Want to make the world a better place? You may want to rethink your relationship with money.

money and a heart

Did you, like me, grow up thinking that money doesn’t make you happy and that there are much more important things in life? Were you raised with the idea that money is dirty, and something to avoid? That striving for it might make you a bad person? The result of such an upbringing – and way of thinking – may be that you are a nice and caring person, with less money than you could have had. And, that’s a pity, because you could have used that money to do good.
money and a heart

Money: holy grail, or 
I’ve come to realize that it’s not just greedy people that may have a problematic relationship with money, but also people who I will call “do-gooders” (with all due respect, and for want of a better word).
While the greedy people may live with the idea that money is the most wonderful thing in the world and want as much of it as they can get, the do-gooders will often avoid it as much as they can, believing it is a bad thing. They will see being rich as a vice and being relatively poor as a virtue (I know, this dichotomy of greedy bastards versus do-gooders is a bit too simplistic, but let’s keep it for the sake of the argument).

You might be missing out
At this point you may already be pulling up your nose, slightly disgusted at the fact that on this “non-profit” blog, I’m writing about making – or at least not shunning – money. This almost sounds like the text of a would-be financial guru who is telling you it’s your right to get rich, right? But, you having that feeling would exactly prove my point.

Let me try to put you a bit at ease. First of all, I’m not talking about getting super wealthy here (more about what I mean later). Neither am I talking about making more money for your own sake (though I wouldn’t condemn that). Rather, I suggest that we learn to appreciate the value of money for the good things we can do with it. And no, I don’t believe donations or philanthro-capitalism will solve all the problems in the world, and I do think we need more systemic solutions. I believe there are quite a few problems with how a lot of money is made, the role it has in our society and the way people go after it. And, I believe that unbridled capitalism suffers from a lot of shortcomings.
But, I also believe that more money in the hands of good, caring people is a good thing, and that the do-goodies shouldn’t leave the making of money to the greedy ones.

money - more money in the hands

My career without much money
Because telling people in social movements that they might want to care more about money will, in the eyes of some, unavoidably make me look un-virtuous, let me add that my own twenty-year career as an animal rights advocate has been largely unpaid or for very small financial returns. I had the ability to do that, because my girlfriend owns the house we live in (thanks to her grandparents); so, we don’t have to pay rent, and we rent out part of it through AirBnb, which provides a bit of extra income. The fact, however, that I can do my activism unpaid doesn’t mean that I am against people making money from activism. If one can earn one’s keep doing something good, and, thus, have more time to do it, what would be the problem with that?

20.000 euros down the drain?
Back to where we were. This is what I realized: because I never learned to take an interest in money, I missed out on opportunities to make a difference. My parents are quite ethical people who care about making the world a better place. But, in not teaching me to sufficiently value money and in giving me the impression I should shun it, they may have inadvertently reduced my chances of doing good.

Let me illustrate this more concretely. I remember at one point – about twenty years ago – having about ten thousand euros in my bank account (back then it was in a different currency, but never mind that). Suppose I had had no need to touch that amount since then, and that it had just been sitting in my savings account. The average interest on a savings account in the past twenty years in Belgium has been about two percent. At that rate, after twenty years, that capital would have grown to about 14.500 €. If I had invested the initial 10.000 € in something (stocks or bonds, for instance) that would have offered me a higher interest rate (say a reasonable and realistic seven percent), my capital would have increased to about 36.000 €. That is a difference of more than 20.000 €. And, that’s just on this small initial sum. Note that present day interest is usually less than one percent, while inflation rates are at two percent; so, your money is quickly losing its value in a regular savings account.

compound interest graph
Einstein called compound interest the eighth wonder of the world.

The problem was that I had no financial knowledge at all, and wasn’t motivated or stimulated to learn about it. Einstein famously called compound interest the eighth miracle of the world (check this page to learn a bit more), but I only really realized how it works this year, at age 44. It’s also only now that I realize a lot of the things we think about investing are incorrect clichés, and that when done properly and wisely, investing is not as risky as most people think it is. In fact, one line I read again and again is that we can’t afford not to invest. Maybe I’m particularly late and slow, but there must be many more people – do-gooders especially – like me (my guess is the “money = evil” attitude is more prevalent in Europe than in the US and other parts of the world).

All the good you can do
If today, you are still convinced that money is dirty and evil and you don’t want any of it, your reaction might be: 1. so what? and 2. investing like that is unethical anyway. I’ll respond briefly to these arguments, but I am under no illusion that I will convince the most anti-capitalist among readers. So be it.
Regarding “so what?”: if you think rationally about this for a minute, you know that there is no doubt that money can be used to do good. You could do good with this money in several ways:
– You could donate it to a non-profit.
– You could invest it in a sustainable or compassionate startup.
– You could even live on it yourself for a year or a couple of years (depending where you live), so that you don’t have to have some run of the mill paid job and have more time to volunteer.
– You could start your own project with it.

I think it’s clear that you are better off having this money than not having it. Unless of course, having made that money by investing would somehow be necessarily unethical (which is the second objection). There obviously are many unethical ways to make money. You can uncritically invest in stocks or funds where your money is used for bad things. But, that is not necessarily so, and many banks today offer sustainable investment options. These may not be entirely satisfactory to all of us, but it is possible to find ways to invest that are healthy and sound, or at least neutral. Moreover, apart from increasing your own returns, you also help these companies grow by helping them to raise capital. And, if you want, as a shareholder you can even participate and vote at their annual general meeting and help determine the course of the company.
Some would argue that by participating in the stock market, one is contributing to a system that is fundamentally flawed and problematic. But, then, so is putting your money in a savings account – because that too is a way of investing in and contributing to systems you may fault – and with even less control, at that!
Probably many of us have simplistic ideas about capitalism. This talk by Jonathan Haidt does a good job at illustrating that.

Let’s look at some other objections to making money – all of which I held at some point, or still partly hold.

