10 vegan things I recently changed my mind about

I’ve been deeply involved in the animal rights/vegan movement for about twenty years now. You’d think that in all this time, I would have reached some conclusions and know a thing or two.

Well… less than you or I might expect, I guess…

In fact, lately I’ve been having lots of new insights, while old ideas have been challenged or discarded. For one thing, this is because I’ve spend a lot of time writing and thinking on my blogposts and upcoming book. For another, I’ve been influenced by the philosophy of – and many people within – the Effective Altruism movement, as well as people from Animal Charity Evaluators, Faunalytics, and even people from the DXE movement.

So here are some of the things that I concluded (preliminarily of course) or started to think about in recent times…

1. Welfare and suffering are important
Like many animal rights people, it used to be all about rights for me. Today I believe rights are an abstraction and a means to an end, useful mainly in so far that they can help prevent beings from coming to harm. Welfare became a dirty word in our movement, somewhere along the way, but it shouldn’t be.

2. Chickens and fish are the meat of the matter
By far the biggest victims of our consumption habits are chickens and fish. They are small animals, so we eat a lot of them, and they suffer terribly. They deserve an important part of our resources.

3. Beyond vegan 1: wild animal suffering should be part of our focus
Animals are not just mistreated and killed by humans: many more animals suffer because of hunger, cold, predation, parasites and disease in nature. If we care about animals, we should care about wild animals too, and be open minded about what we can or will be able to do for them in the future. (see The extremely inconvenient truth of wild animal suffering)

4. Beyond vegan 2: there’s more to suffering than human and non-human animals
Still farther out: thanks to Effective Altruism I’ve started to consider the terrible possibility of artificial sentience (yes) in the future. If we start thinking and acting about it in time, maybe we can prevent astronomical suffering in future centuries. After speciesism there is… substratism: it’ doesn’t matter if you’re carbon based or not. What matters is sentience.

5. There are things much more important than being vegan
Yes, of course we have an impact with what we put into our mouths. And by all means, be vegan. But being a well spoken and approachable advocate for animals may be much more important. (see The fetish of being vegan)

giving up thinking (1)

6. Money is one of our most crucial resources
We’re all very vegan, but how much do we give? We talk about veganism, but if we donate, do we talk about it to encourage other people to donate? With our money we can have a much bigger impact than with our own consumption. And earning money to sponsor other advocates can be a very efficient way of meta-advocacy. (see Time to donate and Money Money Money in our Movement)

7. The vegan movement isn’t necessarily the main player anymore
It used to be just us, the vegan movement, fighting for the animals. But now, less directly, there is the great impact of the commercial sector: the Impossible Foods and the Hampton Creeks and the Beyond Meats… on their way to disrupt an entire industry and creating incredible change. (See: What if the real push towards a vegan world did not come from vegans?)

8. Technology and GMOs to the rescue
Technological revolutions may lead to moral revolutions. We’ve already seen some really promising alternatives for animal products, but there is much more to come. One aspect I particularly changed my mind about is GMOs. I was against them, because I had never really examined the topic and was blindly accepting what my peers thought and chanted about it. Thanks to some friends, and to vegangmo.com, I’ve mostly changed my mind about them, and I can now see how they could be very beneficial in preventing animal suffering. “Natural” doesn’t really matter all that much. (See: What about GMO’s and hi-tech animal food alternatives)

9. We should invest more in research
Because so many things are so uncertain, and there are constant opportunities to find out new things, we need to invest enough resources into research and see what actually works. We have to do this without dogma, open for whatever results that we may find. Which brings me to my last point…

10. Open mindedness is even more important than I thought
Looking at my list, seeing how often and in which important domains I have needed to update myself, I have to conclude that keeping an open mind is even more important than I thought. Conversely, I’m really allergic to dogma. While open mindedness and slow opinion are about always looking forward to learning new things and improving, dogma prevents one from learning and improving – which are very important when there is so much at stake.

All these open ended questions, this constant evolution, these doubts and these uncertainties should not paralyse us, however. There are several promising theories, strategies, and tactics. We’re in this for the long haul, and we can slow down a bit to test them and research them, and then, with the best evidence we can find, update ourselves and give more attention to one strategy or another.

Being vegan means to stop eating animal products, it doesn’t mean to stop thinking

I shouldn’t have to write this: on Veganuary-bashing

I’m going to do something stupid in this post, maybe. I’m going to give more exposure to an article that should never have been written.

The article is titled The Annual Veganuary Fail (you can find it with Google, unfortunately). It criticizes (an understatement) the wonderful Veganuary campaign. Veganuary, as you may know, is about getting people to try vegan for a month, and see where that takes them.

The article is the stuff that I usually try to ignore. However, it contains so many arguments that pop up again and again especially among newly minted vegans who believe in Gary Francione’s “abolitionist approach”, and the Unified Theory of Everything that I thought it was valuable to share some thoughts. Furthermore, I know the Veganuary organizers personally. They’re great people, and I think it’s good to speak up when great people are attacked or misrepresented (and I think we’re not standing up enough against this kind of bashing).

The original text is in bold, while my brief thoughts (I’m being selective and I’m trying to stay polite) are below it. Here and there, I will link to other posts of mine, in case you’re interested in reading more thoughts. Oh, and you may notice how I get a bit exasperated and exhausted near the end.

So, take a deep breath; here we go.

pig veganuary


The Annual Veganuary Fail

Original article: It’s getting to the time of year again when Veganuary start their fundraising campaign for January. If you’re unaware of who Veganuary are, the quick explanation is that they’re a charity that fundraises off the back of trying to get people to go vegan – for a month.

My comments: Now this is a pretty bad start. It is a very uncharitable and disingenuous description of Veganuary. If we differ in opinion about tactics, I suggest that we at least start from the idea that we have the same intentions and ambitions. We all want to help animals. There’s no need to imply that people who use tactics we don’t agree with are money-grabbers.

You may be thinking “great, an organisation that takes veganism seriously for once.” I hate to burst your bubble but, if that’s what you’re thinking – you would be wrong.

Telling people they are wrong – especially with this much conviction when we’re certain of so little – is rarely the most productive way of advancing mutual understanding. 

On a fundamental level, the mere concept of Veganuary itself is a rejection of fundamental nonhuman rights.

