The Sentience Conference: glad to be human

Last weekend I spoke at and participated in the Sentience Conference in Berlin. This conference carried the wonderful motto “effective strategies to reduce the suffering of all sentient beings” (tell me, what is hotter than that?). The event was organized by Sentience Politics, an “anti-speciesist think tank” in the Effective Altruism community.

For those who are not familiar with it, Effective Altruism is a philosophy as well as a movement whose proponents apply scientific research and evidence to doing good. It’s about combining the heart and the mind to develop evidence-based strategies and tactics to reduce suffering. Topics that Effective Altruism as a movement prioritizes are: health (in the general sense, including the fight against malaria and other diseases), animal suffering, and potentially huge future risks for humanity (like artificial intelligence). A lot of attention is also given to meta-activism and meta-charities (like Givewell or, in our domain, Animal Charity Evaluators).

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Photo by Cyril Schirmbeck

As some effective altruist ideas are different from mainstream thinking and can potentially stir up some serious discussions, three tips were given at the opening of the conference:

1. Be open.
2. Follow the evidence and the argument wherever it leads.
3. Consider the possibility that you are wrong (that the strategies you are pursuing are not the right ones).

I think these are excellent and apply for all of us at any time, no matter what we are discussing. But if there was any fear about people fighting about things they feel very passionate about, that fear proved (as far as I know) to be ungrounded. If we’re open minded, we can think and discuss freely, and disagree with each other without any nastiness. It’s one of the (many) wonderful things about human beings at their best.

While the content of the talks provided the intellectual stimulation that I love so much, at the same time my heart was warmed by the obvious commitment of the almost 300 participants present there. It is at moments like these, when you see so many people together to learn about and to get better at helping other species, that, in spite of everything, we humans manage to get wrong and destroy, you feel, for a moment, glad to be human, and glad to be able to help in your little (or big) way. It is at moments like these that, in spite of the enormity of the challenge ahead of us, you know that all our efforts are, slowly but inevitably leading to incredible change… for all sentient beings.

Here are some highlight ideas for me…

If you want to test your own open mindedness, the controversial topic of “wild animal suffering” – which got quite some attention at the conference – might be a good one. It’s mainly thanks to my involvement in the Effective Altruism movement that I have come to see the suffering of animals in the wild as a very important topic. Should we help animals suffering from cold, hunger, thirst, natural disasters, sickness, parasites, or even… predation? And if we agree we should do something about it, can we? I’ll write about this fascinating topic some other time.

Being involved in the EA movement also helped me to re-appreciate the issue of suffering. In the vegan movement, concern about suffering (as opposed to concern about rights or autonomy) is sometimes frowned upon. “Welfarist” has almost become a term of abuse. We think we should be about rights and liberation first.

In the end, I think I want to be mostly concerned about the suffering of animals, while rights and autonomy to me are secondary. I would rather see an animal who is happy but not autonomous (e.g., chickens in a big yard, living out their lives), than entirely free animals who are living an often miserable life in the wild. Animals, in certain circumstances, may not know they are confined (for their own good). The concept of autonomy and freedom probably doesn’t mean to them what it means to us, humans. This is one example where it’s good not to anthropomorphize animals too much. Of course, this doesn’t mean we can use animals for our own purposes if we give them good lives.

A third idea I was confronted with again was that we can spare more animals with our wallet than with our own personal diet. One estimation is that with a one thousand dollar donation we can spare more animals than with a lifetime of being vegan. This doesn’t mean being vegan is not useful (indeed, I am guessing over 95% of the conference participants were vegan), but it means we shouldn’t lose sight of 1. the relative importance of being vegan, and 2. the difference we can make with our donations (or – if you don’t have money to spare – with our time/activism).

If you would like to hear a conclusion about what strategies work best, the best answer for now seems to be that there is a lot of uncertainty (because there is not enough research). In the face of this uncertainty, “strategic pluralism” seems to be a good approach. While not all strategies are created equal and some will undoubtedly be better than others, it is okay for now to let many of them thrive and see where they take us, until we have more evidence and information.

