Finding your activist sweet spot

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

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

sweet spot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why most people eat meat

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


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

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

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

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

most people eat meat

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

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


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

Who’s afraid of effectiveness?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* source



Why we will win

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

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

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

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

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

Copy of Copy of great vegan food

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Vegalomania: the belief that veganism can solve everything

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

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


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

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

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

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