Some people can’t say no to helping animals. Try not to give them extra work.

My girlfriend Melanie taking care of a sick kitten

What do you do when you find a hurt or abandoned animal somewhere?

Maybe – but I hope not – you are one of those people who can just ignore them. You walk by and – perhaps with some trouble – forget about that cat or dog or bird. Of course, it’s quite possible that you’re not always able to actually do anything. Have you ever experienced coming across a hurt, hungry or abandoned dog or cat in a foreign country, for instance? Or perhaps you were in a situation where there were just too many cases to do anything about. For me, these are horrible experiences, and I try to avoid them – among other ways by avoiding places where stray animals are rampant. I just can’t handle it.

But what if you find animals closer by, in your own country, or your hometown, and you have the chance to do something? If you’re a caring person, a friend of animals, you’ll act. Usually, acting will involve bringing one or more other people into the situation. You may enlist other people’s help because they are more able to deal with the problem than you. In those cases, by all means call someone else to the rescue. But – and this is my point – try to avoid calling in the help of a caring person for things that you can do yourself.

You see, the caring people are the ones that everyone is calling on. They are the ones who can’t say no. They help find homes for animals and they nurse them back to health. They are the ones bringing animals to shelters or to the vet. They are the ones who can’t live with the the thought that if they don’t do anything, chances are no one else will. And, they are exhausted, from so much caring.

My girlfriend Melanie taking care of a sick kitten
My girlfriend Melanie taking care of a sick kitten

I see all of this with my own girlfriend, Melanie. She has a day job at a vegan organization, and co-runs a cat rescue organization (check here) after hours. She’s a person who basically can’t say no to any request for her help. There are on average at least four foster cats or kittens in our house temporarily (apart from our six permanent cats and two dogs). My girlfriend will do anything to find great homes for these cats, and help them when they are wounded or sick. She’s usually at the vet a couple of times a week. As I write this, she is trying to nurse a little kitten who had been abandoned along a canal (something needs to be done about people doing that) back to health. The last few days, she has been feeding the kitten and administering medication all through the night, setting her alarm so that she awakes every three hours. And, all this is nothing compared to the heartbreak she will experience if the kitten doesn’t make it.

People who are known to care about animals, or who are running a small or larger animal sanctuary, often find animals at their door. It seems like it’s a good thing when people have at least the decency to leave animals they find in the care of someone who is caring, but it’s actually very problematic.

People like my girlfriend and many others, who are angels for the animals, are really not waiting for one more phone call from a person who found a kitten somewhere and who is asking them to take care of it. They are hoping the responsibility for all these unfortunate creatures can be shared as much as possible.

So, please don’t call in a caring person because you just don’t have the time to take the animal temporarily into your house. Please don’t call them to bring the animal to a rescue center or organization or a vet if you can do that yourself. Please do what you can do, yourself, and don’t count on someone who’s supercaring.

Let’s all take a little bit of responsibility, so that everyone can relax from time to time.

Vegan, thou shalt be consistent! (On George Monbiot vs Piers Morgan)

Author and Guardian columnist George Monbiot was slammed by host Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain for being a hypocrite (check out the shouting match here). Monbiot wanted to talk about the ethics of factory farming, but didn’t get much of a chance: Morgan called him out for wearing a leather watch strap.

Pierce Morgan head to head with George Monbiot about animal agriculture
Pierce Morgan head to head with George Monbiot

It’s a scene all too familiar for many vegetarians and vegans: people focus on the bits where we’re inconsistent or not perfect (the medication, the plane rides, the leather belt…), and that seems to give them an excuse to not listen to anything interesting we may have to tell. In this post I briefly want to explore the topic of consistency: how consistent should we be? Is consistency necessarily the best thing? And should we give in to the demands for consistency (and perfection)?

For the sake of the argument, I will assume that what Monbiot chose to wear indeed suggests a certain degree of inconsistency. I’ll make abstraction of the fact that, as he later tweeted, his watch-strap may not have been real leather, and that both it and his shoes may have been bought before he went vegan (in my opinion it’s perfectly okay to wear out old leather clothing as a vegan). So, for the rest of this post, let’s just assume his shoes and watch strap are leather, and that we don’t know when he bought them.

