Eating and caring: a conflict of interest

October 4 is the birthday of Saint Francis of Assisi, the Italian saint who according to legend could talk with animals. On that day, we celebrate World Animals Day. The situation of the animals in this world is kind of similar to the situation of the humans: some of them bathe in luxury – mostly the companion animals or “pets” in the rich countries – while many more live a life that’s nasty, brutish and short: the animals we eat.

Pigs are at least as intelligent and capable of experiencing emotions as dogs, but as we want to buy their meat at as cheap a price as possible, the pigs of this world mostly lead short lives of fear, stress, pain and boredom. As a society, we do things with pigs, chickens and cows that we would never do to our companion animals. If you ask people’s opinions about eating animals, many or most of them will answer that we are allowed to do it, but that we must make sure they at least have “a good life”. Yet these very same people buy just any meat from the supermarket and when they eat out. That’s meat from intensive animal agriculture.

You could call these consumers inconsistent or even hypocritical, but I’d like to call on a more human-friendly explanation: for most people, compassion towards the animals we eat is not easy.

conflict of interest

We are empathic beings – at least that’s my assumption. When another human being suffers, we feel it. We can also empathize with animals, sometimes even more easily or more intensely than with humans. Animal suffering is hard to watch – perhaps the perceived innocence of the animal has something to do with that, or its vulnerability – and there’s a reason why slaughterhouses are not public attractions. Any one of us knows that not only our companion animals but also those pigs, chickens and cows are vulnerable to pain and suffering. So why do we care about cats and dogs but not about those “farm animals”? The answer is simple: there is a conflict of interest. Allowing feelings of empathy towards a cow or a pig, requires of us that we re-evaluate our “use” of these animals, and – for many of us – probably a change in diet as a consequence. So many times I’ve heard omnivores say that they don’t want to watch an animal rights movie or read Jonathan Saffran Foers Eating Animals because they want to keep eating meat. Whomever feels the suffering of animals, does not want to eat them, or at the very least does not want them to be bred in factory farms. Becoming a vegetarian or drastically reducing one’s meat consumption seems the logical consequence. Yet for most people who love their steak or chicken leg, it just isn’t that easy. I know, because I used to be one of them.

What we need to do is to make compassion easier. By giving people the experience that plant-based meals are at least as tasty as their favorite dishes with meat, we take away a number of barriers. Not only will people be more open to eat vegetarian, but more importantly: we take away a barrier to feel. Empathy with animals becomes easier, because slowly but surely, our interest in avoiding that empathy diminishes.

Those among us who wish to make the world a better place, hope that giving information to the consumer will be followed by a changed attitude and then changed behaviour. Sometimes that works, but there is in my mind not enough attention to the reverse: first make the recommended behaviour easier, so that it becomes easier to change one’s mind, or feelings.

More and more vegetarian dishes in restaurants, more and better products in shops, more vegetarian options at all kinds of events, a larger offer of caterers, vegetarian cookbooks etc: all of these things can help assure that caring for non human animals becomes easier. It’s a pragmatic approach to bringing about a change of heart.

After all, we’re not all Saint Francis of Assisi. Yet.

Confessions of an abolitionist

This is a guest blog by a friend. I think it contains valuable insights in the process vegan/animal rights activists go through in terms of their emotions, their relationships with omnivores and other vegans. The author prefers not to be named, but is prepared to answer feedback in the comments section.


I have always despised the word ‘journey’ when discussing veganism; that and ‘baby steps’ have been the bane of my life over the last year or so since I began identifying as an ‘abolitionist vegan’. It seems ironic, therefore, that I now find myself on my own ‘vegan journey’.

Let me take you back to my first year as a vegan. Luckily for me, I found all of the aspects of veganism very easy to adapt to; I had been vegetarian for quite some time before that and had ‘flirted’ on and off with veganism over the years. I was, however, always a vegan at heart. From a young age I hated cruelty towards animals and often felt more affinity towards my cats and other animals than I did with my own friends. It seemed logical therefore that I became vegan and avoided all animal use.
Going back to my first year, despite finding many aspects of being vegan easy, I began to get more and more depressed. I became addicted to Facebook and joined every vegan group I could find. I signed petition after petition and tortured myself with graphic images. I began to feel nothing but animosity towards non vegans and I was an angry and volatile person when discussing veganism. I shared post after post, day after day, accusing non vegans of being barbaric and murderers; they were even ‘rapists’ for consuming dairy products. I did actually ‘make’ a few new vegans this way. However, many blocked me and probably thought of me as another ‘vegan lunatic’.

When I started familiarising myself with the abolitionist approach, it all started to make sense. I loved the straightforwardness and the ‘no bullshit’ approach adopted by the likes of Gary Francione. I felt that finally I had one simple answer and an effective way to advocate. It was also comforting to see that abolitionists didn’t advocate petitions or the sharing of graphic images. I finally felt content. I became a better advocate both online and in person in many respects; I was calmer and more confident. Few people could argue with me, such was the strength of my conviction.

helen

After a while, I noticed that I began to feel unhappy again. My disdain for non vegans had been replaced by disdain for other vegans. Ironically, I began to feel more comfortable around non vegans than vegans who didn’t share my abolitionist views. Indeed, I felt that if someone wasn’t an abolitionist, they weren’t ‘truly vegan’. My posts promoting veganism on my facebook page had started to become diluted with posts critiquing other organisations who weren’t ‘vegan enough’. I started to delete friends who promoted single issues such as anti fur campaigns and God help anyone who shared a petition to my page. Vegans started to be separated into ‘abs’(abolitionists) or ‘wellies’ (welfarists). If they weren’t in the former camp, they weren’t people I really wanted to associate with.