“Money corrupts. People who are interested in money don’t end up caring about the world.”
I don’t think there is any law of nature that dictates that money corrupts. It may also be that people who are greedy to begin with are the ones to acquire a lot of money, rather than the other way around. In any case, in this post, I’m not at all talking about the ruthless accumulation of wealth through all means possible. I’m simply talking about taking *some* interest in money and investing it in an ethical way, so that we have more means at our disposal to do good.
Also, don’t forget about people who got really rich and because of that are returning a lot of their wealth to society and are investing it, for instance, in the animal rights movement or any other movement. Our movement is actually to a large extent funded by people who made a lot of money (hopefully in the nicest ways possible) and are donating it to a cause they care about.

“Money is irrelevant.”
Some people – often those who are interested in spirituality – would hold that money is not what makes the world go round and that it is actually irrelevant. It’s not about what you have, but what you are, etc. I’d say: try to tell that to poor people. Probably only those who are privileged enough can say things like this (even though there might be some grains of truth in these opinions here and there).

“Money and the role it plays in our society is inherently problematic.”
As long as we’re not enlightened and don’t have the means to freely provide each other with whatever we need, money is a convenient way to exchange goods and services. At the same time, I think it’s a pretty primitive one, and I can imagine societies and worlds in which we’re no longer using it. Too many things are determined by how much money we have, and shouldn’t be. Here’s a simple example: for a person with little money, it is much more difficult to ride a train in first class. Yet, she may have a higher need for it: she may need to focus, have concentration problems, suffer from panic attacks and have more need for quiet, or whatever. The fact that her level of wealth determines how she can travel does not seem optimal at all.

If we want new systems, we’ll need money for that, too. Even if you loathe capitalism and want to throw it over, you’ll probably do it faster if you have money to help create a movement. There is an attempt in my country to create a new kind of bank (a bank of the people). To start it, they need… money. I think a good way to see it is that any new systems we are going to build will partly or largely be built with money from the old systems…

My preliminary conclusions
quote about missing out on opportunities through like of moneyIf I would have children (I don’t and won’t), I would try to teach them that money is not an end in itself, but that as a means to great ends, it can be extremely helpful. I would make sure they don’t grow up thinking that money, and making it, is bad or evil or corrupting. I would try to raise them with a desire to become people with integrity, who also value money for the good they can do with it. I would teach them some financial literacy, and warn them to not under- or over-estimate the risks involved in investing.

Many do-gooders too might want to slightly rethink their relationship with money. It would be good if movements of do-gooders told their members and activists something about the importance of money. If young people start to invest wisely and sustainably at the age of say 22, after graduation, they can build up capital that can make an incredible difference in the world. I haven’t looked at any numbers, and don’t know if any are available, but my suspicion is that many activists, across movements, are people who are not exactly well off. What if we were better off, and had more means to spend on our movement and our own happiness? What if we didn’t leave the making of money to the greedy people only. Money, though often abused, or considered an end, is nothing more than a tool. It’s a tool just like marketing is a tool. We can choose to abstain from using these tools, and leave the using of them in the hands of people who will often be likely to abuse them, or we can wield them ourselves and do some good with it.

PS: want to get more information on investing? The websites are endless, but I found this podcast really good.

Thinking about disrupting meat eaters at a restaurant? Read this first.

Activists disupting people's meal at Rare Steakhouse in Melbourne

Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) are the animal rights activists behind the attention-grabbing disruptions of meat eaters in restaurants. Their action in Rare Steakhouse in Melbourne Australia, on Jan. 30 2018, sure got a lot of headlines. Dozens of protesters went into the restaurant, chanting on megaphones and holding posters with pictures of suffering animals. Some vegans applaud these tactics and participate in them, others call them cringeworthy. Here are some thoughts.

Activists disupting people's meal at Rare Steakhouse in Melbourne
Activists disupting people’s meal at Rare Steakhouse in Melbourne

Two reasons to start the revolution
I can imagine that people take to these in-your-face tactics for two entirely different reasons. Reason number one could be that, with all the animal suffering and killing, vegans feel frustrated and want to speed things up. I sure can understand that people feel change is too slow.
The other reason seems almost like the opposite of the first: we’ve seen a lot of news coverage in the last two years or so that testifies to the growing popularity of plant-based eating: vegan startups doing really great (sometimes with investments from the meat industry), new vegan products being sold out as soon as they show up, celebrities going vegan, spectacular-sounding growth in the number of vegans, and so on. I presume that information like this may embolden some vegans and lead them to think that the time is ripe for action of this sort. The revolution is upon us!

My belief is that neither the ongoing suffering of the animals and our resultant frustration, nor the good news and our optimism, should inspire us, at this moment, to organize actions like restaurant disruptions. I’m not talking about direct action tactics in general. Indeed, I have no problem with these when they are well targeted (see below). But, I think in this case, the action is misguided and misdirected.

“Don’t tell people they are wrong”
In what follows, I’ll be paraphrasing a lot from a session at the Aspen Ideas Festival 2017, titled To persuade others, pay attention to their values. Panelists were Matthew Feinberg, professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto, and Rob Willer, professor of sociology and psychology at Stanford.* The session is worth listening to in its entirety, but at one point, the moderator asks the researchers if they can give some advice on what not to do when you want to change someone’s mind.

The first thing Feinberg and Willer come up with, based on their extensive research, is: do not tell others that their values or their morals are wrong – unless you want to create an argument rather than persuade them. One’s moral values are so much part of one’s identity that to have them challenged very much constitutes a threat or reproach. People usually react defensively when threatened – in the moral domain, this is called “moral reactance”. I’ve previously written about one form that this reactance may take: do-gooder derogation, or the putting down of the one who does something good. The biggest problem with this is not that activists are ridiculed or judged negatively, but rather the fact that because of this reactance, people will be even less likely to change. (One tentative indication that this reactance took place in Melbourne may be found in the fact that the restaurant’s social media following has increased significantly as a result of this incident.)