Monbiot has come out as a vegan and has done a lot to raise awareness about the problems of animal products and the livestock industry. It’s true that he changed his mind a couple of times on these issues, but that’s one reason I appreciate him. Changing one’s mind in public requires courage, and there is, in my view, nothing admirable in sticking to one’s opinion when one actually doesn’t believe in it anymore.

Now, Monbiot, in talking about veganism while wearing leather, showed – it cannot be denied – a certain degree of inconsistency (again, we’re ignoring the idea that he might have bought it before he went vegan). Accusing someone else of inconsistency or hypocrisy is a favored way to discredit them or their views. Which is exactly why people who want to look convincing will try to avoid appearing inconsistent. Also in the vegan realm we spend a lot of effort in making sure no one can say “gotcha!” to us. Monbiot could have thought of this beforehand, and could have worn a stylish vegan watch and ditto shoes. Then, when asked the question by Morgan, he could have proudly talked about how yes, even his watch and shoes were free from animal products. Gotcha, Morgan! Problem avoided!

But is it that simple, really? I’m sure a lot of vegans think it is, but let me – as usual – play the devil’s advocate here.

First of all, one thing to keep in mind is that when people are out to find a reason to discredit us, they will find it. It’s like asking the vegan whether she kills mosquitoes. If she answers yes, the non-vegan will shout “aha! inconsistent!” But if she says no, she’ll hear “fundamentalist!” Monbiot might have fared better without the leather – and the headlines would be different – but Morgan probably would have invented something else to accuse his opponent of. He was clearly in attack mode, and wanted to find something to undermine Monbiot’s credibility. As Monbiot tweeted: “It goes to show – you can prepare your arguments to the last dot and comma, but if someone is out to get you, there’ll always be a way.”

Part of this desire to spot inconsistencies – which is a form of do-gooder derogation – is of course that people think it gives them a way out. If the vegan (or other do-gooder) can be depicted as a hypocrite, there is, they think, no reason for them to change their thoughts or behavior.

How do we win over the most people?
What I mainly want to address here is the question of whether being entirely consistent is always the best way to win hearts and minds. In Monbiot’s case, him explaining that yes, his watch and his shoes are actually vegan (which he didn’t do, to be clear) may have caused admiration for his consistency, but it may also have caused a feeling of: “whew, these people go very far!” The zeal with which vegans are vegan, may seem daunting and inimitable rather than admirable.

Of course, there are degrees in this. Consistency itself is relative. That may sound a bit like a paradox, but it isn’t. When I give examples of my own inconsistencies (drinking non-vegan wine when out of the house or not inquiring about the ingredients of bread in a restaurant), these may seem like grave crimes to some vegans (enough to call me a non-vegan), while most non-vegans will hardly see them as examples of inconsistencies in the first place. In Monbiot’s case, suppose he was sitting there pleading for an end to animal agriculture while eating a box of chicken nuggets (I know, but just suppose).That would be an extremely grave and blatant inconsistency that probably wouldn’t have led to anything good.

It’s about communication
So, the question I have is: what is the right degree of consistency? I’m ignoring the fact that no one can be entirely avoid animal products. If you think I’m wrong, check this TED talk about how pig parts can be found in no less than 185 non-food products. Here, I’m rather talking about what degree of consistency will garner the most goodwill from other people – goodwill in the sense that they will move closer to wanting to follow our example. It’s about finding the balance between the risk of seeming uncommitted, on the one hand, and appearing fundamentalist, on the other. That is probably why Monbiot said that he wasn’t “militant about it”. Not because of laziness or because, as the rude Morgan implied, because he loves his luxury products. But because he knows that appearing militant is not attractive for many people. Monbiot has called himself 97% vegan before, and for many people, that might be a much more appealing prospect than a 100% vegan. (Undoubtedly some vegans will sing the “there is no such thing as a 97% vegan” refrain now.)