When I saw criticisms of the abolitionist approach, I and my ‘colleagues’ would come down on them like a ton of bricks; they were welfarists, they didn’t care about animals truly etc. Oh and of course, the most popular slur; they were ‘speciesist’. Any critique of the abolitionist approach automatically meant you were welfarist or speciesist. We would all respond in tandem, that ‘veganism was the moral baseline’ and accompanied with that would be an analogy of the holocaust or slavery(this isn’t just an abolitionist trait.
I see this amongst all vegans). I think few of us used our own words or analogies after a while; we would simply churn out the same rhetoric used by Gary et al. Whilst all of that was going on, I honestly felt like I was doing the right thing for the animals. If we had all these ‘fake vegans’ in our midst, how were we ever going to change the world? It didn’t cross my mind that the world certainly wasn’t going to change whilst we constantly bickered with one another.

Recently I took a break from vegan advocacy to gather my thoughts and started reading various different articles, webpages etc. I was shocked to see how much animosity there was to Gary and his ‘clan’, I felt part of that clan to a certain extent but also understood the criticism as I read his page and saw nothing but argument after argument. I felt drained reading it, I had always defended Gary’s need to block so many people as ‘It’s an abolitionist page and if people don’t agree with him, then tough, they should be blocked’.
However, seeing it with fresh eyes, I just felt despondent and sad. On one day he had managed to write about four status updates- each one fiercely criticising other organisations (from DXE to Vegan Outreach) (Whilst I’m not a fan of the former, I went on the Vegan Outreach website to see if it was true that they were ‘absolutely hostile to the idea of veganism’ and noticed they must have said vegan about 5 times in just a few paragraphs). I simply didn’t/don’t want to be a part of this hatred anymore and I started to panic; what if these organisations I have mocked actually do mean well?!!!

So where am I now you may ask? Well currently I am terrified of being called all of those things I called others. I’m certain the abs would be calling me a welfarist for daring to criticize the dogma if they read this. It’s horrible to think that I can’t even have a change of heart for fear of criticism. And what’s worse, is that the criticism will be that I don’t care about the animals enough- something that couldn’t be further from the truth.  I have also started to admire other prominent vegans who certainly do not fall into the abolitionist category but who are passionate about ending all animal use; they just go about it a different way. Bearing in mind, I am not an economist, nor can I see into the future, I don’t actually know the best way of advocating anymore. As an abolitionist, I was certain it was telling everyone that ‘veganism was the moral baseline’. As for vegetarians and meat reducers, I found them despicable- the ultimate traitors to the cause. Now I feel happy that they are doing something (the dreaded ‘baby steps’) and I will, where possible always encourage and support these people to do more and become vegan. What I now refuse to do is to put them down, or compare their reduction of animal products to a ‘rape free Monday’. I’m sorry but that analogy never has nor never will work as we simply don’t view rape or murder the way we view consuming animal products as a society. Just because I see what we are doing to animals as the greatest atrocity of all, it doesn’t mean I will win over others by making comparisons that will simply get their back up.

In conclusion, what has changed? I am even more passionate about vegan advocacy than ever before; I absolutely believe that animals are not our property and are not ours to be used. I want the world to go vegan more than I can possibly convey. I cannot stress this enough. But what has changed is that I now believe we have to adapt our approach to suit the audience if we want to make a real change. It’s not about speaking the truth all the time and I think we forget that. We may feel that if we don’t say the absolute truth that we are being immoral and that we are letting the animals down. Well maybe, just maybe, we are letting the animals down by being so dogmatic in our approach, the use of our words and our tone. Sometimes, we need to bite our tongue when someone says they are making steps towards veganism for example. Yes, it’s frustrating that they’re not there already and yes they are continuing to cause harm by their purchases but let’s see what happens if we congratulate them and be more encouraging (I’m not suggesting that all abolitionists adopt this ‘all or nothing’ approach but it is undoubtedly very prevalent). Finally, I think we should concentrate on our own advocacy methods and stop focusing on other organisations and how ‘evil’ they are. Maybe they are trying a different tactic too. Let’s stop thinking the worst of one another and let’s start thinking for ourselves.

Dear omnivore

Vegans are people too, and people like to understand and want to be understood. Here’s a few lines about how some vegans think and feel. May it contribute to illumination and clarification 🙂

Dear omnivore,

We vegans (I should actually just speak for myself) undoubtedly get on your nerves at times. We bother you with our preaching, we are not always willing to eat the things that you serve us, we are quite difficult when visiting restaurants together, we slow down everything when we want to read labels, we may react socially inappropriate at times, and occasionally we even might make you feel guilty.
So, I’m sorry about all that. But please know, dear omnivore, that being a vegan in a carnivorous world is not always easy, and allow me to give you a small glimpse inside the mind of at least one vegan.

