It’s all about creating great alternatives

In 1986, the International Whaling Commission declared a moratorium on commercial whaling, which is now banned in all but a few countries. This might never have happened if the importance of commercial whaling hadn’t diminished enormously since the late nineteenth century.

Whales – and sperm whales especially – used to be an important source of energy: Whale oil was extracted from dead animals, and was used especially as fuel for lamps, but could also be found in heating, soap, paint and other products. Countless numbers of whales were killed for this reason.

Whale blubber was used as a source of energy till the invention of kerosene.

Enter Abraham Gesner, a Canadian physician and geologist. In 1849, Gesner developed kerosene, a liquid made from coal, bitumen (a form of petrol) and oil shale. Unlike whale oil, kerosene was not smelly or dirty, it did not spoil, and, most importantly, it was cheaper to produce than whale oil.

As kerosene distilleries popped up everywhere and kerosene was commercialized, the demand for whale oil tanked. The whaling industry could get by for a while on the sales of whalebone, which was used for corsets and other garments. However, whalebone was soon replaced by other materials, and, in the end, whaling just wasn’t interesting anymore.

Abraham Gesner obviously hadn’t been trying to ban whaling. As far as we know, there were no moral factors in play for him. Yet, the result was there: the last American whaler left port in 1924 and grounded the next day.

The fact that whale oil was no longer a good source of energy obviously made it much easier to install the ban on commercial whaling in 1986. When the environmental movement is successful in ending whaling in the last remaining countries, it will not just be because of moral arguments, but because the relevance of whaling has diminished, thanks to good alternatives.

Moral advocacy is important, but it’s not enough. Meat alternatives, including clean meat, will be as important for the end of animal agriculture as kerosene was for the end of commercial whaling.

Based on the article How Capitalism saved the whales.

We can’t alienate people into joining our team

Donald Trump, a man I used to think of as a caricature of a comic book villain, is now the world’s most powerful clown (as Sam Harris has called him). This is not a good and possibly a terrible situation. Apart from all the silly to stupid domestic and foreign policy decisions the new president could make, he seems to also open the door for more intolerance towards all kinds of minorities.

To counter this, many people on the progressive/left/liberal side (henceforth: the left), for understandable reasons are digging their heels in deeper and feel that, more so than ever, they have to call out others whenever they hear them utter anything smelling even remotely offensive. The idea, in other words, is to have zero tolerance for racism, sexism and other bigotry, in the hope of rooting it out.

can we get supporters from people we first alienate?
(c) The Economist

The question is whether this is the best strategy to get everyone on the wagon of tolerance and to create a global society of decent people. I’m not saying we shouldn’t challenge injustice. I’m saying that it’s just not easy to alienate, shame or offend people into joining our team.

The parallel with vegan advocacy, I think, is clear. In the vegan movement too, one of the choices we face is the one between the “tolerant” approach and the more “confrontational” approach.

The tolerant approach is about meeting people where they are, trying to understand where they come from, looking from their perspective. It tries to avoid guilt-tripping, accusing and shaming. To its opponents, this approach will often come across as too soft and apologetic.

The confrontational approach is more about challenging people head on and being very clear that there is no excuse for eating animal products. To its opponents, this approach will often come across as too aggressive and condemning.

These two descriptions are imperfect, as are the terms “tolerant” and “confrontational”, and the dichotomy itself, but let’s not get too picky, for the sake of the argument.

The fight against racism has obviously made much more headway in society than the fight against speciesism. No matter how rampant racism still is in the world today, it is, both in thought and in practise, much more limited than the ideology and practical consequences of speciesism.

I believe that the more public support there is for a social issue, the more confrontational one can be. This would imply that we can be more confrontational in our anti-racist struggle than in our anti-speciesist struggle.

Still, I doubt that, as the author of this Vox article has observed, calling out people on their racism is the best strategy for changing them. I know some of the arguments of the “confrontationalists”: that there is no excuse. That we can’t allow Trump or behavior similar to his to be normalized, that we have to isolate racists so that they don’t feel they are supported in their opinions, and that we should do it publicly. Etcetera.

If even I, as a progressive person, experience part of the public call-outs of racism, sexism and other -isms at times as annoying, sanctimonious, guilt-tripping and accusing rhetoric, then how much more negatively will they be interpreted by the more conservative, the less educated? How will people react who were bottle-fed with racist and sexist ideas and who weren’t educated to become open-minded citizens? I don’t see a lot of good coming out of that.

