CULTURE

“Earthling Ed, What Will It Take to Sustain Life on the Planet?”

Animal Rights Activist Ed Winters a.k.a. Earthling Ed has been making a name for himself by pursuing new forms of social justice dialogue — changing people’s hearts, minds and habits.

We sat down with Ed to discuss activism, the future of meat, pandemics and what it will ultimately take to sustain life on this planet.

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Berlin, August 16, 2021

Words - Eric Mirbach
Photos - Brix and Maas

We’ve known Ed Winters, aka Earthling Ed, for a few years now. When we first met, Antagonist was a mere seed of an idea starting to take shape, but the London-based animal rights activist helped us understand that actively pursuing social justice dialogue in society can take vastly different forms.

Because this guy and his team of dedicated activists and creatives do it all:

Through full-length documentaries, TED talks, a guest lecturer position at Harvard, on-the-street campaigns, the co-founding of animal rights organization SURGE and the opening of an animal sanctuary, he’s helped people’s hearts and minds —and their habits — change.

”What will it ultimately take to sustain life on this planet?“

”What will it ultimately take to sustain life on this planet?“

And so earlier this year, we talked from our respective lockdowns with the then very much roaring pandemic ever top of mind. Even with Ed’s activism relegated to only online for the time being, he’s at the forefront of this (very vegan) worldwide conversation around pandemics. Yet while a few select billionaires search for space-adventures and seek a future life on other planets, this earthling is focused to sustain life on this one. 

What will it ultimately take? If you ask Earthling Ed, he’d answer:
Radical political will.

Animal Rights March London, Brix and Maas Photo for Antagonist
Vegan Animal Rights Activist Earthling Ed aka Ed Winters, shot by Brix & Maas for Antagonist

The last time we talked, it was for our cover story for Vegan Good Life Magazine [the print magazine that was Antagonist’s predecessor]. Since then, what have been the biggest changes in your daily life, your work, and your overall perspective?

It’s been two years. Two years in vegan years is an exceptionally long time. I think it was a time of incredible growth and awareness. Obviously with the pandemic, we had a huge conversation that simply didn’t exist two years ago, at least not in the mainstream. I think there’s an increasing awareness of the danger that eating animals has, not just for the planet, not just for the individual health, not just for animals but indeed for the collective society that we all exist within. From a personal perspective, this has brought people to me in a way that wasn’t happening before. There are a lot more people seeking all of this information because we recognize there is more of an interconnectedness between all life. 

We’re seeing that daily now, with all of that news happening with climate change. I think we’re really starting to realize just how important our everyday choices are and changing what the future will look like. Schools and universities are reaching out to me. And not just students but teachers. They want to have that information put forward to their class.

”Until there's an appetite in society for radical political reform, the conditions won't provide it.“

”Until there's an appetite in society for radical political reform, the conditions won't provide it.“

A few years ago, when I was doing school talks and talks in some universities, I was met with more resistance by teachers and people of authority. Now it seems like this is really changing and this is a conversation that is readily accepted and even actively pursued within places where a few years ago I definitely didn’t feel like it was.

So that’s been a really wonderful thing to see.

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SECRET SOCIETY

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With your help, we can say no to advertising deals we don’t want, with companies we don’t believe in to bring critical, independent journalism into the world.

Additionally, you support the work of animal rights organizations and climate activists and score some exclusive perks. Members only!

Our partner-NGO for this quarter is Earthling Ed’s own SURGE.

It does feel like climate change has gotten more interest these days. I see bigger outlets dedicating whole shows to that issue. Yet I think that animal agriculture is still not mentioned quite enough. Do you agree?

I definitely agree. I think what really took off in 2019 was the revolution led by Greta Thunberg that really dominated the climate change conversation — up until the pandemic started dominating the conversation. Both of these things have obviously played well if we look at the problem that animal agriculture has. But ultimately, if we speak about climate change, there’s still a huge glaring lapse in the conversation. 

Let’s look at the U.S. election for example. In the democratic primaries, the nominees had a whole debate just about the environment. There were no good policies put forward that related to the animal agriculture industries. Actually, Kamala Harris, who now of course is the vice president, was asked about it and her answer was that she likes cheeseburgers. Even within the progressive environmental wing in politics, the role animal agriculture plays is still missing in the conversation.

