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A Blueprint For Effective Activism

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Book Review: The Animal Activists' Handbook: Maximizing Our Positive Impact in Today's World
Matt Ball and Bruce Friedrich
Lantern Books, Brooklyn, New York (2009)

What happens when a wannabe rocket scientist meets a deeply religious humanitarian? They combine forces to try to convince the world that many of our problems could be solved through compassion toward animals. It may not be the expected outcome of such a pairing, but it has been very effective. The Animal Activists' Handbook is partly an autobiography, partly a case for vegetarianism, and partly a blueprint for grassroots activism.

Matt Ball thought he was going to work for NASA, but a vegetarian college friend put him on a path toward advocating for farmed animals, and he now runs Vegan Outreach, a Tucson, Arizona-based animal rights organization. Bruce Friedrich dropped out of college to work at a homeless shelter and a soup kitchen on behalf of The Catholic Worker. Reading an animal rights book by an Anglican priest ultimately inspired him to work for PETA, where he is now a vice president. Ball and Friedrich write that they've decided to put their experiences down on paper "so that activists won't need to make the same frustrating missteps, but can instead go directly into effective activism."

They start by arguing that true happiness comes not from material goods but from choosing meaningful actions that ultimately influence the behavior of others: "Although our decisions regarding what to eat and wear, what kind of car to drive, or for whom we should cast our vote are important, they're not as important as our influence on others," the authors write. "That is our real impact on the world." They then present methods for effective advocacy, followed by lessons on how to use them to help animals. Some ideas, such as leafleting, may seem obvious to the already socially active, but Ball and Friedrich go a little deeper, offering suggestions on what to say while handing out brochures and proposing that activists "adopt a college" to create regular leafleting opportunities.

The most constructive part of the book (and possibly the most shocking to those who are only peripherally familiar with the vegetarian movement and who might therefore expect radicalism) is the authors' discussion of tolerance in all activities. For instance, they caution that if "we're at a restaurant and there's a veggie burger on the menu but we give the server the third degree about the ingredients or about how it was cooked, we're most likely doing more harm than good." They even go so far as to insist that it can be a good thing for vegetarians to date meat-eaters!

With only five chapters, a reference section, and three appendices that tackle some philosophical issues surrounding animal welfare, The Animal Activists' Handbook is a quick one- to two-sitting read that could inspire its readers to a lifetime of activism in behalf of human and nonhuman animals. And while the majority of the book focuses on animal rights, the basic tenets can be applied to any kind of social change.

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