The imperfect veganism of Ezra Klein

Ezra Klein, founder and editor in chief of the news website Vox, was on the podcast of Tim Ferris, and one of the things they talked about was veganism and eating animals. Ferris asked Klein what he would give a TED talk about if he had to choose a topic outside of his actual specialty, and Klein said it would be something on the ethics of meat eating, which he feels “really strongly about.”

Ezra Klein
Ezra Klein

Klein says that what we eat is a very profound moral choice. He believes – and Ferris concurs – that in the future people will look back on the way we treated animals in this era and judge us “very, very harshly”, because “we’re torturing a lot of sentient beings constantly.” Klein has clearly given a lot of thought to the topic – he mentions some advocates like Bruce Friedrich and Matt Ball. He talks about how we cause much more suffering if we switch from beef to chicken, and the same when we eat a lot of factory farmed eggs instead of beef. He thinks in terms of real impact: “if we can get everyone to cut meat consumption by half, that is so much better than quadrupling the number of vegetarians.” So, we need to think about reduction, according to Klein.

The most interesting part of the podcast for me was when Klein talked about his own eating habits. At some point in their dialogue, Ferris suggests that if you try to take people “from zero to sixty” [he’s talking about the demand for overnight conversion to veganism],  the dropoff is probably going to be above 90% after a few weeks. Klein tells Ferris of his own struggle with sticking to it:

“There is a fair amount of behavioral science evidence that it is important for people to act in ways reasonably consonant with the identity that they have for themselves. (…) And this is something I found because I floated back and forth between veg’ism and not for a long time (…). What happened was I would say “I’m going vegetarian”, and then at some point, I would fail. And having failed, it’s not like what would happen is that I would go to 95% vegetarian: I would completely collapse back into full-on omnivorism. And the reason in part was that if I’d set up the success structure such that I was vegetarian or I was not, then “was not” was almost the same kind of failure, no matter how much meat I was eating, what kind of meat I was eating…”

So, here’s how Klein solved it:

“The way this actually stuck for me this time was that the way I went vegetarian a couple of years ago now, was with a tremendous number of caveats: “I’m vegetarian except when I travel, cause I know when I travel I often have a lot of trouble sticking to vegetarianism; so, if I’m vegetarian except when I travel and then when I travel I eat meat, well then, it doesn’t offend my identity at all. And now, I’m mostly vegan. I eat vegan at home, except when I travel I’m vegetarian. And, there are a couple of points in the year, like I’ve been having sushi with my best friend’s mother since I was a  kid, and it is important to me that I am able to continue that tradition. And so, as opposed to having sushi there twice a year and then collapsing out of all my other eating habits because of it, this is now built into it. And so, I actually find that personally very helpful to not be so strict on myself (…).

I think this fragment pretty much speaks for itself. It reminded me of something that Jonathan Safran Foer told me in an interview: you have this person who was vegan and all of a sudden, he’s not anymore. So, you ask him: what happened, and he says: well, I was in the airport and there was nothing to eat, and I ate meat and then I just slid back into my normal omnivorous diet. Foer’s suggestion was not to make being a strict vegan too important a part of your identity.

The solution here for some people might be to try to make really sure that they never make an exception at all. But for other people, like for Ezra Klein, it could be to just build in the exceptions or the mildness as part of their vegan identity. It’s probably more sustainable to do it like this.

You can listen to the podcast episode here. The relevant part is from minutes 34 to 44.

Why being vegan is NOT an all-or-nothing thing

Here’s another one of those things I come across now and then:

Being vegan is like being pregnant. you are it, or you are not.

Makes sense, when you don’t think about it for too long. As soon as you do (think about it, that is), this stops making sense, in more ways than one.

There are two issues with this kind of black and white interpretation of veganism. One is strategic, the other is conceptual.

First, presenting being vegan as something that are or you aren’t, without anything in between, is not strategic. I have written about this before: don’t present being vegan as something binary, because that way we will exclude everyone who wants to join us for part or even most of the way. Technically it is correct to classify someone who is a 99.5% vegan (let’s say they eat a piece of non-vegan pie once a year at their grandmother’s) as a non-vegan. But obviously this person is much closer to being vegan than to not being vegan (or being an omnivore or a vegetarian).

Secondly, there is a gray area, where it’s not clear whether the use or consumption of some products or ingredients actually excludes someone from being called a vegan. That’s right, what is vegan and what is not is not entirely clear cut, and it’s probably more of a scale than anything else.

