Vegans or not, we all turn away from suffering at times

Vegans often talk about how non-vegans shut themselves off from animal suffering. Those non-vegans know – it is assumed – certain facts about animals, but choose to block them out. When they have a chance to find something out about animal suffering (like watching a YouTube video), they often won’t take the opportunity because they’re afraid they won’t like what they see.

I think all of this is often wrongly interpreted as indifference. It is exactly because most people are not indifferent to suffering that they will try to turn away and try not to feel what’s going on. When they don’t want to know, they are, of course, also choosing for their own convenience: they want to avoid having to change and losing their piece of meat. But the fact that they believe they should change something, and therefore avoid the confrontation, indicates, in itself, that they care, on some level.

This avoidance and turning away is a pity, of course, but maybe rather than being too judgmental about this behavior, it might be good to realize that all of us do it, all the time, to some extent. Whether we are vegan or non-vegan, at some point we all need to say no, close our ears and our eyes and even our hearts. Otherwise, life is, unfortunately, not livable.

Let me illustrate this with a situation from my own life. Apart from her job in a veg organization, my girlfriend rescues cats. We have six rescued cats and two dogs living permanently in our home, but apart from these animals, there’s always a variable amount of cats “in transition”, waiting for another home. They were picked up from the street, abandoned by their “owners”, or whatnot.

Whenever my girlfriend gets notified about animals in need – they might be sick, blind, full of fleas or other parasites, etc. – she tries to find a solution. She’ll be on Facebook and email to find temporary housing for the animal, so that he or she can heal, be sterilized and vaccinated, before a forever home is found.

There seem to be, however, always more animals in need than people to care for them. So open goes our own door, and yet another animal comes in. Yes, there may be room for one more. And one more. And one more. But at some point, there’s a limit. At some point, we have to say no. And even if my girlfriend manages to find some kind of a solution most of the time, we know that there are cats out there who are suffering and need care. It doesn’t stop at cats, by the way. She gets calls about all kinds of animals.

Our car, loaded up with two rescued sheep being transported to their new home.
Our car, loaded up with two rescued sheep being transported to their new home.

Because of course, there are many more animals out there, other than cats, that we could help. Many animal advocates get bombarded with notifications and pleas and pictures and petitions about animals who need our attention or our donation. And it never stops.

Obviously we can go beyond animals: there’s a refugee crisis in Europe and most people reading this probably have the opportunity to create some room in their homes to temporarily house one or more refugees. But hardly anyone (including me) does that. Likewise, we all could give more money to help these people, or to other causes that we deem worthy and effective, but there’s always a limit we set to our donations (and for most people it’s a rather low one).

Of course, saying that there is always a limit, and that all of us turn away or close our hearts at some point, doesn’t mean we need to do nothing. I agree that some things require less personal effort than others. Going vegan is, at least after awhile, probably easier than giving away significant donations every year (though we can ask the question about whether it is as effective). But the thing is, we can always find people who are doing more than others: people who are more vegan, who rescue and feed more animals, who donate more.

In this world where there is so much suffering, it’s hard to do enough. Doing your best is maybe never really your best, because you can always do better. We can spend more money on good causes, and watch less Netflix, and help more.

But of course, reasoning like this, and experiencing the world like this, is no way to live. It is a recipe for burnout and depression. There will be huge and extreme suffering for quite some time on this planet (I’m an optimist, I don’t believe it necessarily needs to be here forever), so those of us who are really sensitive to it, need to find a way to deal with it.

So maybe some takeaways from these rambling thoughts:

  • rather than labeling others as indifferent, we can remember that turning away is a matter of degree and that we all do it
  • we can set an example for others to follow, and help “normalize” doing good
  • as the suffering is endless right now and our resources are insufficient, it’s important to do good effectively. If you are not yet, familiarize yourself with the philosophy of Effective Altruism.
  • be sustainable in your activism. Know that you cannot avoid turning away now and then. Paradoxically, you are probably a better friend to the animals by not witnessing and worrying about their suffering all of the time.



Finding your activist sweet spot

Sometimes people ask me for ideas or advice about how exactly they could or should help animals. They are trying to find out what kind of activism fits them best.

Basically, I think we need to find some kind of sweet spot that is on the junction of three different aspects. You can see them in the drawing below:

sweet spot

What you love, or are passionate about: don’t just say “animals.” That’s probably a bit too general. Find something more concrete than that. Maybe it’s vegan cooking to help animals. Or public speaking about animals. Or maybe you are very passionate about people and how they function.

What you are good at: you may have a certain skill set. Maybe, because of your education, talent, or experience, you can do something many other people can’t do, or not as well. You might be a graphic designer, an IT-person, a teacher…

What has an impact: this is about what really helps animals. Everything has an impact, of course, but some things have more impact than others (some things may even have a negative impact).

The overlap between these different aspects can vary: it may be small, it may be bigger. You could be one of those human beings for whom effectiveness and feeling good entirely overlap. That is, you only feel good about your work when you know you’re having the most impact (don’t think you’re like that too quickly though, you might be overlooking things).

