Identified as one of the top Google trends of 2016, and with the first ever vegan week broadcast on The Great British Bake Off (UK, 2018), veganism as a diet and practice has increasingly become part of mainstream media culture, particularly social media, over the last few years (Doyle, 2016; Brown, 2018). This represents a significant and positive shift in media engagement with veganism, following years of negative representations of vegans as hostile and oversensitive (Cole & Morgan, 2011). In addition, the most recent IPCC report states that in order to limit global warming to 1.5C, changes to food systems ‘such as diet changes away from land-intensive animal products’ (IPCC Special Report 2018) will need to be undertaken; making the case for significant societal shifts towards plant-based diets more urgent and compelling. Science, in effect, is now pushing veganism and less meat eating as a mitigation strategy in the context of climate change.
Historically, ethical veganism – that is, a commitment to animal welfare and anti-speciesism – has been the primary motivation for individuals to become vegan, above that of health and environmental concerns (Greenebaum, 2012; Larsson et al., 2003). Animal welfare concerns have also proved to facilitate a deeper and longer-term commitment to veganism as a critique of unethical food practices. However, in contemporary popular cultural and media engagements with veganism, health, scientific and environmental concerns about climate change appear to be foregrounded, providing a different set of narratives and stories about veganism that make it potentially more accessible to a wider demographic across multiple media platforms.
It is with this in mind that the Climate Change, Environment and Sustainability Network are hosting an interdisciplinary workshop at the University of Brighton on 7th December, to explore recent media and popular cultural engagements with veganism through a critical focus upon the role of narrative and storytelling in communicating veganism to mainstream audiences. With the kind support of the MeCCSA Executive and the Universities of Brighton and Reading, the workshop will bring together, and draw upon, a range of perspectives from across academia, media industries, arts and activism. It seeks to identify current trends in vegan narratives – paying attention to how veganism is framed and for whom – and also challenge these cultural narratives by exploring what/who they might exclude.
We will explore different media such as news, fiction, VR, television and social media; different types of narratives, such as ethical, environmental, feminist or speculative; and different types of actors, such as celebrities, youth, or political elites. In particular, we want to ask the following questions: how is an ethics of care – towards animals/climate /self/others – reframed in contemporary cultural narratives of veganism, and how might these contribute to, or even hinder, a broader societal shift towards plant-based diets and greater ecological politics? Are vegan narratives both ‘post-activism’ and ‘practical’ in efforts to shift public attitudes towards less meat eating and ultimately adopt vegan lifestyles and larger audiences?
From these perspectives, the workshop will propose ways forward for popular cultural and media engagements with climate change that help mainstream veganism and plant-based diets as both an ethical and sustainable practice. A key outcome of the workshop will be to identify important narratives and existing gaps in media representations of, and cultural understandings of, veganism. Moreover, we aim to collaboratively identify ways forward for cultural and media engagement with veganism and, importantly, ways for media and cultural studies scholars to facilitate these increasingly important interventions.