Finding your activist sweet spot

Sometimes people ask me for ideas or advice about how exactly they could or should help animals. They are trying to find out what kind of activism fits them best.

Basically, I think we need to find some kind of sweet spot that is on the junction of three different aspects. You can see them in the drawing below:

sweet spot

What you love, or are passionate about: don’t just say “animals.” That’s probably a bit too general. Find something more concrete than that. Maybe it’s vegan cooking to help animals. Or public speaking about animals. Or maybe you are very passionate about people and how they function.

What you are good at: you may have a certain skill set. Maybe, because of your education, talent, or experience, you can do something many other people can’t do, or not as well. You might be a graphic designer, an IT-person, a teacher…

What has an impact: this is about what really helps animals. Everything has an impact, of course, but some things have more impact than others (some things may even have a negative impact).

The overlap between these different aspects can vary: it may be small, it may be bigger. You could be one of those human beings for whom effectiveness and feeling good entirely overlap. That is, you only feel good about your work when you know you’re having the most impact (don’t think you’re like that too quickly though, you might be overlooking things).

This is probably the exception, and more often the overlap is smaller, and there may be contradictions. You may love doing something, but that something is maybe not the most effective thing you can do. Or you may love doing something (like public speaking) but actually you suck at it (you may need other people to tell you that). Or you may be the most effective when you use that skill set of yours, but maybe you need some variation and you don’t feel like using it as a volunteer, outside of your day job (it would be a pity, obviously, if you have a degree in cellular biology and could make a contribution to cultured meat, but you choose to leaflet instead).

When there is little overlap or when there are conflicts, you can basically choose what you prioritize. Most people in general (I’m not talking about vegans or activists now) usually prioritize their own happiness. As activists or people concerned about the world, we can probably expect a little bit more from ourselves: we can at least give some weight to the impact that we have with our actions, and not just do what feels good. I would say it’s good to give the impact-factor a lot of consideration. Some people, however, may go too far in this, and will unequivocally prioritize impact, at the expense of their own well-being, which is probably not the best or most sustainable idea.

Of course, you can make combinations: distributing leaflets about animals seems to be a pretty effective investment of your time, but imagine you don’t really like it. Then you can do that maybe one or a couple of hours a week, and devote the rest of your volunteer time to something you like better (but which may be less effective).

Basically you want to do good for animals, but you also want to feel good about what you’re doing. If you do something that doesn’t make you feel good, you will probably be able to keep that up only for a limited time. This may be worthwhile in itself, because it is, after all, time that you have given to the cause. However, there is always the risk that people seriously burn out from doing something that they don’t like — even if it is effective — and that makes them give up on activism altogether, which probably would be a loss.

So my message is: make a healthy mix. Don’t just do anything because it makes you feel good, but don’t go all out on effectiveness either, because that may burn you out.

I’ll write more concretely about activism and what you can do in some future posts.

Why most people eat meat

In the 1950’s, the American psychologist Solomon Asch recruited participants at Swarthmore College (United States) for a now famous experiment.* He told them he was doing research on perception, but in reality this was a study about conformity and social pressure. Asch showed the participants a set of pictures like the one below.

asch_experiment

Each time he showed such a picture, Asch asked which of the bars on the right was of the same length as the one bar on the left. Participants had to state their answer out loud in the group. However, Asch made sure that all but one of the group members were conspirators, whom he had all ordered to give the same wrong answer. The only real, unsuspecting participant had to give their answer after all the others. To his surprise, Asch found that a disturbingly large number of people in this situation gave a wrong answer themselves. It led Asch to conclude: “The tendency to conformity in our society is so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white black.” In some cases, people’s reason to give a clearly incorrect answer was that they thought the group was right. In other cases respondents apparently were afraid of seeming different than the rest or didn’t want to cause any trouble.