To prevent any of us from getting lost in strategy and overanalyzing things, without actually doing stuff, Nick Cooney, in his keynote address, told us to focus on doing rather than thinking. An idea in itself, he said, is worth nothing if it’s not executed. Both doing without thinking and thinking without doing are tricky. Ideally, of course, we combine the two, just like ideally we combine the heart and the mind, and become… effective altruists.

PS Videos of the talks should be online soon.

 

Our mission is kindness

“Our mission is kindness” is the mission statement or baseline of the wonderful animal sanctuary Edgar’s Mission in Australia. Edgar’s Mission provides lifelong care and love to about 350 animals at this moment. You may have seen their wonderful videos in your Facebook stream here and there.

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I think “our mission is kindness” is a wonderful mission statement, and I think it could very well be the mission statement of the whole vegan movement. Veganism is not about a definition, it’s not about rules. It’s about kindness and compassion for all sentient beings (including, of course, humans).

“Kindness is our mission” means that we’d like to achieve a kinder world, a world with more altruism, empathy, compassion. But this mission, of course, can also be a personal mission. Each and every one of us should be, I think, on a quest, looking to become a kind person themselves. Even though being vegan is something that most vegans do out of a sense of kindness and compassion, we are obviously not necessarily kind people just because we are vegan – or at least not all the time.

We should have the humility to say that we don’t just need to implement kindness in the world, but also in our own hearts. That’s twice as true since we all massively started spouting our opinions on social media, where often we are not kind, neither to people on the other side of the fence (omnivores) or towards people who are already with us but have different opinions.

So one question we could always ask before posting or speaking, could be: “is this kind?” I would suggest we don’t accept answers like “maybe not, but it’s the truth!” or “maybe not, but they aren’t kind either!”

If we want a kinder world, if kindness is our mission, we won’t get closer to it by being unkind ourselves.

I am, obviously, not excluding myself from the ones who can do better at being kind.You may tell me when, in my posts, in my comments, in my speech, I am not kind. And I will try not to bark at you :-)

 

PS:  Of course, kindness in itself will not necessarily give us the best results for animals. Even kindhearted people may do things that turn out to have bad results, or be ineffective, or whatever. Complementary to kindness is rational thinking. It’s when the heart and the mind meet, when we use our intellect and our rationality in combination with a caring, compassionate attitude, that we achieve the best results.

 

 

 

 

What are vegans so afraid of?

I thought my previous piece, Why being vegan is not an all or nothing thing, was a pretty straightforward, rational and compassionately written article. I wrote it from the same angle from which I write everything: to get as many people as possible to join us in the direction of a more compassionate world.

Still (apart from the many positive comments and shares), the article managed to arouse a lot of anger in certain vegans – to an extent that was surprising and even shocking to me. I won’t bore you with the details, but let’s just say I’ve been called quite some names (some examples here, in case you don’t believe me).

Apart from finding all of this quite sad, I also find it fascinating. How can people on the same side fight so much and so intensely? How can some people so easily find proof of betrayal in other people who share their cause?

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So I tried to put myself in these angry vegans’ shoes and tried to imagine what it could be that angered them so much in what I wrote.

First of all, it seems some people misunderstand my intentions. Like I said, I always write with the purpose to help this movement be more effective at reaching its aim of “animal liberation” (or however you want to define the goal). I may fail at this, but at least this remains my intention. My first concern is definitely not to spare omnivores’ feelings, or to give people reasons or excuses to continue using animal products. Nor would I ever be happy with partial animal liberation or partial veganism (on the contrary: I want to go much further than most vegans want to go, and I’m also concerned, for instance, about the suffering of animals in the wild – suffering is suffering, whether inflicted by humans or not).

Now, here are some of the fears that I notice in people’s reactions to my suggestion to be pragmatic and a bit flexible in our defining of the term vegan.