So, what do these guys suggest as a solution? They suggest trying to reframe the issue in terms of values that your audience cares about. I’ll write about that in another post.

“Don’t engage in extreme behaviors”
The second thing the panelists recommend that activists shouldn’t do is to engage in extreme behaviors. What the researchers found in terms of a lot of protests and other activism is that the more extreme the tactic is, the more likely it is to turn people off. Feinberg and Willer here identify a paradox: if you want attention for your cause, you need the media. But, the behavior that the media is most likely to pick up on is the extreme behavior that is most likely to turn off the average reader or viewer, who, as a result, will be less likely to support your cause. The researchers add that, interestingly, activists who are themselves involved in these extreme behaviors, when polled, indicate that they find these tactics effective, not just for getting people’s attention (which they are correct in), but also for persuading people – (which they are not correct in).

(Side note: many vegans outside of DxE seem to believe, like me, that these tactics are not effective – and this difference of opinion within the vegan community seems to be, in and of itself, an interesting topic for the media.)

On the Facebook page of Melbourne Cow Save – who I’m assuming co-organized the restaurant protest – we can read: “This action wasn’t about educating people about veganism. It was about taking non-violent direct action to end the exploitation and killing of all animals. It was to force animal rights into the public consciousness through non-violent direct action”.
Yes, they were definitely able to get their message out there and get people talking. But is that necessarily a good thing? Getting an issue into public consciousness is not the same as changing that consciousness (and consequently, in the best case, the behavior). There certainly is value in raising awareness and helping to make a cause the topic of conversation, but if it is done in a way that mainly causes moral reactance, it’s probably far from ideal.

Cows aren’t puppies
I believe one of the mistakes DxE people are likely to make is to have too much confidence in the parallels between their cause and other social justice movements. They often refer to the non-violent civil disobedience and direct action organized by Martin Luther King or Gandhi, claiming – rightly, I think – that these tactics were instrumental in bringing about the desired change.

While I do not deny that there may be important lessons to be drawn from other social justice movements, we need to be mindful of the fact that the animal movement is not in the same phase at this time as the civil rights movement was when people used these tactics to advocate for an end to racial discrimination. We need to keep in mind where our movement is in terms of the level of public support for our cause. I can imagine that this kind of direct action would go over much better, and have a bigger impact, if it were about something on which most people agreed with the protesters. An DxE activist is actually quoted as saying, “If they [the restaurant] were selling the bodies of dead puppies in that place and we disrupted it, we’d be hailed as heroes.” Well yes, probably, but whether vegans see a difference or not between cows and puppies, the audience at large does.

It’s good to meet the audience where they’re at, and not expect them to have our values or adopt those values on the spot. For example, disrupting a restaurant where puppies are being eaten would be very effective in a Western country where most people share the value that dogs are companions, not food. However, in some parts of the world, eating dogs isn’t seen in the same way, and, therefore, a disruption would not be nearly as effective. Meanwhile, disrupting people eating beef in a country like India, where commonly held views on cows are very different from those in Western countries, may actually be effective.

Let’s give people no excuse not to listen
So, no, these activists, as the spokesperson realizes, will not be seen as heroes. The fact that this matters is not an ego concern, and undoubtedly, the protesters have no problem not being liked. Indeed, to some extent, they may actually welcome being considered a pain in the butt. But, we vegans are still a tiny group who can still use – indeed, require – much more support than we currently have. We need to do things that enlarge the support we get, rather than alienating potential allies. Even though things seem to be getting better, as vegans, we are still fighting an uphill battle against stigmatization, against people believing we are all kinds of things: crazy, angry, negative, preaching, never satisfied. We should not feed or confirm these perceptions (which are sometimes true, but most often not), and we should certainly not give people any excuse not to listen to us.

Potential benefits
Having said all this, let me try to be the most charitable I can be – of course, my heart is with these activists – and play the devil’s advocate for a moment. Let’s see if we can come up with arguments in favor of such restaurant disruptions and other radical tactics.

  • Maybe such tactics make more moderate animal rights activists and other vegans seem more approachable and rational when compared to this so-called radical element (this is the so-called “radical flank effect), and that could be a good thing. However, it’s equally possible that many people who still believe it’s acceptable to eat animal products will continue to equate the less radical parts with the radical part and, thus, consider all vegans as radical or extreme. It’s not true, and not right, but it’s all too human.
  • One good thing I can see about DxE (and also about some other forms of street activism) is that it seems to attract and recruit a lot of activists. Vegans who until then had been passive, get fired up seeing DxE demos and become activists (see the explanation for the pull of this further down this post). And, being an activist (i.e., doing something more for the animals than just not eating them), is important. But, of course, if we have serious doubts about whether at least these DxE actions have a positive impact, more people participating in them wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing. If there is a discrepancy between actions that attract activists and those which are effective, then it seems to me we should see if we can attract new activists with these maybe not ideal actions, and then try to move them towards more effective forms of activism, maybe organized by the same group.
  • I will also grant that there is a lot of uncertainty about what works, what works better and what doesn’t work. Often, it is not easy at all to measure the impact of certain forms of activism. Defenders of DxE tactics will say that even if people react very negatively to the protests at first, the protests might plant seeds, and these seeds may later sprout and change people’s minds. I consider that possible, though given the significant risk of alienating potential allies by these actions, the burden of proof that these actions are effective should be on DxE.
  • Finally, I’m quite open to the idea that some day restaurant disruptions like this could be quite effective, even though I personally may never like how they feel. I can imagine that in a world where we have most people on our side, it can be helpful to give the laggards the feeling that they are, well… lagging. But, that time is not now.