It’s not difficult to transfer these findings to our own subject. I think it’s a safe bet to assume that many people feel deep down that there is something wrong with the food they eat. They might believe it’s okay to kill animals for food but also believe that those same animals should at least “have a good life.” Or they might believe it’s not worth killing an animal for food at all. But when all these people constantly see around them that eating meat (or animal products) is treated as normal, it is hard to even believe in that vague feeling of discomfort they may have, and it becomes a lot harder to think that something really wrong is going on. Even as a vegetarian or vegan, as someone who’s really internalized the principle that it is not ok to eat animal products, you may have these small moments of doubt, wondering if you are actually seeing things right. The South-African writer and Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee attributes the following thoughts to his vegetarian character Elisabeth Costello:

“It’s that I no longer know where I am. I seem to move around perfectly easily among people, to have perfectly normal relations with them. Is it possible, I ask myself, that all of them are participants in a crime of stupefying proportions? Am I fantasizing it all? I must be mad! Yet every day I see the evidences. The very people I suspect produce the evidence, exhibit it, offer it to me. Corpses. Fragments of corpses that they have bought for money. (…) Yet I’m not dreaming. I look into your eyes, into Norma’s, into the children’s, and I see only kindness, human kindness. Calm down, I tell myself, you are making a mountain out of a molehill. This is life. Everyone else comes to terms with it, why can’t you? Why can’t you?”

In part because there’s still only a tiny minority of the people making a problem of meat eating or acting differently, most people don’t often consciously stop to think about meat eating as a moral issue. According to psychologist Steven Pinker, it is one of the major conclusions of the golden age of social psychology that “people take their cues on how to behave from other people.” To the question why most people eat meat, this is one answer that we can give: most people eat meat because most people eat meat.”

most people eat meat

Hence, the importance of critical mass. Change requires numbers. We need enough people to voice their doubts, to show their concern, to not participate, to eat differently, so that others no longer get the idea that meat is natural, normal and necessary.

Congrats to all of you who are not afraid to think differently and stand out from the crowd!

 

*Watch this video to learn more about the Asch experiment.

Who’s afraid of effectiveness?

At the Animal Rights conference in early July in Los Angeles, one of the keynote speakers was the legendary PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk. Ingrid and PETA are controversial for many animal rights activists and vegans. I understand some of the criticism, but usually I defend PETA against all too cheap attacks. I also respect Ingrid for her achievements. Being in a leadership position in the animal rights movement, (as a woman, moreover), for such a long time is actually an achievement in itself.

Still, some of the things she said during her speech at the conference made me frown. Ingrid was clearly having an issue with people emphasizing effectiveness. Effectiveness isn’t hard to understand: when you’re effective, you are good at getting the results you are aiming for. Effectiveness in itself shouldn’t be controversial. If we invest a lot of efforts into helping animals, (no matter if you define the latter in terms of reducing suffering, cruelty, or killing), because we care about them, we want these efforts to be effective. We want them to actually make a difference.

A possible effectiveness-equation *
A possible effectiveness-equation *

When you want to be effective, you probably will want to figure out where you can help the most, where you have the biggest effect (or let’s at least say: “a big effect”). This is particularly important in light of our limited resources. Even though our movement seems to get more and more funds, we still obviously can’t do everything we want, and we need to make choices. A sensible strategic choice is to spend our time and money in places where we can have the biggest impact. This may be a factor of the return on investment (how many animals can I affect for how much money), the intensity of suffering, the number of beings suffering, or the difference we can make because no one else is doing it — to name a few important selection criteria.

Looking at it this way, within the animal rights movement, a focus on farmed animals makes a lot of sense: there is less money to help them than there is for more popular causes, like companion animals, wild animals, etc. Of all the animals we torture and kill, ninety nine percent are killed for food purposes. And their suffering in general is probably among the worst human-caused suffering in the animal world. So if we can change something for farm animals, like legislation, attitudes, alternatives… we are changing things for a big group of animals.

In her speech, if I heard her correctly, Ingrid Newkirk seemed to somehow disagree with this line of reasoning. She said she had been asked to talk about farmed animals, but indicated that she actually didn’t want to do that. Her slideshow was mostly about animals other than farmed animals — like individual circus or companion animals. She stated that, if PETA would have listened to the people who are into effectiveness, these animals would not have been saved.

The argument made by Ingrid and many others against effectiveness-seekers, is that animals are individuals and that we can not make calculations with them or just look at numbers.

However, when those of us who cherish effectiveness go after the big numbers, they do that exactly because animals are feeling, sentient individuals. When we talk about helping or prioritizing the sixty billion chickens in the world, this may sound like a statistic, but we are fully aware that we are talking about a collection of individuals. And if we value individuals, would a big group of such suffering individuals not be a higher priority than a smaller group? The more individuals we can help, the better, no? With limited resources, there is always what we call an “opportunity cost“: when we are doing one thing, we can’t do another. 