This is probably the exception, and more often the overlap is smaller, and there may be contradictions. You may love doing something, but that something is maybe not the most effective thing you can do. Or you may love doing something (like public speaking) but actually you suck at it (you may need other people to tell you that). Or you may be the most effective when you use that skill set of yours, but maybe you need some variation and you don’t feel like using it as a volunteer, outside of your day job (it would be a pity, obviously, if you have a degree in cellular biology and could make a contribution to cultured meat, but you choose to leaflet instead).

When there is little overlap or when there are conflicts, you can basically choose what you prioritize. Most people in general (I’m not talking about vegans or activists now) usually prioritize their own happiness. As activists or people concerned about the world, we can probably expect a little bit more from ourselves: we can at least give some weight to the impact that we have with our actions, and not just do what feels good. I would say it’s good to give the impact-factor a lot of consideration. Some people, however, may go too far in this, and will unequivocally prioritize impact, at the expense of their own well-being, which is probably not the best or most sustainable idea.

Of course, you can make combinations: distributing leaflets about animals seems to be a pretty effective investment of your time, but imagine you don’t really like it. Then you can do that maybe one or a couple of hours a week, and devote the rest of your volunteer time to something you like better (but which may be less effective).

Basically you want to do good for animals, but you also want to feel good about what you’re doing. If you do something that doesn’t make you feel good, you will probably be able to keep that up only for a limited time. This may be worthwhile in itself, because it is, after all, time that you have given to the cause. However, there is always the risk that people seriously burn out from doing something that they don’t like — even if it is effective — and that makes them give up on activism altogether, which probably would be a loss.

So my message is: make a healthy mix. Don’t just do anything because it makes you feel good, but don’t go all out on effectiveness either, because that may burn you out.

I’ll write more concretely about activism and what you can do in some future posts.

The 12 habits of highly effective vegans

In my humble opinion, being a highly effective vegan is not first and foremost a matter of being vegan up to the last micro-ingredient. Rather, it is about communicating in a way that opens the most hearts and minds to more compassionate eating and living. Here is my list of twelve habits for highly effective vegans. carrot

1. Highly effective vegans can put themselves in the shoes of whomever they are talking to. They know that other people may be significantly different in many ways. They may have different interests and motivations, different ways to deal with changes and challenges. Therefore…

2. Highly effective vegans are adaptive. They can adapt the way they talk and what they talk about, according to their audience. They are not dogmatic in their approach. They know they are under no moral obligation to present veganism as a moral obligation.

3. Highly effective vegans encourage every step that people take. They know that change usually happens gradually. Therefore, highly effective vegans focus on the good things that people are already doing, rather than on the things they are not doing yet.

4. Highly effective vegans don’t care about purity. They know that both regarding themselves and others, focusing on purity is unproductive. They want to make being vegan look as accessible, easy and attractive as possible. They know that eating more compassionately is not an either or, black or white, now or never thing. They want to help people take the first step rather than the last.

5. Highly effective vegans don’t need to be “right.” Rather, they focus on what works. That’s why they are rarely debating or arguing. They know that in addition to providing arguments, they can also provide practical information, recipes, or a taste experience (i.e., they can cook for others).

6. Highly effective vegans know how to listen. They know that listening is essential to real communication. Highly effective vegans therefore also know to ask questions, and when to be quiet. They are friendly, and have a sense of humor. They know that the process of their conversations is often more important than the content.

7. Highly effective vegans do remember what it was like to be a non-vegan – they don’t suffer from vegan amnesia. They know that at some point they ate animal products and may even have been deaf themselves to the animal rights arguments, even when they were articulated clearly to them. Therefore, they are patient and understanding.

8. Highly effective vegans know that attitude change can come after behavior change. Therefore, they don’t mind when people start their vegan journey for health or for any reason.

9. Highly effective vegans are humble. They know they are not perfect. They know other people may do other great things, even if they are not vegan. And they know they don’t have all the answers.

10. Highly effective vegans have faith in people. They know most people want to do good, and don’t want animals to suffer. Highly effective vegans know that change is a matter of time. They realize that one important thing we have to do is to make it easier for people to act and eat compassionately, by providing more and better vegan options.

11. Highly effective vegans understand the crucial importance of good food. They applaud the development of new products, they learn how to cook, and they can inspire other people by telling them about how great they can eat as vegans.

12. Highly effective vegans don’t judge. They see veganism – like getting better at being human – as a journey rather than a destination, something that is never done, and can be started on many different roads.

If you want to know more about these ideas, check these video presentations.

Martin Smedjeback on crowdfunding yourself to work for animals

Swedish activist Martin Smedjeback

Martin Smedjeback is a longtime nonviolence facilitator, peace activist and vegan from Sweden. He has held nonviolence workshops in Sudan, South Sudan, Colombia, Israel/Palestine, USA and Sweden, and also talks regularly on animal rights and veganism. I asked Martin a few questions about his project “a year for the animals”, where he gets himself crowdfunded so than he can be free to work for the animals for an entire year.