When I say a vegan life is not always simple, I’m not talking about the thousands of times we have to answer the same questions (what do you actually eat? Where do you get your protein?). Nor am I talking about having to read labels, or about restaurant staff that do not know what we eat or not eat. No, these kind of things I consider to be the pleasures of being a vegan, so to speak.heart

I am talking about something completely different. It’s something I cannot easily express. It’s about a combination of helplessness and incomprehension. Helplessness in the face of so much animal suffering, and incomprehension and astonishment at the fact that it is not getting addressed and eradicated, or even perceived as such.

These frustrations, you may say, are not the privilege of vegans, and you may be right. But still, it is different in this area than others. For the problem of the endless suffering of animals by human hands, there is a solution which is actually quite feasible: it would just mean that all of us start eating only delicious vegan food instead of dead animals. When you consider this on a global scale, at the level of all humanity, this solution seems to be (at least in short term) not quite realistic. But at individual level, it surely is possible, in theory, for everyone to join.

And then you (I mean me now, the vegan), start thinking and chewing your thoughts, over and over again. You realize that even if the solution is simple, ultimately it is not happening, and people do not participate, they continue to eat meat. And you wonder why. You wonder whether you may be seeing things that are not there. You ask yourself if you are hyper-sensitive or overly sentimental. You consider that you are maybe an alien, or just downright crazy. You tell yourself that it cannot be as bad as it looks, that there must be some justice behind it all. Karma perhaps. But that doesn’t convince you. And again you try to find out what it actually is that you dislike so much and whether it is actually so awful as you think. And you keep on coming back to the same conclusion: yes, what happens *is* horrible. Sixty billion animals every year that lead a miserably short life, because we humans find their meat tasty. That’s actually all that is going on.

And you wonder why it does not stop and since it is not stopping you ask what you can or should do to make it stop. You try some things here and there, but it is never enough and you can see change but it is very slow. And above all: there seems to be no way to explain it to the people who don’t see it. You can not even show them any pictures or videos because they do not want to watch them. They tell you all the things you tell them are just exceptions and that in the end it is not all bad. And you’re considered to be adhering to a new religion, or you have simply made another choice than they did. And you try to explain that it is *not* just a matter of taste or preference. That eating meat or not eating meat is not a matter of painting the living room in yellow or in green. Because by now you are convinced that not eating animals is not only a compassionate but also a very rational thing to do. How can it be so difficult, you think, to see that we should avoid inflicting pain and suffering and killing where we can easily avoid it? But the others don’t understand, and so you try every possible way to explain. You appeal to moral philosophy, to arguments about the environment and health, you cook, you let people taste, and you hope that you have some effect, drop by drop.

And you can see that in almost everyone’s case, all that is needed to understand and feel, is already there. You can see that most people love their cat or their dog, you see that they really cannot cope with animal cruelty. Similarly they are not convinced anymore that eating animals is required to be healthy. And yet all the time they tell you that what you are saying is not exactly right, or it is inconsistent, or not feasible, or naive, or not important compared to all the human suffering in the world.

And through all this thinking and talking and discussing, you constantly need to be careful not to seem arrogant. The deadly sin here is to appear as one who thinks he is better than the rest, a moralist who tells other people what to do. You must pay attention that you do not condemn others for what they eat – something which is very difficult because the other very often already feels condemned by your mere presence as a vegan. And you must be careful that you do not look like someone who hates, because actually you do not hate (although at times you may become a bit more aggressive, intolerant or judgemental, like every human being). You just can not understand, even though you try so hard.
And of course you must look healthy all the time and can never be sick, because that would be the fault of your diet.

Fortunately, dear omnivore, it is not all doom and gloom in our heads, and there are a few things that make it a little easier. Unlike what you may think, we do enjoy life and the food we eat – many of us discovered the joys of cooking and eating only after having said goodbye to meat and fish. And we definitely can see changes around us, faster and faster. And in our neighborhood and all over the world there are people who feel the same and fight the same fight. If we are crazy, surely we are not alone. We strive together for Something Completely Different.

Personally, what helps me the most is the realization, over and over again, that I myself was eating animals for a long time past the point that I realized I shouldn’t do it. In a way, I am grateful for that. And I am grateful for the fact that I can feel, no matter how inconvenient that may be at times, and that I am vulnerable.

This, dear omnivore, is – very simplified – what is happening daily in my mind. Perhaps in being clear to each other about our feelings, we can find things that unite us and stop talking in terms of me versus you, and may learn to understand each other better.

And to understand is to love, they say.

Thank you for reading

 

PS: animal suffering is not the only argument for avoiding animal products. Please realize there are many differences among us.

How to veganize the world: one possible strategy

This is a somewhat longer article that gives a summary of the strategy you can also find in this talk. It first appeared in French here.

How to veganize the world

Let’s assume that if you’re reading this, you agree that, apart from all kinds of other changes, your ideal world is a world where animals are not used for human purposes, be it food, clothing, research, entertainment, or whatever. A vegan world, in short.