I’m sure that there are some valid points to be made regarding prioritizing effectiveness. I’m sure some people might take it too far. There is the possibility that they could let the end justify spurious means. Or some of them may even be lacking in empathy. Effectiveness-oriented people would do well to be aware of these risks.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue with a desire, a striving for effectiveness. And it’s not as if all of a sudden, our whole movement has become effective. There is still a long way to go, and I think Ingrid’s criticism definitely didn’t come at the right time. Effectiveness might be a dirty word in health care and in other domains, but it shouldn’t be one in our movement.

No one is saying that the primate in the cage or the dog on the chain shouldn’t be helped. If some of us, however, would suggest prioritizing other beings, it’s not because we don’t care about those individuals. It’s because we care so much about suffering that we prefer to focus on where we can help the most of them

* source

 

 

Why we will win

Animal liberation is maybe the most challenging and the biggest social justice issue that humans have ever taken on. The stakes are high, the steaks are on every table, the task seems incredibly daunting. Yet I am sure that we will win.

I just attended the animal rights conference in Los Angeles. One of the functions of such a conference – apart from informing each other, sharing best practices, and spending a few days with like-minded people – is that we get motivated, that our batteries get reloaded, and that we go home re-energized. To this aim, there’s obviously quite a lot of motivational speeches, clapping, and cheering at a conference like this (which can actually be a bit of an assault on one’s ears at times, particularly for a European among a sea of Americans).

After the cheering and the good news show, one usually gets a bit of a cold shower when leaving the conference and entering the real world again. Animal products and cruelty – or at least indifference towards animals – once more seem omnipresent.

Still, I share the sentiment expressed by a number of keynote speakers at the conference: that we are approaching a tipping point, and that for the first time, still far away but coming ever closer, we can catch a glimpse of the end of the road.

Let me list a few of the reasons why I’m sure we will win. Some of these reasons are old, some are newer.

Copy of Copy of great vegan food

We are dedicated.
The dedication of animal rights or vegan activists is impressive. This is not a team that is going to throw in the towel any time soon. The compassion for animals and the horror at their suffering are what drive this movement. I’m sure that in the eyes of others we may look like a bunch of crazy fanatics at times, but it takes but one look at a picture or video of a creature suffering intensely at the hands of humans, to realize that our objective is far from fanatic.

We’re getting more results-oriented
In recent years (thanks to people like Nick Cooney, Faunalytics, the influx of the effective altruism movement, Animal Charity Evaluators, and other people and factors), we have started to pay much more attention to actual results – and to measuring these results –  rather than “just doing something”. We’re looking at input-versus-output and return on investment. And when some of us prioritize the high numbers (like those of factory farmed animals) over the few (like circus animals), it’s because we know that those high numbers are just bigger collections of suffering individuals.

We’ve professionalized
The days that this was a movement of rag-tag groups of protesters shouting angry slogans in stores or at passers-by, are long behind us (or are they?). We are sitting together with companies and governments. We are hiring great professional talent. We are producing professional looking print and video material. We are setting measurable goals. Professional is the new radical. 

Technology can be our ally
Technology can be put to both good and to bad use. It has been used to make raising animals for food more effective – and more horrible for the animals – but today we are seeing some incredibly promising new technologies emerging. Apart from using technology to create better meat alternatives than just tofu (think Beyond Meat, Gardein, Impossible Foods), there is of course the promise of labmeat (or cleanmeat) to create meat that is is indistinguishable from the “real thing”. Imagine what a gamechanger this will be (here’s your chance to support this “Supermeat“)

People can make money saving animals
Love it or hate it, but there is a whole new argument for veganism: making money. Some entrepreneurs have noticed that the current situation with animal products is untenable, and are seeing a lot of merit and profit in developing alternatives. Just the last few years, venture capitalists have literally put hundreds of millions of dollars into meat (and other) substitutes. This is something we have never seen before.

Thanks to these and many other factors and reasons, we will win. And when we will win – in god knows how many decades – this win will be a win for everyone. It will be a win for the animals and for our planet. It will be a win for us, the people fighting this fight, and it will be a win even for those who fear they might lose something.

Till then, we have to work. I want to echo one of the speakers:
Our time has arrived. Be kind. Be compassionate. Be positive. And let’s do this together.

 

Vegalomania: the belief that veganism can solve everything

Sometimes us vegans, in all our enthusiasm, get a little carried away, and present veganism as a solution to all the world’s problems. There are two issues with this. Firstly, and obviously, it is not correct. Veganism – whether you see it as a philosophy or just as a behavior – is definitely a partial solution for many big problems, from animal suffering to environmental, health and global hunger problems. Yet veganism can obviously not solve all the world’s problems. Neither can it solve any of these problems entirely on its own.