I believe rather in an approach where we try to understand each other’s needs, desires and fears (the phobe in xenophobe or homophobe obviously means fear in Greek, not hate or anger). We should be clear about the injustice, the risks, the suffering, and should be extremely mindful of where Trump and other evolutions in society are going. But even in the face of the intolerably intolerant, maybe we may want to consider a little more understanding. In the face of the inexcusable, maybe we can consider trying to spot some reasons people may have for thinking in those inexcusable ways.

Someday, I may believe that people are bad, or even evil. Right now, I choose to believe they are uneducated, afraid, or just differ in opinion. Right now, I choose to believe that understanding each other is the best recipe to change the world.

When activists mean business. An interview with David Benzaquen

David Benzaquen

David BenzaquenMost of us who want to help animals usually end up doing some kind of advocacy or outreach, either individually or volunteering or working for a non-profit organization. However, as I have touched on in other posts and in this talk, we should not underestimate the importance of the for-profit sector: the companies producing and distributing the alternatives. Some of us in the movement have understood this well, and started their own production company (Josh Tetrick at Hampton Creek is a striking example). Other activists, like David Benzaquen, did something different. In 2012, David, who’s living in New York, started a consulting company called PlantBased solutions, which helps clients like Gardein, Miyoko’s Kitchen, or Ocean Hugger Foods, with marketing, branding, fundraising, and more.
I interviewed him…

Vegan Strategist: David, you weren’t always running a business. Why did you switch from a non-profit to a for-profit environment?
David Benzaquen: I originally worked in fundraising and advocacy for various animal protection groups, such as Farm Sanctuary. My motivation to start my business was to advance ethical, plant-based eating through new means. When I worked in the nonprofit world, I saw that most of our movement was using a limited set of tools to encourage positive behavior change. I greatly admire this work to educate people about the benefits of changing their diets, but I didn’t feel that replicating everyone else’s strategy was the most effective use of my time.

What helped you come to that realization?
My exploration of using business (and marketing, in particular) was motivated by two things. First, I was exposed to the field of Effective Altruism, where people attempt to measure the social impact of their choices and careers and make rational choices about where they can do the most good. Second, I attended a talk by a man named Jeff Dunn, who greatly inspired me. Mr. Dunn was once the CEO of Coca-Cola, but after having an epiphany that he could not continue promoting a harmful product he once called “sugar water and fairy dust”, he left the company. He then became CEO of Bolthouse Farms, and created something of a stir in the marketing world by branding carrots the same way we traditionally see done for junk foods like chips and soda. I was so inspired by how he used fun and engaging marketing to make carrots “cool” that I realized I wanted to do the same thing for vegan food!

How do you feel about the impact you’re generating today?
Most of the work that our movement is doing to advance plant-based/vegan living is through what we call a “push” method of marketing. That is, we show the consumer what’s wrong with the status quo and try to convince them to change their lifestyle accordingly. While some people may embrace change this way, most will be reticent to abandon what they’re used to and will feel overwhelmed by the threat our ideologies pose to their view of the world. In the work that we do now, rather than trying to convince someone that the world is bad or that they need to change who they are, we just show how delicious, beautiful, and healthy vegan products are and “pull”, or attract, the consumers to try them. Rather than pointing out the problems, we are offering the solutions and making them desirable and non-threatening. These approaches are incredibly impactful because many people who would otherwise shut down become open to incorporating more vegan products into their lives. They willingly overcome barriers and eliminate assumptions about how difficult or unpleasant living a compassionate lifestyle can be.

How’s business?
Business is amazing! I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I always used to think of business as a “4-letter word”. But regardless of what one thinks of how money and corporate power can be used for bad, the reality is every person needs to buy food and other items to survive. If we don’t engage in the marketplace of goods and work to make vegan products that can compete with the less ethical/sustainable/healthy animal versions, we will never succeed. And, the market is booming! When I started this company, nobody thought that vegan food could be big business. In the last few years, the richest people on earth, from Bill Gates and Li Ka-shing to Peter Thiel and Jerry Yang, have all invested in vegan food companies because they recognize that our reliance on animal protein is just not sustainable. We are honored to be working and growing with so many other compassionate business luminaries. As of the end of 2016, our company has worked with vegan businesses in nearly ten countries, and the list keeps growing as our movement spreads globally.