I think ultimately it’s just because the majority of people enjoy these products, it’s seen as a political divisive issue. Maybe it’s because you can appeal to 50 percent of the voting demographic by talking about clean and renewable energy, that’s a really good position to have. But unfortunately, when it comes to telling people that they should go vegan or plant-based or that we shouldn’t subsidise meat, dairy and egg products then that’s not a good base if you want to appeal to voters. I think it’s just a game of politics and until consumers are told to change it and until there is an appetite in society for radical political reform, the conditions won’t provide it.

That’s why it’s so important that we as consumers and activists push that message so that in four years’ time at the next U.S. election, it becomes a topic of conversation that is not only a big topic but actually wins votes. I think we as advocates need to build up the momentum so that it is a legislative ideal. Now it’s just a social ideal and I think that’s the problem at the moment, there is not enough drive in society. How can we expect politicians to deliver if we as consumers don’t show them that we want them to deliver? I think that’s the problem.

At the heart of this is the discussion of what the future of meat is going to look like. What’s your view on the recent developments here?

I think it’s amazing. If we are to make veganism mainstream, we need two things. There has to be the how and the why. For me it’s the ‘why’ — I try to give people the reasons to go vegan. Companies like Beyond Meat, Impossible or Good Catch, they’re giving people the ‘how’. So, when they go into a supermarket, they probably want to try this stuff.

”Lab-grown meat is such an extreme thing to have to create.“

”Lab-grown meat is such an extreme thing to have to create.“

What I have learned over the past years is the power of food. The power of giving someone a burger and they like it, that sometimes has more credibility and is more important than having a conversation with them. If this is leading them to watch a documentary or to think about vegan options, then that’s great! If you can accomplish making vegan products tasty and accessible in supermarkets, you’ve overcome two of the biggest barriers.

Although it’s the ‘why’ for me, the ‘how’ is maybe even more important in terms of making people go vegan. If there are two options, one is fine, the other one bad because it harms animals–people will choose the fine one.

What’s your take on lab-grown meat?

Good question. I’m so undetermined — there is a part in me that is really happy because it could end animal farming, it would need like 95% less energy, less water, all that.

On the other hand, it’s such an extreme thing to have to create. It annoys me that we have to get lab-grown meat to stop people from eating animals. We got so many delicious vegan products already, so we shouldn’t have to offer people lab-grown meat. It upsets me that society is in such a place that that’s the only way for people to change.

I’m really happy and excited, but also really disappointed at the same time.

Maybe, when lab-grown meat comes to the market, it could already be too late because climate change has moved on so far in the meantime. I have conversations where people are like ‘I’ll go vegan when I have lab-grown meat.’–but that could be a decade or longer. What about now? What about every day until that point?

Earthling Ed Winters at the Animal Rights March London, Brix and Maas Photo for Antagonist
Earthling Ed Winters at the Animal Rights March London, Brix and Maas Photo for Antagonist

I sometimes think that while yes, we want animal suffering to end, something will kind of go amiss when the time and effort you have to invest is virtually nulled. Like… how do you find out who the good guys are then?

This is another point, you’re absolutely right. Veganism is a moral progression and I believe that for veganism, it doesn’t just encourage to not harm animals, it encourages to treat each other well. If we take out the meat for someone to make a moral progression, then it stands in the way of our progression as a species. There is no incentive to look at humans any differently. There is no incentive to look at animals differently.

If you went through what it takes to become vegan, you probably feel a lot more compassionate in general and probably more distending about things. If we remove just one aspect away from people, there is still no reason to look at animals differently. You maybe still have things like hunting or other abusive behavior towards animals for sports or entertainment, but the progression still has been made: I can go buy lab-grown products in the supermarket, so I’m gonna buy that instead.

”Veganism is a moral progression, a step forward in solving the world's problems.“

”Veganism is a moral progression, a step forward in solving the world's problems.“

That’s worrying because if we’re ever to solve all the world’s problems, we progressively have to move forward from a moral perspective. Veganism is that moral step.

What do you make of these big industries putting up a fight now, i.E. trying to ban vegan products to use certain types of packaging or using words like “creamy”? Is there a reason to worry you think? Or does this mean we’re winning?

