10 vegan things I recently changed my mind about

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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 vegangmo.com, I’ve mostly changed my mind about them, and I can now see how they could be very beneficial in preventing animal suffering. “Natural” doesn’t really matter all that much. (see What about GMO’s and hi-tech animal food alternatives)

9. We should invest more in research
Because so many things are so uncertain, and there are constant opportunities to find out new things, we need to invest enough resources 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.

23 thoughts on “10 vegan things I recently changed my mind about

  1. This is great, Tobias.
    The main thing I realized is that: If 80%+ of people who go veg eventually go back to eating meat, we really need to rethink our advocacy. For every five people we convince to stop eating animals, four go on to become spokespersons against compassionate eating. No wonder per-capita consumption of animals is at an all-time high in the US.

  2. Thanks Tobias. Probably because I’ve always had one foot in the world of entrepreneurship I’ve always been clear that at least part of my mission is to do market development for the vegan companies (Gardein, Beyond Meat, etc.) so that their products are as rapidly accepted in my little corner of the world as possible.

  3. Thank you for being so diverse and candid in your discussions. It was 4 years ago that I “woke up ” to veganism and jumped on the “abolitionist-wagon”. My philosophy and approach to transforming other minds has changed drastically since then. I appreciate having your insight to help navigate my evolution as an activist. Please keep up the great work! Happy New Year!

    1. I agree. Furthermore, there are other risks with GMOs. Maybe not for our health, but for the environment. For example glyphosate resistant GM-crops have caused the development of “superweed” that can tolerate glyphosate. There is also the risk of gene-contamination to wild or otherwise non-gm crops (the so-called outcrossing). Does Vegangmo.com address these issues?

      I am not at all against technology. I totally support research in in vitro meat or plant-based meat (even if I have no desire to eat it myself) and I think GMOs can be useful in labs, to produce new medicine etc. But I think we should be careful about large scale cultivation of GM crops.

      Also, I don’t think GMOs are the best way to resolve food security problems. I live on a conventional (non-organic) farm in Denmark, and one of the things I have learned about farming is that the more plant food we grow, the more will go to animals (this may not be true everywhere, I guess it happens when we have reached a certain level of production, and in some places in very poor countries a higher production would probably be used for human consumption). And the lower the price will be for farmers. Higher yields thanks to GM crops would only worsen that situation.

      That’s my two cents. Tobias, thank you for your posts, I always read them with great interest and they help me be a better vegan. 🙂

      1. Karin,

        You ask if VeganGMO addresses the issue of “genetic contamination”. We really don’t because our focus is on veganism/animal rights but we DO understand the issues more broadly.

        First of all, “genetic contamination” is a particularly insidious and unfair framing by anti-GMO of what is a natural process. The implications that genomes are pure in their current form has caused a bit of trouble for humans in the past, to say the least. All life shares the same genes to some extent and we are constantly exchanging them*. It’s also an important fact that frames animal rights in such an important way. All life is related, animals are our cousins. It is morally irrelevant that we should discriminate against another for the distinction human invention of species. Discrimination on that basis is called speciesism.

        If you are worried about traits developed using recombinant DNA technology somehow making life worse by sharing genes I would encouraged you look to the scientists**. It’s not an issue unique to “GMO” and depends all in the trait. A good question would be to ask what natural selection advantage does that particular trait has?

        As far as GMO being bad because of higher yields that go to making animal foods cheaper, well that’s a feature not a bug. Trying to hold back a better technology because that technology can also be used to do this we like less isn’t a way for progress. That same technology can do so much for the vegan cause. It’s people’s hearts and minds we must change. Better yields in a food insecure word is better for those who desperately need it. Until everybody is food secure we really cannot stand in the way of any progress that helps bring that to fruition.

        *https://www.biofortified.org/2012/10/same-genes/
        **https://www.biofortified.org/2011/08/genetic-contamination-may-not-mean-what-you-think-it-means/

        1. Hi Dave,

          Thank you for your answer.