Note how the word “fundamental” occurs twice in one sentence…

Think about it for a second. They’re not informing people about why as a matter of fundamental morality we need to be vegan, they’re asking people to make what is nothing more than a personal choice decision.

First of all, I’m not sure how the author arrives at this impression from the Veganuary campaign. If you go to the “why” section on the Veganuary website, the first reason listed is “animals”: “Animals are able to perceive and feel, and experience pain and happiness just as we do. Production of food and clothing causes them to suffer in innumerable ways.” I’m hard put to see this as presenting people with “nothing more than a personal choice decision.

Secondly: whatever works. It’s a very common theme among some animal advocates to insist on the moral argument, and on being “crystal clear” that others have an ethical duty, a moral obligation, to go vegan. Even if that were true, presenting things as an obligation, and telling people they have to do things for the reasons that we want them to have is a recipe for failure. People don’t like obligations. They’re very unattractive. Presenting something as a moral duty is the kind of preaching that many people are allergic to. Presenting things as a choice is much more appealing. The Veganuary people know this, and are applying that knowledge. They are only bound by what works (even if it’s not always easy to find out what that is).

It’s a gimmick and an insult to the vulnerable victims of non-veganism. It’s the animal equivalent of “Movember” where some men decide to grow a moustache to help people with certain forms of cancer or mental health issues. The difference is that the latter doesn’t involve fundamental rights violations and so therefore will not be harmed by gimmicks; the former does involve fundamental rights violations – via our treating sentient beings as resources – and so relegating the issue to one of personal choice in the form of a 1-month trial is a denial of the very real exploitation that occurs on account of non-veganism.

Why would Veganuary be an insult to the animals? Why would it involve “fundamental [here we go again] rights violations”? Just because Veganuary doesn’t play the moral obligation card enough? Enough with the demagoguery already!

If you’re not with me so far…

I’m afraid I’m not. But let’s continue anyway, for the heck of it.

… consider how you might feel if we relegated other forms of fundamental rights violations to 1-month a year gimmicks. What about “Feminibruary,” where for the month of February we ask rapists to make the personal choice to stop raping women for that month? Outrageous! Preposterous!… you may think – but it’s okay. If we steal Veganuary’s logic, we’ll have “reduced the suffering” of women by “inspiring and supporting people across the globe” to not rape in February. Wonderful! We’ve provided absolutely no information about why people shouldn’t rape in the first place, but we’ve made a lot of money off the back of fundraising, and made the rapists feel better in that month for “reducing the suffering” of women.

What’s outrageous and preposterous is this eternal and absurd comparison of eating animal products with rape. It doesn’t make any sense to compare something which 99% of the population condemns (rape) with something which 99% of the population actively celebrates (eating animal products). Even if you think that something isn’t any less wrong when everyone does it, at least you may want to consider that such completely different situations may require different strategies and ways of communicating about them.
It’s amazing how often I see this argument turn up, with the people explaining it believing they are so, so right, while I think they are so, so… misguided. (Posts that I have written about this topic: On comparing animal rights with other social justice causes and Is asking for baby steps speciesist? and Slavery Free Mondays.)

To the extent that Veganuary would find my “Feminibruary” idea offensive but think that Veganuary as a concept is just dandy – they engage in outright speciesism. By portraying veganism as some month-long trial, a personal choice, a way to “reduce suffering” (hello welfarists, I’m looking at you), they effectively deny the existence of fundamental nonhuman interests in life and serve to perpetuate the very same speciesism that feeds non-veganism in the first place.

First of all, it’s so easy to throw the accusation of speciesism out there. Following the author here – and continuing with his analogy – it would seem that it would be speciesist to not physically attack people in slaughterhouses, supermarkets or restaurants for processing, buying or eating meat, because if we saw a rape happening, we’d also jump up and try to stop it and beat up or punish the rapists, right? (See my post When the term “speciesism” gets overused.)

Furthermore, I’m not sure how anyone can say that Veganuary “effectively denies the existence of nonhuman interests.” Veganuary is a campaign by a couple of people who care a lot about animals and who have even invested a lot of their own resources in this project. They do that exactly because they believe animals have interests. They do what they do to get as many people on the vegan wagon, through whatever arguments and tactics work. They use a proven and psychologically sound strategy: trying on something for size, without any commitment for the long term, is something way less scary for people than a lifetime commitment, which as we know, most people don’t want to make right away (see Why Veganuary is a great campaign and The imperfect veganism of Erza Klein).

We are offended by a concept such as “Feminibruary” because it is relegating the fundamental rights of women – to bodily integrity, to not be made to suffer, to not have their interest in life denied, to not be used as a resource – to nothing more than a month-long personal choice for those who readily engage in the exploitation of women. It is saying that the personal choices of those who engage in that exploitation matter more than the rights of the victims. It’s saying that the exploitation of women is not a fundamental matter of morality.

So again, what the author seems to be saying is that we have to tell people that they are under an obligation to feel and do as we vegans do; otherwise, they are fundamentally infringing on animals’ rights. I don’t think such a message works very well, but if you want to try it, go ahead, but at least don’t attack other people for using another message. And maybe stop ranting at campaigners like the Veganuary folks about how they are just into raising money, as well as being unethical for other reasons. 

Veganuary is no different in concept to my “Feminibruary” idea. Animals too, are sentient beings, with fundamental interests in not suffering and continuing to live. Their exploitation is every bit a matter of fundamental morality as the exploitation of any other sentient being with those similar interests. It makes no difference whether they’re human or nonhuman – all sentient beings are equal when it comes to being used as resources. The existence of Veganuary as a concept alone, is a denial of this, and so before we even consider the content of their fundraising, they’re perpetuating speciesism.

I think the author, me, the readers, and the Veganuary people all agree about the exploitation of animals being a matter of “fundamental morality.” Again, that is exactly what Veganuary is all about. As the stakes are very high, and as we understand the incredible suffering and injustice that is happening, we need to do something about it. And what we do should be based on what we believe or know works, not just on a theory or an approach invented by some professor or other. Veganuary isn’t a denial of anything. Or maybe it’s a denial of the dogma that we have an ethical obligation to present veganism as an ethical obligation, instead of doing what works.

