It’s all about creating great alternatives

In 1986, the International Whaling Commission declared a moratorium on commercial whaling, which is now banned in all but a few countries. This might never have happened if the importance of commercial whaling hadn’t diminished enormously since the late nineteenth century.

Whales – and sperm whales especially – used to be an important source of energy: Whale oil was extracted from dead animals, and was used especially as fuel for lamps, but could also be found in heating, soap, paint and other products. Countless numbers of whales were killed for this reason.

Whale blubber was used as a source of energy till the invention of kerosene.

Enter Abraham Gesner, a Canadian physician and geologist. In 1849, Gesner developed kerosene, a liquid made from coal, bitumen (a form of petrol) and oil shale. Unlike whale oil, kerosene was not smelly or dirty, it did not spoil, and, most importantly, it was cheaper to produce than whale oil.

As kerosene distilleries popped up everywhere and kerosene was commercialized, the demand for whale oil tanked. The whaling industry could get by for a while on the sales of whalebone, which was used for corsets and other garments. However, whalebone was soon replaced by other materials, and, in the end, whaling just wasn’t interesting anymore.

Abraham Gesner obviously hadn’t been trying to ban whaling. As far as we know, there were no moral factors in play for him. Yet, the result was there: the last American whaler left port in 1924 and grounded the next day.

The fact that whale oil was no longer a good source of energy obviously made it much easier to install the ban on commercial whaling in 1986. When the environmental movement is successful in ending whaling in the last remaining countries, it will not just be because of moral arguments, but because the relevance of whaling has diminished, thanks to good alternatives.

Moral advocacy is important, but it’s not enough. Meat alternatives, including clean meat, will be as important for the end of animal agriculture as kerosene was for the end of commercial whaling.

Based on the article How Capitalism saved the whales.

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.

What about GMOs and hi-tech animal food alternatives?

We’re living in very exciting times.

We’re on the verge of making milk without the cow,
cheese without the milk,
eggs without the chickens,
burgers without the beef,
leather without the bull…

In a lot of cases we’re not talking about imitations but about actually replicating, molecule by molecule, the original product (eggs, milk, cheese, meat…), so that our “alternative” can hardly be called an alternative any longer, but is a product that is chemically (more or less) identical to the original animal product.

hi tech animal products (1)

Obviously, doing stuff like this requires new technologies (like genetic modification) and hi-tech food development environments (labs, say). This is of course a far cry from the local, natural, organic, DIY food movement that is presently quite popular.

The vegan movement too is a bit divided over this. A big part believes our food should be as “natural” as possible, while another part doesn’t mind the involvement of high tech, including GMO’s, to make things better.

To me it’s quite obvious that the label “natural” doesn’t mean much. To simplify things – as is often done in the food movement in general – to something like: natural is good, processed/engineered is bad, seems quite irrational. I find there is little reason to entertain the general idea that what has been produced by nature is necessarily better than what humans make of it. There seems to be no reason why humans, in theory, could not do better than nature. Sure, when we try to improve on what nature provided us with, we need to experiment, sometimes by trial and error, and we have made mistakes and will make more. But that doesn’t mean we can’t ever get it right.

I’m aware of the potential political and social problems in giving food companies too much power, the problem of monopolies, of only big companies being able to develop certain technologies, of patenting, etcetera… But while these issues are very important, they are practical issues that are not inherent to the “naturalness” or “unnaturalness” of foods. It seems sensible, especially in the case of GMO’s, to separate two questions: do you have fundamental problems with something, versus do you have practical problems with something. If you fundamentally disagree with something (e.g. you believe that genetic modification is “unnatural” and therefore “wrong”) there’s no real solution for you in sight. If you disagree with e.g. genetic modification on the grounds that it creates too much power for certain (obviously capitalist) multinationals, that’s a practical issue of a totally different nature.

While we shouldn’t be naive, these practical issues can in theory be solved. A nice example of a high tech initiative that seems to be doing things differently is Real Vegan Cheese, which is a group of “biohackers” (a word which does a great job in showing the “unnaturalness” of their endeavours) trying to develop… well, real vegan cheese. They are crowdfunded and work out of two open community labs in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Personally, while I can see many potential or real practical issues with hi-tech food development, I don’t have any fundamental objections against hi-tech food. I basically support science and technology in reinventing animal products and coming up with alternatives, so that we can make of animal use a thing of the past.

How Hampton Creek “fundamentally changes the world”

In this new and visually stunning “manifesto”, the people at Hampton Creek, the startup looking to replace eggs by something better, explain how they want to “fundamentally change the world”:

“The way we change it isn’t by convincing people to do the right thing. The way we change it is by creating an entirely different system (…). Hampton Creek is about a philosophy, that believes the only way the good thing wins, is when the good thing is so obscenely better than the not so good thing, you can not help but do it.”

In spite of being a very young startup, Hampton Creek has already succeeded in closing huge deals with Compass Group (the biggest caterer in the world) and the 7-11 chain, who both will exclusively rely on Hampton Creek’s eggfree mayonaise for the prepared products. Thanks to the avian flu raging in the US, the company is now being inundated with calls from other businesses who, being short on eggs, want to try out their alternative product.

This is not just about the millions of eggs Hampton Creek is not using or the millions of layer hens saved. It’s about much more than that. The company is starting to wean an entire nation off a certain animal based product (mayonaise with eggs) and is showing them that the alternative is not just as good, but better. Hampton Creek is not talking about animal rights, and is not trying to convert people to veganism – at least not directly or explicitly. This is an example of a behavior-first approach. Behavior change (for whatever reason) can lead to a change in beliefs as soon as the existence of great alternatives helps open hearts and minds.

That is why the importance of the development of alternative products can not be overstated.

See also:
How what you eat determines what you think
Let Beyonce be. About the biggest oversight in our movement