Vegan Strategist: for the second year, you are fundraising so you can afford to work one year for the animals fulltime. How much money are we talking about?
Martin Smedjeback: I’m looking to raise 8500 US $

Is that enough to live on in an expensive country like Sweden?
Yes, almost! I live in a community where we are five adults sharing a flat, and I live pretty frugally in my everyday life. I do hope to have a small income (around one thousand dollars) from presentations I give. Here’s my budget:

martin's budget.jpg

What about paying taxes on this?
I checked with the Swedish tax revenue service and they told me I don’t have to pay taxes on gifts, only on the income I would get from my presentations.

What did you do during your first crowdfunded year?
I took the initiative to form the open rescue group Empty Cages. The media covered our actions (in which we freed two pigs, eight hens and a fish) 23 three times, one of them being an interview on the most popular news program in Sweden. The videos from the action have been seen by tens of thousands of people. I did 31 lectures and workshops for a total of around 1200 people. I filmed 20 animal rights lectures and interviews with a total of around 10,000 views, wrote ten articles and letters to the editor, and leafletted 15 times. And I was among the organizers of a the “vegan challenge” in Sweden, where people went vegan for a month and got inspiration and guidance on how to live a vegan life. And I did many other things.

Impressive. What do you plan to do in A year for the animals 2016?
I plan to do lots of stuff! My hope is to show how many different things you can do for animal rights, so that others can pick up the activities that best fit them. I will focus especially on doing animal rights presentations in high schools. Readers can check my plans at my Indiegogo campaign page.

Do you think you are worth people’s investment?
Yes. I used to work full-time in a peace organization and I think it’s great that there are staff at organizations who do great work. But I also know that it’s really expensive to hire a person, pay taxes, office space and equipment. You can “hire” me for a fraction of that cost and because of my fifteen years of experience in working in peace and justice movements I think I can use my time and resources effectively.

What would you advise to people who want to do the same thing?
I would say go for it! The world definitively needs more full-time activists for the animals. If you haven’t been active for veganism or animal rights at all before, maybe you can take some time first to get to know the issues and the movement. When you know more about the issue and know more people in the movement you have a better chance of succeeding. I would also advise to ask someone who has done it or something similar before if you can find someone like that. In the beginning of the year I will have an intern with me for a week. I hope that she can learn enough to be able to do her own A year for the animals, and I also think I will learn a lot from her. Before I started this project, I tried to learn what is really effective for the animals. I read books like Veganomics of Nick Cooney and the Vegan strategist blog to find out how I could do the most difference for the animals. The animals wants us to be smart when we decide on what to do, how to do it and how we communicate.

Good luck, Martin!
Thank you!


Want to know more about Martin or support his campaign?
Martin’s crowdfunding campaign
Martin’s company, and articles by Martin

An interview with the Vegan Strategist :)

Yes, that’s me 🙂

Yesterday Teagan, from the blog, had a chat with me. As Teagan put it, we talk about fetishizing dogmatic consistency, getting a whole city to recognize going veg one day a week, and why I believe a vegan world is possible.

You can listen to the interview here.

Also check out Teagan’s other episodes. Right before me she also did the Vegan Bros!



“Vegan is a distraction”. An interview with Matt Ball

Matt Ball

Matt Ball is a long time activist. In 1993, he cofounded Vegan Outreach, and led the organization as Executive Director for more than 20 years. Today, he is Director of Outreach for Farm Sanctuary. He’s the author of several books on activism, and blogs at As far as I’m concerned, he’s one of the most thoughtful voices and best strategic thinkers in our movement. There’s no getting around him on a strategy blog, so I interviewed him about purity, effectiveness, definitions and dogma in the vegan movement.
Sit down and enjoy another longread.

VS: How would you define a vegan? A vegan diet?

MB: Before considering this question, I think it is important to step back and consider what is happening in the real world. Hopefully, it could help put the focus on what really matters….

You could argue that Jane’s brothers had it better. Andy and Bruce and Gene and Martin were tossed into a bag, on top of hundreds of others. Over many agonizing minutes, they were crushed as more and more were added to the bag. With increasing panic, they struggled with all their might to move, to breathe, as their collective weight squeezed the air from their lungs. No matter how desperately they fought and gasped, they couldn’t get enough air, until finally, mercifully, they blacked out and eventually died.

Jane’s torments were just beginning, however. Her mouth was mutilated, leaving her in so much pain she couldn’t eat for several days. One of her sisters was unable to eat and starved to death. Jane ended up stuffed into a cage with Becky, Arlene, Megan, Tracy, and Lynn in a tiny wire cage. To call it a “prison” would be a gross understatement. They were crammed into the cage so tightly that the wires rubbed their skin raw. Their excrement mixed with that of thousands of others, and the horrible ammonia stench of the piles of feces burned their nostrils and lungs.

Struggling for freedom, Megan was eventually able to reach her head through the wires. But then she was trapped, unable to get back in. Over the next few days, she slowly, painfully died of dehydration.