Things get even more messy when we delve into the actual content. They claim to want to “reduce the suffering of animals while making veganism more appealing to the mainstream.” By focusing on “reducing suffering” alone they are embracing welfarist ideology. Most likely that of “the father,” Peter Singer, who maintains that because the animals we exploit lack more sophisticated human-like cognition, they don’t have an
interest in continuing to live – they only have an interest in not suffering.

Reducing suffering is a different approach from asking for animal rights. Both approaches may have their strong points, and this is an area where we could be open and curious about each other’s viewpoints and philosophy, rather than just saying the other side is wrong. Both a consequentialist and a deontological view can be respectable (although my money is on the former). What’s not respectable is to be dogmatic about what ideology we should use. And yes, while we’re at it, why not bash Peter Singer a bit: a man who has done more than almost anyone in the world to raise awareness about animal ethics. Makes a lot of sense.

The perpetuation of this false ideology is just another string to the bow of speciesism that Veganuary have aimed at the non-vegan public. They intend to let their arrows of confusion fly around the London underground this year where they aim to have 50,000 people partake in not raping… whoops, sorry, thought I was talking about Feminibruary again for a moment. Ahem – where they aim to have 50,000 people being “vegan” – for a month. No education as to why people should be vegan for life, just like we should always respect the fundamental rights of other humans and, you know, not rape them… ever. Just asking people to be vegan for a month for no apparent reason other than to “reduce suffering,” and they believe this will somehow make veganism “more mainstream.” Because, of course, as you know, animals don’t care that we’re killing them by the trillions every year for no good reason.

Someone fills the London underground with vegan posters, and we’re gonna complain and compare this to an appeal to temporarily stop raping. I leave it to you to assess the absurdity here for yourself.

Of course, Veganuary can help make veganism more mainstream. There is no evidence that telling people that they HAVE TO BE VEGAN FOR LIFE! works better than an approach where you tell them to try it out for a month and guide them along with daily mails, recipes, etc. But of course, there is the dogma: the “abolitionists” appear to believe that even if something else would work better, they still wouldn’t be ethically allowed to campaign that way. Following Francione-dogma trumps achieving results, apparently.

Animals just want to suffer a little bit less in January. That’s all they want – how silly of me to think they need more from us than that. My bad, Veganuary. But hey, it’s cool if you don’t want to go vegan in January anyway – It’s your personal choice to decide whether you want to engage in rights violations that month, right?

Pleeeeease, you’re killing me…

I mean, you’ve been given no real reason to take it seriously. Those rights violations would need to be made more “mainstream” in order for you to take them seriously, right? Whether or not you choose to observe a woman’s right not to be used as a resource in February is no different to whether or not you decide to give up drinking in October – damn it, I did it again didn’t I? Let me start over. Whether or not you choose rape women in February is no more a matter of your moral concern than whether you decide to go alcohol- free in October to “reduce the suffering” of your liver, right? – wait, I know. I know. I’ve done it again. I’ve confused one gimmick concerning the fundamental rights of a sentient being for another.

So many disingenuous, strawman arguments and so much absurdity here that I’ll leave this paragraph to you.

Obviously, I’m being facetious. What can I say? I’m sorry. I have a habit for doing that. What I really want to say is – Veganuary. Cut the crap.

I agree with “Cut the crap.”

Take the fundamental rights of animals seriously and use the zillions you’ve raised through fundraising over the years to actually do some real vegan education and educate – yourselves for starters – and then the non-vegan public. Educate about why we need to go vegan and stay vegan in recognition of the fundamental right all sentient beings possess not to be used as a resource. Educate about the nonhuman interest in continuing to live that we deny even exists through our “personal choice” to exploit them.

Zillions through fundraising. Sure. Let’s get more concrete. I checked with the Veganuary team. The campaign has been run for 12 months on around £70,000. The London Underground campaign was crowdfunded and raised around £30K more. Matthew and Jane, the initiators, work for free and told me they will never earn an income from Veganuary – in fact, they’ve put in around £200K of their own money since the start, and live in a small rented home. There are three other members of staff who are now paid very humble salaries – far less than they could earn outside of animal advocacy.

And we must recognize this, not just for January (what kind of insult is that anyway?) – but for life. That is the very least we owe animals. Just as recognition of fundamental rights is the very least we owe other humans.

Again, good luck telling people they have to go vegan for life. Again: is it more important to stick to one’s rules and ideology than to have actual results for animals? I know, I’m starting to repeat myself…

But wait – I’m getting carried away again aren’t I. You’re not going to do that, because you can’t fundraise as effectively from the truth as opposed to something as ambiguous as “reducing suffering.” You won’t make as much cash. It’s not “mainstream” enough – how very sad.

And once again, here’s the nasty implication that the Veganuary people are in it for the money. Deplorable. Really.

I can hear the protests already – “we’re effective, that’s all that matters!”
Effective at what? Perpetuating the age-old idea that animals don’t care about continuing to live? Perpetuating the idea that concern for the rights of animals is not a matter of fundamental morality but a matter of personal choice? A gimmick that one can partake in over a trial period with no real idea as to why? Yeah. Congratulations – I’m setting off party poppers right now in celebration.

If people try Veganuary for a month, many of them will get familiarized with the ethical problems of eating animal products. Moreover, they hopefully will have experienced that vegan food can be tasty, doable, affordable and convenient. That may make their hearts and minds more open to the ethical arguments. Attitude change often follows behavior change rather than preceding it. (See also Let Beyonce be. About the biggest oversight in our movement.)

Lets raise a glass and toast Veganuary for never failing to hit the final nail in the river-coffin that sends every animal down the waterfall and into the hands of corporate welfarism. Lets toast the perpetuation of denied personhood in favour of human supremacy and personal choice.

Oh boy. Can we finish already? I can’t take this anymore.

Way to go. This has to stop.

I’d love it if some things would stop. What has to stop is cruelty to animals, animal suffering, killing animals, injustice. Whatever you want to call it. We’re all in the same boat and on the same page here, I think. But what I’d love to stop also are articles like this, criticizing well-meaning, smart, committed and authentic advocates.

Articles like this are what following Francione-dogma leads to. If you believe you’re influenced by the theories of Gary Francione, think about them again. Keep an open mind. Know that nothing in life is black and white. Follow the evidence where it goes instead of just accepting and repeating the dogma. Know that our work is not about building and following a consistent grand theory of everything, but about having a positive impact for animals in the real world.

p.s. – Inevitably some people will tell me either that I’m wasting my time, or that I’m just continuing the bashing, or that I’m giving more attention to something that shouldn’t get any attention. You can read my motivation for speaking out here.