The second issue with presenting veganism as something that can save the world, is about credibility. Both our messages, and we ourselves, the messengers, will sound less credible if if we talk like devout evangelists, than if we act like rational, reasonable soft spoken advocates. Paradoxically, when you show you don’t know everything, when you show you are aware of the possible shortcomings of your theories and the flaws in your arguments, you will be more convincing rather than less. To put this another way: if you seem more convinced, you will often be less convincing.

credibility

Here’s an example (found on Facebook) of what I call vegalomania, or vegan megalomania. Note how vegans are represented as the saviors of the planet (and the known universe).

“The planet is dying, the animals are dying, the wildlife is dying, the seas are on their last legs due to overfishing and the pollution from the livestock industry (reference Cowspiracy) – we have the answers to many if not all of the human and and ecological problems and to me, we are under an imperative to share it loudly and clearly, looked at this way – we are doing people a favour when we advocate strongly and urge them to go vegan now – it’s actually an act of great kindness and generosity on our part.”

As always, we need to take our audience into account, and this audience may vary. What works for some audiences may not work for other audiences. I can imagine that groups of adolescents might be more easily swayed by a more radical message than one that is too diluted with caveats. Conversely, when we want to reach critical university students, we would do well adding a pinch of self-doubt.

Don’t get me wrong: again, I think there are few things people or society as a whole can do that are better than moving towards a diet or lifestyle without animal foods, and a totally different relationship with animals. Thus, the vegan message is definitely a message worth spreading. But always and everywhere suggesting that veganism is what will ultimately save the world is probably a bit too much. Let’s see if we can spread our message in a reasonable way, that can convince the outsiders rather than turn them off.

 

 

 

“I don’t need meat alternatives”

My fellow vegans now and then say things that I’m critical of, and this one is pretty high up in that list: “I don’t need meat alternatives. I think it’s kinda disgusting, the way those products resemble meat. Give me beans everyday!” (or something like that).

MeatAlternatives

Sure, I get it, your tastes are different. I also get that you are over the desire for anything that looks or tastes like meat. Maybe you want to show how totally you don’t want to have anything to do with animal products at all, so much so that you don’t want to be around anything that resembles them.

But here’s the thing, dear meat alternative-hating vegan: it’s not about you. You are already part of team vegan. You don’t need any convincing anymore. You’ve said bye-bye to animal products (hopefully forever), and that’s just great.

So who is it about, if not you? It’s about the 99% we still have to get to jump on the vegan wagon, of course. We need to do whatever appeals to them. This is, once more, about putting yourself in your audience’s shoes and trying to imagine what they want to eat, what they want to hear, etc.

Most people like (love!) to eat animal products. But I’m sure most of them wouldn’t insist that these products come from a (dead) animal. If we can make meat, dairy, egg… alternatives look and taste exactly the same as the original & cruel thing (and can make them not more expensive, at least as healthy, more sustainable, etc), then we can potentially convince a lot of people.

So people will like products that remind them of the products they like. It’s that simple.

Well, it’s not, of course. I know there are also concerns like “imitations, meh”, and “why do those vegans want to eat stuff that tastes like meat if they don’t want to eat meat”. I would suggest not to take such arguments too seriously.

Bottom line: alternatives for animal products are awesome. If you can get by on rice and beans (or even just raw food), that’s wonderful, but don’t confuse yourself with the people we still need to reach.

 

 

 

How to be a non-judgmental vegan

Vegans often get told they are judgmental. Judging others is a very human thing, and for mere mortals, it is probably more or less impossible to be non-judgmental all of the time. So yes, just like anyone else, vegans too can be judgmental. And given how passionate we are about the idea that using animals for food and other purposes is wrong, we may very well be more judgmental than the average person.

However, vegans may also come over as more judgmental to people than we actually are. That’s because many people feel guilty about consuming products they know are not in accordance with their values. The judgment they feel coming from vegans, may be their own judgment of themselves. That’s why they will often be on the defensive when talking with vegans (or even being in their presence).