Can we ever achieve a vegan world? Right now, it doesn’t look too good. To use Melanie Joy’s so called “three N’s of justification”, meat is natural, normal and necessary. And to add two more N’s: it’s nice (tasty) and it’s not the first and only thing we worry about. Also, demand for meat, dairy and eggs is expected to grow a lot in the coming decades, because of the increasing purchasing power of people in upcoming economies, like China and India, which together represent one third of the global population.

Still, I’m optimistic. I think a vegan world is an obtainable goal (although it of course depends on what we consider to be a vegan world exactly, but let’s not have that discussion). The question then is: how do we reach that goal?

The most obvious idea, and the strategy that gets the most emphasis from both individual vegan/animal rights activists as well as from most organisations is simple: try to convince as many people as possible to go vegan, by explaining them that animals suffer or deserve respect and even rights. This is an important part of the strategy, but it is definitely not the only required part and it is maybe not even the most important part. I believe the social struggle for animal rights is the biggest and most challenging struggle of them all. To win it, we’ll need different tactics. But first, let’s see why this struggle is so difficult and different.

The struggle for animal rights is different

We love to compare the movement for animal rights with several human rights causes, such as the anti-slavery movement, the fight for women’s liberation, anti-racism, and so on, but it is important to note that, while there certainly are similarities, there are also big differences. The first among them is that in our case, the beings campaigning are not the same as the victims. We, their supporters, speak for beings who can’t speak for themselves. And we are still quite a small group. The public support for our cause is by far not as big as it was or is for let’s say the struggle for black people or women’s rights, exactly because in those cases respectively people of color and women were and are to at least a significant extent part of the protest. In the words of author Norman Phelps “we are attempting to be the first social justice movement in history to succeed without the organized, conscious participation of the victims.”

Take into account also the incredible degree to which our society is dependent on animal products. Most people, especially in the western world, have animal products at every meal. That’s three times a day, every day. Huge economies depend on the consumption of animal products, including also big parts of the clothing, research and some entertainment industries. We are invested in the (ab)use of animals to a degree that we probably have never been invested in the “use” of for instance black people, women or children. This obviously makes the whole system suffer from a very high degree of inertia. It’s good to take that into account.

Another reason for inertia is this: the main behavior (in terms of volume) that we are trying to change is eating behavior. Our food habits are sort of ingrained in us, maybe more so than anything else. What we eat is tied to emotional and psychological factors. We can be addicted to food, and some researchers believe that some food products or ingredients may have a level of addictiveness comparable to hard drugs. When it’s about food, we don’t think with our mind but with our taste buds or our stomach. Meat eating has been part of our history for hundreds of thousands of years. Many people experience some part of primary craving for it.
Conversely, what makes our challenge even bigger is that our opponents have it quite easy: their message (that eating animals is ok, normal, healthy…) is one that the large majority of the public wants to hear. It’s a message that the industry throws out their with billions of advertising money.

The above factors (as well as others) should be taken into account when strategizing about our movement and how to get to a vegan world. This is not to say that no comparisons are valid and that there are no similarities, but it means that we shouldn’t be too quick to draw conclusions based on what happened in other movements. We are largely in uncharted territory.

Moral and non-moral factors

moral non moral
When we look at the factors that can influence individuals (and society as a whole) to go vegan or progress towards veganism, we can make the following distinction: there are moral factors and non-moral factors. Concern for animal pain and suffering is the main moral factor or argument that we use. We hope that by considering the plight of the animals that they eat, people may change their behaviour. Non-moral factors are factors that can motivate or help people to eat or go vegan as well, but which have in and of themselves nothing to do with morality. For instance the environment in which individuals find their food and eat can be conducive to them eating vegan or not. A wonderful selection of great tasting meat and dairy alternatives could convince people to choose them without any thoughts of the animals being involved. Concern about one’s health is also a non moral factor (though I would never call it selfish or egotistical, as some people do).

We think moral factors work best

In our movement, we focus mostly on the moral factors. We spend a lot of time telling people that animals are sentient beings, that they have a right to life etc, saying that that is reason enough for them to change their eating habits.

Why do we focus on these moral factors? In part, because we think this focus is the most effective thing we can do. And we think they are effective because they are what convinced most of us who are vegetarian or vegan at this point. That we were moved by those factors, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that others will be too. Indeed, if it worked for everyone in the same way, we should have a lot more vegans already, obviously. You could see the present day vegetarians and vegans (a couple of percentages of the population) as the innovators and early adopters on the “diffusion of innovation” model. The rest of the population – the so called early and late majorities, and obviously the laggards) might very well need different ways to be convinced – because they are different people, with different interests – than us. Briefly put, when we advocate, we should always keep the following in mind: that you are not your audience.

The right thing for the right reasons?

Not only do we believe that these moral factors work well, we also want them to work well and we want people to be convinced by these moral factors and nothing else. We want people to be vegan for the right reasons, which is to say: because they care about animals. I guess this is because we believe that only people really caring about animals provides real and lasting protection for them. We have doubts that a vegan world will ever come about as a result of a lot of health or foodie vegans, and for good reason. There may be other reasons too, more personal ones, but I’m not going to start psychoanalyzing.

So because 1. we think a focus on moral arguments works and 2. because we want people to do the right thing for the right (moral) reason, our movement has very explicitly focused on it for the past few decades.