The warm glow of group solidarity
One other advantage these actions can offer – although they are not the only type of action to do so – is to give activists energy and a sense of belonging, as well as increasing group cohesion. Let me bring in Feinberg and Willer one last time. When they’re asked about what people get from coming together with others that share their values, this is their answer  – and I think it will speak to a lot of vegans:

“You get a lot of things out of binding together with morally similar others and expressing moral judgments about the same things that you think are wrong and should be condemned, and finding togetherness and praising things you think are morally praiseworthy. You can develop a sense of morally-based group solidarity, which is a powerful thing. (…) It’s a great feeling when you join together with like-minded others and find yourself celebrating this commonality that goes all the way down to the depths of your convictions. People’s values are their deepest held beliefs, by definition. They’re willing to fight and die to defend their values. And so, when you can come together with other people and celebrate these values and share them, and discriminate between yourselves and those who don’t hold those values, that can be a powerfully transcending experience and generate strong feelings of trust within the group. It’s not strange and it’s not objectionable that people do that, that they are pulled to that sort of thing.

It is, indeed, not wrong or objectionable to go for these feelings, and especially in a world where few people agree with us, it is normal that we seek out the confirmation of like minded-people. But we should be careful that the warm glow we get from doing activism does not blind us to the actual impact of our actions.

We must be careful, in other words, not to confuse feeling good and doing good.

 

Want to read more about vegan strategy and communication? Check out my book How to Create a Vegan World.

 

* Even though I’m quoting from a podcast and obviously one person was always speaking at one time, I will quote as Feinberg and Willer, because I couldn’t distinguish between the voices on the podcast.

Vegan advocacy: Unapologetic or pragmatic?

opposing views on vegan advocacy

On Jan 28 2017, I did a Facebook live discussion with Casey Taft on the topic of vegan advocacy. Casey is the founder of Vegan Publishers, author of Motivational methods for vegan advocacy: A clinical psychology perspective, and is a professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine.
In terms of vegan advocacy, Casey feels that promoting a clear vegan end goal is the best way to bring about both reduction and cessation of animal use and that we should be careful not to promote the very thing (speciesism) that is the biggest contributor to our animal use in the first place. I, on the other hand, believe that while there’s a place for this approach, it is not what is most needed at this moment in time. I maintain that asking people to reduce their consumption of animal products is helpful to create a vegan world, and is not a betrayal of vegan principles or of the animals. This post is part summary, part observation of the discussion we had. Throughout the text I will link to related blogposts I wrote previously.

opposing views on vegan advocacy

A civil discussion across the aisles
First of all, in spite of our different viewpoints, the discussion between Casey and me was friendly and civilized, and I found in Casey a respectful critic of my views. When I accepted Casey’s suggestion to talk, this for me was my first objective: to have a constructive discussion “across the aisles”. On the meta-level, I am very interested in how people with very different opinions can still have civil conversations (this is a bit like one of Sam Harris’s stated goals for his Waking Up podcast). Due to our different experiences, different upbringing, different genetic makeup, we are bound to experience the world differently and to have different opinions about many things. I believe one of the main conditions to create a better world is that we are able to discuss these differences. When we meet people who have different opinions, it is important to be charitable to each other, and to start with trusting that the other person has good intentions. So, I’m thankful that Casey and I were able to do that.

Points of agreement
Though our viewpoints are quite different, it isn’t that Casey and I are at loggerheads about every issue or aspect of vegan advocacy. Reading his book in preparation for our discussion, I found myself agreeing with quite a few things: obviously, the abolitionist aim, but also the idea that ultimately people need to see what we do to animals as an issue of social justice. I agree with him about the importance of respectful yet assertive conversation, and with reinforcing positive behavior rather than punishing undesirable behavior. I appreciate that he wants to build a bigger tent by including demographics that have largely  been excluded from vegan advocacy. I share his stance against misanthropy. I agree that we don’t have enough research to say too many things with too high a degree of certainty.

A pragmatic approach
The main difference between our approaches is that Casey believes that we should never advocate for anything less than veganism, and that when we do that, we are betraying the animals, as well as our beliefs and that we may be actively undermining the case for veganism. I, on the other hand, believe that there is, so to speak, no moral obligation to always and everywhere present veganism as a moral obligation. If there’s any obligation, it is to do what works.

It is important to emphasize that the strategy I suggest – on this blog, in my talks and most elaborately in my book How to Create a Vegan World  is not meant as the only strategy that should replace all others. Rather, it is a complementary, but – I think – necessary strategy. I believe that in this I differ from many “abolitionists” who believe there is only one right way to advocate for veganism, and who consider anything less than that as an aberration that is at the same time ineffective and unethical. It’s equally important to emphasize that I do believe in the same goal: the idea that we should stop using animals for human purposes and should minimize animal suffering.

My view, very briefly, is that getting a lot of people to reduce is easier than getting a lot of vegans, and that, therefore, this is the fastest way to tip the system: a lot of reducers are what has been and is driving demand for plant-based products. A higher demand (coming from these reducers especially) obviously leads to a higher supply of good alternatives. Thanks to more alternatives, it becomes easier and easier for everyone to shift towards more plant based eating (see What vegan can learn from glutenfree) and to be open to animal rights arguments. I emphasize that, apart from trying to influence people’s attitude in the hope that people will change their behavior, we also need to help people change their behavior first (eating plant based to whatever degree, for whatever reason), so that they will more easily open their hearts and minds to the horrible situation animals are in. An example of this is also health conscious vegans who evolve into ethical vegans.

Where you stand depends on where you sit. We are presently so invested in using animals, both on the individual and societal/economic levels, that it is very hard to start thinking differently about eating animals. (The shortest introduction to my views is this video.)

If we agree that a critical mass of reducers is important, it is also important to see which arguments convince people to reduce their consumption of animal products. Health and environment seem to be effective arguments in this context; so, we should use them.

Does pragmatism = betrayal?
Now, Casey and others may agree that all of this may very well be true, but that for us vegans to advocate for reduction is to implicitly condone the eating of animals, and to downplay the social justice issue that is veganism or animal rights. One of the arguments that is often used to support this claim is to say that we wouldn’t be doing this in the case of humans. We wouldn’t advocate for a reduction of slavery, a reduction of domestic abuse, a regulation of child abuse; we would call for it to stop.