After over a year of this torture, Jane’s feet became tangled in the wire mesh of the floor. Unable to move, she was beginning to dehydrate. But before death could end her pain, she was torn from the cage, her entangled toes left behind, ripped from her body. The brutality of her handler crushed many of her bones, and she was thrown into a truck. For the next 14 hours, she and hundreds of others were driven through the Iowa winter, without protection, food, or water. The cold numbed the pain of Jane’s mutilated feet, but not the acute agony of her shattered bones. She was then shackled upside down, and had her throat cut. That’s how her torment ended.

An unfathomable number of individuals have suffered and are suffering just as Jane did.

Given that this is the current reality, we have a difficult choice to make:

matt ball choiceWe can spend our very limited time and resources worrying about, arguing about, and attacking each other over words and definitions.

Or we can focus our efforts entirely on actually ending the system that brutalizes individuals like Tracy and Gene.

If we take Jane’s plight seriously, the best thing most of us can do at the moment is help persuade more people to buy cruelty-free foods. As tempting as it is, we can’t just remain in our bubble, liking and retweeting what our fellow advocates say. We can’t be distracted by online debates. We can’t endlessly reevaluate every question and debate.

Instead, we have to focus on realistic strategies that start to create significant and lasting change with new people in the real world. As hard as it is, we absolutely must stop paying attention to people who want to create the world’s smallest club, and start paying attention to what actually creates real change with people who currently don’t know about Jane’s plight.

Questions like the above – about our definitions and opinions – seem harmless. But not only do they waste valuable time and resources, they reinforce the idea that our work is an academic exercise. It isn’t – the lives of individuals like Tracy and Andy depend on us actually doing constructive work in the real world.
VS: Do you think it is useful for vegans to point it out when they see non-vegan behaviour of “vegans”?

Three things should guide our actions in any situation:

1. The behavior or practice we see has actual, real-world negative consequences for animals.
2. We have a realistic expectation that our actions will lead to a net good; i.e., there is reason to believe positive change is likely, and it is unlikely there will be any offsetting negative or contrary consequences.
3. There is nothing better (i.e., more likely to reduce more suffering) we could be doing with our limited time and resources.

It is hard to imagine anything we could do that that would have fewer real-world positive consequences for animals than spending our limited time and resources policing the world’s smallest club.

I’ve actually found a pretty clear distinction between people whose primary concern is the purity and exclusivity of their club, vs those who are really working to change the world for animals. The former view everyone as the enemy. The latter view everyone as a (current or potential) ally.

Viewing everyone as an ally is not only necessary for truly helping individuals like Jane and Andy, but it is also much better for our mental health and the sustainability of our activism.

VS: What are some exceptions you would make? Is there non-vegan behaviour you indulge in?

In an interview many years ago, someone* was infuriated that I had once said I wouldn’t police what our daughter ate birthday parties. They justified their anger by saying it would send “mixed messages” if a four-year-old ate a piece of non-vetted cake. I replied that I never knew anyone who said, “Oh, I would have stopped eating animals, but then I saw this toddler having cake!”

You (Tobias) have wisely pointed out that what we personally consume is nowhere near as important as the influence we can have in the wider world. So I think our limited time is better spent figuring out how to be better examples and advocates, rather than trying to be ever more “pure.” And even if we don’t agree with that, the only way to be truly pure is to be dead. But really, is the best case scenario for the world one where I’m dead? Where you’re dead? It would be really sad if that were the case.

matt ballThe evidence doesn’t support that, though. By being a thoughtful, realistic, positive, bottom-line focused advocate, we can have a significant impact beyond what we accomplish with our personal purchases.

There is so much each one of us can do to lessen the amount of suffering in the world, to expand our circle of compassion, to bend the arc of history toward justice.

But making the world a better place has to be our fundamental goal. We can’t be motivated to follow some dogma or comply with some definition. To create the change necessary to make the world a better place, we have to deal with others where they are. We have to be realistic about what change can happen and how it can most likely be brought about. We have to be pragmatic in evaluating our options and choosing the best course of action, given the variables and uncertainties inherent in the real world.

The best thing I can do in one situation (e.g., a child’s birthday party) might not be the best I can do in another situation (e.g., meeting with a group of new activists). And neither of these might be the best thing you could do in the opportunities you encounter. I can’t know for sure what the best thing to do is in any situations, but I do know it isn’t simple.

VS: To what extent should we use the word “vegan” in our outreach and to what extent other words? When? What words?

I stopped eating meat, eggs, and dairy over a quarter century ago. At the time, and for years after, I was mindlessly pro-“vegan.” Not pro-animal, or pro-compassion, or pro-change. Pro-“vegan.” The word. The identity. The philosophy and “lifestyle.”

matt ball2But in the real world, “vegan” is a stereotype, a punchline, an excuse. People say, “I could never be vegan,” and that is the end of the conversation – the end of any opportunity for constructive engagement, for steps taken that could have a real-world benefit for animals.

“Vegan” is an ego-boost, a divider, a distraction. It is too easy to simply judge things as “vegan / not vegan,” instead of focusing on cruelty to animals, working to end factory farms, and having any real impact in the real world.