The imperfect veganism of Ezra Klein

Ezra Klein, founder and editor in chief of the news website Vox, was on the podcast of Tim Ferris, and one of the things they talked about was veganism and eating animals. Ferris asked Klein what he would give a TED talk about if he had to choose a topic outside of his actual specialty, and Klein said it would be something on the ethics of meat eating, which he feels “really strongly about.”

Ezra Klein
Ezra Klein

Klein says that what we eat is a very profound moral choice. He believes – and Ferris concurs – that in the future people will look back on the way we treated animals in this era and judge us “very, very harshly”, because “we’re torturing a lot of sentient beings constantly.” Klein has clearly given a lot of thought to the topic – he mentions some advocates like Bruce Friedrich and Matt Ball. He talks about how we cause much more suffering if we switch from beef to chicken, and the same when we eat a lot of factory farmed eggs instead of beef. He thinks in terms of real impact: “if we can get everyone to cut meat consumption by half, that is so much better than quadrupling the number of vegetarians.” So, we need to think about reduction, according to Klein.

The most interesting part of the podcast for me was when Klein talked about his own eating habits. At some point in their dialogue, Ferris suggests that if you try to take people “from zero to sixty” [he’s talking about the demand for overnight conversion to veganism],  the dropoff is probably going to be above 90% after a few weeks. Klein tells Ferris of his own struggle with sticking to it:

“There is a fair amount of behavioral science evidence that it is important for people to act in ways reasonably consonant with the identity that they have for themselves. (…) And this is something I found because I floated back and forth between veg’ism and not for a long time (…). What happened was I would say “I’m going vegetarian”, and then at some point, I would fail. And having failed, it’s not like what would happen is that I would go to 95% vegetarian: I would completely collapse back into full-on omnivorism. And the reason in part was that if I’d set up the success structure such that I was vegetarian or I was not, then “was not” was almost the same kind of failure, no matter how much meat I was eating, what kind of meat I was eating…”

So, here’s how Klein solved it:

“The way this actually stuck for me this time was that the way I went vegetarian a couple of years ago now, was with a tremendous number of caveats: “I’m vegetarian except when I travel, cause I know when I travel I often have a lot of trouble sticking to vegetarianism; so, if I’m vegetarian except when I travel and then when I travel I eat meat, well then, it doesn’t offend my identity at all. And now, I’m mostly vegan. I eat vegan at home, except when I travel I’m vegetarian. And, there are a couple of points in the year, like I’ve been having sushi with my best friend’s mother since I was a  kid, and it is important to me that I am able to continue that tradition. And so, as opposed to having sushi there twice a year and then collapsing out of all my other eating habits because of it, this is now built into it. And so, I actually find that personally very helpful to not be so strict on myself (…).

I think this fragment pretty much speaks for itself. It reminded me of something that Jonathan Safran Foer told me in an interview: you have this person who was vegan and all of a sudden, he’s not anymore. So, you ask him: what happened, and he says: well, I was in the airport and there was nothing to eat, and I ate meat and then I just slid back into my normal omnivorous diet. Foer’s suggestion was not to make being a strict vegan too important a part of your identity.

The solution here for some people might be to try to make really sure that they never make an exception at all. But for other people, like for Ezra Klein, it could be to just build in the exceptions or the mildness as part of their vegan identity. It’s probably more sustainable to do it like this.

You can listen to the podcast episode here. The relevant part is from minutes 34 to 44.

Time to donate! (and why animal causes are a great choice)

This is the time of the year when organizations receive the biggest part of their donations from their sympathizers and supporters. It’s the time when we all can help them to further our common goals.

I’ve written before about the importance of money, and the importance of organizations. Campaigning for animals – or for any other cause – can be done at a grassroots or volunteer level, and that’s awesome. But we also need bigger organizations to make a difference. They need to pay their staff; they rely on the work of experts; they need to finance advertisements to get the word out, etc. The more money they have, the better.

Many people are cynical about donating, believing (or often using as an excuse) that their money won’t actually be used for anything good, but will get stuck along the way and just pay overhead, or pay for bloated organizations. There is undoubtedly some loss, and there are inefficient organizations out there, but there also many great ones, where people work their asses off to make a difference, and where the leaders think strategically, in terms of generating as much impact as possible.

Effective Altruism, a young movement and philosophy, is about identifying the best causes, organizations and interventions, and donating to (or volunteering or working for) these. Within the Effective Altruism movement, there are meta-organizations (see below) that do research about who and what works best. The recommendations these meta-organizations come up with are our best leads for making effective, life-changing donations.

Comparing good causes and organizations should not be a taboo. When we buy a computer, we make an investment in something that we expect works. The same goes for our donations: we want to make good investments. Indeed, if there is any domain where we should insist on great return on investment, it’s the domain of decreasing suffering and saving lives.

Here are some criteria that people who identify as “effective altruists” use to choose the causes and organizations they support:

  • when choosing a cause, look at the amount of victims and at the intensity of their suffering. Malaria, for instance, kills more people than rare neurological diseases. And some problems are more horrible than others.
  • look at the need for funding and the added value of your donation. A lot of money was collected for the disease ALS with the incredibly successful Ice Bucket Challenge. Maybe it’s time to donate to something else…
  • give to organizations working for or in poorer countries, where your money can have a lot more impact because costs are lower there.
  • look up the advice from experts who’ve done the research for you. Organizations that recommend charities to give to are Givewell, The Life you Can Save, and – for animal causes – Animal Charity Evaluators.

From an Effective Altruism viewpoint, farmed animals are a great cause to give to. Not only are there a huge number of farmed animals who are suffering immensely, but also this cause is very neglected. Of all the money from US donations, only 1.5 percent goes to animals, and of that tiny bit, only 1 percent goes to farmed animals. So, farmed animals get 0,015% of donations in the US.