The problem with moral campaigning however, is that it’s not enough. One thing we can learn from other movements, and in particular from the anti-slavery movement (and here is a parallel with other movements which I think we can draw), is that the good fights are not won (if they are ever won) with moral arguments alone. In the case of slavery in North America, not only was it ended by an actual war, but also other things were really important, like the invention of the steam engine which could automate certain tasks and could make them cheaper than working with slaves.

Morality alone won’t do it

In the case of the animal rights movement, these non-moral factors are arguably even more important. If you would draw the case for the moral arguments to its logical extreme, you would argue that we have a duty always and everywhere to avoid animal products (let’s restrict ourselves to diet here), even in the case of us having only water and bread as our only meal for the rest of our lives. Now, that may morally make sense, and many present day vegans would not turn their back from veganism even if all they could eat was water and bread. However, we can easily imagine that every advance in alternative products (both in quality as well as quantity or availability) makes it a lot easier to further evolve on the scale towards veganism. To put it another way: as the offer of alternatives for animal products improves and increases, the required moral motivation or concern shrinks. This is a good thing, because we don’t have people’s motivation directly under our control, nor do we control their compassion or discipline to change.

Behaviour change may precede attitude change

For those of us who want people to go vegan for the right reasons and actually care about animals, there is good news though: attitude change can follow behaviour change. Let me explain. In our movement, as in most social movements, we usually work like this: we want to change people’s attitudes or beliefs about something, and hope that these changed attitudes will make them change their behaviour. In our case: we try to change their attitudes about animals by informing them about how animals are sentient beings who can suffer, deserve rights and respect, etc. We hope they understand this and then take the next step, which is to stop eating animal products. This works sometimes, but probably not often enough. Not only are we unable to make many people care (we don’t have much control over their caring), but some (maybe many) of the people who actually do care, will not change their behaviour (this is called the attitude-behaviour gap). Indeed we may assume that deep down, most people do care about what happens to animals in e.g. factory farms. Most people, however, are not vegan. They are not putting that caring into practise. The reasons for this are many, but one of the main ones is undoubtedly that it’s generally not convenient enough to do so.

When people’s behaviour changes first though (i.e. without their beliefs having changed), this behaviour change can influence their beliefs. You may notice the parallel with what I wrote about before: moral reasons and non-moral reasons. People can change what they eat for non-moral reasons: they may be in an environment where there’s great vegan food, they may be eating it because someone else prepares it for them daily. In the future there may be vegan alternatives just about everywhere. In some situations vegan food could be the default option and people may choose this option without thinking.

Now what happens is that once they experience that vegan food is good to eat, is doable, affordable, etc, they get more open to the animal rights arguments because they are no longer afraid of losing something. They know and have experienced already that there are great alternatives for animal products, so they don’t fear missing out. This time they are less prone to avoid reading an article on animal suffering or avert their eyes when they see coverage of factory farms on TV. They are less likely to dismiss it.

Let me illustrate how behaviour influences beliefs with a concrete example. Imagine a bullfighter and a slaughterhouse worker. These two people basically do the same thing: they kill cows. Now if you would ask non-vegans who of the two persons they feel most angry with, the answer will be: the bullfighter. Why is that? In part it is because many people see bullfighting as senseless violence while they see slaughtering an animal for meat as a necessary thing to do. Food is in their eyes less trivial than entertainment. I think, however, that this is not the main factor at play here. I think the main difference is this: most people are not involved or invested in bullfighting (they don’t attend bullfights or don’t watch them on TV), but are invested in the slaughtering of animals because they eat meat. Behaviour influences beliefs. It is much harder to judge or condemn something you do yourself. It is easy for most people to condemn fur because they are not wearing fur.

Another way behaviour change comes before concern for animals is of course when people go vegetarian or vegan for health reasons. Research shows that in a significant part of the cases people who go veg for health reasons develop (just in the way I described above) a concern for animal suffering, and often ethical vegans started out as health vegans. I think the concern of some vegans that health is not a good motivator or argument to talk about veganism because it is less “sticky” (i.e health vegetarians or vegans will be more prone to give it up) doesn’t hold much water, because without the health argument we might have had way less vegetarians or vegans in the first place, and secondly many people, as I stated, evolve in their motivations over time. This objection is mainly a reflection of us wanting people to do things for the right reasons. (On the other hand, health benefits of veganism shouldn’t be exaggerated, and potential nutritional pitfalls should be explained).

The importance of incrementalism

As you may be able to see, what I described above is not about making people vegan directly. By experiencing vegan meals and products, people slowly change their behaviours and beliefs, and many will eventually arrive at being full fledged vegans because they care about animals. However, this is not to say that all the people who reduce their meat consumption are of no value in and of themselves. On the contrary. I believe the fastest way to a vegan world is to emphasize the reduction of animal products (in tandem with a “go vegan” message that is carefully targetted at some audiences and in some circumstances). People will be a lot more inclined to actually do something when you ask them to take a step they can imagine really taking. For most people, the question to go vegan will be a non-starter. That doesn’t mean there should be no outreach material or groups or individuals that are using the “go vegan” message. It just means that there should also be a message out there to reduce (and maybe this message should be more prominent than the go vegan message). The important thing here is that a big group of meat reducers is the fastest way to increase demand, and thus supply. The more meat reducers there are, the more veg products will appear everywhere, and the more easy it will become to to go totally vegan. It is crucial to bear in mind that many of us may be vegan thanks to the fact that it is now a lot easier than before, and that it is a lot easier thanks to… the big group of meat reducers asking for veg products (rather than the still tiny amount of vegans).