1. The fear that the concept of veganism will be watered down.
Vegans understandably wouldn’t want to undermine the idea of “being vegan” or “veganism.” They wouldn’t want it to mean anything else than what it means (or what they believe it means): products, food, consumption, a lifestyle… without the involvement of animals. I think the fear is to end up with a watered down version of this concept, where vegan would mean something like “almost free of animal use or suffering.”
Two answers to this. First of all, like I wrote, it is an illusion to think that a vegan lifestyle is a lifestyle that doesn’t inflict any suffering on human or non-human animals (that this argument is also used by meat eaters against vegans doesn’t make it any less true). Secondly, we have to help people take the first step, rather than the last. The last steps, the details, will be taken care of automatically, as a consequence of animal byproducts becoming more and more expensive and hard to come by. If we get to a 95% (or even a 75%) vegan society, then there is no reason we can not bridge the remaining gap. It is not productive to worry about the tiny bits now and make it all too difficult, because that may easily prevent people from moving at all.

2. The fear that people may get confused about what is vegan and what is not, or who is vegan and who isn’t.
If a vegan makes an exception (e.g. eats a non-vegan cookie), they are making other people – so the argument goes – confused and these people will end up not knowing what veganism is. Or they will – God forbid – serve us something non-vegan! All I can say is that if this is what we worry about at this stage of the movement, when 65 billion land animals are killed for food yearly, then we have to re-check our priorities. We have to think a lot more strategically than this.

3. The fear that vegans will be seen as inconsistent if they ever do an unvegan thing.
When I make e.g. my lasagne argument, saying that in order to make the idea of veganism more accessible I would make tiny exceptions here and there in special cases, some vegans think this will be interpreted as inconsistency (worst case: hypocrisy). Let me tell you: the concern for inconsistency is mainly in our own heads, not in the meat-eaters’. What other people see is something that is really really difficult. Showing that in, whatever special cases, exceptions can be made, would make us and veganism seem more attractive rather than less. Consistency is, in my humble opinion, often overrated. That doesn’t mean we should just do whatever. But 99% consistency will be perfectly fine.

The question is whether fears like these are enough to explain the angry reactions to the post. I feel there’s something much more threatening going on for some vegans when the definition of vegan is being questioned. What I feel is going on is that on some level, some people experience that a very important part of their identity is being questioned. I’ll write about that some other time.

What was also quite interesting to notice was how people, who kept repeating “you are either vegan or you’re not!”, referred to other domains, issues, identities, personas… that were supposedly also black or white. In every single case though, I could see a lot of gray. One person said a Christian or a Muslim is not like 95% Christian or Muslim. My thought was exactly the opposite: both in terms of their (mental) faith and their (outward) behavior, people have different degrees of being religious. The same for having racist thoughts or exhibiting racist behavior: we seem to all do it to some extent.

The often mean reactions made me realize more than ever that being vegan is not an end point, and that as vegans we generally should not claim to be better than others. All of us can still grow in compassion. If we can’t open our minds to ideas that don’t coincide with our own, if we can’t even listen, read, talk or discuss compassionately, then there’s still a long way to go.
And rest assured, I count myself among the ones who still have a lot to learn.

Let’s keep an open mind and believe in each other’s good intentions.

 

Why being vegan is NOT an all-or-nothing thing

Here’s another one of those things I come across now and then:

Being vegan is like being pregnant. you are it, or you are not.

Makes sense, when you don’t think about it for too long. As soon as you do (think about it, that is), this stops making sense, in more ways than one.

There are two issues with this kind of black and white interpretation of veganism. One is strategic, the other is conceptual.

First, presenting being vegan as something that are or you aren’t, without anything in between, is not strategic. I have written about this before: don’t present being vegan as something binary, because that way we will exclude everyone who wants to join us for part or even most of the way. Technically it is correct to classify someone who is a 99.5% vegan (let’s say they eat a piece of non-vegan pie once a year at their grandmother’s) as a non-vegan. But obviously this person is much closer to being vegan than to not being vegan (or being an omnivore or a vegetarian).

Secondly, there is a gray area, where it’s not clear whether the use or consumption of some products or ingredients actually excludes someone from being called a vegan. That’s right, what is vegan and what is not is not entirely clear cut, and it’s probably more of a scale than anything else.

Donald Watson, founder of the Vegan Society in the UK defined veganism as a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practical — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.

pregnant

The “as far as is possible and practical” is an important qualification. It leaves some room for gray areas and subjectivity. Some vegans think that what is “possible and practical” is very clear. Avoiding that once-a-year piece of pie is definitely possible and practical: just tell Granny no, right?