Donations in the US (source: Animal Charity Evaluators)

Lastly, when you give, let it be known. We put a lot of stuff on our Facebook walls that may be giving people a laugh, but we’re often shy about sharing our good deeds, because we think that’s not done. But people take their cues for what is good behavior from other people. When they see many people around them who donate, they will be more inclined to donate themselves. Conversely, when they don’t see that behavior, they will think it’s fine not to donate. So, when you donate, tell other people about it, to help normalize giving. To set an example, I yearly give away ten percent of my income, which amounts to 2500 euro. This year, I gave, among others, to Give Directly and The Good Food Institute. I just posted that on Facebook. It’s a bit hard, because you open yourself up to the criticism that you want to show how good you are. But as you understand, it’s not about that.

Maybe you don’t have any money to donate, and you do volunteer work. That’s great. And, maybe you don’t have time, but you do have some money. That’s great too, because with your money, you’re paying for other people to invest time in making the world a better place.

Thanks for whatever you do, and happy holidays!

Why Veganuary is a great campaign

The end of the year is upon us, and January 2017 will see the fourth edition of the Veganuary campaign that started in the UK but is now available internationally. Veganuary is an example of campaigns that ask people to go vegan for a specific amount of time. In this post, I offer two reasons why I think campaigns like these are great. After that, I suggest some ideas for experiments.

Two benefits of temporary pledge campaigns

First of all, campaigns like these run not just for a specific amount of days, but also in a specific period of the year. Everyone starts together. That is in itself a great incentive to participate. People who fear they might not be up to the challenge of a month without animal products can find encouragement in the idea that they are not doing it alone. They are part of a group of thousands. It’s comforting, and it also helps to create a norm: “Wow, so many people are doing it; I can’t really stay behind, can I?” Moreover, the fact that it begins at a certain point in the year is also great to get media attention.

Secondly, a temporary vegan campaign offers people a way to opt out without losing face or being embarrassed. This is important because it might make it easier for some to actually get into it. I can imagine many people might not want to start on the vegan road because they fear that at some point they’ll abandon it and be embarrassed about that (or worse, they might fear backlash). In the case of a temporary vegan pledge, they are not making a commitment to be vegan forever. We all hope they will continue beyond the fixed period (the people behind the campaign estimate that about half stay vegan and many others keep reducing), but they can get out if they want to; they never promised anything else. Appropriately, the baseline for the campaign is “try vegan”, not “go vegan”.

Some experimental ideas

Using “gamification”, we could encourage people, or groups of people, to sort of “compete” during this campaign. People could team up within their company, school, or even city, to amass as many points as possible – points which they get for every vegan day. This is the case with the Belgian vegetarian pledge campaign “Days Without Meat“, which takes place every year in the forty days before Easter (the period of Lent). Teams of college students, company employees, or inhabitants of certain cities try to do better than other teams, in this case in reducing their carbon footprint, but it could also be in terms of the number of animals saved.

Another, more controversial idea is the following: I’m assuming many people who participate “cheat” a little bit here and there, eating some non-vegan stuff on occasion, or even regularly. That’s not a problem in itself, in my view, but maybe we can work with that. We could sell people “passes”. Every time they make an exception, they can choose to make a donation to a vegan or animal rights organization to “offset” their lapses. (I may write something more about the idea of offsetting later). This would not only collect some money, but, as this possibility would be built in from the start, might also counter people’s perception that they have failed after even one slip, and consequently give up on the whole thing.

Thirdly, it’s a good thing to work with celebrities who urge other people to participate. I think this would be most successful if the celebrities themselves were not vegans. With non-vegans, the general public will have the impression that everyone is in it together, instead of there being a vegan from on high telling other people what to do (in other words, this could reduce persuasion resistance).

I’m sure you’re vegan already, but please spread the word about Veganuary and suggest that your friends and loved ones join what will be over fifty thousand participants this year. And for others: Veganuary is open for donations. Right now, they are getting one sign up to the campaign for every euro invested in Facebook ads.

Going vegan: WHY versus HOW

It seems quite natural for vegan advocates to mainly talk to people about the reasons to go vegan. Veg organizations devote quite some time and space in their outreach materials to vegan arguments and theory (mainly philosophical, but also some environmental and health info). Too often, I see the “how” being treated as some kind of afterthought. The message sounds like: here’s why, now you figure it out.

how to go vegan

That is, of course, a bit of a simplification, and there are many organizations that do a good job of explaining what people can do to apply the vegan idea in their life, and to actually stop consuming animal products and go vegan. Still, I believe that the “how” merits more attention in our outreach than it is getting.

Many non-vegans by now know about the reasons why they should eat less or no animal products. I often see vegans saying things like “oh, if everyone just knew, the world would go vegan in a heartbeat.” Or there’s the eternal “If slaughterhouses had glass walls” line.

I don’t believe that the main thing that’s stopping people from going vegan is a lack of information or insight into how problematic animal products are. Of course, we have to go on raising awareness, as we call it. But I believe the biggest part of the problem is that people don’t have an idea of how to do it, and that it is still not easy enough for them. From research on ex-vegs, we also know that many of them slid back because they had insufficient knowledge of veg nutrition.

One reason we’re often not focused enough on the how is that many vegans think that today going vegan is easy enough. This is a mistake that can be attributed to not sufficiently taking our target audience’s perspective. People lack cooking skills, product knowledge, nutritional information, etc. It’s this information that they are looking for most of all. Ask any webmaster of a vegan site what are the most visited pages, and they’ll tell you it’s the recipe section (if the site has a recipe section, of course). In my years working for an organization, I have always experienced that our practical materials, e.g., maps of cities, listings of veg friendly restaurants, and recipe booklets are way more popular than the “why” publications. One thing we did in subsequent editions of one of our booklets was to put recipes first  and only talked about the why later in the booklet. This also may avoid the impression that we are trying to convince people of something.

Another reason why we focus so much on the arguments for veganism rather than the how-to is that our movement wants people not just to do the right thing (being vegan), but to do the right thing for the right reason (for the animals). As regular readers of this blog may know, I don’t think we should require this, as attitude change can follow behavior change.

Finally, another reason that some advocates don’t focus enough on the how is that simply, to them, the how is not an issue: you just do it, right here, right now, and steps or strategies are not allowed. I believe that this is a mistake, and that the best thing we can do is to offer people programs, structures, and plans to change step by step. This is how change usually happens.