Conclusion

To put all this together: apart from the “go vegan for the animals” approach, there should also be an approach that focuses on behaviour change first. This behavior change can be for whatever reasons (health; the availability of great alternatives…), and to whatever degree (meat reduction, vegetarianism, Meatless Mondays…). Just like people can evolve in terms of their motivations, they evolve in terms of their frequency of meat consumption. A big group of meat reducers will increase the supply, making it easier for everyone to go vegan. When vegan products and meals become even more available, and certainly when they come closer to being the default option, spreading the animal rights message will be much easier, as by then both individuals and society as a whole will be less dependent on animal products. This also means that at this point in time, it is extremely important to focus on creating amazing alternatives for animal products, both in supermarkets and in restaurants.

The fetish of being vegan

The longer I live in the vegan movement, the more I have the impression that most of us have a kind of vegan fetish, believing that eating one hundred percent vegan is more important than anything else, either in life in general, or in animal rights activism. It seems that many vegans, consciously or not, believe something like this:

A vegan can do nothing wrong, 
a non-vegan can do nothing right, 
and a vegan is always better than a non-vegan.

But of course, when you think about it, what you put in your mouth is of relatively minor importance compared to other things. And I’m not talking about children dying of hunger in Africa or whatever – let’s not have that argument. I’m talking about other things within the animal rights/vegan movement. 

First of all, any person can have a big impact on other people surrounding them, with their communication, their behaviour, their example, their cooking. This impact is much more important, because potentially much bigger, than what they eat themselves. Personally, when I believe I will have a bigger impact by making an exception, I will do so (unfortunately, I have limits, and I’m very easily put off and disgusted, so this only goes for microbits of animal foods).

impac

Secondly, there’s not just communication, but there’s also the question what we do with our time, and with our money. Some non-vegans may donate a lot of money to animal rights causes, or may invest a lot of time in them. And of course they may invest time and money in other causes than animal rights. You can fault them for not being vegan if you want, but you have to realize that their impact might be way bigger than yours. 

By all means, be vegan (like I have been for 17 years), but let’s not make a fetish out of our personal consumption, at the cost of our attention to other things that may impact the lives of animals much, much more.

And no, of course it’s not an either/or thing, and we can be vegan consumers while doing all this other great stuff. But in practise, as we all know, a lot of energy – way too much of it – goes to that focus on personal consumption. We worry about micro-ingredients like e-numbers, and we lose sight of the bigger picture. We focus on these things for the sake of “guarding the line”, to protect ourselves and our movement against the great big scary nightmare of “sliding back” and watering down veganism. But that great big scary nightmare is a fiction, and is nothing that should concern us right now. If we ever get people to avoid meat, dairy and eggs (and we will), I’m sure we’ll also be able to outphase e-numbers, honey, and other bits of animal product from our food system.

Let’s focus on what’s really important. Let’s put the biggest part of our energy in where we can reduce the most suffering.

A career in doing good

I know there are many committed people who would like nothing more than to be able to devote themselves fulltime to animal rights, veganism, or other good causes. The problem is that it is very hard to make a living out of doing good things for the world. If you want to sell another laundry detergent, it’s relatively easy. Not so if you try to substantially make things better. Here are the possibilities you have.

  • The most obvious option is probably to find yourself a job in an existing non profit organisation. There’s not too many of them, and the positions are rather competitive as more and more people, fortunately, want that kind of job.
  • Alternatively, you can found your own non profit, and hope to get enough donations or grants to pay yourself and maybe some others a (sometimes very small) salary.
  • You can join a company that does good, or start one yourself, like a webshop.
  • You can of course become a teacher or a nurse or find some other job that can really have an impact.
  • You can try to make an income from something else, like Airbnb, so you have enough time left to do good things. A great book I recommend is The 4-hour workweek, which is about finding an earning model that leaves you with as much time as possible to do what  you really want.
  • Or you can just go for any high paying job and give part of your big salary to good causes, an idea which is called “earning to give” (I will write more about that and other effective altruism concepts at a later point).

Of course, you might be happy by just volunteering a part of your time, after hours, to a good cause. Obviously though, we need people who can be committed full time too. We need organisations who have the money to pay as many full time staff as possible, staff who can then profit from each others’ expertise, from the outreach channels and the network that the organisation has, from learning opportunities…

In case you’re interested, in the talk below, which I gave at an Effective Altruism congress in Basel, Switserland (sept 2015), I tell a bit of my own personal story, and how I got into animal rights and veganism, founded an organisation, and then left it do be on my own again.

The trouble with caring

There is unfortunately too much suffering on this planet, and not enough people who really care. This is not a judgment about people (I’m usually not cynical about people at all). It’s more meant as a neutral statement. An annoying one, though.

