Getting out of our vegan crater: on the inbreeding of vegan ideas

The Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania formed when an ancient volcano exploded, a long time ago. The crater is 600 meters deep and covers an area of 260 square kilometers. It is home to a very dense population of Masai lions. The crater is a natural enclosure: the lions don’t leave the crater, and it is very rare that a lion enters from the outside. Thus, there are few new bloodlines to enter the local gene pool, and the lion population is significantly inbred. The result is that the lions suffer from several diseases, and the population is not thriving.

A Masai lion in the Ngurunguru Crater (photo: planetreserve.com)
A Masai lion in the Ngorongoro Crater (photo: planetreserve.com)

While, like all comparisons, imperfect, I use the situation in the Ngorongoro crater to make a point about the vegan movement and vegan advocacy. This kind of inbreeding may also apply to ideologies and ideas. Vegan ideas too can be inbred. Many of us spend a lot of our time in our vegan craters. We post in vegan Facebook groups, go to vegan potlucks, do activism with other vegans… Our environment echoes our thoughts, social media algorithms keep showing our posts to the same people who keep liking them and share them among the same people (hence the description of the internet as an echo chamber). When our thinking and our thoughts are shaped mainly through interaction with other vegans, without enough confrontation with the “outside”, our ideas may become “inbred”, and are not ideally fit to spread and reproduce and influence outsiders.

In order to increase our own population, we need to get out of our natural habitat, out our own Ngorongoro crater, out of the vegan echo chambers, and talk to other people. We need to listen to their ideas, let them collide with ours, and let them fertilize our own thinking. Many of us are already doing that, but I believe we could do a lot better still. Most of all, we need to know what non-vegans think of our messages, and how they perceive us. We need to be open-minded to listen to their concerns and objections, and not just write them off as laziness, egoism or prejudice. And we need to listen to the ideas of potential allies, even if they don’t agree with our objective one hundred percent.

We can also be more open at a more structural level. We may need to open up our meetings more to people from the outside. I have heard instances of vegan conferences where non-vegans were not welcome as speakers. As if those people can’t teach us anything! The same may apply for boards of directors of vegan and animal rights organizations. It’s not necessarily a bad idea to have a minority of non-vegans on them (or at least in some advisory position). It may help the organization to understand how people who don’t entirely agree with them, see things. And it may help everyone to maintain a sense of perspective.

I’m not saying that places where only vegans are welcome (like vegan-only Facebook groups) don’t have their purpose. People may need to vent, may want to discuss stuff without always being confronted with the same clichés. But we need to be aware of the dangers and limits of vegan-only environments.

One person who is great at breaking things open and involving people from outside the movement is Brian Kateman, the young founding director of the Reducetarian Foundation. The Reducetarian.org website contains endorsements from the likes of Richard Dawkins and Noam Chomsky. The new book The Reducetarian Solution, has articles written by famous non-vegans influencers like Seth Godin, Jeffrey Sachs or Michael Schermer. On May 20-21, the Reducetarian Foundation is also organizing the first Reducetarian Summit in New York (which I will attend as a speaker for ProVeg and report back from). Brian had the great idea to invite people working at different online media outlets to moderate the panels. The list is impressive, and includes people from USA Today, Quartz, Time Magazine, Gizmodo, Forbes, The Atlantic, and Fast Company. These influentials will undoubtedly help spread the message further through their network. The list of organizations represented by the speakers is just as impressive: from usual suspects like HSUS, Animal Equality and Farm Sanctuary, there are also people from less obvious NGOs like Greenpeace, Oxfam and the World Resources Institute. But also people from companies, from Google Food to Compass and Barilla are present. The heterogeneity of the group of speakers, moderators and participants seems to make for an ideal setup for exchanging ideas and thinking outside of the vegan box.

Part of the strategy, Kateman says, is to get groups who aren’t working on reducing the consumption of animal products to feel invited to start. The reducetarian concept enables Kateman to start a conversation with groups that are not working on this topic, but, given the domain that they are in, easily could. The reason of course is that the reducetarian thing is much easier for people to participate in than the vegan thing. Not only is it more feasible, it seems also much less of an ideology – which people are often wary to get into or associated with. But – at least for the vegans involved in reducetarian outreach – the end goal remains the same. It’s just that we can probably reach that goal faster if, in addition to influencing just a few people to go vegan, we can influence many more people to reduce. This is, and for the time being will be, what drives supply and demand, creates critical mass, and will tip the system.

Learning, discussing, and recharging at the International Animal Rights Conference

I just got back from Luxembourg (it’s a three hour car trip for me) where I participated in and spoke at the International Animal Rights conference (IARC). I’ll write about what I talked about in other posts, but here I just wanted to give you an idea of what the conference was like.

In general, it’s always wonderful – even for just a few days – to be immersed in a bubble of likeminded people, enjoy vegan food, learn a lot of new things during the talks, or discuss strategies and tactics with other activists. I would recommend that every activist go and recharge their batteries at such a conference every once in a while.

I was impressed with so many of the participants I met. Seeing people, often still in school, spending a weekend to learn about new ways to save animals never fails to move me. I’m touched by their caring and their commitment. I’m touched by the idea that they are everywhere, in every part of the world. I’m touched by how they get inspired, and are inspiring others to change things.

All the people I talked to were both rational and compassionate. They clearly focused on getting the best results for animals, and weren’t afraid to discuss difficult topics. Year after year, it seems to me that this movement, and the people in it, are becoming more thoughtful, more strategic, more impactful.