But what is possible and practical for one person may not always be so for another. And we shouldn’t try to determine for others what is possible and practical for them. If you disagree and believe that what you experience as possible and practical, should be so for everyone, then let’s imagine a person who studied and actively applies the 320 pages of the book Veganissimo. What if they tell you they find avoiding all those hundreds of pages of problematic ingredients quite practical and possible?

So no, being vegan is not like being pregnant. Just like the rawfoodies tell each other they are 70 or 80% raw, the same is possible with being vegan.

Some will point out that veganism (unlike being raw) is about more than diet, which of course it is (though diet covers the biggest part of it). In the sense that veganism is not a diet but a philosophy, an ethos, a way of life, those people might object, it is an all or nothing thing. Either you respect the rights of animals, or you don’t, they may say.

But is it like that, really? Look at our attitude and behavior towards people. Probably none of us, always and everywhere, perfectly respects the rights of all people. Most of us are only kind and compassionate some (hopefully most) of the time. We often slip and fall.

Saying that being vegan or respecting the rights of animals in your consumption and behavior is a black and white thing is asking for a kind of perfection that is alien to us humans. We can only strive to be ever better. There is no there, there is no point of arrival. There is only all of us, moving in a certain direction, and hopefully taking as many other people with us along the way.

See also my response to reactions on this article: What are vegans so afraid of?

If every vegan made one vegan in five years…

Suppose every vegan made one vegan in five years, and those new vegans did the same thing in five years, we’d have a vegan world in no time.

Ever heard that argument? It’s one of those things that sounds good at first sight, but gets problematic once you spend some time thinking about it. 

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Somtimes this argument is used to argue for the position that we don’t need any big animal rights organizations, or laws, or big companies… but that we can realize all the change that we want by just having vegans talk to other people about animal rights and moral obligations.

But if it would be that simple, why don’t we have a vegan world yet?

Some would answer this question by saying that, quite simply, it’s never been tried. They would tell us that we have never, consistently and as a movement, given omnivores the straight vegan truth and the go vegan message. In this sense, veganism, for some, is like communism: it’s never been tried hard enough.

Of course that’s not true. Surely, for as long as there have been vegans, many or most of them (at least the “ethical vegans”) have been trying to convince other people to join team vegan. And at times they were probably successful.

But still, no vegan world. Why not?

Let’s dial the numbers a bit. Let’s start with an extremely low present number of vegans: one. Yes, one vegan. Imagine that there was just one vegan, but that this vegan would make one new vegan in one year, and that each of those would do the same in one year. The whole world – the whole WORLD! – would be vegan in… 38 years.

With exponential functions, everything goes very fast. But that doesn’t mean much. Multiplying ourselves is not as simple as it looks. If it were, there would have been many sects who would have conquered the entire world by now. But the fact is we haven’t been all convinced to become Jehovah’s witnesses or Scientologists.

Maybe we think for veganism it’s different because our argument makes more sense, and potentially more people would buy it than they would buy some dogmatic religious idea? Maybe, some day. For now it didn’t work yet. For now there’s many more people buying weird religious ideas, for instance, than our rational vegan ideas.

One problem of course, is that not all of us are expert communicators and that the way we talk about veganism is not always attractive (in the worst case we turn more people off than we attract). Another point is that vegans seem to fall off the wagon almost faster than we can “make” them. For every vegan there’s three or four times as many ex-vegans. One step forward, two (or three, or four) steps back, it seems?

The point I mostly want to make here though, is that a one-on-one approach, based on moral arguments, is never going to cut it. It’s not that we haven’t been trying it. It’s that it’s not enough, and not even the most important thing we can do.

So the “imagine if every vegan makes one more vegan…” argument is not an argument that would justify only focusing on one-to-one outreach and grassroots activism, as some would have it. We need much more than that. We need lobbying and product development. We need laws. We need supermarkets and restaurant chains to work with us. We need the power of big groups. We need to fundraise a lot of money. We need to be present in the education system. We need influencers in all domains of society, from celebrities to business leaders to politicians, who can help many more people change their behavior and their minds. And above all, we need to think about strategy and psychology, so that our one on one advocacy can be effective.