When I focused on “vegan,” instead of how to bring about real change for animals in the real world, I was being both self-centered and lazy. I understand the desire to only care about “vegan,” of course. But at best, the word distracts from doing our best to help new people make compassionate choices that have real consequences for animals.

VS: You have said that the greatest hindrance to the spread of veganism … is vegans themselves. Can you elaborate?

I’ve seen the dynamic of “I could never be vegan” play out for years. As discussed in The Accidental Activist, bottom-line-oriented activists experience a huge increase in the quantity and quality of conversations when they changed their shirts (stickers, etc.) from “Ask me why I’m vegan” to “Ask me why I’m vegetarian.”

University of Arizona research in early 2015 bears this out: non-vegetarians see “vegan” as impossible, and “vegans” as angry, fanatical, and judgmental. I have known several individuals who have given up lucrative careers to dedicate themselves to farm animals, and yet been so put off by the actions of “vegans,” that they want to disassociate themselves from the word. This is depressing, but it’s reality. I believe it is better to face reality and adjust so we can really help animals in the real world.

VS: Do we need to guard a definition or some line? Is that important? Is there a danger of watering down the concept of “veganism”?

It can be utterly addictive to debate terms, argue philosophy, and defend positions. It can be next to impossible to turn away from a debate, given that we each think we are right, and should be able to convince someone if we get the next post just right.

In the end, though, we have limited time and resources. We can, of course, spend this limited time trying to convince someone who has wedded their sense of self-worth to a specific position. But this is no more constructive than spending our time arguing with our Uncle Bob. I think we should spend our limited time and resources reaching out, in a constructive way, to new people – people who actually could make a difference with better-informed choices.

As difficult as it is, it would be so amazing if everyone who reads your blog would stop engaging in internecine debates. Ignore the attacks. Ignore the name calling. Give up the fantasy of winning an argument. Give up any concern with words or dogma. It would be so incredible if we were to just focus on positive outreach to new people.

VS: For most of your career, you have mainly worked on person-to-person outreach, rather than institutional outreach. What is the reason behind that?

When I stopped eating animals back in the 1990s, there was really no consideration of doing institutional outreach regarding farm animals. Before I did a more utilitarian evaluation of my efforts, I did try to put pressure on Procter and Gamble to stop testing their products on animals, even going so far as to get arrested.

After that, though, I realized I needed to work where I could have the biggest impact in terms of reducing suffering. But I couldn’t just go to a restaurant or food service provider and ask them to add in more cruelty-free options. This is a capitalist society, and if the demand isn’t there, no company is going to create supply (this played out when some McDonald’s introduced a veggie burger years ago, and it failed). Similarly, I would have no impact as an individual in asking Smithfield or Tyson to stop using gestation crates or move to a less cruel slaughter method.

Things have changed significantly in the past three decades. The animal advocacy movement as a whole has gained significant political and market power, such that corporations are more likely to listen and cooperate. Demand for meat-free options has grown in breadth (if not depth) such that working with institutions can have a lasting impact and further drive the cruelty-free demand / supply cycle. There is so much potential – more than half of the people in the US are specifically concerned with the treatment of farm animals!

Some of the most important and consequential work being done right now is at the institutional level. e.g. banning the most barbaric practices from factory farms, increasing the availability of cruelty-free options, and building the companies that will create the products that will replace animal products.

But as long as people want to eat an animal’s flesh, animals will be treated like meat. Of course, this isn’t saying that all animal exploitation is equally bad, or that abolishing gestation crates or battery cages isn’t an important step forward.

What we do know, however, is that even in “humane” meat situations, there is suffering – often, egregious cruelty. We’ve seen this regularly, including PETA’s recent exposure of the horrors of Whole Foods “humane meat.”

The continuing necessity of work on the demand side, combined with my background and opportunities to date, leads me to conclude that at this moment, I can have the biggest impact on the advocacy side. I don’t know if this will continue to be the case, however. There is a ton of exciting work going on now that wasn’t the case even 10 years ago!

VS: What do you think of reducetarian outreach?

matt ball2 (1)The reducetarian approach is rooted in one vitally important psychological insight: people are more likely to attempt and maintain a change that seems achievable, rather than something that seems far beyond where they are now. This has been shown over and over again – not only that the more realistic a change is, the more likely people are to attempt it, but also that the more stepwise a change, the more likely people are to maintain that change.

But as currently embodied, the reducetarian movement misses another important psychological truth (as discussed by Dr. Gordon Hodson): goals must be not only reasonable and achievable, but clear. “Eat less meat” is not a clear goal. Reach out to just about anyone considered to be a likely target for dietary change and ask them to “eat less meat,” and they will almost universally reply, “Oh, I don’t eat much meat.”

They often add, “Just chicken.” But of all the factory-farmed animals brutalized and killed for food, the vast majority are birds. Yes, nearly everyone cares more about mammals than birds. But as Professor of Veterinary Science John Webster has noted, modern poultry production is, “in both magnitude and severity, the single most severe, systematic example of man’s inhumanity to another sentient animals.” Combine this with the fact that it takes more than 40 chickens to replace the meals produced by one pig, and more than 200 birds to replace one cow, everyone who “eats less [red] meat” and replaces even a little of it with birds is causing a lot more suffering.