But whether we are judgmental, or just appear judgmental, we’ve got a bit of a problem in both cases.
Why is being or being seen as judgmental a problem? Simply because most people who feel judged will probably be less likely to listen to you and change. No one (or virtually no one) likes a “judger”.  When someone is passing judgment (or appearing to pass judgment), people hear or read this as “what you are doing is not okay”. This for most of us is annoying enough in itself (we don’t like to be told what to do – we’re adults, you know), but even worse: in our poor, insecure minds it is often easily translated to “you are not okay”.
You may object: “But my mom changed after I told her she was this or that”. Maybe, but my guess is that means that she already had the seeds of change inside her. It’s most unlikely that it was your judging attitude that made her change.
You may think: “But eating meat IS not okay, is it? So I should be allowed to pass judgment on it. I have to speak out about it…”
I definitely understand. We really are convinced that eating animal products is not okay. Should we pretend that it is? I’m not saying we should. But again, sounding judgmental will probably not be very helpful in opening people’s hearts and minds to change.
Trying to not come over as judgmental is not hypocritical or dishonest, by the way. We (or at least I) have hundreds of thoughts every day that I am not expressing to other people. I’m sure it wouldn’t be beneficial if everyone could hear all of them.
So I think we are on safe grounds when we assume that a judgmental attitude is not helpful. Assuming we want to help animals, we need to open hearts and minds, and judgments tend to do the opposite. So: how do we avoid being judgmental? It’s not easy, because judgments are thoughts and feelings, and we have only limited control over those (much less than over our actions and behavior). But here are some things to try.
  1. Grow your self-awareness. Try to catch yourself when you are being judgmental. This takes practice, but it’s worth it, because self-awareness is very useful in general. Being aware of our own shortcomings, catching ourselves when we do stuff we don’t want to be doing is really important for… well, for world peace, you know.
  2. Realize that you don’t know people or their situation. A good exercise is to try to think of something the people you are judging, might be experiencing. Realizing they might have a good reason to do what they do or to be how they are, can make you milder in an instant. If you’re irritated with someone who bumps into you while rushing through the street, you could think of the many possible valid reasons why they are really in a hurry.
  3. Realize that everyone is different. We were raised in different ways, have a different genetic makeup, had different lives. Because of all this, some people may need more time than others, or will do things in different ways. You could try to imagine one or more reasons people could have for not being like you, yet.
  4. Realize that you’re not perfect. It’s not because you’re a vegan that you’re awesome in all respects of your life. This again comes down to self awareness. And it comes down the old saying: may he (or she) who is without sin, cast the first stone. In other words: who are you to judge?
  5. Remember that you (probably) were a meat eater once. You’ve done the same things. And if you think you went vegan from the moment someone told you it was wrong to eat animals, read the myth of the overnight vegan conversion.
  6. Realize that people who are not vegan may be doing other great things, which you might not be doing. They may be helping in a shelter, they may be volunteering for some human relief organization, they may donate a lot of money to good causes, or whatever. And know that the impact they have with that may even be bigger than the impact you have with just avoiding animal products (see The fetish of being vegan)
  7. Turn it around: think of a situation where someone judges you for stuff you’re doing wrong. Someone who’s more vegan than you, maybe. Think of how you react to that. Try to be honest: you may think you are Ms or Mr Rational, who will admit to being wrong and changing your behavior whenever you are wrong. That may be true, but it probably isn’t.
  8. Realize that trying to be non-judgmental is a matter of effectiveness, and that if you can suspend judgment, this will be better the animals, for the person you would be judging, and even for you.
I wish you (and myself) good luck in trying to be less judgmental!

Why vegans get angry at non vegan business owners (and ex-vegans)

In the course of one hour today, two people told me an anecdote about vegans being angry at the owners of a vegan business for not being vegan themselves. Let’s examine if this makes sense.

Let’s first turn to another example of this: a high profile case that was in the media recently. The owners of the famous vegan Cafe Gratitude in Los Angeles turned out to be non vegans, and got quite some heat/hate for that from vegans (although we can assume that the media added their bit of sensationalism to it).

cafe gratitude
Cafe Gratitude

I believe it’s not very productive or sensible to blame owners of vegan businesses for not being vegan, for the simple fact that with a vegan business in most cases you can achieve a lot more good for the animals than by merely being vegan (see The fetish of being vegan). The Gratitude restaurants serve thousands of vegan meals a day. The impact of your average vegan critic’s consumption pales in comparison.

A case could be made regarding sincerity. Some vegans would believe that it’s hypocritical to have a vegan business (and to make money from the vegan cause) while not being vegan yourself. I can understand the sentiment, but I don’t share it. What matters to me is the impact.

