it was a chance visit to an abattoir, or seeing video of a factory farm, or a conversation with another vegan. For Andy Faulkner, it all began with his penis.


Faulkner is tall and slim, with slightly stooped shoulders, a bald head and small, aerodynamic ears. He is 47, and has been a vegan for six years. "For the first 41 years of my life, I was a typical Aussie barbecue-loving meat eater," he tells me when I meet him one night at a vegan demonstration in the centre of Sydney. "I grew up in a middle-class family. Dad was a policeman, Mum was a cleaner. Eating meat was a way of life for us. Bacon every weekend, steak at night. It was so normalised that I never saw it as an animal – a cow, a duck, or a calf – that was on my plate."


Around his late 30s, however, Faulkner's health began declining. He developed severe back pain and crippling haemorrhoids. He had so little energy that he was struggling to do his job as a primary school teacher. Worse still, he had erectile dysfunction, and was "even looking at using Viagra". One day he was searching the internet for answers when he came across an Australian vegan YouTuber called Freelee The Banana Girl. Freelee, whose real name is Leanne Ratcliffe, is a former cocaine- and speed-using bulimic from Queensland who found fame in 2014 by spruiking a raw vegan diet that consisted of up to 51 bananas a day. Freelee's then boyfriend, Durian Rider (real name: Harley Johnstone), is also an avid vegan whose "fruitarian" diet allowed him to become an endurance cyclist. Suitably impressed, Faulkner began his own banana diet.


"I ate 20 a day for a year. But I still wasn't vegan. I'd go to the fridge at night and grab some chicken."


What really clinched it for Faulkner was Gary Yourofsky. Yourofsky, 48, is an American animal rights activist, who, in 2010, delivered an address to students at America's Georgia Institute of Technology. In the talk, which was filmed and posted on YouTube under the moniker The Best Speech You Will Ever Hear, Yourofsky mounts a searing, 68-minute indictment of humanity's ongoing war against animals – the unrelieved exploitation and routine cruelty – the only logical, ethical response to which is veganism. "That was it," Faulkner says. "As soon as I saw that speech, I went vegan."


The results were gratifying. Within two months, his back pain and haemorrhoids had disappeared, and he was enjoying what he describes as "very firm erections". As with many converts, veganism for Faulkner has meant a 100 per cent, top-to-bottom transformation. It is not just a diet and much less a "lifestyle", but a zero-sum philosophy that entails a thoroughgoing inventory of one's core moral assumptions. Call yourself an animal lover? If you're not a vegan, you can't be an animal lover. Call yourself an environmentalist? Animal agriculture causes up to 18 per cent of global greenhouse emissions – so unless you're a vegan, you can't be an environmentalist.


According to Faulkner, being a true vegan also entails activism. "Put it this way," he says. "If you walk down the street and you see someone beating a dog, are you going to walk past or try to stop it?" After leaving teaching, Faulkner started a business holding discos for primary school kids, but has now reduced his school visits from four a week to one per week. "I don't have any children, so it's enough for me to survive on." He now devotes himself almost full-time to activism. He goes to universities and talks to students, and runs a website called Love All Animals, with videos that allow kids to understand the ethics behind veganism. Right now, his preferred form of activism is the Cube of Truth.


Originally developed in Melbourne, a Cube of Truth involves activists standing in a square, facing outward, holding signs or, in tonight's case, TV monitors. The monitors, which are powered by a portable generator, play a constant loop of what is possibly the most confronting footage I have ever seen, including piglets in holding pens drowning in their own excrement, cows having their necks sliced open, and live baby male chicks being fed into a macerator, where they are ground up into pet food. "In the egg industry, male chicks are worthless," Faulkner explains, "so they just kill them." (A spokesman for the national industry body, Australian Eggs, says the facility where the footage was taken is no longer operational, and that "current practice is for chicks to be given carbon dioxide gas so they are unconscious before being disposed of".)


I can't help but feel that Faulkner is being a little unfair to farmers, most of whom would not allow their animals to drown in their excrement. "Sure," he says, "there are farms out there that try to minimise suffering, but it's still horrific, because no animal wants to die."


In any event, the footage is proving to be powerfully effective. Most people do double-takes as they hurry by, or stop and stare, holding their hands to their mouths in horror. One young woman appears to be on the verge of tears. Whenever someone shows interest, a Cube of Truther walks over to explain what veganism is about. "People tend to be very confronted by the footage because they're having a mirror held up to them," Faulkner says. "We are forcing this into people's consciousness and making them choose a side, because what is happening to animals is an emergency."



It's hard to think of a time when vegans have been more active or better organised. In the past year, there have been farm invasions and animal rescues. Protesters have stormed steakhouses and food courts, chanting slogans. In April, vegans staged a coordinated wave of nationwide actions targeting farms and abattoirs, including a mass sit-in in front of Melbourne's Flinders Street Station, which brought the city centre to a standstill and resulted in 39 arrests.


The protesters were widely condemned. Prime Minister Scott Morrison called them "green-collared criminals" and "un-Australian". Even some moderate vegans suggested that it had put the movement back 10 years. But according to one of the main organisers, Chris Delforce, making friends was never the point. "People are getting angry," says Delforce. "We're moving away from the 'softly softly' approach, and doing more dramatic stuff to draw attention to the issue."


A Melbourne-based web developer, Delforce is, at 28, an animal rights wunderkind. He is one of three directors of Aussie Farms, the website that sparked controversy in January after posting a map of "animal exploitation facilities" across the country. Last year, he ran for the Animal Justice Party in the Northern Metropolitan Region in the Victorian election. (He got 121 primary votes, or 0.03 per cent of the vote.) He is also a filmmaker, most notably of Dominion, which used hidden cameras and drone footage to investigate farming practices in Australia. (The footage used in Faulkner's Cube of Truth is from Dominion.)


The film, which is narrated by the actors Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara, and the pop star Sia, was released in April 2018, and had sold-out sessions in New York and Beijing. Delforce celebrated the Australian premiere last year by marching through Melbourne with 3000 other vegans. It was, at the time, the biggest animal rights march in Australia. And yet nothing happened. The media ignored it; politicians were unmoved. The livestock industry barely batted an eyelid.


"The [2018] march was a powerful thing to be part of but in terms of reaching the mainstream media and the bulk of people, it was disappointing," Delforce says.


And so he decided to up the ante. For the first anniversary of Dominion's release, Delforce helped organise April's day of action, including the Flinders Street demonstration, which gained nationwide media coverage. "I respect the vegans who say that this kind of protest is not the way to go," Delforce says. "But it's clear our action was a success. Google Trends show that 120,000 people watched Dominion in the week following the protests.


    "It's clear our action was a success."


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