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:
A Masai lion in the Ngorongoro Crater (photo:

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 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.

Do 2 semi-vegans make 1 vegan?

One of the default figures by which the animal rights/vegan movement wants to measure its success, is the number of vegans. But is this the most important metric? I think there are other indicators telling us much more about how far we have advanced than the number of vegans. The latter remains very small, so much so that it is actually hard to measure without a significant margin of error. Reducers, on the other hand, show up big on the radar when we are polling the population, and they might be much more significant. But how do reducers compare to vegans in terms of impact?

More specifically, I’d like to ask the following concrete question: are two semi-vegans just as good as one vegan? (I’m obviously talking in terms of their short or long term impact on sparing animals). In case you think there is no such thing as a semi vegan, or a 70% or whatever vegan, read this article.

one vegan two semi vegans

If we understand a 50%-vegan to be a person who chooses vegan alternatives only half of the time compared to a vegan, then it seems that two of these 50%-vegans would have the same impact as a vegan as far as their consumption goes. But there may be some additional, complicating, arguments to make.

One thing to consider would be these people’s “value” in influencing others (see The fetish of being vegan for the argument that communication is potentially much more important than your own consumption). At first sight, the vegan might be much more motivated to go out and win hearts and minds – and she will almost certainly be more vocal about it. She might feel the holy fire burning inside her and become a very committed activist. When we look at our movement, at the people making things happen, it seems that most of them are obviously vegans.

But let’s think this over. The vegan may spend more time on outreach than the two semi-vegans, but will she necessarily be more successful? Maybe people get more inspired by reducers than by vegans, to start reducing themselves (of course, for those among us who don’t believe reducers are a good thing, this is not an argument). The mere fact of being vegan may have a deterring effect on others – as for many people it seems such a difficult thing – which being a reducer may not have.

Another important idea to take into consideration may be what I call the spread-factor. The one vegan’s impact and efforts, both in terms of consumption and activism, will be more concentrated (as she is but one person) than the impact and efforts of the two semi-vegans (and certainly than five 20%-vegans). I’m not a mathematician and I haven’t thought this through in depth, but maybe the higher this spread-factor, the more people – (both consumers as well as suppliers) will get in contact with some kind of vegan demand.

You could also wonder if the same volume of demand coming from multiple persons might not have a bigger effect than when coming from one person. Imagine you are a restaurant owner. Who would be most likely to influence you to change your menu: one vegan or two semi-vegans? You might think that the semi-vegans could eat everything in the restaurant, but they wouldn’t come there for their vegan meals, so you lose two customers. Two customers (or say the five 20%-vegans) might be more worth making an effort for than one vegan, who you might just ignore.

This may seem like a bit of an academic and abstract discussion, but my purpose here, as often, is to make our movement see the value and importance of meat reducers, and to avoid focusing on vegans alone. As I have written in several posts on this blog, I believe many reducers will create a tipping point in society faster than a small percentage of vegans can (see What vegan can learn from glutenfree). It’s the many reducers that drive the demand, forcing suppliers to respond with more and more good vegan options, and thus making it easier for all of us to go full-time vegan. In addition, for those who are afraid these reducers don’t have the by-us-much-desired ethical motivation: their moral development may very well come after their behavior change.

This is, of course, not to say that increasing the number of vegans is not necessary or important. I think vegans are much more prone to commit to serious activism, spend money on vegan causes, make vegan documentaries, open vegan restaurants, etc. But I suggest a two-pronged approach: increase both the number of vegans and the number of reducers.

Do you have other arguments for why we might value one vegan more, less, or the same as two semi-vegans? Let me know.


I’ve been vegan for 25 years, thanks to pescetarianism!

Toni Shephard
Toni Shephard

This is a guest post by Toni Shephard. Toni has been an animal rights campaigner for more than 25 years and has worked for PETA, Animal Aid, Viva and the League Against Cruel Sports. In this posts she shares her “journey” towards veganism, which, incidentally, is similar to my own.

I grew up in northern Canada where the winters are so cold that icicles form in your nostrils when you step outdoors. My father was a butcher and eating meat was part of my daily life, as was the knowledge that meat comes from dead animals. Treading through puddles of blood amongst the pig, cow and chicken carcasses strung up in the butchering room was part of my childhood. I didn’t really give it a second thought.

That changed when I was about eight and visited a farm for the first time; I was traumatised. I couldn’t believe the animals I was feeding, cuddling and playing with were going to end up on someone’s plate, and it could even be mine. I cried as I told my mother I didn’t want to eat meat anymore, but she insisted that I would die if I didn’t. At eight, of course, I couldn’t know any different.