This argument sounds very elegant at first sight, but I believe it is very much off the mark. I have written about this previously (see On comparing animal rights with other social justice issues and Slavery Free Mondays, but basically, comparing, for example, child abuse or wife-beating with eating animal products, is comparing something that 99 percent of the people abhor and agree to ban entirely with something that almost as many people not just condone but actually celebrate.

Advocates of Casey’s view may then reply: but it doesn’t matter what people think about these issues; what matters is that we can compare human and non-human animals and that we are right to do so. Well, I believe that if we want to carve out a successful approach to stop people from doing something, we really do need to take into account where society is, not just where we are. Comparing eating animal products to beating one’s wife will often be ineffective, and people may feel very accused and morally reproached (alienating feelings usually will not lead to change).

Moreover, if you really believe that these issues are (almost) identical, then what about this: what would you do if you saw a man beating up his wife, or a child, or if you were witnessing someone buying a slave? If you had the power, you’d stop it, right? So, given that these issues are allegedly comparable, are you then morally obligated to do the same when you see people buying meat in a supermarket, or preparing it in their kitchen? Should you grab the meat out of their hands, or physically prevent them from buying or cooking meat? I don’t think so. The analogy, as analogies go, may not be perfect, but I think this shows that even us vegans think about these situations and issues as different. Similarly, while I appreciate Casey’s experience and everything he does for both animals and domestic violence victims (and abusers), I believe it’s problematic to compare the treatment of domestic abusers with the treatment of non-vegans. For example, Casey writes that most of the abusers he treats are ordered by courts to see him, which is indicative of the difference in itself.

I used to advocate like Casey does, from a “moral baseline” position. I changed my mind and my approach after years of advocating and campaigning. The main thing for me is not to be consistent with my ideology or theory, but to be consistent with results. If something gets good results, I will go for it. I will feel true to myself and my beliefs, even if, according to some, my approach is not in line with vegan orthodoxy (see also: Veganism: ideology versus results).

Research on effectiveness
Another point where I differ with Casey is in our opinions about the research that is being carried out by organizations like ACE (Animal Charity Evaluators), Faunalytics (formerly the Humane Research Council) and others. Casey has called their research pseudoscience and has written how their studies do not follow basic principles of science. While I do appreciate that, from his experience as a professor in clinical psychology with a lot of practical experience, Casey may bring a lot of interesting points to the table, I’m sure he too realizes that he’s not the only expert. I will not go into detail about the studies in question, but I’ll just make some general comments on this topic.

Like I said, I agree that we have not been able to do enough research to state many things with a very high degree of certainty. Note that this doesn’t mean we don’t have anything at this point. Plus, there is also a lot we can derive from more general research in the fields such as psychology, marketing and sociology. There is also common sense, and our combined experiences – even though we have to be careful with all these sources of data and knowledge. In any case, I’m very happy that there is more and more money being granted to and invested in research.

Casey seems to have a high distrust of the findings of the research (mainly done by the above mentioned groups) so far, one reason for that being – if I understood or interpreted him correctly – that the (preliminary) results often seem to point in the direction of support of incremental asks. Casey relies on theories and his own experience that according to him point in different directions, based on psychological theories and research, such as goal setting theory and the Transtheoretical Model (Stages of Change). He does not believe the findings of work in those areas suggest incremental asks are most effective, and that, in the case of Faunalytics and others, the data have been interpreted in a biased way to confirm the researchers’ original (incrementalist) views. Casey is mainly talking here about the Faunalytics study on former vegetarians and vegans. Che Green from Faunalytics has responded in the comment section on this article by Casey. I disagree with the conclusions Casey draws from the research – see What can we learn on research from ex-vegetarians?

I think in all of this it is useful to ask: what is it that could change our minds? My impression is that some people – I’m not necessarily saying Casey here – will not accept any evidence, because accepting it runs counter to their theories. There is, in other words, no way to falsify one’s conclusions (which is indicative of an unscientific attitude).

Personally, I don’t feel too much distrust towards the research done by groups like ACE and Faunalytics. Their studies were conducted with the specific aim to find out what works, and they have no interest whatsoever in fooling themselves. Even though we would be wise to remain critical (as with everything), I like to assume that people working on research in support of vegan advocacy would do their utmost best to avoid flawed methodologies and thus flawed results.

Big groups and money
I equally don’t share Casey’s distrust of “big groups”. It is definitely possible that big organizations go astray and sometimes are just raising money to fund their own continued existence, without doing all that much for the causes they advocate. However, there is obviously no reason to think that this is always or even usually the case. If a good organization is able to raise a lot of money, that is a good thing. Big organizations need funds to pay their staff and, therefore, need to fundraise. The more staff hours a group can devote to liberating animals, the more animals will be helped (no, it’s not going to be all done by volunteers). Money is a necessary resource not just to free up more working time, but also to do outreach. If we use money well, then the more money we can collect from people, companies and governments (often siphoning it away from other, more neutral or less noble, uses – see Money money money in our movement).

Reconciling different views
Casey and I finished our discussion by looking at what we can do to get along better and to reconcile these sometimes opposing viewpoints. Here are some ideas:

  • I talked about what I started this post with: trust. We have to be able to trust that all of us have the same good intentions (even though none of us is entirely pure in their intentions – we are humans, not saints). (see also: Can abolitionists and pragmatists ever trust each other?)
  • We also need to keep an open mind and be ready to change it. And, we need to practice what I call slow opinion.
  • While some approaches are definitely better than others and not all strategies are created equal, as long as we don’t know entirely what works best, strategic pluralism and experimenting with different approaches is (to a certain extent) a good thing.
  • It’s possible that different approaches can best be applied in different contexts. An “unapologetic” go vegan approach may be useful in one to one conversations where we see that the person is open-minded, while incremental, pragmatic approaches may do much better in the case of trying to create institutional change. Indeed, trying to change individuals (often done by individual advocates and grassroots groups) is quite different from advocating for institutional change (usually done by bigger, more professional groups). Similarly, approaching politicians with a health or environmental message will often be more effective than approaching them with an animal rights or “unapologetically” vegan message. Understanding these contextual differences may make us more tolerant of approaches that we usually don’t follow. (See also: Vegan activism: the difference between individuals and groups).
  • What is effective is also very much a matter of the factor time. Things that may not work (or not work optimally) today, may very well work (or work much better) in ten or twenty years time. I believe right now is a time for a mainly pragmatic approach, and that as time goes by and people become less and less dependent on animal products, an unapologetic approach will be more and more productive. (see also: The right strategy at the right time)

Again, despite our differences, I appreciate the work that Casey is doing, and I appreciate the fact that we had a constructive discussion.