          First, I think comparing worries for outcrossing with speciesism is misplaced. Worries for outcrossing has very little to do with speciesism and is much more about the consequences it can have for biodiversity and food production. Also, the “all life is related” phrase is just as poor an argument for GMO’s as it would be, for example, for creating chimeras.

          I also find your answer “our focus is on veganism/animal rights” a bit difficult to understand. When I look at vegangmo.com I see a lot of health questions (that have nothing to do with animal rights) being discussed (you have a whole section about it, GMO safety). At the same time, I see very little information (almost nothing to be honest) about the tangible advantages GMO’s would bring to animals and/or vegans.

          Finally, I think dismissing the “higher yield” issues is a bit superficial. “Better yields in a food insecure word is better for those who desperately need it. Until everybody is food secure we really cannot stand in the way of any progress that helps bring that to fruition.” I guess everybody would agree with that *if* the higher yields were used as human food. Which is not the case. Isn’t it more important to consider the present realities of agribusiness instead of the uncertain advantages GMO’s *theoretically* could bring?

    2. There is no “business of GMO”. Any problem of business that includes biotechnology can be true of ANY technology and business.

      In trying to contend with the years of despicable lies, now uncovered*, exploiting the suicides of Indians, Philpott in the article cited is now saying higher yields are the problem. Except Philpott also tries to make the case that GMOs don’t provide higher yields**.

      So it goes in working with a fundamentally flawed distinction of “GMO”. It’s an unscientific term that is more about irrational ideology than anything meaningful for creating positive change. This ideology has infected the vegan movement and is causing real harm to animals.

      *http://issues.org/30-2/keith/
      **http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2013/02/do-gmo-crops-have-lower-yields

  4. Tobias,

    One of my guiding principles that led me to Veganism is living in harmony with nature as much as that is possible in our current society. In regards to #4, the best thing we can do for wild animals is leave what’s left of their habitat untouched and not interfere. Hunger, cold, predation, parasites and disease are all part of the natural cycle and keep the planet in balance. Suffering, disease and extinction have all been part of life long before humans roamed the earth. Thinking we could improve on nature that has been one of the greatest factors in the destruction of our only home.

    Let wild animals live as nature intended. That means carnivores will kill other animals to survive. It’s simple biology. It is not for us to impose our will on other species, regardless how noble our intentions may be.

    The same can be applied to GMOs. Human arrogance has reared it’s ugly head once again, and while GMOs seem to hold great promise, we may not know the consequences of this type of technology until the damage cannot be reversed. We tamper with nature at our own peril.

    1. thanks for your feedback. i don’t see any real arguments in here though… “natural” and “in harmony with nature” don’t mean much to me. you may want to read the piece on wild animal suffering that i linked to in this post

      1. Au contraire Tobias, RD has hit the nail right on the head re. Human interference in wildlife AND risky GMOs! Ps. How come my main comment on this article still ‘awaits moderation’? Please publish!

  5. Your comment on AI sentience makes me think you might really enjoy A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers. It’s all about sentience. It’s a sequel but it’s a stand-alone one.

      1. No it’s modern sci-fi. Very character driven. I haven’t finished the sequel yet, but I loved the first one: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.

  6. I’m still thinking about the GMO issue. It may be a way to provide more food, but I do not see it yet as a “free ride”. The bigger issue for me is that producers think they can do things to food and do not need to label it or get input from consumers.
    The other issue is that there are way to many people to feed, and why worry about mopping the water off the floor without first slowing down the faucet? There seem to be no efforts anymore – thanks to the Right to Life movement and conservative religions promoting procreation – to keep the human footprint to a minimum through zero or negative population growth. We have outgrown an appropriate “herd size” as a species, and everything else animate or inanimate on the planet are paying for it. It’s time our leaders and communities pushed back with information about smaller families and smaller footprints on this small planet.
    I took care of someone today with 10 children. This is irresponsible and greedy, not only for the planet, but for the specific family.
    Let’s not just focus on how to provide for all the people, but also include some focus on how to educate and bring the population to a sustainable level. There has to be a balance, and humans have tipped it out of whack.