But what I mainly wanted to talk about is this: expectations and betrayal, because that’s what I think this is about.

Imagine you are hearing these two pieces of information:

1. Two meat eaters are opening a vegan restaurant in your town.
2. A vegan restaurant opens in your town. Later, you find out the owners are meat eaters

Can you see a difference in your reaction to these two descriptions? In case it’s not clear, let me explain. In the first, it was clear right away that we’re talking about non-vegans. In the second, because you are reading about a vegan restaurant, the expectation is created that it is owned by vegans. When it turns out not to be, you might be (or certainly, many vegans would be) disappointed. In the first case, you might actually say: oh my god, that’s so cool of these meat eaters that they are opening a vegan restaurant.

I see the same dynamic at play all the time. We (or at least most of us) appreciate non-vegans or non-vegan companies doing something vegan. Like Ben & Jerry’s offering vegan flavors of ice cream. But it seems that, when the person or business is very close to being vegan or is vegan, then doing something unvegan (which the non-vegan business or person was doing all the time) is very uncool.

What seems to be happening is that whatever non vegan things are tolerated for non vegans, but as soon as we imagine that people are on our side, they are no longer tolerated. This in a way seems entirely logical (non vegans can do vegan things but vegans can not do non vegan things) but does it make sense, and is it a productive attitude?

Another case where this attitude comes to the fore is in the case of ex vegans. Before these people were vegan, we applauded their efforts in going vegan (well, some of us don’t like “steps”, but most would encourage them). When this person became vegan, we accept them as one of “ours”. But then when he or she gives up on veganism… all hell breaks lose. Few people can incite the vegan movement’s ire like an ex-vegan, especially when they’re celebrities.

I think for the vegans getting angry about these kinds of things, a lot has to do with feeling betrayed and being disillusioned in their expectations. Here are some people of whom we thought they had figured it out, but it turns out they don’t.

I think this quote by James Pinkerton sums it up very well (it was requoted in this article, where I found it):

“An infidel is someone who never believed what you believe; an infidel is a stranger, and so there’s not much point in investing emotions in him. But a heretic is someone you know well, someone who once believed what you believe, but now has a different faith — that’s much more threatening. You fight wars against infidels, and in those wars you seek to defeat, even destroy. But with heretics, even tougher measures are needed, because the threat is so much more insidious, threatening to eat away the true faith. So you launch inquisitions against heretics, to eliminate even the thought of heresy.”

It is human nature, but it’s not a very productive attitude, and we would do well to be on the lookout for and aware of irrational feelings of betrayal, causing us to be angry and alienate people from our movement.

The extremely inconvenient truth of wild animal suffering

Somewhere in South Africa, not that long ago, a young zebra has gotten stuck in the mud. She’s panicking. If nothing happens her cries and struggles will be to no avail, and she’ll suffocate very soon.

Yet suddenly, there is help: a young rhinoceros sees the zebra, puts his gigantic head under the animal, and lifts her out of the mud. For a moment, it looks like a successful rescue operation. The rhino, however, forgets about his tusk, which pierces through the zebra, killing the animal.

MADIKWE, SOUTH AFRICA: A RHINO was snapped fishing a zebra foal out of a mud pit with its horn. The bizarre pictures show how the giant two-tonne beast spotted the baby zebra being stuck in the mud and attempted to lift the hapless creature with its horn. South African guide Roel van Muiden was showing visitors around the Madikwe Game Reserve when he saw the incredible scene, which sadly ended in the death of the foal.

At a safe distance, another being has been watching the scene: a Homo sapiens. A professional nature photographer, he made a series of pictures of the drama. The man could have interfered, but would later tell a journalist that he felt it was best to “let nature be nature”.

So this was the situation: a zebra in mortal danger is “helped” by a rhinoceros who cannot help her (maybe he wanted only to play or was just curious), while a human, who could have helped, watches and decides that fate shall have its course.

When a human being in need of rescuing crosses our path, we will take action – at least if there’s little or no risk for ourselves. With animals, we don’t have this sense of moral obligation. Especially wild animals seem to belong to a different world, in which we should not interfere. But why not?

“Natural” doesn’t equal “good”
For many people, “what is natural”, still equals “what is good” or “what is right”. What happens in nature has to happen, or it wouldn’t happen. Or something like that.