Many vegans don’t see any dilemma here at all, and just state that we should be entirely consistent because animal products entail animal suffering – period. But, creating a negative impression can also create animal suffering, or at least prevent less suffering than a good image could. As I’ve written before, what goes into your mouth is less important than what comes out of it. Your own consumption has an impact, but the impact of the way you advocate is potentially much, much bigger.

The answer to my question – about the right degree of consistency – is that I’m not sure. I would welcome research that tells us whether it is consistency or a certain flexibility that is most appealing to others. As far as I know, nothing much has been studied on the subject.

We don’t need to be perfect – nor should we pretend to be
For now, I’m trusting that decent and thinking people will be turned off not by Monbiot’s inconsistency but by Morgan’s calling him out for it. The ones that are calling Monbiot hypocritical are probably not ready to take any steps anyway.

I’m hoping that this episode won’t reaffirm vegans in their belief that they have to be perfect. I hope they won’t strive for consistency über alles, and won’t spend a disproportionate amount of attention on the tiny details, while losing the bigger picture. I’m hoping it won’t lead some of them to tell others that they cannot call themselves vegan if they still do eat or wear this or that, with the risk of alienating these people from veganism or the movement.

Maybe part of the solution lies in us not emphasizing our own consistency or perfection, and presenting veganism as an aspiration rather than something we are always achieving. If we don’t pretend it’s a black and white thing, maybe people will be less tempted to call vegans out when they spot an inconsistency. What if we said we’re 99% vegan?

Vegans are not perfect, and not perfectly consistent. And the fear of appearing inconsistent shouldn’t stop us from focusing on what’s really important, and that is reducing animal suffering, and communicating in a way that helps other people warm up to that idea. If a doofus like Pierce Morgan wants to attack, he will. People like him should not determine what our ideal course of action is.

Monbiot, in the meantime, is a great person to have in the vegan camp. No amount of leather on his body will efface the impact of his articulate writing on, indeed, one of the most important issues of our time.

Should vegans support the McDonald’s vegan burger?


I remember, more than fifteen years ago, asking vegetarians and vegans what they would do if ever McDonald’s came up with a vegan burger. Imagine furthermore, I said, that they are testing it somewhere and that the success of the test will determine if they will roll it out everywhere.

Sometimes, thought-experiments (I’ve always loved them) become real. This week, McDonald introduced a vegan burger in Tampere, Finland. The success it will have until November may influence what will happen in thousands of other McDonald’s around the globe.

Vegans, as often, are a bit divided in their reactions. Many applaud this initiative, while many others state that they will never ever eat anything at McDonald’s, because one vegan burger cannot erase the many problematic aspects of the company.

I’m seeing a lot of gut-level, unexamined opinions on this topic. So, allow me to present you with some of my thoughts on this issue.


What’s wrong with McDonald’s?
McDonald’s has been and in many aspects remains a problematic company. Actually, in many people’s eyes (at least activists and people on the left in general), McDonald’s is more or less the prototype of a Bad Company. When I type “what’s wrong with” in Google, the first autocomplete suggestion I see is… McDonald’s. The 1986 pamphlet What’s Wrong With McDonald’s – and the “McLibel” lawsuit by the corporation against Helen Steel and Dave Morris – probably has something to do with this. The pamphlet spoke about animal welfare, workers’ rights, deforestation, luring children with toys, etc. And for many people, even if all of these problems were solved, McDonald’s would still simply be too big, too capitalist, too uniform and too many other things to support.

I don’t have the time to do a thorough check of how McDonald’s is doing today in terms of all these different social dimensions, but let’s just very briefly look at one aspect: is McDonald’s any worse in the animal welfare department than similar companies? According to Paul Shapiro, Vice President of policy engagement at the Humane Society of the US, the company’s 2012 announcement that the US branch would require its suppliers to phase out gestation crates and its 2015 similar announcement on battery cages both led to a cascade of other major retailers doing the same or better. In a real way, Shapiro says, the company’s announcements helped put the writing on the wall that these cage confinement practices will have no place in the future. Sure, all these are “mere” welfare reforms, but they are a start, and they mean tangible differences for literally billions of animals.