You can watch the whole discussion (70 minutes) here.

Is clean meat the animals’ best hope? An interview with Paul Shapiro 

paul shapiroI have known Paul Shapiro since he ran Compassion Over Killing in Washington DC, together with his wonderful three legged dog, George. From that position, Paul went on to be a Humane Society of the United States spokesperson and vice president for thirteen years. Just this month (Jan. 2018), Paul came out with his first book: Clean Meat. How Growing Meat without Animals will Revolutionize Dinner and the World. In it, Paul chronicles some of the key people, companies, and technologies behind clean meat, or the idea of creating animal products directly from animal cells, without live animals. Paul provides the reader with a fascinating inside view of the startups that have been popping up in our social media feeds in the last few years: companies like Memphis Meats, Hampton Creek, Modern Meadow, Clara Foods, Mosa Meats, Geltor, or Perfect Day, who are all hurrying to bring products to market that might just mean the beginning of the end of animal consumption.
I talked with Paul about his hopes for clean meat, and asked for his answers to some common objections to the idea of eating meat without animals.

Vegan Strategist: Paul, your book got me even more excited about the possibilities of clean meat (not to say clean milk and clean eggs). First of all: what are you most excited about?
Paul Shapiro: I’m excited about it all, but, in all honesty, what would excite me the most would be a greater focus (in both plant-based meats and clean meats) on poultry and fish. The success of alternative milks and burgers is stellar, but even 100% displacement of those categories would affect less than 1% of farmed animals in the US. Statistically speaking, virtually all farmed animals are birds and fishes, so we need more replacement products for them. Fortunately, many of these startups are working on clean chicken, while Finless Foods is developing clean fish, too.

What in your opinion is the most critical factor for clean meat to succeed?
Not enough people buying this book! Just kidding. Seriously, there are key hurdles, from consumer acceptance to government regulation to technological barriers that could hinder the success of these start-ups. That said, every one of these companies is optimistic about overcoming such hurdles, and I outline why they feel that way in the book.

One of these technological barriers is the serum that is used to make the animal cells grow. Traditionally, this has been bovine serum. How are the alternatives coming along?
What we call acellular ag companies (those making milk, egg whites, leather, and gelatin) don’t need any bovine serum (or any other animal ingredients) at all. But the meat companies still use bovine serum for some meats, though not for others. They all know they can’t commercialize their products with that serum, both for financial and ethical reasons. The good news is that they’ve found non-animal alternatives to bovine serum that work (in fact, Memphis Meats’ Nick Genovese even published his serum-free recipe already), but the key is to find the most economical alternatives that will still cause the cells to grow into muscle quickly.

Assuming we can get past the technological hurdles: how easy or hard will it be to get governmental approval to bring these products to market?
That depends on the country and on the product. The path for the acellular ag companies seems a bit clearer, since there are already similar products on the market now. For instance, the rennet in nearly all hard cheeses sold in the US is produced through the same kind of synthetic biology which companies like Perfect Day, Geltor, and Clara Foods are using.

There are some really smart people, like Pat Brown of Impossible Foods, who still think clean meat is an unfeasible and stupid idea. The organization Givewell, as late as 2015, was not recommending investing in or donating to clean meat. Could they be right?
Sure, they could be right. I, of course, hope they’re not, and I also look at what experts in the meat industry think. Cargill has already invested in Memphis Meats. A major German poultry company just invested in SuperMeat. I presume they know what they’re doing. But there’s nothing inevitable or self-executing about the success of clean meat.

Some people – vegans especially – will say that we already have enough plant-based alternatives, which are getting better and better, and that we don’t have any need for clean meat.
If plant-based meats explode in popularity and make clean meat unnecessary, all of the clean meat companies will be thrilled, as would I. I love plant-based meats and tout them all the time. But many people profess to be wedded to actual animal meat. For them, clean meat could be a solution.
The problem of factory farming is just so severe that you want multiple solutions. Just as with the problem of fossil fuels, you don’t want just one alternative, like wind. You also want solar, geothermal, and more. Similarly, plant-based meats are a great solution to the factory farming problem, but you also want other alternatives, including clean meat, and, of course, whole foods plant-based diets, too.

clean meat book

There seems to be a big food trend in the direction of more authentic, more simple, more artisanal food. That doesn’t seem very compatible with clean meat, at first sight.
The key isn’t to get people who like “natural foods” to eat clean meat; it’s to get mainstream meat-eaters (which is nearly everyone) to eat it. And really, the current way we produce meat is so unnatural that growing it seems like a naturally preferable option. I might also point out how technology has helped us on a lot of other food sustainability issues. Take vanilla as one example: only about 1% of vanilla that we eat is “natural” vanilla, which is grown in rainforests. The rest is produced synthetically, allowing us to have the same vanilla taste and scent we crave for much lower costs.

What would you tell vegans who are critical of clean meat?
Well, clean meat is meant, in the first place, for mainstream meat-eaters, meaning nearly everyone. Some vegans will be fine eating it, but the surveys show that the less meat you eat now, the less interest you have in eating clean meat.
No one argues that clean meat is a panacea or that it addresses every single concern about meat. It is quite plausible though that it may spare billions of animals from torture and slaughter. All that said, sometimes as vegans we delude ourselves into thinking that the foods we eat don’t cause any animal suffering. For those who think that, I’d recommend becoming more familiar with commercial agriculture practices, including for the plant-based foods we vegans love.