  7. I’m not sure I see a change in position regarding welfare. You have always promoted baby steps toward veganism with welfare being seen as an intermediate stage. I think you’ve got it backwards. Of course the welfare of animals is the ultimate goal, but it is adopting the effective “strategy” for getting to universal welfare that is important. So much energy is devoted to one species or another, and so much money is wasted on various organizations that hide the ultimate goal and confuse the hell out of people. There is nothing more special about a baby seal versus a chicken or a cow yet that is the message of each individual welfare campaign – save the whales, save the seals, go cage-free, go free-range when the message should be simple – go vegan.

    Someone commented about vegan recidivism being a problem. If you look closely at the Faunalytics study, it is those who became vegan for ethical reasons who are the least likely to revert to eating animal products. The reason is crystal clear – eating whole food plant based is the healthiest way to go – but no one is going to claim that eating an omelet once a week is going to have any measurable impact on health. So cheat a little, be a “flexitarian” or “veganish”. Reap all the nutritional benefits and kill a few animals in the process – have your cake and eat it. It is those who truly feel the moral anguish who are much less likely to suddenly feel ok with something they abhor.

    So no, I don’t see donating to an animal welfare group as productive. If you haven’t noticed, veganism is catching on organically. The capitalists are lining up to cash in on the movement, but remember, it is the demand that is driving it not the goodness of their hearts – this goes for all these new designer fake meat products as well. No investor is going to plunk down cash for lab meat if he or she didn’t think there was a market for it. I, and people like me, who ask for vegan food in restaurants and bring my own food to family or office gatherings and wear vegan slogans and inject my veganism in conversations at every opportunity – we are the movement, we are the market.

    1. Capitalists aren’t “lining up to cash in on the movement”…..the amount of investment dollars going to vegan related food businesses is very very small. The total sales of meat substitutes is projected to be around $5 billion by 2020……..yet McDonalds, just a single restaurant, has annual sales of around $7 billion.

      Also, at least in the US, per capita meat consumption is increasing….so how exactly is veganism catching on?

      Vegans aren’t the market.

      1. U totally missed Mr. Spring’s point: he wasn’t saying vegans are the biggest market, or the only market, he meant vegans are the consumer group leading the movement driving the global impetus toward animal welfare, better health, consumer awareness/info on environmental effects & ultimately a SUSTAINABLE world with all inhabitants living in abundance & harmony. THAT is this market’s (achievable) goal — arguably the ONLY worthy goal if we want to survive for generations more to come. Course if it weren’t for humans, that would be an inarguable given: wild ecosystems are infinitely self-generating without humans’ malevolent interference. Our big brains –egos, greed, vanity– have gotten in the way of the natural order & screwed it all up; now @ the crossroads we need to restore it (not keep destroying it past the point of no return) so life on Earth can keep on thriving. That means aLL we do must be sustainable: it’s the only way..
        Veganism iS sustainable; GMOs are most definitely noT.

  8. Course, Veganism is about more than just eating (as PETA puts it, “ANIMALS ARE NOT OURS TO EAT, WEAR, EXPERIMENT ON, USE FOR ENTERTAINMENT, OR ABUSE IN ANY WAY”) but includes ‘animal liberation’ among its goals — ie. LESS not more human [/destructive] interaction with
    delicate ecosystems/wildlife habitats, with good reason given our track record! Hands off wildlife = more humane than trying to stop suffering inherent in Nature!? Even stranger is your newfound openness toward GMOs –via marketing?– that discounts myriad quality research proving GMOs’ many real threats to thriving health.. offset by overwhelming superiority of non-GMO/organic farming. Simpler (eg. fewer chemicals/pesticides, less processed etc.) iS besT.. GMOs = bigger faster growing crops carrying less nutrition but more toxins that deplete the soil’s vital minerals/ friendly micro-organisms: NOT good! Further unbiased facts:
    http://www.thewolfeclinic.com/reclaim-your-inner-terrain/

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