Let them eat labmeat – an interview with professor Cor Van Der Weele

I believe that labmeat (also called cultured meat or in vitro meat) is one of the current developments that holds the biggest promises for animals. Professor Cor Van Der Weele, at the Wageningen University in the Netherlands – a country at the forefront of these developments – has been researching the topic for years. She has a degree in both biology and philosophy. I asked her some questions about labmeat, and presented her with some of the objections part of the vegan community may have…

foto: annemieke van der togt
foto: annemieke van der togt

VS: One thing I often hear is that we already have so many vegetarian/vegan options available (from tofu to really good veggieburgers). So why do we need labmeat?
Cor Van Der Weele: In spite of all those good options, for some reason most people remain attached to meat. Cultured meat, or lab meat, is primarily meant for them.

I can see that. But suppose we have a plant-based vegan product that is indistinguishable from real meat, and that has the same or better nutritional value, price, texture, etc. Why would some people be more convinced by lab meat? And how big do you think that segment is?
That would in fact be a very interesting experiment. The fascinating thing about the existence of various alternatives is that they help to unravel the complicated mix of motives people can have to eat meat – such as taste, price, habit, health, and various other considerations about eating animals. Maybe for some dedicated meat eaters, cultured meat would be closer to “the real thing.” I suspect that the size of that segment would be different in different countries. It would also depend on framing and marketing, and it would probably grow smaller over time.

Should we call labmeat just meat? Is it meat? What makes “meat” “meat” for the average consumer?
I don’t think it should be called just “meat.” Cultured meat would be meat in that it is made up of animal cells, but it would obviously also be very different from ordinary meat in some crucial ways. Studies show again and again that many meat eaters are ambivalent about (real) meat. One form that this ambivalence takes is that people like to eat meat but at the same time dislike factory farming and/or the idea that animals need to be killed for meat. The development of cultured meat implies that we accept that people like meat, while we hope to produce it without doing harm to animals. Because there are these differences between meat and cultured meat that many consumers find morally important, they should be able to make the distinction.
Cultured meat can be seen as a step away from ordinary meat: too small a step for some, too large a step for others, but in all cases a step that puts conventional meat in a new light.

Do you believe that, as some critics say, labmeat will alienate us even more from our food and from nature? If yes, in what way is that a concern?
Making cultured meat is “unnatural,” but then, how natural is factory farming? I think that the way we deal with animals in factory farming is very alienating, and that cultured meat, produced from a harmless biopsy taken from animals that have had good lives, would be a big improvement. Further, cultured meat needs far less land. It therefore potentially creates more space for re-naturing the world.

You write about “strategic ignorance”: the attitude of people to willfully not know something or be misinformed about something, because the truth is too hard to bear. The way I see it, one part of the fear (apart from the confrontation with suffering and killing) is the fear that people would miss out on a lot of great food if they really opened themselves up to knowing about animal suffering. Would you agree that developing alternatives like labmeat would be able to partially break down this strategic ignorance?
Yes, certainly. What we saw in focus groups is that the idea of cultured meat made meat eaters discuss what they did not like about meat. The very idea of cultured meat triggers a new feeling of moral room and moral options.

Another argument against labmeat seems to be that it could impede moral change, because of the promise that technology will solve our problems.
I understand the idea; it would make us wait and see. And in part, that is what many people are already doing: they are ambivalent about meat, which may make them perhaps slowly more open to alternatives, but they are no pioneers. I don’t claim to really understand social change but I do know that it is hardly following straight lines. For example, all these ambivalent people who are meat lovers when you look at their behavior but who are not very positive about meat below the surface, what will they do when a really attractive alternative turns up? In this complex field, cultured meat can have an influence as an idea, as a definite product in itself, or as a temporary option on the way from meat to plant-based substitutes.

Part of the vegan community may fear that labmeat won’t change the way we view animals; that it won’t teach us that animals are not ours to use.
I disagree, that’s exactly what cultured meat will do. I think it effectively undermines the self-evidence of how we deal with animals, and I am convinced that it will make a difference, whether or not we are looking for it. It’s important to realize that change does not necessarily need to start with clear moral attitudes. In some cases, people adopt attitudes that accompany the behavior that they are already demonstrating. In this case, this might mean that when people get used to eating cultured meat, the idea of factory farming or killing animals may gradually become stranger and less acceptable.

