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.

Is asking for baby steps “speciesist”?

In the vegan movement, there is a big difference of opinion regarding the ideal message we put in front of people. Some of use believe the only thing we can ask of people is that they “go vegan.” Others believe that – at least in certain cases – it is better to ask people to take certain, easier steps. Such steps could be to participate in Meatless Monday, to become a reducetarian, or to commit to being vegan for a certain amount of time (e.g. during “Veganuary”) and see where it takes them.



Those in favor of an “incremental” approach support it because they believe it’s more effective, as a lot of research shows that change happens in small steps. Those against the incremental approach oppose it because they consider it basically speciesist: we would find it immoral – their reasoning goes – to use the same messaging in the case of people. We would, for instance, never ask a child abuser not to abuse children just on Monday. Neither would we support him if he committed to not abuse children for a month.

As I have written before, the logic of the critics of the incremental approach is hard to follow, for me personally. I believe we are comparing apples and oranges. While eating animals is not just condoned but is actively celebrated by say 97% of the population, child abuse and rape are illegal. Such different situations call for different strategies. I have spelled out this argument more in the posts Slavery Free Mondays and On comparing animal rights with other social justice issues.

Now here’s another argument for incrementalism: we actually at times do apply it in the case of people, and it does not seem to be unethical. Let me take you to Boston in 2006. In an effort to reduce the appallingly high homicide rate among gangs, reverend Jeffrey Brown developed “Operation Ceasefire,” which resulted in a drastic decrease in casualties. Brown’s strategy entailed working together with pivotal gang members, and confronting them with very concrete consequences, both positive and negative, of what they allow to occur. But there is one other thing that is of particular interest here. When Brown talked to a gang member about ceasing the gunfights and the violence, he got an interesting reaction: 

… “what the youth said in response to that was that you’re not going to be able to get us to do that cold turkey,” Jeffrey said. “So why don’t you start with a period of time, like a ceasefire? So we created that between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, and we called it season of peace. They gave us the directions for what to do, you know?
“I had them in a room, and I made the pitch for the season of peace and asked for their approval. And that’s when I got my first indication that this might work, because a young guy gets up, and he says, ‘All right, so do we stop shooting at midnight on Wednesday night? Or do we stop on Thanksgiving morning? And do we start shooting again on December thirty-first or on January first?’
“And it was a conflict for me,” Jeffrey said, “because I was like, ‘I don’t want you to start shooting at all.’ But I said, ‘Okay, you stop shooting Wednesday night and you can start again after New Year’s Day.’ Now, you know, ethically I was like, ‘I can’t believe you told them they could start shooting after the first of the year.’ (…)*

Guess what: it worked. What Brown, despite his hesitation, was trying to do was “to get them to establish peace and give them a sense of what it’s like to be able to go into a neighborhood and not have to look over your shoulder every five seconds.” In other words, Brown wanted people to have a certain positive experience, which might motivate them to continue it.

The same thing apparently happened during the Olympic Games in ancient Greece: the olympic truce meant that war was temporarily suspended for the duration of the Games, a practice that was taken over by the modern Olympics.

It’s easy to see the pragmatic value of working with incremental messages and small asks: people find it easier to take small steps than big ones. If, however, you object against incrementalism on principled grounds (and I repeat that I think comparisons with human situations are often unproductive and should be made carefully), you may want to think about Jeffrey Brown and his experiment with gangs. Brown’s experiment shows that we use incremental approaches in the case of human violence too. Was Brown’s strategy immoral? I, for one, don’t think so.

* from Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges – Amy Cuddy


What the meat industry fears the most

Now and then it’s quite interesting to read some stuff written by our “opposition”: the meat industry. It can be quite insightful to learn what they think about the animal rights/vegan movement and how they perceive us.

From what I have read, I feel they are the most afraid of the “moderates”. The animal abuse industry is the least at ease when our movement, our groups, our activists are smart, strategic and realistic. They are not afraid of the more “radical” part of our movement. They are afraid of the groups and activists who voice reasonable demands which the public might be open to and act on.

belly of the beast

Here’s an article from Pork Network. It’s about our movement’s outreach (especially in the US) towards religious groups, but I found this passage particularly interesting:

Activist groups realize that a simple “go vegan” message does not resonate with the average consumer. To achieve their goal, they instead “scale back” their demands – rather than pushing people to abandon eating meat altogether, animal rights activist groups portray themselves as focused on animal welfare and advocate for changes that they deem to be “more humane” in how meat and poultry are produced. Of course, the intent is to make livestock production increasingly more difficult and expensive. These groups will continue to move the goal post of what they consider to be acceptable until animal agriculture is no longer sustainable.

Of course, we are not deceiftul like the author portrays us here. Framing a message, adapting to our audience, thinking up smart baselines and campaigns are things that any movement and any commercial company have to do. And we usually are clear about our end goal – at least when people ask for it. For the rest, this analysis is I think quite on point.

Another interesting article is one about the meat industry’s infiltration (in the form of two interns) at the 2015 Animal Rights congres in Washington DC (we may safely assume they do this every year). In a similar vein as the commentary above, the author writes:

Another encouraged activists to look at every action as a stepping stone, to scale back their initial demands to something acceptable and then build on each small victory toward the end goal. (…) This strategy really hit home to me as I scanned through the report, as we’ve had a few fresh examples of its success hitting the news wires.

It seems that the meat industry itself confirms that incremental action works and is dangerous for their livelihood. Learn from them 🙂


See also: what the meat industry can do against the animal rights movement