Like doctors, our first duty as advocates should be to “do no harm.” The initial test we should run on any potential campaign or message is, “Is there any chance that my efforts will actually lead to more animals suffering in the real world?” Unfortunately, I think the “eat less meat” campaign might fail that test.
VS: Speaking of chickens, you recently helped create One Step for Animals, which emphasizes decreasing chicken consumption. It’s clear that that would help save a lot of lives and suffering (as chickens are both such small animals and so intensively raised). Do you think there’s any truth to the idea that this is speciesist, or that it encourages eating other animals?

Encouraging people to cut back on or not eat chickens is just that. It is in no way saying that people should eat cows, or pigs, or dogs, or chimpanzees.

One Step isn’t concerned with speciesism, but rather, realism. One Step takes starts with all the statistics and known psychological truths. Just as importantly, though, One Step refuses to be driven by definitions. One Step refuses to engage or appease the dogmatists. Rather, One Step for Animals is concerned only with results in the real world: reducing the most suffering possible. You can disagree that their approach is likely to do that, but “reducing suffering” is the only metric by which One Step (or any group) should be judged.

VS: What is the number one piece of advice you would give to vegan activists?

Rather than considering how popular something is with your circle of friends, judge everything by the likely consequences your actions will have with non-vegetarians in the real world. To a first approximation, this will mean calculating how your actions will impact people’s consumption of chickens.

For more tips and suggestions, people can read my books and writings: aa handboek
If you like a linear discussion, The Animal Activist’s Handbook is probably your best bet.

If you like collections of essays and short stories, The Accidental Activist.

If you don’t want to buy a book, A Meaningful Life is a good start.



*I am happy to say that this interrogator and I are now friends, and she now regrets asking that question years ago.

Vegan activism: the difference between individuals and groups

Vegan and animal rights activists come in different shapes and sizes, and there are several possible ways to categorize them. Let me suggest one way: we can distinguish between those who are working or volunteering for an organisation, and those who act individually.

I am aware that I am simplifying and generalizing, but bear with me for a moment, because I think what category one falls into, may often determine part of one one’s activist style and philosophy.

Faithful readers of this blog will know that I often make a distinction between pragmatic and more ideological activists or activism. Now the thing is that when you work or volunteer for a veg/animal rights organisation, you will often be a lot more pragmatic. You will have to be. This is because organisations tend to do different work than individuals. Organisations often became organisations (this is to say individuals joined together to form them) in order to have more influence and impact. Trying to establish alliances with institutional agents can increase this impact. So especially bigger groups often put a fair amount of resources into institutional change.

stick to ideology

The institutions that animal rights/veg groups try to influence, can take many forms. They can be political: local, regional or national governments, political parties… They can be corporate: businesses in all shapes and sizes, from food producers to restaurant chains to any business with a restaurant in it… They can be other organisations in civil society: environmental or health organisations who may be natural allies and help spread a message. They can be academic: schools and universities. All these institutions can have a multiplicatory or leverage effect: if you can move them, they’ll move many other people for you.

It is definitely possible to move institutions from an individual or grassroots position, and in fact it probably happens all the time. Yet it is undoubtedly often easier to do so – and to do so at a bigger scale – from a position within an organisation – changing laws, for instance, is not something easily done as an individual.

There are several reasons for this. Organisations represent a group of people, and some institutions – especially political ones – will only be moved if they see the organisation speaks for or can influence a certain number of people. Organisations also often have several resources available that individual activists or smaller groups do not always have: the means to do research and show certain results to institutional partners, or an outreach channel of many thousands of followers. They can use these channels to advertise what the “partner” did – which is of course great to either put pressure or incentivize them. Organisations also have more money, which may be useful for certain purposes, like campaigning, lobbying, etc.

These institutional allies will not always want to do exactly as the animal rights/veg groups suggest. They will not necessarily spread the message in the exact same way. This could because they don’t believe in it the same way we do, or because they think their own constituency is not ready for it. In my experience, for instance, when institutional partners want to do outreach about plant based food among their audience, they feel more confident emphasizing health and environmental reasons, than animal rights reasons.

When others don’t want to take on our exact message, we have the choice. The first option is to take an absolute stance and refuse to work with them. The second is to be strategic: we compromise and accept the way in which they will bring the message to their voters, members, employees etc. Of course, in our decision a lot will depend on the perceived gains and the perceived sacrifices. But the point I want to make is that generally, if we don’t want to be pragmatic and just stick to our strict ideology, have way less chances of starting alliances that may help influence big numbers of people. Don’t compromise, and you may end up working and preaching on an island.

The work that individuals (not affiliated with groups) do, is often more about reaching out one by one. It is easier there to be stricter and uncompromising: if a person doesn’t want to listen, one moves on to the next person. But the more one is out in the real world, away from the internet, partnering with other actors, the harder it becomes to maintain a strict ideology if one wants to have results.