 

The myth of the overnight vegan conversion

This is a guest post by Hillary Rettig. Hillary is author of The Lifelong Activist (Lantern Books, 2006) and other works. She has been a vegan and vegan activist since 2004, and is currently organizer of Vegan Kalamazoo and a member of IDA’s Sustainable Activism Council. She will be speaking on joyful and effective vegan activism at VegFest Colorado.

The myth of the overnight vegan conversion

In 2004, I “instantly” became vegan at the National Animal Rights Conference in Washington, D.C. It was my first-ever animal rights event; I can’t remember my exact motivation for going, except that I was a lifelong animal lover who was looking to create some change in my life.

Needless to say, it was a mind- (and heart-) opening experience that culminated for me during a screening of Tribe of Heart’s classic Peaceable Kingdom. Like many others, when I saw the scenes of brutalized animals and dehumanized laborers, I wanted nothing to do with any of it—and so, within literally seconds of the movie’s end, I called my then-husband and told him I was vegan.

So, instant conversion.

Or, maybe not.

My conversion actually came after a lifetime of a profound love for animals, and decades of on-and-off vegetarianism.

It was also built on a foundation of a decades-long commitment to social justice.

And the conference itself—an intensive, immersive multiday investigation into, and celebration of, all things animal rights and vegan—was an incredible kickstarter for my new ethic and life. I learned lots, and met amazing people who, more than a decade later, continue to be friends and mentors.

So I was primed, as the psychologists say, for conversion and success. I’m guessing that most so-called “instant conversions” are similar—meaning that they’re not really instant. Moreover, I didn’t even become “fully vegan” at that time. Probably more like 99%. For years afterwards, despite my best intentions, I would, about once a month, feel compelled to eat a nonvegan candy bar or dish of comfort food. This mainly happened during times of stress and was part of an emotional eating problem I’ve struggled with my whole life.

I’m happy to report, though, that that phase passed. Now I’m probably a 99.9% vegan.

I’m not claiming to be a moral exemplar. Perhaps there are people who do, indeed, switch from carnism to to 99.9%, or even 99.99%, veganism overnight. If there are, however, I’m guessing the number is pretty small. And does anyone ever really make it to 100%? I’m not sure that’s even possible, given the pervasiveness of animal-derived products in our food, medical, household, and other spheres.

perfection1

Some vegans don’t see it that way. They demand instant and eternal perfection of all vegans. I’m guessing they see themselves as maintaining the standard, which I do think is a valuable role. I also imagine they’re afraid that people, if “permitted” to take baby steps or “allowed” the occasional lapse, will grow complacent and continue (or restart) eating animal products. However, psychological research actually indicates that, in diet and other areas, it’s the people who try to make too many changes at once who are more likely to backslide or even give up entirely. In Thin for Life, her comprehensive survey of weight loss research and strategies, author Anne Fletcher notes, “Many people…feel overwhelmed when they try to make multiple changes all at once.” She recommends dieters, “…take things one food group at a time.”

It’s pretty universally accepted that, if your goal is to motivate people, demanding perfection is a dead end. As the late renowned UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once said, “I did talk about perfection [to my players]. I said it was not possible. But I said it’s not impossible to try for it. That’s what we did in every practice and game.” (I’m also guessing he didn’t expect senior-level performance from his freshman, but worked with them to achieve gradual improvement via the baby steps.). Some research among vegetarians and vegans also seems to indicate that the people who don’t change overnight, tend to stick to it longer.*

Overnight conversions are highly meaningful from the standpoint of the animals saved, but useless as moral exemplars for a few reasons. First, it’s pretty clear that the ability to easily change one’s diet is uncommon. That’s why there’s a $65 billion weight loss industry in the U.S. and a global obesity epidemic. Forget about asking many of these people to go vegan (or more vegan) to save animals’ lives; they can’t do it even to save their own life.

Moreover, people struggle with their food for many reasons, some of which are evolutionary, genetic, and societal, and thus largely outside their individual control. (I’m currently writing a book on weight loss and the chapter on barriers is forty pages long.)