It seems that in the evolution towards a better world for animals, business and entrepreneurship are getting more and more important compared to activism/advocacy. What’s your take on that?
I totally agree, and recommend this good essay by my friend Seth Goldman, executive chairman of Beyond Meat, on the topic. This is a big reason I wrote the book and am now moving away from conventional animal advocacy and toward food tech as a way to help animals. The animal advocacy movement can do a lot of good, yet I’ve increasingly come to the view that food technology is desperately needed to greatly accelerate the shift away from the factory farming of animals. Horses weren’t liberated from labor by humane sentiment; Henry Ford liberated them. Whales weren’t freed from harpoons by humane sentiment; kerosene helped render whale oil obsolete. Will clean meat and plant-based meats help do the same for farm animals? These questions are the driving factors for me to move my career more into the food tech space.

And you’re not the only one. The stories of the “business activists” in your book are fascinating and inspiring.
Yes. And it’s helpful to recall that these people are just people. They’re mere mortals like the rest of us. Many of them are young idealists who haven’t come to believe yet that they can’t change the world. And, as the saying goes, those who complain that they can’t change the world should get out of the way of those who are doing it.

How do you feel about big meat companies getting involved in this?
The faster meat companies become the purveyors of plant-based meats and clean meats, the faster animals will win. Fortunately, it’s already starting to happen.

What would you say to people who bring up anti-capitalist arguments?
I hear that argument and respect those who make it. But if animals must wait until the end of capitalism to be freed from factory farms, they’re going to be waiting a long time.

Apparently Hampton Creek’s foie gras might be the first product to reach the market?
Totally possible. It would be quite a story: the only foie gras that can be legally sold in California. It’d be quack-tastic!

What can your average vegan or vegan advocate do in this story? How can they help?
It’s a small but growing field! If you want to pursue a career in cellular ag, this page may be useful. If you’ve got an idea for a company and want advice about getting started, the Good Food Institute is the place to go. (It’s actually a great place to go for much more than that, too.) And, if you just want to be supportive, of course, touting the benefits of cellular ag and the start-ups profiled in the book on social media would helpful, too. They could use the support!

To learn more about Paul’s fascinating book, go to www.cleanmeat.com. To know more about Paul, visit www.paul-shapiro.com

Empathy means understanding that some people have less of it

When I was a young boy, my parents kept chickens in the garden. Not for the eggs, but for slaughter. We had about thirty per year. My father raised them, and at the end of their short lives brought them to a slaughterer, who finished the job. After that, they’d land in our freezer and later ended up on our plates. It was my parents’ way to eat “better” meat, healthier especially.

From a young age, I empathized with these chickens. Now and then, there were weak or wounded ones among them. These often got pecked on by their fellows. I used to take care of them. I took a cardboard box, put straw, water and feed in it, and put it inside the house, next to the stove, where the animal would be warm, and hoped the chicken would get better. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t.

We also had a few goats. This wasn’t for cheese or anything, but because my brother had wanted them. I liked those goats. One night, I dreamed (or thought I dreamed) of a goat crying. I just slept on, thinking it wasn’t real. The next morning, I heard that one of the goats had fallen in the pond, and hadn’t been able to climb back out. I cried my eyes out after hearing that, and I still feel bad about it (maybe I could have realized it wasn’t a dream, I could have gotten up).

Recently, I was sitting on a subway train, and a homeless or poor person was asking for money. In front of me were two women, each of them briefly looking at the man. On the one woman’s face, I saw (or thought I saw) indifference. On the other woman’s face, I saw empathy and compassion. I felt so much sympathy for the latter woman, and remember thinking: “You care, that’s so beautiful.” I was moved. But, my next thought was: who or what was it that made her into a caring person? Was it a decision she made herself? And, if so, what gave her the power to make that decision? Regarding the other woman (if my perception was correct), was it her own fault that she didn’t care or cared less? I felt that each one of these people was a product of their upbringing, their environment, their genes.

Empathy for animals came to me from a very young age. I purposely wrote “came to me”. I didn’t look it up. I didn’t decide to have empathy for animals. I was six or something, and it was already there.
Some people have less of it than I have, some have more. I don’t know why I had or have the amount of empathy I do (or for that matter, the amount of will or discipline to put that empathy into practise). Maybe everyone is born with empathy, but we need to be lucky to have people around us who cherish and nurture it, rather than telling us we don’t need to have it.

I haven’t made up my mind about how much free will we have, but in any case, I believe that the control we have, about who we are, what we believe, and even what we do, is limited. I’m sure that empathy is, to some extent, teachable, and surely we can influence other people, help them to be better, through our educating efforts.

But having empathy also means we need to understand that, maybe through no fault of their own, some people start out with less of it.

How to veganize other people

Many vegans are looking for the ideal way to make other people go vegan. Often, they are targeting good friends, family, or even their significant other. And, not infrequently, they get quite frustrated when their attempts at making these people give up animal products do not result in any significant changes. Below, you’ll find some of my thoughts and tips on this topic.

First, note that I don’t like to think in terms of “convincing” or “converting” others. This kind of language is, I think, not productive. It is not good for people to hear that we want to convert or convince them (people are very resistant to be convinced of something by others – see below). For this reason, it’s also better for us not to think about our efforts in those terms.  In the end, we can’t make other people do anything. But we can influence them in the right direction and help them open their heart and minds.

The term influencing too may bring up a connotation of manipulation or coercion, but in fact influencing is just a very normal thing that no one can avoid doing. Every single human is influencing other humans all the time, implicitly or explicitly, in a positive or negative direction. We shouldn’t be ashamed or wary of trying to influence people in a positive direction, assuming that the influencing is done with integrity, transparency and good intentions.