Donald Watson, founder of the Vegan Society in the UK defined veganism as a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practical — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.

pregnant

The “as far as is possible and practical” is an important qualification. It leaves some room for gray areas and subjectivity. Some vegans think that what is “possible and practical” is very clear. Avoiding that once-a-year piece of pie is definitely possible and practical: just tell Granny no, right?

But what is possible and practical for one person may not always be so for another. And we shouldn’t try to determine for others what is possible and practical for them. If you disagree and believe that what you experience as possible and practical, should be so for everyone, then let’s imagine a person who studied and actively applies the 320 pages of the book Veganissimo. What if they tell you they find avoiding all those hundreds of pages of problematic ingredients quite practical and possible?

So no, being vegan is not like being pregnant. Just like the rawfoodies tell each other they are 70 or 80% raw, the same is possible with being vegan.

Some will point out that veganism (unlike being raw) is about more than diet, which of course it is (though diet covers the biggest part of it). In the sense that veganism is not a diet but a philosophy, an ethos, a way of life, those people might object, it is an all or nothing thing. Either you respect the rights of animals, or you don’t, they may say.

But is it like that, really? Look at our attitude and behavior towards people. Probably none of us, always and everywhere, perfectly respects the rights of all people. Most of us are only kind and compassionate some (hopefully most) of the time. We often slip and fall.

Saying that being vegan or respecting the rights of animals in your consumption and behavior is a black and white thing is asking for a kind of perfection that is alien to us humans. We can only strive to be ever better. There is no there, there is no point of arrival. There is only all of us, moving in a certain direction, and hopefully taking as many other people with us along the way.

See also my response to reactions on this article: What are vegans so afraid of?

The fetish of being vegan

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

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

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

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

impac

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

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

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

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

Anti-vegan: the lasagne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(consistency, tho)

When people say: “I just can’t give up meatballs”

Imagine. A person says to you:

– “I respect what you do, and I can almost see myself being a vegan, but I just can’t give up meatballs [or fill in animal based dish or product]”.

What’s your answer?

My answer previously would have been a combination of the following arguments:

– “Do you know how these meatballs [or x] are produced? Do you understand the suffering involved?”
– “If you would stop eating this and that and that, why wouldn’t you also stop eating meatballs?”
– “Is the pleasure you get from eating meatballs really more important than the animal suffering?”
– “It’s easy. If I did it, so can you.”

Etcetera. You get the idea.

My reaction today would be different. First I would tell them about vegan meatballs. But that’s not the point I want to make. I want you to imagine there isn’t a decent plant based alternative for whatever it is the person wants to keep eating. They won’t be fooled or forced into eating an alternative for their favorite dish. Let’s just assume that. So in that case, my answer would be:

Then just eat your meatballs and avoid all other animal products. That would be so awesome!

I think my opinion here boils down to this: if you ask for all or nothing, you usually and up with nothing. Especially, when in this case, the person already stated he doesn’t want or can’t do everything. We can deplore that fact and think or tell them they are selfish, but what is that going to help?

If that person becomes a “meatball-vegan”, that would reduce (assuming that they eat meatballs like once a month) 99% of their “animal suffering footprint”. That is brilliant. Besides, there’s a good chance that if they do this, they will at some point conclude they don’t need those meatballs anyway and that eating them doesn’t feel right anymore. Or maybe they’ll stop when the ideal “fake” meatballs (cheapier, healthier, even tastier) are available on the market.

A variation could be that the person says: “I can go vegan but I can’t stop eating the signature dish my grandmother prepares for me twice a year. She’s ninety and she won’t live much longer.” We could call out bullshit, we can say there’s got to be a way to explain one’s views to the grandmother in a way she gets it, etc. But it might be just better to “give permission” to this person to do what they think best, for now.

orthodoxy

I know all this goes against “vegan orthodoxy”. Some people will say that this would be speciesist/condoning animal suffering/inconsistent/”un-vegan”… and that we can’t behave like that.

Am I being an apologist here? Am I going for something less than a vegan world? Am I saying the animals that were killed for those meatballs are less important than the other animals that person will avoid? Of course not. I’m just trying to adopt an approach I think will have real results, and for an attitude and a style of communication that will, in my opinion, get us to our vegan world the fastest way possible. It’s easy to make an elegant theory or a waterproof philosophy. But that doesn’t always help the animals. 

The animals don’t care about our orthodoxy, our sticking to the rules of our little philosophical systems. They need us to go for what helps them.