So, following my own advice: how can you focus more on the how? Here are some ideas:

  • check your materials and communication for how info: do you devote enough space and time to recipes, nutritional info, product info?
  • if you already provide this info, make sure it occupies a prominent place on your website and in your materials.
  • does your organization offer cooking courses, or provide information on where to find cooking courses?
  • temporary vegan pledges or challenges (21 or 30 days are typical) are great ways to send how-to information to people on a daily basis.
  • in one-on-one conversations, experiment with focusing on the how: tell people about the practical steps they can take, rather than overloading them with arguments. Invite people not just to read a book or brochure on the problems with animal products, but invite them to go shopping together, or to cook together.

Have other ideas for focusing on the how? Let me know!





Vegan Islands versus Infiltrators

Many producers of meat alternatives dream of occupying a place among animal products in the supermarket. I mean, literally. They want to be sold where the meat products are sold, instead of in a separate vegan section. Apparently, judging by this picture, Beyond Meat managed to get this coveted position with their Beyond Burger.

Beyond Meat products in the meat section
Beyond Meat products in the meat section

Not every vegan may agree that the meat section is the best place for vegan products. Out of a personal preference, vegans may want the vegan products to have their own separate shelf, aisle or island.

I’m using the example of Beyond Meat’s product placement to illustrate the much broader idea of what I call Islands versus Infiltrators. A separate vegan section would be an example of an Island, while Beyond Meat’s burger patties in the meat section are Infiltrators. We can see many other examples – on similar and different levels – of this distinction:

  • vegan restaurants versus omnivore restaurants with vegan dishes
  • vegan shops versus general shops with vegan products
  • vegan cookbooks versus omnivore cookbooks with vegan recipes
  • vegan dating sites versus regular dating sites with the option to check “vegan”
  • vegan catering companies versus mixed catering companies
  • vegan cooking courses or a general course with vegan recipes

And there are many more examples  of exclusively vegan things. Vegan cruises, a vegan version of airbnb, vegan radio shows, vegan schools, etc.

You can ask yourself whether you are more pro-Island or pro-Infiltration. Let’s briefly look at some general advantages and disadvantages of both phenomena.

The advantage of Islands is clear. They are cosy and convenient for vegans. If we’re on a vegan cruise, we know we’ll get good vegan food, and everyone else on the cruise is vegan or at least veg-curious. Using a vegan cookbook, we are not confronted with pictures of recipes with dead animals in them (which, obviously, are also useless to us). Eating in a vegan restaurant, we know the chefs and waiters know what vegan is, and that there is no chance of anything “wrong” ending up in our food.

But the advantages of Infiltrators are just as clear. While Islands mainly benefit the vegans, Infiltrators are important for reaching new audiences and buyers. Infiltrators get much more exposure among omnivores, many of whom will never enter a vegan restaurant or specialty shop, and will never buy a vegan cookbook. They also will not go out of their way to find and stop by the vegan section in their supermarket.

When I asked on Facebook where the Beyond Beef (and other) products should be in the supermarket, many people answered they should be in both sections. Apart from this probably being difficult to realize (as far as I know, producers pay for shelf space), we also shouldn’t underestimate the impact of us going to the meat shelf and picking out a vegan product in front of other people. The best predictor that a beggar in the street will receive a gift from a passer-by is that the person walking ahead of them dropped something in their hat. The same applies here: the more people see other people picking up the vegan products, the more they might be more inclined to take a look, buy and taste them.

Maybe you’ve experienced how often omnivores seem to think that just because something is vegan, it is not for them (kind of like how ordinary vegans might be deterred from choosing a dish labeled “suitable for diabetics”). The problem today is still that vegan stuff is seen as stuff for vegans. So often, media articles, reviewing a new vegan restaurant, product or service, write something like: “Now, vegans can…” or “Now, there is x for vegans!”, as if it’s only vegans who can profit from it. We need to get rid of the idea that vegan is just for vegans. Infiltrators help counter this idea; Islands are often likely to confirm it.

If you are thinking of setting up some service or selling a product, you can consider whether you want to launch an Island or an Infiltrator. Chances are that as a vegan, you will feel much more comfortable with Island products and services, but the question is whether that is the most impactful.

But also as a consumer, you may consider what you want to spend most of your money on: the vegan restaurant or the vegan dish in the omnivore restaurant, for instance. Again, eating at the vegan restaurant is more convenient. But ordering the vegan dish in the omnivore restaurant signals that there is a demand, offers opportunities for conversation, for critiquing the dish so that the chef can improve it, etc. You also help keep the dish on the menu, increasing the chances that more people will be exposed to it.

That is, of course, not to say we should stop visiting vegan restaurants or other vegan businesses. On the contrary, they deserve our support. Moreover, Islands may have a symbolic function. They say, “Look, we can do it without animal products and still be viable”. They also may have media value: they may be covered by journalists, because they are new and exciting.

At least for the time being, we’ll have both Islands and Infiltrators. You choose where your money goes. I hope to have given you some arguments to use to think about your options more thoroughly.

Phases in veganism and vegan advocacy

We all go through phases in our advocacy. Only a few people become activists overnight and never change their ideas or practises again for the rest of their lives. Fortunately, all of us are in motion, growing, acquiring new insights, and adapting our communication, ideologies and practises.

Here’s a brief attempt to describe the phases I myself more or less went through in the course of almost twenty years of animal advocacy and veganism. Maybe you will find it recognizeable, maybe not.


1 – Interest and conversion

After what in my case was a long period of keeping it in the back of my mind, at some point, I got seriously interested in not eating animals and became really open to “going veg”. For me it was for animal reasons (in other people’s cases, it might have been about health, the environment, a vegan significant other…). I progressively left out animal products from my diet, and after two years, from 1998 on, when I was 24, I started calling myself a vegan.

2 – Activation

I read about what was going on and decided that I wanted to do something more than just “be a vegan”. I started to really believe in the cause and wanted to convince others to join me, or at least help them discover what I had discovered. By that point, I fully believed in the cause of animal liberation.

3 – Radicalization

After a while, I got slightly frustrated and sometimes angry with people’s lack of response in the face of so much injustice. I got to know different people in the vegan movement, and read articles and books by some people who presented a very black and white view. I decided that “there is no excuse for animal abuse” and that people should go vegan as soon as they knew the facts. I got critical of some animal rights organizations who took a pragmatic position, thought that many were selling out and were being “welfarist” and too soft, and I questioned their motives.