I don’t think it’s a reason to worry, I think it’s a good sign. Nobody would put up a fight if they didn’t feel threatened. It highlights a bigger issue which is of course the collusion that exists between these industries and politicians. We’ve known for decades which role the USDA has when it comes to working with animal agriculture in the US, the same with DEFRA here in the UK with animal farmers, and in the European Union predominantly with French and Dutch farmers. We know that this is a problem that exists and I think that these ongoing pursuits of censorship just show how much of a division there is between those in positions of power and those who exist in everyday society.

What it shows is that we are not only succeeding in taking over those industries but the political backing that these industries have.

And that is such an empowering thought because it just shows how much drive and how much power we actually have to create change. They try to claim that plant-based companies are confusing consumers but the reality is that this is what they have been doing for decades and they don’t want to be found out for doing that themselves. We look at words like ‘free range’ or ‘high welfare’, ‘humane slaughter’, or terms like ‘live stock’ and ‘processing’ and see they all hide their actual meaning.

The farmers of New South Wales, Australia in their annual conference decided that any animal product coming from their region would now be using ‘processing’ and never ‘slaughtering’ because ‘slaughter’ has such negative connotations since people view it as a bad thing.

This is a direct attempt to censor the truth in order to mislead consumers and hide what they are doing.

Vegan Animal Rights Activist Earthling Ed aka Ed Winters, shot by Brix & Maas for Antagonist
Vegan Animal Rights Activist Earthling Ed aka Ed Winters, shot by Brix & Maas for Antagonist

How did you perceive the politics and the communication around Covid? What’s been the good and the bad?

When the coronavirus pandemic first started, it was incredibly frustrating because the correlation between animal agriculture and the rest of the pandemic was overlooked continuously. The wet market origin of this thing, you would think that this would have cemented this whole conversation but in a way, I think it created more xenophobic tendencies to view other cultures as being the problem.

We do that all the time and we do it with meat consumption generally. “Agriculture is the problem, the other standards in other countries, they’re the issue” — it’s never us, where we live.

I think the problem when the pandemic started — and we very firmly believe that it started in this wet market in Wuhan — it created this otherizing effect where we positioned what happens in Asia particularly separate from us so we don’t have any responsibility for it. I remember that I did a post in March and also early April which basically said that Covid-19 started because we exploit animals.

”The discussion should have been about the correlation between animal agriculture and the pandemic — but we got xenophobia instead.“

”The discussion should have been about the correlation between animal agriculture and the pandemic — but we got xenophobia instead.“

I said that BSE started this way, the swine flu, H5N1, strains of bird flu did, even Ebola was traced back to the hunting and consumption of wild animals. And the point was basically, “Look, if we lived in a vegan world, we wouldn’t have these viruses in the future. How many more viruses will we not have if we went vegan now?”

That point didn’t go over particularly well outside the vegan circle.

It led to this publication in USA Today using a fact checker on it because the post had been shared quite a lot, there was a lot of conversation on whether it was true or not. They reached out to me and we had a long conversation. They said it wasn’t completely true, they labelled it as “partly false” or something. I think that’s a strange labelling because it doesn’t accept that it’s false or true, it just sits in the middle. But what happened after that was interesting, a couple of articles came out in The Guardian. One of them referenced the posts I put up and it agreed with the post, it actually said that this is correct. After that, I saw a couple more articles, not because of the post that I did but I think there was a growing conversation being created at that point in time which I think continued to change consumer attitudes.

What we then started to see was some polling that came out that in lockdown, people are more inclined to buy and try out plant-based foods. One of the reasons was the pandemic.

And Big Ag was in the news as well.

We saw an effect on slaughterhouses where workers and work exploitation was really driven to the forefront of conversation. Because of what it was showing in relation to the industry, I think that drove people away. And on top of that, we had the mass exterminations that were taking place on farms where pigs and chickens in particular were being killed en masse because there were no animals to take these animals to. That upset a lot of people as well and not just vegans.

What the Covid-19 pandemic showed particularly in the beginning is how fragile the animal agriculture industries are, how financially motivated they are, and how little regard they have for animals. And indeed for the humans who work in these environments. Now, the bad thing is of course that politically speaking we have huge bailouts being given to those industries. The government didn’t seize the opportunity to at least regulate these industries more, let alone help them transition into a more sustainable future.

