With Veganuary beginning to feel like a distant memory, many of us will be clinging on to replacing the milk in our coffee or trialling vegan cheese. But for Ed Winters, better known as activist and influencer Earthling Ed, veganism is a way of life.
Winters is a vegan educator, public speaker and YouTuber, who gave up animal products eight years ago and ever since has dedicated his energy to inspiring others and designing ways the world can move towards a greener future.
Things really took off when Winters posted a video of his university speech, You Will Never Look at Your Life in the Same Way Again, in 2018. It now has almost 35 million views online.
“I remember reading this story and feeling really upset and horrified,” Winters recalled. “And in my fridge at that time was a KFC, because when I used to eat animals, KFC was my favourite food. I’d have it once or twice a week. That was the first time I’d realised the inconsistency in my values and my actions.”
Since turning vegan, the 28-year-old has gone to extraordinary measures to create a better world for animals. In 2016 Winters started a YouTube channel regularly posting debates with members of the public and informational video essays. He has since given speeches at Google, Facebook, The Economist, University of Cambridge, Harvard University and delivered two TEDx talks.
He is also the co-founder of animal rights non-profit Surge, which produces educational content and investigative work and has opened Surge Sanctuary, a site in rural England offering a “lifelong, no-kill safe haven” for abused, rescued and unwanted animals.
Winters also made a YouTube documentary called Land of Hope and Glory, which demonstrates the harsh reality of the UK dairy and meat industry through undercover footage and up to date investigations. His pet hamster at the time, Rupert, also played an integral role in his switch to veganism. As did the documentary Earthlings.
He told The Big Issue: “I was looking at Rupert and thinking about who he was as an individual. He had likes and dislikes, for example, he loved broccoli and he didn’t like kale very much. So those things made him unique.
“I thought, why do I have an attachment to him? Why do I like him? Why would it be terrible [in my eyes] if he was suffering?I recognised this because he is sentient, he feels, he has this personality.”
With this in mind, Winters highlighted the difference in the way culture views pets’ versus food, especially through our language.
“With pets, we might call them family members, loved ones, we give them names, we assign them personalities. But the animals who we farm, we give them these more informal connotations, and call them ‘livestock’, which literally means stock for a supermarket shelf that is alive…we deny them the right to be acknowledged as a someone.
“We quickly realise that if it’s wrong to mutilate a dog, if it’s wrong to put a cat in a gas chamber, then it must, by default, be wrong to do it to the animals that we currently do these things to, because when we recognise what they share in common with us, things like the capacity to experience, to suffer, to feel pleasure… when we recognise these animals have those capacities, it makes it hard to justify eating a piece of their body.”
It is common for vegans and vegetarians to be met with the occasional dinner table interrogation, or unwanted debate. In Winter’s case, his livelihood depends on him entering the battlefield of debate with TV show hosts, farmers, and the disbelieving, meat-enthusiastic members of the public. Winters told The Big Issue what keeps him driven.
“When I engage in these conversations, I try to recognise that the person I’m talking to is merely regurgitating what they’ve been told throughout their lives…they’re merely just acting as a vessel for these societal ideas that have been normalised and perpetuated to us.”
When it comes to veganism, there’s one problem that gets raised again and again…agriculture and the livelihoods of farmers. Winters addressed these issues and how agriculture can be included into the conversation. “What vegans and farmers share, at least with the farmers I speak to, is that we want to create a food system that’s economically viable, that can feed people, that’s healthy, sustainable and ethical. But there’s obviously a huge difference between what we perceive those things to be. So, we have to work out how to achieve that.”
Winters has publicly suggested animal farmers could transition into crop farming or become “publicly funded land managers” with the current subsidy going towards “rewilding that land”. “That could be regrowing forests, woodlands, wildflower meadows or long grass meadows which are great for pollinators such as bees and other insects and promote biodiversity that is essential,” he said.
Winters drew a utopian image of ecotourism, agroforestry, empowering local communities and farmers markets.
He said: “We are never going to create a perfect utopia, but we should strive to get as close to that as we possibly can, and veganism is one of the first big stepping stones in that direction.”
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