Theme: Society & Culture | Content Type: Digested Read

Fifty Years after Peter Singer's Animal Liberation: What has the Animal Rights Movement Achieved so Far?

Manès Weisskircher


National Library of Medicine

| 6 mins read

In 1975, Peter Singer published Animal Liberation, making a case against the human exploitation of animals. While organised animal advocacy had emerged in the first half of the nineteenth century, it was the decades after the book's publication that saw the rise of a vibrant animal rights movement in many parts of the world. In the early twenty-first century, awareness of the vulnerability of animals has become mainstream. According to a 2023 Special Eurobarometer on animal welfare, 84 per cent of EU citizens support improving standards for farmed animals.

This period has been marked by the mobilisation of several ‘progressive’ social movements, in particular, environmentalists. Increasing urbanisation and new human-animal relations have changed attitudes: the majority of people now experience animals as ‘pets’ in towns instead of ‘livestock’ in the countryside. At the same time, science has emphasised similarities between animals and ‘human animals’, which philosophers have backed up with treatises on the normative consequences of these findings.

Yet animal advocacy also faces the major challenges of cultural habits, business interests and the need to mobilise in the interests of other species. In this context, what impact has the animal rights movement had in the 50 years since the publication of Peter Singer’s seminal text?

Comprehensive but weak state regulation

Since the last third of the twentieth century, animal-exploiting businesses such as factory farming and the pharmaceutical industry have come under strong attack, often after activists managed to enter facilities secretly to record animal abuse. Typically, it has been left-wing and green parties which advocated regulatory attempts. However, the impact of laws on the wellbeing of animals has been limited, especially for practices which harm the highest number of animals.

In the face of limited gains from state regulation, some groups have targeted private businesses. In several instances, they have achieved outcomes such as the closure of animal laboratories or breeding facilities, stopping the sale of fur in specific fashion chain stores, or higher welfare standards by large retailers. Further such steps may be important prerequisites for achieving more effective state regulation in the future.

Substantial changes in consumer choices

Beyond regulation, it is individual attitudes and behaviour which, on a daily basis, decide the fate of animal advocacy. The shift from vegetarianism to veganism represents an important change within the movement. What’s more, cultural change and market change are strongly interlinked: in 2023, almost half of all restaurants in the US offered plant-based options compared to 30 per cent in 2012. In many European capitals, the reported number of vegan restaurants has overtaken or at least matched the number of vegetarian restaurants.

Whilst abstention from animal products has remained a cause of a relatively small number of people, everything depends on the amplification of these developments and to what extent they transmit to younger generations. The strong relationship between climate change awareness and individual diets among younger cohorts may be a supporting factor.

Global economic and demographic challenges

Since the publication of Animal Liberation, the human population has doubled from 4 to 8 billion. Correspondingly, humanity has reached record levels of animal killings to obtain food. Globally, at least 84 billion land animals, around 75 billion of whom are chickens, are killed annually.

Economic growth and urbanisation are the key drivers of increasing meat consumption. The improved living standards in Asia, where about 60 per cent of the human population live, have gone hand in hand with an industrialisation of animal agriculture. In ‘emerging’ economies such as China, with a collective memory of poverty and hunger, food security is essential for legitimising political rule.

In the long run, however, the Global South might also act as driver for change. In March 2024, Pacific indigenous leaders signed a treaty granting whales legal personhood. In addition, the public acceptance of ‘plant-based meat’ is significantly stronger in India and China than in the US.

Cultured meat: betting on new technology?

Some animal advocates, and a burgeoning industry, hope that cultured meat will reduce animal suffering in the future. Further advantages of cultured meat might be less land and water use than in factory farming and potentially healthier meat products. The biggest challenges to mass production are those of an infant technology and high energy requirements—and along with it, the question of costs and climate sustainability.

In the worst-case scenario, cultured meat may be just another example of progressive techno-utopianism. Should the production of cultured meat on a massive scale prove feasible, cheap and climate-friendly, the next hurdle will be consumer acceptance. From the UK, a survey commissioned by the Food Standards Agency shows that about a third of the respondents would try lab-grown meat, yet many respondents perceived the product as ‘off-putting.’

A relevant force

Pushing for legislative, cultural and technological change remains a highly demanding task. Like many other activists, animal advocates have often struggled to reach out beyond urban liberal milieus. Here, it will be essential to guarantee the affordability of alternatives to animal products as well as to navigate the fine line between propagating veganism and being patronising towards parts of society who already feel culturally ‘left behind’.

Crucially, many activists and policymakers that try to combat climate change have been unwilling to emphasise the detrimental effects of animal agriculture and the necessity for changes in individual diets to reduce CO2 emissions. Given that about 15 per cent of global emissions derive from livestock, there is still a lot of potential for environmentalists and animal advocates to link their urgent causes.

  • jgwhlcLI_400x400.jpg

    Manès Weisskircher

    Manès Weisskircher is a political scientist and leads the research group REXKLIMA on far-right politics and climate change at TU Dresden.

    Articles by Manès Weisskircher