Still, the whole of human evolution is a story of going against, conquering, outrunning and outsmarting nature. This is not a problem in itself. On the contrary. All the medication that we take is “unnatural”. So are glasses and crutches and cars and bicycles. Or the way you are reading this text: on a screen. None of this can be found in nature.
We are also constantly interfering in nature, most of the time for our own – Homo sapiens’ – sake. We have cleared nature for roads, farmland, parks, buildings. Doing this, we have killed countless individual animals.

Many people would agree that we, as humans, could or should try to solve the suffering in nature that we have caused ourselves – the way we make bridges or tunnels as corridors for animals when we have split their habitat into too many parts.
But what about suffering that is not due to us? Suffering is suffering, pain is pain. The cause of this suffering and pain – human or not – is totally irrelevant for those experiencing it. For a rabbit it is irrelevant whether she suffers because of some disease or because she got caught in a poacher’s trap (assuming both kinds of suffering are of similar intensity).

Saving a young zebra from suffocation is a small, concrete intervention, and maybe, if you had been the photographer, you would have done what you could, from a place of (very natural) empathy. But today we have already seen more structural interference among wild animal populations. We have vaccinated some populations (even though the reason has been to avoid human contamination). In some natural parks we have experimented with contraception (feeling that preventing some animals from being born is more humane than letting those already there suffer a horrible death from hunger).

Why the idyllic view of nature is wrong
You may have a very idyllic view of nature, thinking happiness and serenity abound. Throughout the ages, our views on the nature of nature, so to speak, have changed back and forth. Today, the view of nature as “red in tooth and claw”, as Tennyson described it, unfortunately seems a pretty good description of what’s going on in the wild. Here is part of the reason why.

We humans usually have few children, but we invest a lot in them and as a result almost all of them (at least in western countries, but more and more in developing countries too) will survive. Many or most animals have a different strategy: they have many young, but don’t invest a lot of parental attention in them. The result is similar: one or just a few survive (thus, the population remains stable). This second strategy (ecologists traditionally talked about “r-selection” and “K-selection”) means that an incredible number of animals will die at a very young age. European rabbits, for instance, can have 360 young in their lifetime, fifteen percent of which make it through their first year. Some animals can lay hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands of eggs, not all of whom will develop into living beings. But even if an animal only has a few young, one or more will often not survive. A panda, for instance, usually has twins, of which typically only one will survive as the parents only really invest in looking after one of them.

Many or most of these animals probably don’t die a painless or quick death. Apart from hunger, thirst, cold and drought, wild animals suffer diseases and injuries without any medical care being available to them. They are confronted with natural disasters like floods and fires. There’s parasitism, and of course there is predation (see the video below, if you dare, for graphic examples).

Finally, let’s take into account the actual numbers that we are talking about here. Humans number about seven billion. A rough estimation of the number of fish we take from the sea is between one and three trillion animals. An even rougher estimation of the number of animals out there could be 10 to the 19th (see this article for more info).

The bottom line seems to be that the idyllic view of nature is wrong and that the amount of suffering is vast.

The question of whether we should ever do something about this huge problem is controversial. It especially surprises me that it is even controversial among vegans and animal rights supporters, who seem to think we should mainly care about our own duties and the suffering we ourselves have caused. Again: to the animal that is suffering, it doesn’t matter whether we caused the harm or not.

Yes, estimating the consequences of intervention could be incredibly, impossibly complex. Yes, intervention could have catastrophic effects. But the people thinking this issue through are obviously aware of both risks and complexity. Any progress will be gradual and slow. But let’s also not forget that what is happening is already catastrophic. If you’re not convinced, watch this video (trigger warning: graphic footage!)

The main question to me is not whether we should intervene or not, but to what extent and how. I think most people would agree with the interventions that we already do: saving individual animals, vaccinations, even contraception – at least on the condition that these interventions are done very carefully and cause no greater harm. But shouldn’t we go a bit further?

Two planets
On a wall in the office of the German vegan advocacy organization VEBU in Berlin hangs a framed letter. It is from a little girl, Annika, who later died of a brain tumor, and it is addressed to my friend Sebastian Joy, CEO of VEBU. In the letter, the girl suggests that we should have two planets: one for humans, and one for the animals. The thinking is endearing, and at first sight you might agree that this is a good idea. But thinking it through, you realize that this animal planet would be full of suffering. And you realize that maybe, just maybe, if Homo sapiens manages to survive itself and we become better at being human, then we could be of real significance and do something for the wild animals out there to make their lives better or to spare them from suffering. I’m aware that to some, this view will sound crazy, or hubris-like, or how they will say this is not a priority while there are easier ways to help people and animals. But just consider that we may be around for tens or hundreds of thousands of years more. Who knows what moral and technological evolution we may go through in that period?