Can you tell us about some of the main challenges that companies are dealing with, and how a company like yours is able to help overcome those challenges?
The food business is an extraordinarily complex industry. First, operationally, one must grow or manufacture products in one place, process them, store them, and distribute them far and wide, often using strict temperature controls. These practices are very expensive and have high risks for failure (poor weather can lead to low crop yields, electricity challenges can lead to loss of cooling and spoilage, etc.). Second, because there are so many different foods and brands that can meet consumers’ desires to address their hunger or seek gustatory pleasure, companies must devote considerable resources to marketing and sales to ensure that their products break through the clutter and get onto consumers’ plates.
With PlantBased Solutions, we’re able to help companies in several key ways. First, because we are focused on the plant-based space and have worked with many of the world’s leading vegan brands, we know the competitive landscape for our clients better than anyone, and we are able to help market their products in a differentiated and effective way. Second, we have performed a significant amount of proprietary research on the consumers eating plant-based products, both the vegan/vegetarian community, and even more importantly, the flexitarians who are moving in that direction and whom we most need to influence. This allows us to plan our clients’ messaging, branding, and targeted marketing in the most effective way to motivate these consumers to find and buy the products.

To what extent does your animal rights background and motivation shine through when you help marketing products?
We are entirely committed to advancing plant-based products that align with our values, but we do not market them based on these values. We know that the vast majority of consumers buy food not based on mission, but based on taste, price, and convenience. Rather than trying to convince them to buy our clients’ brands for the reasons we would, we show them how tasty, affordable, and convenient (both to find and use) these products are.

Still, our work ethic and passion for our clients and their products obviously goes far beyond a marketing or consulting team that is motivated only by their paychecks. We believe that helping our clients sell lots of products means displacing a lot of harm in the world, from cruelty to animals and environmental destruction, to heart attacks and cancer. We are on a mission to help our clients succeed because we know that lives depend on it. We are proud to do this work, and this passion comes out in the time and devotion we give each client and in the thought and care we put in to what we do.

If companies are so important, what can individual activists do to help them succeed?
The most important thing you, as an individual activist, can do to help plant-based/vegan businesses succeed is to vote with your dollars and your forks! Every time you buy a plant-based product at a grocery store or order one of these items off a menu, you are directing money away from companies that do harm and towards those that will use the resources to build a more compassionate world. In addition, we are building a new compassionate economy from the ground up, and it takes a lot of people to support that infrastructure. No matter what your individual skills are, I can guarantee there are ways you can apply them to a career in vegan business.

More info:
Or listen to this podcast with David at the Plant-based entrepreneur




The carnivore is king – and other lessons from sales and marketing

Whether we like it or not, as people who want to change the world, we are in the business of selling something. We want to sell a message, a habit, a lifestyle… whatever you want to call it. We are idea merchants, and we need to get as many people as we can on our bandwagon, in whatever ways that are helpful.
I love to read out of the box and see if I can apply ideas from different domains to our movement. Here are some concepts and lessons I’ve taken from sales and marketing (check the links below each item to read some of my previous writings on these topics).

The carnivore is king
(Technically I should use “omnivore”, of course, but you understand I needed something with a c here)
As the carnivore is the person that we want to reach and want to become part of our team, we can’t alienate them. They are our future supporters. We can see them as pre-vegans. Badmouthing them will usually not motivate them to come closer to us. If we’re angry at them, if we accuse them or judge them, that’s kind of equal to giving up on them joining our team. Rather, like with customers, we need to listen to them, treat them like royalty, give them a cookie or bake them a pie (we can always throw it in their face if they really behave like assholes).
You are not your audience
You are not the same as the people you want to reach. Like a car salesperson, you have to adapt your message to what you think people like, are interested in, are open to, are ready for. Just talking about what you want to talk about is equal to the car salesperson talking endlessly about a car’s horsepower or technical abilities (because that is what fascinates them) to a young parent who is only interested in the safety aspects. It’s about your audience’s needs. Not your own.
Diffusion of innovation
We need to segment our “customers” into different categories. Innovators have different reasons for picking something up than the late majority. As vegans, we’re all innovators, and the arguments that worked for us will not necessarily work for people who are, in this domain, laggards. The famous marketer Seth Godin puts it like this: “The mistake idea merchants make is that they bring their fringe ideas to people who don’t like fringe ideas, instead of taking their time and working their way through the progression.”
What Godin and others are saying is that we should meet people where they are, and appeal to the values that they already cherish, rather than telling them which values they should have.