In other words, those who are able to convert quickly are not just virtuous but also lucky—and perhaps luck is the more relevant characteristic.

And then we come to the perfection-seekers’ main tactics: guilt-trips and shaming. Think about it: if those truly worked, wouldn’t there be a lot more thin people? And vegans? Many overweight people, and probably some imperfect or lapsed vegans, lay a lot of shame and guilt on themselves every day. (And the fat shaming that one occasionally sees in the vegan community is not just a disgrace and a violation of ahimsa (nonharm), but is also counterproductive.)

None of the above should be construed to mean that we shouldn’t, like Wooden’s players, aim for perfection, and support others in their quest for it. Like all human endeavors, however, veganism will inevitably always be both a shining model of what is possible and a daily practice at which fallible humans in challenging circumstances inevitably fall short. As the philosopher Immanuel Kant put it, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”

And I’ll leave you with a final quote from Wooden: “A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment.”

* see also Haverstock and Forgays, “To eat or not to eat. A comparison of current and former animal product limiters.” Appetite 58, 2012.

 

What if the real push towards a vegan world did not come from vegans?

Last Saturday, I attended a talk by the Dutch entrepreneur-farmer Jaap Korteweg, who founded the Vegetarian Butcher (Vegetarische Slager) in the Netherlands. What started as a small but very well branded shop, is now a major vegetarian/vegan product line with hundreds of distribution points in the Netherlands, and – soon – a proper factory. Products by the Vegetarian Butcher have won numerous awards, and the story has received media attention the world over.

After that, I listened to Mark Post, the pioneer of cultured (in vitro) meat, also from the Netherlands. Post is the researcher who three years ago presented the first lab grown meat burger to the media in London – which was one of the biggest stories about meat and its problems in the history of this movement.

Mark Post
Mark Post

Now. Neither Korteweg nor Post are vegan. The same goes for their investors. The instigator and initial funder of Mark Post’s research, the recently deceased Willem Van Eelen, was not even a vegetarian. And neither is, as far as I know, Google’s Sergey Brinn, who gave a 700.000$ donation to Mark Post.

Some of the biggest propagators of the vegan revolution, people with a lot of impact – or future potential impact – are not vegans, nor do they all believe in animal rights. It’s good to realize this for several reasons.

For one thing, it can keep us, vegans, modest. We may be thinking that when the world will finally change for the better for animals, it will be because of our hard work and our ethics. That’s only partially true.

Also, it may help us to see the relativity of some of our own differences in opinion, our ideologies, our philosophizing and theorizing about what, in the larger scheme of things, are often details.

Most of all – and this should be obvious but obviously it’s not – it should make us realize that we should welcome everyone to be part of this movement, vegan or not.

Vegans alone won’t win this battle. It is far too big for that.

 

 

 

Is asking for baby steps “speciesist”?

In the vegan movement, there is a big difference of opinion regarding the ideal message we put in front of people. Some of use believe the only thing we can ask of people is that they “go vegan.” Others believe that – at least in certain cases – it is better to ask people to take certain, easier steps. Such steps could be to participate in Meatless Monday, to become a reducetarian, or to commit to being vegan for a certain amount of time (e.g. during “Veganuary”) and see where it takes them.

steps

 

Those in favor of an “incremental” approach support it because they believe it’s more effective, as a lot of research shows that change happens in small steps. Those against the incremental approach oppose it because they consider it basically speciesist: we would find it immoral – their reasoning goes – to use the same messaging in the case of people. We would, for instance, never ask a child abuser not to abuse children just on Monday. Neither would we support him if he committed to not abuse children for a month.

As I have written before, the logic of the critics of the incremental approach is hard to follow, for me personally. I believe we are comparing apples and oranges. While eating animals is not just condoned but is actively celebrated by say 97% of the population, child abuse and rape are illegal. Such different situations call for different strategies. I have spelled out this argument more in the posts Slavery Free Mondays and On comparing animal rights with other social justice issues.