Let me tell you something about my girlfriend.

melanie

She’s called Melanie, and we’ve been together for over seven years (we met a long time ago, when she sat across from me on the train and asked me about the book on vegetarianism that I was reading). Because animals and animal rights are my passion, I meet a lot of people who are really devoted to animals, and are really committed to helping them and making things better for them. Melanie is one of the most committed of them all.

Melanie works for EVA, the Belgian vegetarian/vegan organisation I founded and recently left, as a campaign manager. In her spare time, she also works for a cat rescue organisation. Apart from two dogs and six cats that are permanent residents of our home, there’s also a constant coming and going of stray cats, who are here temporarily till my girlfriend finds a new forever home for them. The current tally is 17 cats present in our home.

The thing is, cats (and other animals) in need of help keep finding Melanie all the time. She can spot a hurt animal from miles away and seems to be able to sniff them out (ok, I’m exaggerating a bit). And many people have her phone number or email/facebook address, and she’s their go-to person when they found or heard of an animal in need. When she’s not cleaning out litterboxes, Melanie is calling with or receiving potential new adoptants, or she’s out on the road to find an animal someone said was somewhere, or is taking cats to the vet and back for spaying/neutering, surgery, inoculations etc.

The result is, she’s practically constantly at work. You see, she’s one of the people who can’t ever close her eyes to an animal in need. Most people can. At worst, when people see an abandoned and/or hurt animal, they ignore them. At best, they call people like my girlfriend (okay, there are some who will try to take care of the animal themselves, but they are exceptions).

So the people who care, the people who can’t say no, have hardly any spare time. When my girlfriend is overworked and stressed (it happens sometimes), there is no easy way to take a break, because the animals keep coming, and coming: the reservoir of animals in dire situations is constant and infinite. You can imagine that it is very hard for her, and to people like her, to just not mind, to say that there is no more room or time or energy or money for that particular animal, knowing that they will suffer and die from lack of food, alone, maybe in the cold.

It’s obvious that this kind of care is draining, both mentally and physically. I don’t see any easy short term solution. Of course the long time solution is that we structurally change things. But long term plans, even if we have good hopes that they will work out, don’t help the animals that are in need right now, and they don’t help the people who can’t say no to their suffering.

So in the meantime, maybe we should distribute the work a little bit more. Maybe each of us who cares has to take some responsibility. Everyone can do something. You can adopt an animal, you can pay for vet costs, if you’re a vet you can do some volunteer work to make the cost for spaying/neutering or healing these strays (which society rather any individual should pay for) lower. And if you find a wounded animal, you can probably take it to the vet yourself (if you can catch it), rather than calling an overworked person who can’t say no and expect him or her to do it for you. So I guess my message is: if you care, then care.

And maybe then, if we all do our little bit of real, actual care, we can spread the work more evenly, and everybody gets to relax just a little bit, so that all of our care is more sustainable and we can keep on caring.

Anti-vegan: the lasagne

It’s quite remarkable how little is needed to be called “anti-vegan” these days. In this second presentation that I gave at the International Animal Rights Conference in Luxemburg (Sept 2015), I give some examples of what is considered anti-vegan messages or behavior by some.

One example in question is “the non-vegan lasagne“. Imagine you are dining at some new non-vegan friends’ house. They have made lasagne for you. They went through the trouble of finding a vegan recipe, buying soymilk, soy margarine, soy meat… and cooking up something they had never tried before. It’s a bit of a risk to them and they’re a little nervous. Right before you start eating, you find out that they overlooked one thing: they used lasagne dough with eggs. What do you do?

I asked this question to the audience and was happy to see that most of the people who put their hand in the air (there seemed to be a lot of undecided ones) would choose to eat the lasagne. A smaller part believed that they could convey in a polite way that they would not have any of it.

I said I was quite sceptical that not eating the food would *not* be damaging for the idea of veganism and vegans, and thus for the animals. I think it is an illlusion to think that refusing the food in such a case will not have a negative  impact.

Making this kind of exception is, I believe, the vegan thing to do, so to speak. When I do it, I feel I am true to the principle behind veganism, which is (for me) reducing harm and increasing happiness.

What I would do is tell those friends later, the next time I’m invited, if they could pay attention to this or that, because last time, you know… With some time having gone over it, pointing out their small “mistake” won’t affect them as much, I’m pretty sure.

If all this is non vegan, so be it. After the talk, several people told me I was quite brave to say all this publicly. I didn’t feel especially brave, but I thought that it was quite telling that some would think any bravery was required to say something like this. I would say: stop being afraid of others judging you as not vegan enough. Think about what you want to accomplish, and at all times, make *that* and not the definition of veganism, your bottom line.

(consistency, tho)

Making compassion easier: new presentation

This is a greatly updated version of my presentation Making Compassion Easier: a strategy for achieving vegan critical mass. I gave it at the International Animal Rights Conference in Luxemburg, sept. 2015.

Keywords of this strategy are moral vs nonmoral, pragmatism, incrementalism, meat reduction.

Your comments are welcome. I’m continuously updating my thoughts, so this strategy is entirely a work in progress.

Could a non-vegan achieve more than a vegan? An interview with Brian Kateman

People who follow this blog may have noticed how sometimes I take a somewhat unorthodox approach to veganism. Being a vegan myself, I don’t believe that veganism is the be all and end all of everything. I believe it is a means and not a goal. The goals and the principle underlying it are compassion and more happiness/less suffering. I think when we are consistent, we should be especially consistent with that goal or principle, rather than with the definition of veganism itself. If all this sounds “anti-vegan”, so be it.