So, here are some suggestions for effectively influencing other people to move towards veganism or more plant-based eating.

influencing

ONE: Ask yourself if it’s worth it
Some people will never be swayed to go vegan in their lifetime, or at least this would require a lot of time and energy. It is possible that this time and energy might be better spent elsewhere. More generally, we can wonder if spending a lot of resources on one-to-one interactions is interesting at all, given that we could also try to change institutions like schools and businesses and local governments. In general, going for institutional change will have much larger potential returns than going for individual change. Of course, some individuals might be very influential in that they have a large reach, or in that, exactly, they have decision power to change things within the institution that they work in. If your mom is the CEO of a big company, it’s more interesting to try to influence her than if she’s just self-employed and doesn’t have a big impact on other people. So, if you can, invest your time in people who are multipliers.

TWO: Think and put yourself in their shoes
Don’t use a one size fits all approach, but adapt your approach to the person or persons in front of you. Try to imagine what it is to be like them. Try to know what they appreciate and what might help them change their hearts and minds. Is it philosophical discussion? Is it good food? Is it just great conversation? Do they have fears about being unhealthy? Do they have allergies and need to have a really practical solution? Do they need to be shown that there are many good alternatives and that eating vegan is not inconvenient?

THREE: Inform and help
When vegans consider the tools at their disposal, they usually will think first and foremost of moral arguments, delivered in the form of a speech, a youtube video, pamphlet or documentary. You can use all of these, and they might be helpful. But consider that there are many more. We can give people many things, in many forms. We can use not only moral arguments (what happens to the animals…) but also other arguments (the environment, health, etc). Or, we can avoid arguments altogether and give them a good taste experience. We can hand them theoretical information (how many trees are cut for meat) or practical information (where to find a great restaurant). And, if you have the ability to make things easier for the person you want to influence by cooking for them or providing food for them, then do so.
In any case, avoid information overload. It’s tempting to always give people more and more information, hoping that this next text, quote, video or photo will be the final drop that changes them. If people keep asking for more, by all means, give them what they want. But most people don’t. Don’t assume that an initial openness or request for information means that they will keep welcoming it, and that they’ll never get tired of it. If they see you as the person who, every time they are close to you, will go on and on about the same topic and can’t shut up about it, they’ll just avoid you.

FOUR: Ask – but don’t ask for all or nothing
It’s always good to give people a concrete suggestion or goal. Don’t present this goal, however, as something they have to do (for ethical or whatever reasons), but as something that it is good to do. And, know that this goal doesn’t always need to be veganism. While they may not be ready to go vegan, many people may be open to taking some steps. They may want to participate in Meatless Mondays, or Veganuary. Or, they may even be willing to go much further, like not eating animal products during the week, or whatever. Accept and appreciate these steps, because 1) they help reduce suffering in and of themselves, and 2) they may be steps towards more. Once the initial threshold has been crossed, things get so much easier. Moreover, it’s important to realize that we may not require everyone to go vegan at this stage, and that if only we had enough people who seriously reduce, the vegan world would be right around the corner. It’s just a matter of critical mass and reaching a tipping point.

FIVE: Back off and be patient
After you’ve given people enough information – that is as tailored as possible – it’s time to get out of the way and be patient. Patience means that you may have to wait months or even years. You may think that you or the animals can’t afford years, but that’s just how it goes. Here’s one hypothesis as to why it is important to back off in time and be patient. Most people are somehow like adolescents: they don’t want to be convinced of important things by others, but want to come to their own conclusions. They also don’t want to give the impression that that they have been convinced by you. Especially in situations where there is some kind of (friendly) competition between people (like with siblings, for instance) or where people are stubborn, it is important to give people a chance to change without it having to appear as if you were the one who changed them. People might not change because they don’t want to appear like that. So, how can we avoid it? If we keep talking and trying to convince them, they don’t have any space to “convert” without appearing as if it is due to us. If we, on the other hand, back off and lay low, chances are that after half a year or so, they feel confident that a change will be (or appear as) the result of their own independent thinking, rather than your talking into them.

At this point, no more proselytizing is needed, but it is useful if you yourself are an example of a nice, friendly, patient, helpful vegan. Someone, in other words, whose example people want to follow. Trust that, at this point, people have the necessary information. You may give a nudge here and there, but as a whole, give people space to change.

Do you have your own successful recipe for influencing people? Let me know in the comments.

More about the art of influencing people in my book How to Create a Vegan World.

 

 

Ten easy ways to alienate a meat-eater

how to alienate meat eaters

If you would like a vegan club rather than a vegan world, it is suprisingly easy to make sure that people don’t join the club. Here are some ways to address meat-eaters in ways that ensure they do not feel attracted to move in our direction.

how to alienate meat eaters

1. Present the solution as an all or nothing thing. People have to realize that they are either in or out!

2. If they are flexitarians, tell them that’s like a murderer killing less people. Even if they’re vegetarian, you can tell them that they basically don’t do anything good for animals.

3. If they say they love animals but eat meat, rather than working with that, just call them hypocrites. Instant separation guaranteed!

4. Assume that the way you changed is the way everyone will and should change. After all, we’re all the same, right?

5. Talk to people about the hundreds of animal-derived additives, e-numbers, aromas… that abound in our food and how important it is to avoid them.

6. When they seem to shift in our direction, make sure to tell people in time that their food should also be organic, local, seasonal, fair trade, healthy, sugarfree and palmoil-free.

7. When you think you’ve spotted another vegan, make sure that he or she has the right motivations (i.e. your motivations). Tell them they’re not really vegan if they don’t do it for the animals.

8. Explain that there is no such thing as a 99 percent vegan, and that any exception anyone makes is a violation of animals’ rights.

9. Be sure to cross-examine waiters to the tiniest details, especially when there are many people listening in. This is your chance to alienate many people at once!

10. Last but not least,  make sure that non-vegans never use the V-word when not appropriate! It’s our word, and no half-assed vegetarian should ever take it from us!

You see, it’s easy as pie to make sure vegans remain a very exclusive club!

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.

Gotcha!
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!

Mosquitoes
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?

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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.

mcvegan

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.