Now here’s another argument for incrementalism: we actually at times do apply it in the case of people, and it does not seem to be unethical. Let me take you to Boston in 2006. In an effort to reduce the appallingly high homicide rate among gangs, reverend Jeffrey Brown developed “Operation Ceasefire,” which resulted in a drastic decrease in casualties. Brown’s strategy entailed working together with pivotal gang members, and confronting them with very concrete consequences, both positive and negative, of what they allow to occur. But there is one other thing that is of particular interest here. When Brown talked to a gang member about ceasing the gunfights and the violence, he got an interesting reaction: 

… “what the youth said in response to that was that you’re not going to be able to get us to do that cold turkey,” Jeffrey said. “So why don’t you start with a period of time, like a ceasefire? So we created that between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, and we called it season of peace. They gave us the directions for what to do, you know?
“I had them in a room, and I made the pitch for the season of peace and asked for their approval. And that’s when I got my first indication that this might work, because a young guy gets up, and he says, ‘All right, so do we stop shooting at midnight on Wednesday night? Or do we stop on Thanksgiving morning? And do we start shooting again on December thirty-first or on January first?’
“And it was a conflict for me,” Jeffrey said, “because I was like, ‘I don’t want you to start shooting at all.’ But I said, ‘Okay, you stop shooting Wednesday night and you can start again after New Year’s Day.’ Now, you know, ethically I was like, ‘I can’t believe you told them they could start shooting after the first of the year.’ (…)*

Guess what: it worked. What Brown, despite his hesitation, was trying to do was “to get them to establish peace and give them a sense of what it’s like to be able to go into a neighborhood and not have to look over your shoulder every five seconds.” In other words, Brown wanted people to have a certain positive experience, which might motivate them to continue it.

The same thing apparently happened during the Olympic Games in ancient Greece: the olympic truce meant that war was temporarily suspended for the duration of the Games, a practice that was taken over by the modern Olympics.

It’s easy to see the pragmatic value of working with incremental messages and small asks: people find it easier to take small steps than big ones. If, however, you object against incrementalism on principled grounds (and I repeat that I think comparisons with human situations are often unproductive and should be made carefully), you may want to think about Jeffrey Brown and his experiment with gangs. Brown’s experiment shows that we use incremental approaches in the case of human violence too. Was Brown’s strategy immoral? I, for one, don’t think so.

* from Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges – Amy Cuddy

 

Le Botaniste

Some restaurant stuff today. I had lunch in Le Botaniste, in my town of Ghent, Belgium. What’s special about the recently opened Botaniste is that it is an experimental vegan place, run by the people who own the international and world reknowned chain Le Pain Quotidien. LPQ, as it’s known, is especially famous for their long “communal” wooden tables, where you can sit down together with strangers for lunch or tea. The chain was actually founded by a Belgian guy, Alain Coumont.

Coumont started the chain, which now has a couple of hundred restaurants worldwide, in 1990. He’s sort of a visionary, who believes that sooner or later, we’ll all be vegetarian. Coumont has said that the vegetarian movement is a lot bigger than we think, because most vegetarians are quiet people who don’t get to the streets to protest the parliament. He had kind of a revelatory moment when he opened his first LPQ in California and discovered how many people were asking for rice or soy milk with their coffee.

The Pain Quotidien restaurants, which also offer meat, have been carrying vegan labels on their menu items for years. Coumont believes in vegan too, but he doesn’t want to call it that, because he believes for many people it has bad connotations. His own alternative word is “botanical” – hence the name of the new place. There’s a second Botaniste in New York City by now, and on its website you can read that it’s “100% botanical.”

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For the people from Le Pain Quotidien, Le Botanist is a place to experiment and discover what people like. Ghent is a good place for that, as it’s an especially veg-friendly town: it was, at the instigation of EVA, the organization I used to work for, the first city in the world to officially support a weekly vegetarian day (Thursday in our case).

Le Botaniste is not the traditional vegan restaurant, but is presented as a “food and wine bar”: a place where it’s nice to sit and have good food and wine. It’s very much “plant based” rather than “vegan,” but I think this might attract a segment of the population that would otherwise be uninterested in entering. And as I have written often, people who have changed their diet for health or mere culinary reasons, are much more likely to change their attitudes about animals. 

And, in case you want to know: the food was pretty good.