4 – Realization

After more reading, thinking and meeting people, I realized the approach I was taking was not the most effective one, and became more realistic and pragmatic, without changing or betraying any of my principles. I realized people needed more than just moral arguments, and that encouragement works better than guilt-tripping. I noticed, and kept noticing, how many people around me changed their eating habits without me preaching to them. I also realized that most animal rights organizations are indeed well-intentioned and doing important work.

5 – The post-vegan stage

This is my current phase. I call it the “post-vegan” stage (see this previous post), but I’m not wedded to the term and don’t want to make a big thing about it. I use the term to indicate a couple of shifts in my thinking about veganism. I talk about post-veganism, because to some extent how I feel in this phase is not entirely in line with orthodox veganism.

This phase for me is about realizing that I have to prioritize the impact I have on my environment over personal purity in my diet and other consumption habits. It’s also about the idea that I don’t really want to stick to principles for principles’ sake, and that I don’t want to follow an ideology out of groupthink or tribalism.

There is also a re-appreciation here of the importance of minimizing suffering and maximizing wellbeing, as opposed to just focusing on abolition and killing-or-not-killing.

In any case, I remain very much vegan, and I believe the concept of veganism is useful, especially when applied to products and meals (more so than when applied to people). The question “is it vegan?” remains an easy heuristic to determine what we should and should not eat, even though it is not perfect.

Maybe other stages will follow. We’ll see what the future holds. In any case, just like you, I’ll always have the interests of the animals at heart.

Related: I used to be a Francione fan

Is this big zoo better for animals than the wild?

On a visit to South Africa, where I was for a CEVA effective vegan advocacy training, I had a few days off and tried what was called a safari. It wasn’t that I really had to see lions and tigers and bears, but I believed the experience might give me some new ideas on the issue of wild animal suffering, on which I have written before. And it did.

What Aquila Safari offered cannot by any stretch be called an experience of the wild. After we reached it – it’s about two hours northeast of Cape Town – we had lunch and then departed on an open truck together with some six other passengers and a guide. The domain – which they call a “private game reserve” – is about 10.000 hectares in surface area. That may sound big, but it’s small compared to the two million hectares of the famous Kruger National Park in the same country.


As we drove around, I asked some questions, and it became clear that this was actually some kind of very big zoo. The animals present included the so called “big five”: the African lion (they had about seven), African elephant (two), buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros. Flora catered to the majority of the animals’ diets, with about ten percent supplemented by the reserve. They had ample space, and not all animals could easily be found, but they obviously couldn’t leave the area because of fences. There was a vet on the property providing medical care when an animal got sick. Herbivores and carnivores were separated: the lions could not hunt the springbok, for instance, but were fed cow’s meat and antelope meat once a week.

Later, I asked where the animals came from: they had been bought and transported to the area. Some had been saved: lions from the horrible practice of “canned hunting”; a leopard from somewhere else. There was a rehabilitation center. So, I started to think of this venture more as a sanctuary.

Again, this is not “the wild”, and I’m sure many people would not feel entirely happy with such a situation. They would probably prefer an environment for the animals in which they had full autonomy and life was as close to natural as possible. I think, however, that an important, or the most important, question here is: what would the animals prefer: this big zoo-slash-sanctuary or the wild? I believe that if we answer the latter, we might  inadvertently be thinking in an anthropocentric way. There might be less autonomy, for sure, but on the other side, there seemed, at first sight, to be less suffering. Read my previous article on wild animal suffering (and watch the video), if you are convinced that life in nature is idyllic for most animals. Here are some examples where life in Aquila game reserve might be better than in the wild.

  • Animals didn’t have to worry about food. If their environment didn’t provide enough, the humans would supply additional food.
  • Animals, like I said, didn’t have to worry about being eaten. The guide estimated that of the 24 young an ostrich mother had just brought into the world, about twenty would survive – much more than in the wild.
  • A newborn rhino was rejected by her mother. In the wild, if no one else adopted it, this animal would die a pretty miserable death. At the Aquila game reserve, the animal was put in the rehabilitation center where it was fed and cared for, and became good friends with a goat. It will be released into the domain later.
  • Lions normally have a fifteen year lifespan in the wild. Here, the guide told us, they live up to twenty. Of course, this doesn’t tell us anything about how happy these animals are, but it may give us an indication about their physical thriving.
  • Elephants normally die after having gone through their sixth set of teeth, when they cannot chew food anymore. Here, if the animals are still be around at that age, they receive liquid food.

It wasn’t that there were no problems at all. We saw a few springboks that seemed to be a bit misshapen (one of their horns had grown completely askew), which the guide told us was the result of inbreeding (which obviously can also happen in the wild). I’m also not sure if the compounds were large enough for all the animals we saw there. They definitely had a lot more space than in the biggest zoo, but my guess is that migratory animals, like the buffaloes, may not find all their needs met there.
Lions cannot hunt here, but do they need to? Does this need trump the need of a springbok to stay alive? Of course, the lions were fed meat from other animals, whose needs weren’t met by being killed. But in this case, I can imagine that clean meat (cultured meat) could bring a solution. I can even imagine future technology where this kind of meat would grow on some kind of artificial tree in the wild. Or maybe these things can even be fast moving robots, which can actually be chased by predators.
I also wondered about overpopulation. If there are no natural predators, and if the animals get enough food, how long before there are too many of one species or another. When I asked this question, the guide didn’t see the problem and said: “more animals is good for business” (cause yes, this was a business).

It’s not that I think this big reserve/zoo/sanctuary is a complete solution for the problem of wild animal suffering. Most importantly, I’m just talking about a few dozen animals (the lions, buffaloes, giraffes, springbok, oryx, rhinos, etc. that we saw). These numbers probably pale in comparison with other wildlife who were present on the domain, but which were so small as to be invisible for us. These other animals basically still experience pretty much a wild situation, as they are not getting fed or cared for, and aren’t free of predators.

Still, for the larger fauna, the animals whom people actually come to see, this game reserve to me offered a glimpse of what some day could be a reality for many other wild animals: a controlled environment that is so big that animals experience (enough) freedom, and live their lives in relative peace and harmony. The lion does not exactly lie down with the lamb, but at least doesn’t have a chance to gobble it down.
Moreover, at least with these kind of animals (with farmed animal sanctuaries, it’s much more of a challenge) this situation is economically viable; so, that continuation can be guaranteed.

