Stephen Balfour talks to Vegan Life about his first time taking part in the Earthlings Experience in Glasgow.
On May 14  I attended my first Earthlings Experience in Glasgow. Travelling into Glasgow from Fife, my feelings were equal parts nervous and excited.
Upon arriving at the rendezvous point I began to relax a little bit when I noticed some familiar faces. Unfortunately, my relaxed state soon turned to frustration when I realised that the Earthlings Experience footage I had downloaded onto my iPad was no longer working. Fortunately, a fellow advocate had a spare and we were soon on the move to our spot on Buchanan St, one of the, if not the busiest thoroughfare in Glasgow city centre. Within minutes our masks were on, we were assembled in a circle and my first Earthlings Experience was underway.
About five minutes in, a couple in their late 20s stopped and started looking at my screen. As it was a sunny day they pulled in quite close and started to watch the film footage. I’ll be honest I was prepared for how intense this ‘encounter’ would be. Over the next 15 minutes or so, the guy stayed quite stoic, I got the impression he had either seen the footage before or had seen similar footage before. His partner however, got increasingly upset and was visibly shocked. At times her shock manifested itself as confusion and she asked her partner to explain what was going on in the footage. At the end of their viewing they agreed to be interviewed about their experience but I was aware that the woman did not say much and there was an attempt to try and appear in control of their emotions.
Like I say I wasn’t really prepared for this at all.
I’ve never watched Earthlings or the Earthlings Experience. I often wonder if I should do. The problem is that I know that it would disturb me greatly and I think the negative effects of this would outweigh any benefits I may glean from this experience. The problem with having never watched the footage however was that I could only imagine what the couple were seeing that was shocking them so much.
This first encounter left me a bit shaken. I’m sure the mask didn’t help but I felt claustrophobic, tense, short of breath and a bit sick. I know my feelings are irrelevant compared to the sufferings of the animals shown in the film, but that’s how I felt.
During the next three hours I had a few more encounters like this including one where I felt the right thing to do was break rank, leave the circle and take my mask off to speak to a teenage boy from the Ukraine. The boy explained to me that he had tried to go vegan for nine months but had gone back to being vegetarian. We had a really positive exchange to the extent I’m convinced he will return to veganism and will never look back. If he does, he will make a fantastic advocate as he was a really compassionate, charming young man.
Beyond the really intense one-to-one interactions I found the Earthlings Experience as feeling like I was at the epi-centre of a mass social experiment. With the mask on and unable to speak you are forced to ‘people watch’. After a period of time I came to view people as if they were walking down the street enclosed in a giant bubble similar to the kind of bubble you would get from a child’s bubble maker. Many weren’t prepared to let their bubbles distort even a tiny bit. Others you could see their eyes fixing on the screens and that the footage was at the very least creating an indentation in their bubble/thinking. I was surprised at just how many people fell into this category even having just witnessed a snapshot of the material. Then there was the final category of people where if we didn’t burst their bubbles completely and create a mini awakening within them, I would like to think we significantly affected them to such an extent that they will be more receptive to future efforts.
I suppose there was one other further category of person who appeared to either not care or were even a bit hostile. These were by far the smallest group. I know from speaking to some of early participants of the Scottish Earthlings Experience initiative this hasn’t always been the case. Given our numbers on the day totaled 30 or so people there may have been a certain element of safety in numbers. It’s perhaps not as easy to be confrontational with a group when numbers swell.
Looking inward to the group itself I have to say I was hugely impressed. The event was extremely well organised. Efforts were orchestrated by the organisers walking round making sure devices were working ok. We also had people filming and interviewing which will result in films and images being uploaded online and shared with an even large audience.
Is there anything I didn’t like about the event or wish could be changed?
On a personal level my natural reaction to someone being upset in front of me is to try to comfort them. I understand that’s probably not the point – the footage is and should be shocking. By and large most of the people that were affected by the footage were ‘hoovered’ up and asked to make sense of their thoughts and feelings being interviewed (interviews were completely discretionary and people weren’t pressured in any way to come on camera).
Is the Earthlings Experience the only way to elicit engagement? Of course it’s not, but it is a damn effective way. Other ‘softer’ initiatives can work equally well, but I don’t think it’s a case of either/or but more a case of these initiatives dovetailing with each another.
I often wonder what effect Earthlings has had on our efforts to convert people to veganism? Has the film and Earthlings Experiences been the single most successful initiative to convert people to veganism in last 10/20 years? I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s right up there. If anyone wants to fund me to do a PHD on this very subject, just let me know and I’ll forward you my bank details.
Stephen lives with his family of waifs and strays. To give feedback on this article or discuss any vegan related projects Stephen can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or via many of the usual social media channels.