See Vegans: not like other people

Winning an argument is losing a customer
Even if the other person tells you that you are right, you haven’t necessarily had a positive impact. When the other person feels they’ve lost, it may make them feel even less sympathetic towards you or the cause you defend. Benjamin Franklin said it like this: “if you argue and rankle and contradict, you may achieve a victory sometimes; but it will be an empty victory because you will never get your opponent’s good will.” Dale Carnegie said it even simpler: “You can’t win an argument”.
See On being right versus winning

Persuasion resistance
Most people don’t like to be convinced by others and don’t like being told what to do. Also, with regard to the food that’s on their plate, they’ll decide about that themselves. They need no government regulations or animal rights or vegetarian groups preaching to them about what to eat, and what not, how much of it, or how they should prepare it. They’ll make up their own minds about all that, thank you very much. It is, therefore, more productive if we don’t give people the impression we want to persuade them of something, and instead help them come to their own conclusions.
See Persuasion resistance

Customer retention
Finding new customers is a lot more expensive than trying to keep customers and make sure they buy again. In our domain, research shows that a large number of vegetarians and vegans – no less than 84% – at some point drop out. We should have enough attention for customer retention, and make sure that as few vegans slide off the wagon as possible. We can do that, among other things, by helping to make it easier to be vegan, creating communities, and having enough attention for nutritional pitfalls.See research by Faunalytics

Switching costs
Many people care about animals, but are afraid of the practical consequences of caring about them. It is, in other words, too difficult to make the switch. Switching costs, in marketing terms, are the costs that one incurs when changing products, suppliers, brands, etc. These costs can be financial, but they can also be, for example, time costs or psychological costs. Phone or insurance companies, for instance, want to make switching to their product as little of a hassle as possible (while at the same time, trying to make switching away from their products as difficult as possible.). Likewise, we need to make it as easy as possible for people to move up the vegan spectrum. Preferably, so easy that they don’t even need any reason or motivation.

Know of more sales concepts that are useful for advocacy? Let me know…

Would we eat E.T.?

Imagine that one of these years, we run into life on another planet. Not bacteria or some other tiny life-form, but say a kind of medium-sized mammal. Would we eat these creatures?

I’m not talking about you or me as individuals, or Elon Musk when he first sets foot on the planet in question, but about society in general. Would the cultural consensus be that these are creatures that we’re allowed to hunt or raise for food?

Much will depend on their exact nature and their qualitiesHow intelligent are they? To what extent are they similar to ourselves and to the animals we’re already eating? Let’s assume that in terms of intelligence, these extra-terrestrials are somewhat similar to pigs. In terms of physical aspects, they look completely alien (they may not have a head, or may have a weird number of limbs, a strange color and skin, or whatever), but they definitely look edible (meaty, let’s say). We’re also assuming we can’t communicate with them any more than we can with animals on this planet.

E.T. on the grill (
E.T. on the grill (

You may think that humankind is just about depraved enough to start factory farming these creatures. My guess, however, is that when we find this sort of life form on another planet, it would be much easier to grant these creatures the right not to be eaten than to grant it to pigs (or cows or chickens). Part of the reason could lie in some kind of curiosity and respect we’d have for them for being from another planet. But the more important reason is that we are not using these beings yet. Prohibiting ourselves from eating them wouldn’t really affect many people. Compare that to the attempt to give rights to farmed animals, of which we are eating over sixty billion specimens a year (not counting sea creatures). Both economically and individually, we are incredibly dependent on using animals right now.

One way to put this situation is: where we stand depends on where we sit. If we have a stake in killing and eating animals, changing our mind about them will be so much more difficult (we’re steakholders), than in the case of a newly discovered alien life form that is in many respects pretty similar to the animals we’re already eating.

This dependency on using animals needs to be tackled if we want to make any progress with changing people’s minds. That’s why developing alternatives, including clean meat, is so enormously important. When we will have decreased our use of animals, hearts and minds will be a lot more open to change. This applies to both the individual level and the societal level.

E.T., I think, is relatively safe. Now, let’s get back to Earth and take all the other animals out of the food chain.

PS Check out, or read this interview with Dr Jared Piazza, in which he talks about a research study involving a thought experiment with an imaginary creature.


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 spent a lot of time writing and thinking for 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 (Direct Action Everywhere) movement.

So, here are some of the things that I’ve 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 as they can help prevent beings from coming to harm. Somewhere along the way, welfare became a dirty word in our movement, but it shouldn’t be.

2. Chickens and fishes are the meat of the matter
By far, the biggest victims of our consumption habits are chickens and fishes. 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 via 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 to 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, 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 in research and see what actually works. We have to do this without dogma, open to 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.