A group photo of the participants of the IARC 2016
A group photo of the participants of the IARC 2016

Even though more and more speakers at this conference focus on effectiveness, pragmatism and results, one thing the IARC always delivers is a variety of viewpoints. Other speakers represented views and domains as varied as civil disobedience, ecofeminism, intersectionality, meta-strategies, spirituality, and others. Speakers came from all over, and reported on campaigns in their countries.  There were talks about psychology, reaching children, sanctuaries, clean meat, economy, and more. This variety of viewpoints is a good way to help guard us from losing track of potentially important approaches or neglected issues.

The most challenging and – to many – new topic, I think, was the one of wild animal suffering, which was addressed in the talks of Stijn Bruers and Stefan Torges (I wrote this post about it before). The topic was heavily discussed during the breaks, and its most vocal proponent was probably long time Austrian activist Martin Balluch, who is of the opinion that freedom and autonomy are more important values than the absence of suffering. It led to interesting debates between him and proponents of interference in nature. It was inspiring  to see how – even if probably few minds were changed – these debates were civil and friendly, as this whole conference was.

The practical organization was great. My heartfelt thanks goes out to everyone who made this possible: organizers, volunteers (preparing food, doing dishes, introducing speakers and so on), speakers, participants, sponsors, and canine friends present.

Now it’s back to the real world, until we meet again next year!

 

 

 

 

The Sentience Conference: glad to be human

Last weekend I spoke at and participated in the Sentience Conference in Berlin. This conference carried the wonderful motto “effective strategies to reduce the suffering of all sentient beings” (tell me, what is hotter than that?). The event was organized by Sentience Politics, an “anti-speciesist think tank” in the Effective Altruism community.

For those who are not familiar with it, Effective Altruism is a philosophy as well as a movement whose proponents apply scientific research and evidence to doing good. It’s about combining the heart and the mind to develop evidence-based strategies and tactics to reduce suffering. Topics that Effective Altruism as a movement prioritizes are: health (in the general sense, including the fight against malaria and other diseases), animal suffering, and potentially huge future risks for humanity (like artificial intelligence). A lot of attention is also given to meta-activism and meta-charities (like Givewell or, in our domain, Animal Charity Evaluators).

berlin
Photo by Cyril Schirmbeck

As some effective altruist ideas are different from mainstream thinking and can potentially stir up some serious discussions, three tips were given at the opening of the conference:

1. Be open.
2. Follow the evidence and the argument wherever it leads.
3. Consider the possibility that you are wrong (that the strategies you are pursuing are not the right ones).

I think these are excellent and apply for all of us at any time, no matter what we are discussing. But if there was any fear about people fighting about things they feel very passionate about, that fear proved (as far as I know) to be ungrounded. If we’re open minded, we can think and discuss freely, and disagree with each other without any nastiness. It’s one of the (many) wonderful things about human beings at their best.

While the content of the talks provided the intellectual stimulation that I love so much, at the same time my heart was warmed by the obvious commitment of the almost 300 participants present there. It is at moments like these, when you see so many people together to learn about helping others, that, in spite of everything we humans manage to get wrong and destroy, you feel glad to be human, and glad to be able to help in your little (or big) way. It is at moments like these that, in spite of the enormity of the challenge ahead of us, you know that all our efforts are, slowly but inevitably leading to incredible change… for all sentient beings.

Here are some highlight ideas for me…

If you want to test your own open mindedness, the controversial topic of “wild animal suffering” – which got quite some attention at the conference – might be a good one. It’s mainly thanks to my involvement in the Effective Altruism movement that I have come to see the suffering of animals in the wild as a very important topic. Should we help animals suffering from cold, hunger, thirst, natural disasters, sickness, parasites, or even… predation? And if we agree we should do something about it, can we? I’ll write about this fascinating topic some other time.

Being involved in the EA movement also helped me to re-appreciate the issue of suffering. In the vegan movement, concern about suffering (as opposed to concern about rights or autonomy) is sometimes frowned upon. “Welfarist” has almost become a term of abuse. We think we should be about rights and liberation first.
In the end, I think I want to be mostly concerned about the suffering of animals, while rights and autonomy to me are secondary. I would rather see an animal who is happy but not autonomous (e.g., chickens in a big yard, living out their lives), than entirely free animals who are living an often miserable life in the wild. Animals, in certain circumstances, may not know they are confined (for their own good). The concept of autonomy and freedom probably doesn’t mean to them what it means to us, humans. This is one example where it’s good not to anthropomorphize animals too much. Of course, this doesn’t mean we can use animals for our own purposes if we give them good lives.

A third idea I was confronted with again was that we can spare more animals with our wallet than with our own personal diet or consumption. One estimation is that with a one thousand dollar donation we can spare more animals than with a lifetime of being vegan. This doesn’t mean being vegan is not useful (indeed, I am guessing over 95% of the conference participants were vegan), but it means we shouldn’t lose sight of 1. the relative importance of being vegan, and 2. the difference we can make with our donations (or – if you don’t have money to spare – with our time/activism).

If you would like to hear a conclusion about what strategies work best, the best answer for now seems to be that there is a lot of uncertainty (because there is not enough research). In the face of this uncertainty, “strategic pluralism” seems to be a good approach. While not all strategies are created equal and some will undoubtedly be better than others, it is okay for now to let many of them thrive and see where they take us, until we have more evidence and information.

To prevent any of us from getting lost in strategy and overanalyzing things, without actually doing stuff, Nick Cooney, in his keynote address, told us to focus on doing rather than thinking. An idea in itself, he said, is worth nothing if it’s not executed. Both doing without thinking and thinking without doing are tricky. Ideally, of course, we combine the two, just like ideally we combine the heart and the mind, and become… effective altruists.

PS Videos of the talks should be online soon.

 

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.