The imperfect veganism of Ezra Klein

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

Ezra Klein
Ezra Klein

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

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

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

So, here’s how Klein solved it:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donations in the US (source: Animal Charity Evaluators)

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

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

Thanks for whatever you do, and happy holidays!

Why Veganuary is a great campaign

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

Two benefits of temporary pledge campaigns

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

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

Some experimental ideas

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

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

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

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

Going vegan: WHY versus HOW

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

how to go vegan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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