If I take this idea further, it makes me wonder if sometimes… being vegan is not always the best thing one can do for the animals. More concretely, I wonder if there might be people even, who could do more as non-vegans than as vegans. And maybe I found an example of this in the figure of Brian Kateman, the prime mover behind the “reducetarian” idea. I decided to ask him a couple of questions…

Brian, why reducetarianism?
The problem with many present-day conversations around meat consumption is that they have been dominated by an all-or-nothing premise: you are either a meat eater or a vegetarian/vegan. As a result of this false dichotomy, many people feel immobilized to make any changes to their diet. This sense of hopelessness is unfortunate, because two people eating half as much meat spares as many animals from a lifetime of misery as one vegetarian. It’s great that we are seeing an increase in the number of vegans, but the majority of people in the world still consume meat. To be effective in saving animals, we cannot preach to the choir – we must find ways to engage meat eaters, even, and especially those who have no intentions of becoming a vegan or vegetarian at this point in time. Reducetarianism unites the growing community of individuals who are committed to eating less meat and ends what can sometimes feel like a tiresome battle among vegans, vegetarians, and all those reducing their consumption of meat. This new perspective provides everyone with a platform – not just vegans and vegetarians – to make small choices to eat less meat in their own lives and collectively make a significant difference in the world.

Brian Kateman
Brian Kateman

Another consideration is that, when it comes to meat consumption, gradual, incremental changes in behavior may be more sustainable over the long term. As summarized by Mercy for Animals: “Surveys have repeatedly found that those who reduce their meat consumption are much more likely to go vegetarian, and that those who go vegetarian are much more likely to go vegan. This is consistent with hundreds of studies from the field of social psychology that have found people are much more likely to be persuaded to make a moderate change than they are to make a major change, and that once people make the moderate change they become more open to the larger change.”  (Admittedly, though, the goal of reducetarianism is not to solely increase the number of vegans but to decrease the overall amount of meat that our society consumes.)

What motivations do you emphasize?
It’s important to note that reducetarianism is also inclusive of motivations: it doesn’t matter whether a person is eating less meat to save money or to lose weight or to combat climate change or to spare farm animals from cruelty. Motivations aren’t important, certainly not to our health or the planet. There are some legitimate concerns that people who encounter reducetariansim will switch from beef to chicken and ultimately harm more animals, but we take extra precautions by raising the ethical implications of eating meat, and emphasizing the added value in eating fewer chickens and pigs, those most commonly abused on factory farms.

Ultimately, my goal with reducetarianism, in the spirit of effective altruism, is to provide as many people as possible with an entry point into eating less meat. As a college student, I personally was motivated to eat less beef and more poultry due to environmental concerns, and likely killed more animals than I would have otherwise in that period as a result. Gradually, though, I learned more about meat production and its harmful effects, particularly the suffering of animals (thanks to a classmate who encouraged me to read The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter by my hero Peter Singer). I subsequently cut down on all forms of meat, and continue to spare farm animals from cruelty every day, usually three times per day, in fact.

What are your personal eating habits?
Today, my diet continues to evolve toward a more compassionate, healthy, and environmentally friendly one. I primarily eat fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains. I eat poultry in one meal every three weeks and beef in one meal per month (usual small portions of both). Approximately half of my meals are vegan. I’ve completely cut out pork and seafood. One day, I’ll likely cut out all animal products. It’s a process, for me, and for many others – we have a long-term relationship with food.

Do you think you might be achieving more because you’re a non-vegan?
There’s no question that when it comes to meat consumption omnivores relate more easily to me, a meat-eater, than to a vegan. When a vegan with a “go-vegan” message approaches a hard-core meat eater, there is undoubtedly resistance. It reminds me of proposing marriage to someone on a first date – not the most effective strategy for entering into a relationship. Still, this likely isn’t true of children and teenagers who are generally more open minded than adults. I’ve often thought that the “go-vegan” message is probably most effective on young people, where as the “be a reducetarian and eat less meat” message is probably most effective on older people who have established habits and routines. In other words, admittingly in the spirit of Malcolm Gladwell, we have been looking for the perfect message, when we should be looking for the perfect messages. However, when a meat-eater approaches a meat-eater, even if the meat consumption is to varying degrees, there is mutual understanding and compatibility, even unconsciously. So, yes, I’m probably more credible and thus saving more animals than I would be if I were a vegan spokesperson for a reducetarian campaign. With that said, this is a highly unusual situation; in most cases, and certainly on a personal level in terms of impact, the less meat, the better. One day, I’ll likely be in position to save more animals by completely eliminating animal-products from my diet.

I think a more important take away is that animal advocates – vegans and non-vegans, can often be most effective by being compassionate to humans too, not only animals. In the words of Rob Greenfield, “We live in a messed up time and it’s very challenging to make ethical decisions. It’s not easy… to do the right thing. So much of mainstream society stacks the odds against us… So campaign hard and lead by example but remember that all people have feelings too and have their own challenging circumstances.”

Read more: www.reducetarian.com