I know the objections many readers will make: that this is another hubris-like attempt of humankind to regulate nature, that it is unnatural, it’s not real, that the animals have no autonomy, that we are infringing on their rights, etc. Many of these objections can be partly true, but again I would like to ask the question: what do the animals prefer and care about?

We should be wary of assuming too quickly that we know what that is.

Go post-vegan!

Let’s see if you can make sense of these ramblings…

Whenever there’s an issue of some complexity, there is, so to speak, a pre-consideration stage and a post-consideration stage. For instance, the issue of animal rights: in the pre-consideration stage, you probably will eat meat. In the post-consideration stage (at least if you put your conclusions into practice), you might be a vegan.

Often, or even most of the time, the beliefs in the pre-consideration and the post-consideration stages will look radically different. But sometimes, interestingly, they are or appear the same. A person may be in the post-consideration stage on some issue, but to you their actions and beliefs look like those of someone in the pre-consideration stage.* Usually, our little egos will tell us that if someone differs from us in opinion on an issue that we have given a lot of thought to, we will assume that they have not given it enough thought. But obviously, that’s not necessarily the case.


Let’s look at an example to see this more clearly. Imagine that you are someone who is very skeptical about GMOs (you’re boycotting GMO products, maybe attend anti-GMO protests, etc). When you meet a person who’s not bothering about GMOs at all, you may assume that they are in the pre-consideration stage: you believe they don’t know much about the GMO issue, don’t know about the supposed dangers of it, haven’t educated themselves about it, and therefore are just eating and buying anything, independent of whether the product has GMO ingredients or not. This person, however, may be doing what they are doing (which is being indiscriminate and indifferent about GMOs), because they are well informed about it and have given the issue a lot of thought. In other words, they are in the post-consideration stage (who knew?!). Their behavior looks the same, but their beliefs and intentions are entirely different.

What this means, in short, is that we may easily mistake someone who’s in the post-consideration stage (on a certain issue) for someone who’s in the pre-consideration stage. While we think they are behind us in their thinking, they may actually be ahead of us – meaning they have thought about and researched the issue more than we have (without this implying that they are necessarily right and we are wrong).

Now, let’s look at how this applies to veganism and vegan advocacy. Here too, we can find statements, behaviors, attitudes, beliefs… that at first sight seem to be part of the pre-consideration stage, but could as well be demonstrated or voiced by people in the post-consideration stage.

Take, for instance, many of the objections from omnivores that vegans usually refer to as unthoughtful (to use a polite term). You’ve heard them all before:

– “Isn’t being 100% vegan extreme?”
– “What would you do if someone offered you a lot of money to eat a steak?”
– “What if plants feel pain?”
– “In the wild, animals kill each other, too.”

Boring and exhausting, right? But can you imagine that these statements actually could come from thoughtful people, including vegans, who have given serious consideration to these issues? Let’s re-interpret them in that way:

“Isn’t being 100% vegan extreme?”
A person in a post-consideration stage may say this to voice their concern that being one hundred percent pure, always and everywhere, is not necessary or productive: they would believe that avoiding tiny ingredients publicly is not the best advertisement for the vegan lifestyle and may have a net negative effect.

“What would you do if someone offered you a lot of money to eat a steak?”
A person in a post-consideration stage may say this to show that following vegan rules is not all that matters, but that actual impact and consequences may at times be more important than sticking to one’s principles. This is from a thought experiment I raised myself, where I suggest that you can donate the money you get to an an animal rights group and, thus, have much more impact.

“What if plants feel pain?”
Again, we usually think this is a stupid gotcha, but at the same time, it’s a perfectly sensible question. We’ve been wrong about the cognitive capacities of other species before; so, is it not at least possible that we are wrong in the case of plants, too? If we are wrong, what are the consequences? (It’s definitely an interesting question to ponder.)

“In the wild, animals kill each other, too.”
Rather than using this as a “gotcha” the way people in the pre-consideration stage may do, a person who has thought about this issue more deeply might take this argument very seriously and might raise this issue, not to apologize for meat eating, but to relativize the impact of veganism (which is focused on avoiding human-caused animal suffering) and emphasize that we indeed should also care about the suffering of animals in the wild. Indeed, the new field of wild animal suffering deals with this and takes this issue very seriously (as do I).

Another example: when someone is vegetarian but not vegan, you may think that they are in the pre-consideration stage regarding veganism. But can you imagine other, post-consideration factors that contribute to this behavior? For instance, I recently read how one vegan was considering becoming a lacto-vegetarian in public settings because it’s way easier and, therefore, easier to spread as a behavior than veganism. (I’m not ready to take this step myself, but I can’t say it doesn’t at least make some sense to me).

All this leads me to think about something that we could call post-veganism: a more rational version of veganism, that is the result not of excuses, callousness or laziness, but is a consequence of giving the issue some serious critical thought. In my mind, post-veganism is still veganism (though it won’t be so for people sticking to the original definition, obviously). A post-vegan may seem similar to a non-vegan at times, but is actually entirely different.

Post-veganism, in my mind, goes back to the roots of veganism, which is a concern with reducing suffering, abuse and killing. It re-appraises this concern and looks at our actions in that light. Post-veganism, thus, does not prioritize rules and labels (the way “classical” veganism often seems to do), but rather focuses on impact and consequences. Post-veganism is not a mere ideology or a belief system, but something that makes actual sense in the real world.

Here are some things that could be part of a “post-vegan manifesto”, if there were such a thing:

– a re-evaluation of objectives and a confirmation of the fact that veganism is not, in the final analysis, about sticking to rules but about having a real impact for animals
– distinguishing exactly between when we’re doing something just to stick to rules and doing something to make an impact
– realizing that being 100% vegan is often not necessary
– realizing that being 100% vegan is, at the same time, not enough: that there are other things that we are affecting by eating our food
– a return to the idea of reducing suffering and killing would imply that we’re also going to take seriously the problem of wild animal suffering
– the realization that changing our own consumption is not the only and not even the most important thing we can do, and that our advocacy and our money can have a bigger impact for the animals.

It’s just an idea. What do you think?

(* I’m borrowing from the American philosopher Ken Wilber, who, in this context, talks about the pre/trans fallacy, in the context of rationality.)