I think a lot of the hate McDonald’s gets is not always entirely rational, and is in part due to the fact that McD has come to symbolize all that is bad about modern day capitalism. But let’s, for argument’s sake, just accept that the fast food giant is still a very bad company – it definitely buys, cooks and serves a humongous number of animals. What does this mean in terms of vegans and the vegan movement’s relationship to the vegan burger?

The naysayers
I found many people claiming on social media that they will never support McDonald’s. They refuse to spend money on such a company and, thus, (in their view), contribute to all the evil it is doing. An often heard response to this kind of argument is that these very same people probably spend quite some money in other businesses (e.g.) supermarkets, which also sell animal parts and may also cause other kinds of damage. Again, singling out McDonald’s (and other big fast food chains) seems to me not a rational attitude, but may have a lot to do with the symbolic function that McDonald’s has.

Sometimes, it seems to me that it is part of human nature to want or need enemies: many of us just love to hate some people and companies. For this reason, some of us may not like it when the enemy improves. People don’t want to lose their enemy and seem to require an outlet for a certain amount of hate and anger. An indication of this is that there is hardly anything this enemy can do in order to get the support of the naysayers (people may, for instance, not even support McDonald’s if it’s 100% vegan and green and… ). Some of the McVegan’s opponents have been asking whether the mustard, the sauce, the buns are vegan and whether the patty will be fried on the same grill as the beef patties are fried on – seemingly looking for any excuse not to support it. Others say it’s just junk.
Every positive action that is undertaken will be considered insignificant, or greenwashing, or empty, or whatever. The idea that the company is evil to its core becomes sort of non-falsifiable.

Some people in the no camp consider the enthusiasm of the yes camp as some sort of “veganism über alles” attitude. They see the McVegan’s proponents as applauding anything that advances the vegan or animal cause, even if it is at the cost of anything else. Certainly, there are vegans who are very narrowly focused on animals alone and don’t care for intersecting social justice issues. But I don’t think that is necessarily the case for everyone saying yes to the McVegan. These people may just be willing to encourage every significant step, realizing that not everything will be done at once. If McDonald’s takes significant measures in other areas, these could also be applauded, even though the company is still responsible for a lot of animal suffering.

The case for a McVegan
I have written before on the power that big companies have to do good things (see Beyond Meat and Tyson: sleeping with the enemy? and Why vegans shouldn’t boycot Daiya cheese). It’s easy to see some of the advantages of having a vegan burger at McD’s. Such an offer would help tremendously in normalizing and mainstreaming vegan food and would lower the threshold for a lot of people to actually try it out (the burger has to be tasty, of course – but according to what I read, it is). Companies who have a stake in selling plant-based foods also will start to become less antagonistic to the growth of the vegan phenomenon.

But most importantly, big companies have the power, the resources, the contacts and the channels to get these products out everywhere. I just came back from the Extinction and Livestock Conference in London, organized by Compassion in World Farming and WWF. During one of the panels, Josh Balk, Vice President for The Humane Society of the United States’ farm animal division, reminded us of the days when soy milk could only be found in an obscure corner of the local health food store. What happened, asked Josh, that pulled plant-based milks out of that corner and put them on the shelves of every major supermarket in the United States? His answer: Dean Foods happened.The largest dairy company in the US saw an opportunity and got into plant-based milks. There might be other explanations for these products’ growing popularity, but Big Dairy definitely played a big part in it.
Dean Foods inspired other companies to do as they did and invest in dairy alternatives. Just so, McDonald’s, if successful, may further inspire other chains (and maybe the fast food giant was inspired to start in Finland because of the successful Hesburger chain, which carries a vegan burger).