I can understand that some activists do not want to be pragmatic. I understand they don’t want to advocate for meat reduction rather than full blown veganism, for instance, because they believe this can’t be reconciled with their views. That is fine. But at the very least, I hope those people can grant other people – and groups – a more pragmatic approach, without accusing them of betrayal or being greedy for funds, or whatever arguments animal rights groups get thrown at them these days.

Because there is no betrayal. I have said this before: we should be true not to our ideology and its rules (for instance veganism), but to the values and objectives below the ideology: decreasing animal abuse.  

It is good to bear all this in mind when forming an opinion of (big) organisations. Also remember that you rarely have all the information about them (practise slow opinion). You probably don’t know their entire strategy. Just assume that their intentions are the same: putting an end to the use, suffering and killing of animals.

Of course organisations have their own challenges. They may evolve in a wrong direction, become less efficient, more wasteful, bloated etc. But that doesn’t mean this is a given, or that the net benefit of these organisations is not good. Just like individuals, organisations will probably never be perfect. But we need them. As a movement, we need their resources, their expertise, their experience, their outreach and their influence to make the difference we want to make for animals.

See also:

the danger of big animal rights organisations
money money money in our movement
 compromise isn’t complicity

Bullshit revisited (second and last part of response to criticism)

This is the second part of my repsonse to criticism (for the ones who didn’t click through yesterday). This text also temporarily appears as a fixed page in the menu.
After this, I’ll stop waisting time on the critics. For now, here goes…

Some people love my views, talks and writings, while other people… not so much. Some people in the movement criticize me, not always fairly. Here are some criticisms and their honest answers. If you’re a rational person who has read my work or watched me speak, you might be amazed at these – but I can assure you each of them is real and gets thrown at me repeatedly.

Tobias is not a vegan
First off, I find it pretty horrible that part of our movement seems to feel a person is entirely discredited, their opinion worth null and void, if we can just show they are not vegan or as vegan as they “should” be.
That being said, I became a vegan in 1998. See next question for the things that don’t make me vegan in some people’s eyes. I believe the fact that some in our movement would reject me as a vegan, is very illustrative in itself of some problems in this movement.

Tobias encourages the exploitation of animals
This wilful and quite nasty misrepresentation is problably based on the fact that I think our results are more important than our rules, and that effects are more important than personal purity. This means, for myself:
– that I would eat a steak for a 100.000$, using that money to help animals (particularly if that steak is going to be thrown away anyway)
– that I would make small pragmatic exceptions if I think it would positively influence people’s perception of vegans and veganism. I feel I should sacrifice a minimum of personal purity if it can help animals.
– that I consider myself vegan even while giving wine the benefit of the doubt (if it doesn’t say it’s not vegan on the bottle, I’ll drink it)

Tobias tries to redefine veganism
I think there is value in having a clear and generally accepted definition of something, but I definitely think that the way some people try to define veganism (conveniently forgetting the room for some “flexibility” that the original definition offers) is extremely ineffective (unless you want a vegan club rather than a vegan world).

Tobias is paid by the government to say the things he says.
Of course I shouldn’t take this seriously at all, but well…
I’m quite proud of having co-founded and led, for a long time, the world’s first partially government funded organisation to promote vegan food (EVA, in Belgium). Right now, I have left EVA to work on my own, but EVA still gets about 30% of its funds from the government. It shows that EVA was able to demonstrate that we had a socially relevant mission. Never has our funding had any influence on our philosophy or approaches (although there are of course criteria for funding, like we have to be in adult education, have to be active nationwide and not just locally, etc).

Tobias uses ableist language
This refers to me having called some vegans crazy. When I used it, it is mostly in the sense of omnivores perceiving us as crazy.
It is typical of today’s social movements to try to accuse people we don’t agree with by finding things that we believe discredit them. Among a part of the audience, a person will be discredited if one can demonstrate that this person is “immoral” in the sense that they might have done or said something that is ableist, sexist, racist etc. For this reason, some critics will always be on the lookout for indications of said behaviour. I’ll just let this one pass. If people take offense at me having called vegans crazy then so be it. At no point was it my intention to make fun of people with a mental disability.

Tobias is a careerist
In the fifteen years since I co-founded the organisation I used to work for, I have worked for it more than fulltime for about ten years, while I have had a full time salary for exactly three months (some years I was paid 40 %; many years I worked entirely as a volunteer). Right now, I’m travelling all over Europe and writing without getting any money from that (although my travel costs are mostly reimbursed).
An example of a criticism:
““This seems like more in the long line of “look at me” self promotion from this reducetarian. It’s disappointing that so many otherwise intelligent “animal people” don’t see the emphasis this reducetarian has on self promotion in the lead up to his book being published. It’s always disappointing to see “animal people” using the movement to further their career and agendas with so little regard to the damage being done.”

Tobias doesn’t want a vegan world
Oh yes I do. I just believe there is room for different strategies, and that some strategies may be more effective than the ones that are used by some. I believe that getting as many people as possible to reduce is a faster way to tip the system than getting a small percent of the population to go vegan. To learn more about my views, watch this video.