The thing is, the pandemic gave us a great opportunity to sit back and reflect and say, “We’ve realized all this, we have to change, let’s make a sustainable change.” That didn’t happen. It’s just such a destructive move. We have leading infectious disease experts, reports being published by some of the top environmental and scientific bodies in the world, really drawing people’s attention to how industrialised animal agriculture is jeopardising human life. At the same time, nothing meaningful is being done outside of consumers reducing their meat intake and buying more plant-based products, so that’s a big problem.

I just hope that we as consumers and citizens through our actions every day can lead the challenge to change before it’s essentially too late.

What are your thoughts about a post-pandemic world? What do you think is going to change, or at least what would you like to change?

I think that people are craving that normality again, the freedom to travel, the life that people always lived and I think that people crave to live more in excess than they did before. I think it’s a real issue that as soon as we can go back to ‘normal’, we will just do that because we are craving that sense of familiarity that has been taken from us. That concerns me.

But I think there will be a long-lasting effect from this. I think that people are fed up with lockdown and these restrictions and I believe that there are now many people who will realize that the taste of a cheeseburger or halloumi or whatever they enjoyed previously is not worth the risk of having to repeat something like this again, let alone something that could be considerably worse which of course it absolutely could be. I think there will be a lot of heightened focus on outbreaks. I’m constantly reading news articles now on bird flu outbreaks in the UK, there are three happening as we speak. And those outbreaks wouldn’t necessarily have been reported on in the way that they are now.

When it comes to animals though, it’s so hard to know because as it stands now, the rate of animal exploitation is increasing globally. And so how do we change that now? And how do we get out of this pandemic and hit the ground running to create meaningful change? I think most vegans hoped at the beginning of the pandemic that this would translate, but as of now, it hasn’t.

Earthling Ed Winters at the Animal Rights March London, Brix and Maas Photo for Antagonist
Vegan Animal Rights Activist Earthling Ed aka Ed Winters, shot by Brix & Maas for Antagonist
Vegan Animal Rights Activist Earthling Ed aka Ed Winters, shot by Brix & Maas for Antagonist
Earthling Ed Winters at the Animal Rights March London, Brix and Maas Photo for Antagonist

I’d like to talk about your activism work —both online and the street outreach you do in the ‘real world’. I imagine it to be terrifying to approach strangers and confront them with uncomfortable truths. Are you just a natural or did you have to train for that?

I still get very anxious sometimes. It depends on the environment. If I just grab someone random, I often feel nervous about that. It’s kind of a fear of the unknown. As well as going out with someone who films me, that gives me pressure to not waste their time. I know it was worth the work when I see that it got several ten thousand clicks… The positive benefit far exceeds my uncomfort. But yeah, it’s still challenging sometimes. 

I don’t want anybody to think that it’s easy, I mean it is easy, but also quite natural to worry a lot about it. Sometimes people say they couldn’t do it because they would be so scared… And yes, it is scary, but the more often you do something, the easier it gets.

If somebody stumbles into a discussion with you, they are obviously not as prepared as you are. Are you aware of the power you hold?

It’s interesting, I feel like I abused it in the very beginning because I was so new to it. But nowadays there isn’t so much need to do so, in stopping someone in the way I used to. As you said, they had no time to prepare, so their answers are a little bit naive, but not because something is wrong with them, it’s because they probably haven’t thought about it before.

”We need to make sure we're out there, having conversations and interacting with people to normalize veganism.“

”We need to make sure we're out there, having conversations and interacting with people to normalize veganism.“

This is why I think more recently I’ve tried to branch out to interview more farmers or even go to universities, and talk to people that are more intuitive about these topics eventually. In my more recent videos, I have a banner that makes it very clear that I want to talk about veganism. So people have the chance to think about it before they sit down with me. I think there is a lot more power in a conversation that is more even.

The last time we talked, you explained how social media was probably the most effective tool for activism. Has your perception of the way we communicate on social changed in the meantime?

Yeah, social media is a double-edged sword, isn’t it? The reasons why we as activists find it so beneficial is the same reason why it can have such negative consequences: It allows for massive proliferation of information. The way the algorithm is setup across different platforms means that people who start interacting with vegan content will have more being given to them, hopefully it will lead to them questioning some things and ultimately becoming vegan. 