In the meantime, what can we do? We can start being open-minded about this topic, for one thing. We can examine our biases, our speciesism. We can examine where our real priorities are: with animal rights? With the prevention of suffering? We can spread this idea further. We can support whatever thoughtful interventions are already happening. And we can be open to the development of new technologies that may help us in the future.

To the animals, this planet is hell and people are their devils, wrote Schopenhauer. I believe we don’t need to be devils to animals. Maybe we can be their angels. Someday.

Want to learn a bit more? Check out this talk about Wild Animal Suffering

Also check the research plans (and the need for funding) of the Foundational Research Institute.

This article was inspired by a talk by Oscar Horta at the Sentience Conference in Berlin.

Do 2 semi-vegans make 1 vegan?

One of the default figures by which the animal rights/vegan movement wants to measure its success, is the number of vegans. But is this the most important metric? I think there are other indicators telling us much more about how far we have advanced than the number of vegans. The latter remains very small, so much so that it is actually hard to measure without a significant margin of error. Reducers, on the other hand, show up big on the radar when we are polling the population, and they might be much more significant. But how do reducers compare to vegans in terms of impact?

More specifically, I’d like to ask the following concrete question: are two semi-vegans just as good as one vegan? (I’m obviously talking in terms of their short or long term impact on sparing animals). In case you think there is no such thing as a semi vegan, or a 70% or whatever vegan, read this article.

one vegan two semi vegans

If we understand a 50%-vegan to be a person who chooses vegan alternatives only half of the time compared to a vegan, then it seems that two of these 50%-vegans would have the same impact as a vegan as far as their consumption goes. But there may be some additional, complicating, arguments to make.

One thing to consider would be these people’s “value” in influencing others (see The fetish of being vegan for the argument that communication is potentially much more important than your own consumption). At first sight, the vegan might be much more motivated to go out and win hearts and minds – and she will almost certainly be more vocal about it. She might feel the holy fire burning inside her and become a very committed activist. When we look at our movement, at the people making things happen, it seems that most of them are obviously vegans.

But let’s think this over. The vegan may spend more time on outreach than the two semi-vegans, but will she necessarily be more successful? Maybe people get more inspired by reducers than by vegans, to start reducing themselves (of course, for those among us who don’t believe reducers are a good thing, this is not an argument). The mere fact of being vegan may have a deterring effect on others – as for many people it seems such a difficult thing – which being a reducer may not have.

Another important idea to take into consideration may be what I call the spread-factor. The one vegan’s impact and efforts, both in terms of consumption and activism, will be more concentrated (as she is but one person) than the impact and efforts of the two semi-vegans (and certainly than five 20%-vegans). I’m not a mathematician and I haven’t thought this through in depth, but maybe the higher this spread-factor, the more people – (both consumers as well as suppliers) will get in contact with some kind of vegan demand.

You could also wonder if the same volume of demand coming from multiple persons might not have a bigger effect than when coming from one person. Imagine you are a restaurant owner. Who would be most likely to influence you to change your menu: one vegan or two semi-vegans? You might think that the semi-vegans could eat everything in the restaurant, but they wouldn’t come there for their vegan meals, so you lose two customers. Two customers (or say the five 20%-vegans) might be more worth making an effort for than one vegan, who you might just ignore.

This may seem like a bit of an academic and abstract discussion, but my purpose here, as often, is to make our movement see the value and importance of meat reducers, and to avoid focusing on vegans alone. As I have written in several posts on this blog, I believe many reducers will create a tipping point in society faster than a small percentage of vegans can (see What vegan can learn from glutenfree). It’s the many reducers that drive the demand, forcing suppliers to respond with more and more good vegan options, and thus making it easier for all of us to go full-time vegan. In addition, for those who are afraid these reducers don’t have the by-us-much-desired ethical motivation: their moral development may very well come after their behavior change.

This is, of course, not to say that increasing the number of vegans is not necessary or important. I think vegans are much more prone to commit to serious activism, spend money on vegan causes, make vegan documentaries, open vegan restaurants, etc. But I suggest a two-pronged approach: increase both the number of vegans and the number of reducers.

Do you have other arguments for why we might value one vegan more, less, or the same as two semi-vegans? Let me know.