Can vegans make a difference?
If we think a vegan burger at McDonald’s is a good idea, we can actively participate by buying or recommending the burger. Or, we can just silently support it and leave it to other people to buy it. But what if the vegan movement (in Finland or internationally) was actually able to help make or break this experiment? The fact that the burger is called McVegan seems to imply that the McDonald’s folks have at least to some degree the vegan target audience in mind.
Suppose that, as the news articles seem to imply, the success the Finish experiment can influence or determine if and to what extent this burger will be rolled out in other countries. Think of the massive number of animals who would be spared a lifetime of suffering. I feel confident in saying that, assuming all this, I would be fine with spending my own money on this and asking others to do the same. Furthermore, if I were director of a Finish organization, I might actually recommend all vegans to go there (though I would take into account the potential backlash of less pragmatic vegans).

It is important to realize that McDonald’s has tried to launch a vegan or vegetarian burger several times in different countries, but nowhere quite succeeded (except in India). Imagine that the McDonald’s US vegan burger launched in California and New York City in 2003 had succeeded, and had been rolled out nationally and internationally, and had inspired other companies… It’s hard to say if the vegan movement could have played a significant role in that, but it is not unthinkable. (Interestingly, the person who oversaw the Southern California rollout of the McVeggie burger, Don Thompson, eventually became McDonald’s CEO, but has since left the company and now is on Beyond Meat’s board of directors.)

Bad intentions are good enough
As is very often – and often rightly – the case, our judgment of an action is partly inspired by how we see the intentions or motivations of the people behind the action. It is entirely safe to assume that the motivation to introduce the McVegan is financial. A lot of Facebook comments are exactly about this: McDonald’s is only in it for the money; they are money grubbing bastards, etc., etc. Wanting to make a profit is, of course, entirely normal for a company. Yet, many of us don’t like that motivation, while we love ethical motivations. Do a little experiment for yourself: imagine the CEO of McDonald’s Finland is a vegan and introduced the burger because she wants to do something good for animals. Chances are you will notice your opinions about the whole thing shift.
The question, though, is how important are these intentions? The animals certainly don’t care. With Saul Alinsky, a social justice activist, I agree that we should allow people to do the right thing for the wrong reasons. Alinsky writes in Rules for Radicals:

“With very rare exceptions, the right things are done for the wrong reasons. It is futile to demand that people do the right thing for the right reason – this is a fight with a windmill. The organizer should know and accept that the right reason is only introduced as a moral rationalization after the right end has been achieved, although it may have been achieved for the wrong reason – therefore, he should search for and use the wrong reasons to achieve the right goals.”

I was CEO of McDonald’s for one day
Maybe twenty years ago, in my very early activism days, I organized a protest at a brand new McDonald’s in our town (Ghent, Belgium). We had a bunch of people there, with the obligatory signs, slogans and pamphlets, and one or two newspapers covered it. About fifteen years later, when I was director of EVA, the organization I had cofounded, I did what was called a “jobswitch” with the CEO of McDonald’s Belgium (this was an initiative of a sustainability organization of which we were both members). While I gave a presentation and got to know some of the people, practises and procedures of the McDonald’s Belgium team, my own team entertained and informed their CEO and presented him with the best meat alternatives available. The day finished with me and the CEO – who hadn’t seen each other all day – doing a closing meeting. Which happened… exactly at the McDonald’s where I had organized the protest many years ago…
The demonstration was an example of confrontation, while the jobswitch day was a form of collaboration, or at least, something that could lead to that. Today, these two forms of taking action are still valid and necessary, but I myself am more of a believer in collaboration than confrontation.

No bust, no revolution, but gradual change
McDonald’s is not going to just disappear. And, it’s not just suddenly going to turn into a vegan company. The only thing that can happen is gradual improvement. I respect vegans who want to have nothing to do with that improvement, and want to stay as far away from some companies as they can (rational arguments are helpful). I’m not saying that boycotts are never useful or successful. And, I can obviously see value in supporting vegan businesses as much as possible. But, I think that this alone won’t cut it, and I believe, for the animals, the support of big companies, well-intentioned or not, is not just a luxury. Like it or not, it is a necessity.

And just in case anyone at McDonald’s is listening: thanks for this try out AND yes, we want you to do more.

May the Force be with the vegan burger.

You can read more about how I think the vegan movement should relate to corporate stuff in my book How to Create a Vegan World.