The problem is it ultimately creates a lot of division and it’s hard to quantify the benefits versus the negative to work out which one reigns supreme.

As vegans and as an advocate personally, social media is still the best tool that I have because it allows me to create something in my apartment and then put it online and then hopefully have as many people as possible see it. But we need to make sure that we are out there, doing talks, having conversations, interacting with people on a 1:1 level, too. That normalizes it and adds validity to the information that is on social media. I think that is what we as vegans need to do, breaking apart from just the noise that exists on there and show that this isn’t something that you can just show and share online. This is when you step out of your door and it’s changing society as well.

I think it’s an important thing for us, to do both things at the same time.

How did you determine that what you do is the right form of activism for you?

I did YouTube because it seemed to be the time of YouTube. I wanted to be an activist in a comfortable way. It wasn’t scary, because I was at home, edited everything and was in control of everything.

When I started doing street outreach I was quite angry at the time and when I was talking to people I was quite judgmental and aggressive and hostile. It drew up very negative results, I didn’t feel good about the conversations I was having and after a few weeks of really aggressive conversations, I sat down and had a chat with myself. I found out that I have to do things that feel quite natural to me. Like a genuine conversation, asking people questions and just being polite. Showing people respect helped me strive for an effective outcome. I don’t know how, it just came very natural to me.

The trick about activism is that it has to be something that fits your character. It’s a lot more sustainable and effective in this way. In the beginning, I had the feeling to have to be this angry, militant activist, but I’m not militant, and only a little angry… When I found that out, it became much easier and natural for me.

”Our sanctuary is a place for animals rescued from farms, slaughterhouses and anywhere they're abused and neglected.“

”Our sanctuary is a place for animals rescued from farms, slaughterhouses and anywhere they're abused and neglected.“

You opened an animal sanctuary last year. Tell me more about that.

I think in our last conversation we talked about our biggest objective i.e. with Unity Diner being raising funds which could then be used towards an animal sanctuary — a place where animals could be rescued from farms, slaughterhouses and anywhere they’re being abused and neglected.

So, in December, we announced that we got the sanctuary, which has an ever-growing number of residents. It’s wonderful that we have this place now. We’re really looking forward to building out the infrastructure now, it still needs a lot of building. We’re looking forward to creating this wonderful place where people can visit and hopefully home and rescue as many animals as possible and make it as nice a place as possible for these animals.

Let’s talk about your plans for the rest of the year a bit, what’s coming up? What do you have on your agenda?

See, it’s tricky to predict. Everything is depending on how the pandemic is playing out when it comes to events, in fact I can’t confirm anything, it all seems a bit up in the air. Fingers crossed it will still happen this year.

Earthling Ed Winters at the Animal Rights March London, Brix and Maas Photo for Antagonist
Earthling Ed Winters at the Animal Rights March London, Brix and Maas Photo for Antagonist

So, my main focus is to build up the sanctuary, build up the research team we have right now and keep building on what we started in 2020, and then, when the pandemic allows, perhaps the work I was doing before with the speeches, the tour, the debates, the things that I am really missing at the moment and can’t wait to go back to doing.

Everything else, we’ll just have to see and play it day by day. The diner is obviously closed and we will be for the foreseeable future. So, fingers crossed we can do what we do again very soon and open everything up. We’ll see.

Fingers crossed that maybe sometime this year we can meet again in person, go grab dinner and have a conversation off the record, too. All of the good stuff.

We’ll definitely be able to do that, I’m sure.

Timing was in our favor before lockdown to snap some shots with Ed in his element at German animal sanctuary Lasst die Tiere Leben (“Let the Animals Live”), at Tierheim Berlin and on the fields of our friends Plantage Farm in Frankfurt an der Oder, Germany.

Check out surgeactivism.org to find out more about Earthling Ed’s work and to get involved.

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Eric Mirbach Content-specialist turned serial entrepreneur, Eric not only created Antagonist, but co-founded Berlin based branding & venture studio Very Good Looking, as well. The mission: Change the perception of veganism for good.

Brix & Maas is an award-winning and internationally published photographer duo with a focus on ethical fashion, as well as architecture- and portrait work. Their unique, high-end aesthetic plays a decisive role in the making of Antagonist.

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