Tobias criticizes other activists himself
I do, but 1. I try to be constructive in my criticism and 2. I mostly criticize people for criticizing others (like. e.g. Gary Francione does all the time), which doesn’t, in my view, put me on the same level. I try to speak out against the bullies – something that is really not done enough in our movement, because we are afraid of appearing divisive. But we should stand up to bullies.
In general though, I try to be really slow and thoughtful when I criticize people, and I’m in favour of slow opinion.

The dark side of our movement – responses to criticism

Many people like what I write. I’ve been getting lots of invitations to talk all over Europe and have been travelling quite frequently to spread a message of friendly and pragmatic vegan outreach.

From a few other people, I get criticism. Sometimes this criticism is constructive. Most of the time it is quite unfair and often it is very nasty.
It seems that activists who bring a different, less orthodox message than the vegan-is-the-moral-baseline one, are – at least to some people – fair game to be ridiculed, attacked, shamed and misrepresented. This is disconcerting and doesn’t bode well for our movement.

Just a few examples of the crap I’ve had to deal with lately – without naming any names. One person has published his own compilation of video fragments of my talks, with no sense of fairness, cutting off where he felt it was okay and interjecting the snippets with comments of his own. The same person has published his own secret recording of a podcast debate that the podcast organisers eventually decided not to publish. He has also secretly videotaped me answering his public demand for an apology, during a talk in Dublin, for using the words “crazy vegans”. He published his recording – in which I admitted to a few personal things, unaware of the fact that I was being recorded – on the web.

I recently left one forum, where I was continuously abused by some of the critics. The moderator couldn’t be bothered with interfering and has at times actually encouraged the bullying. I left the group. Since then, as people kept discussing and bashing me, a temporary cease-tobias-discussion was called for, but apparently to not much avail.

At a recent festival where I spoke, the organiser deemed it better to provide personal security for me (a bodyguard), which he now claims I asked for (when I asked if disruptions of talks, like what happened At the 2015 Luxemburg International Animal Right Conference, would be allowed). The organizer doesn’t agree with my views, but to his credit let me speak anyway. Since the talk though, the organizer – now very much influenced by “the abolitionist approach” – has behaved very unprofessionally towards me, saying I encourage people to exploit animals, and has stated he would no sooner invite me again as a speaker than someone from McDonald’s.

These people are supposed to care. They seem to want to phase out ableism, sexism, ageism etc, along with speciesism – which I support. But while doing that, they are behaving more unpleasantly than I imagine most ableists, sexists, racists or speciesists would behave. In any case, I can honestly say that in 17 years of activism, I never got this kind of nastiness from farmers or people in the animal abuse industry.

There is a person behind these blogs. A person who wants a vegan world (at least) as much as the next vegan. A person who at times feels hurt and sad at all these allegations and misrepresentations. I’ve had two serious burn-outs over the years, the last one quite recently. I guess I’m more resilient than most, and I can perfectly imagine that many committed people have given up on being active in the vegan movement after abuse like this. I’m afraid me giving up on activism is what these people are after. That is a very, very sad thought.

Frankly, I’m quite disgusted. I have blocked most of the people waging this vendetta against me, and though they keep popping up here and there, I am usually doing a pretty good job at ignoring them. I wrote this piece, and my response to their criticisms, as a way of explaining myself to people who might be tempted to believe any of their allegations.

If you appreciate what I do, you can help by sharing and promoting this blog, my Facebook page and video presentations. That way you can help me make up for some of the time I need to invest in replying to these ridiculous statements. And you can help bring more much needed pragmatism to our movement, and thus help animals. Thanks for your support! I’ll focus on the positive!

And if you have questions, feel free to ask them!

The face of hope

Jo-Anne McArthur

Last night, Jo-Anne McArthur stayed at our place while she was giving a talk in my hometown, Ghent. For those who don’t know her, Jo-Anne is an award-winning photojournalist and author, who has been documenting the plight of animals on all seven continents for a decade. She’s the author of the book We Animals and the movie The Ghosts in our Machine is about her work.

I had met Jo-Anne a couple of times but it was good to spend a bit more time with her. Those who have met her will know that she’s one of the warmest people you can hope to encounter, and one thing struck me. Having gone around the world to document animal abuse on camera, you could arguably say that few people have seen more animal misery than her from close by. Yet at the same time, Jo-Anne has the most wonderful smile in the world and her face exudes happiness.

After her talk, someone asked her the question how she deals with all the misery, and Jo-Anne answered that she had been through some bad periods, but that she had learned to focus on the positive and to choose hope again and again.

It reminded me of this old Cherokee legend that I find very beautiful and inspiring:

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

We each have the power, or at least can learn, to focus on the positive, the beautiful, the good. And if we want, we can find it, at the very least in small amounts, everywhere, at every moment.

Focussing on the positive helps us continue our work for a long time, and thus, helps the animals.

PS: read more in this interview with Jo-Anne.

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(c) Jo-Anne McArthur/WeAnimals