Eventually I discovered the truth. At 15, during a school nutrition class, I learned that it is perfectly possible – and in fact quite easy – to be healthy without meat. I swore off meat immediately, all meat: beef, pork, poultry and fish. I went vegetarian. This was a huge step as I didn’t know any other vegetarians – save for the elderly couple who ran a health food shop adorned with paintings of praying hands and the Ten Commandments. I didn’t really identify with them.

No one in my social circle was vegetarian or even sympathetic to the idea; in fact most of my friends mocked me for it. And family gatherings were incredibly difficult as no one knew what to cook for me; I was a burden. Needless to say my vegetarianism didn’t last long; within six months I started eating meat again. I felt bad about it at first, but after a few months eating meat was a normal part of my life again.

Fast forward a year or so and I happened upon a PETA magazine in the local record shop. Filled with images of factory farming it inspired me to give up meat once again, only this time I continued to eat fish. Not because I thought fish were inferior to land animals or incapable of feeling pain, but because I recognised that changing my diet in stages was more likely to produce lasting success. And it worked.

Family gatherings were easier because the host could serve familiar seafood dishes. Debates with my friends were easier because I could point to the atrocities of factory farming in defence of my diet and few could disagree. And if I’m honest it made the transition easier for me – I loved meat and giving it up left a huge hole on my plate. Eating seafood filled that hole while I learned how to cook with lentils, chickpeas and tofu.

I always knew my pescetarian stage was temporary, the first step on my way to vegetarianism, and after a year or so I was ready to stop eating aquatic animals too. I’ve never looked back. Two years later I went vegan, or rather took the first step towards veganism by deciding not to have dairy or eggs at home. Being vegan when out and about was more difficult and it took another year for me to reach that goal. That was 25 years ago and I am still a happy, healthy vegan today.

My story is not unique; all of my vegan friends (bar one) started out as meat eaters and transitioned to veganism gradually. The only exception is a friend who was raised vegetarian; no one I know went straight from meat-eating to veganism, at least no one who is still vegan. Like any lifestyle change, it is easier to do it in stages. And if it’s easier people are more likely to stick with it.

I am not ashamed of my pescetarian past. Although I can never know if I might have stuck with vegetarianism the second time round even without the preceding fish stage, I know it would have been more difficult for me and those around me. Instead I believe my journey made the change look easy and ‘do-able’, and I have two vegan sisters plus two vegan nieces to prove it!

useful stepsThe moral of my story is that reducetarianism, pescetarianism and vegetarianism are all useful steps on the road to veganism – if we vegans allow them to be. I’ve spent the last 25years fighting for animals and believe I have helped many, but if someone had told the 16 year old me that being pescetarian was a cop out, a waste of time, or hypocritical, my good deeds might have stopped there. So I’m glad there were no judgemental vegans in my northern Canadian town back then; I hope there never is.

Compromise isn’t Complicity: Four Reasons Vegan Activists Should Welcome Reducetarianism – and One Big Reason Reducetarians Should Go Vegan

This guest post is by Hillary Rettig. She is author of The Lifelong Activist: How to Change the World Without Losing Your Way and other works, and a ten-year vegan and vegan activist. She is a cofounder of Vegan Kalamazoo and a member of In Defense of Animals’ Sustainable Activism Council. The views expressed here are hers alone. Visit and for more on Hillary and her work, and she welcomes your emails at
In this article, Hillary examines the strategic value of approaches that call for reduction of the consumption of animal products, rather than their outright elimination, as a stepping stone on the way to abolition.

In 1806, British abolitionists faced a quandary.

For more than twenty years, they had been working to achieve a single overarching goal—to get Parliament to pass a bill outlawing the British slave trade—but had experienced defeat after defeat. Now, in the wake of several expensive and humiliating failed wars, including the U.S. Revolutionary War and Anglo-French War, as well as reports of France’s post-revolutionary Terror, the public and political mood had turned hostile. Even former supporters were now denouncing the abolitionists as “seditionists” and “Jacobins” (after the guillotine-wielding extremist French party).

bury the chainsThe abolitionists were “deeply discouraged,” writes Adam Hochschild in Bury the Chains, his terrific history of the movement. But right at that dark moment, abolitionist and naval law expert James Stephen came up with a novel idea: instead of introducing yet another doomed-to-fail abolitionist bill to Parliament, why not instead introduce one that merely made it illegal for British subjects to invest in, insure, supply or otherwise participate in slave trading by France and its allies, including notably the United States? And that legalized the seizure of French and allied slave ships by British navy vessels and privateers?

It was a genius idea for three reasons. First, it would play to post-war nationalist sentiments. Second, naval and maritime interests would love it, since the officers and crew of ships would be entitled by law to claim a percentage of the value of any illegal ship they captured. And third: what Stephen and the abolitionists knew—but what was generally not known by the British public and politicians—was that around two-thirds of British slave ships sailed under either the French or U.S. flag. So the bill, while seeming like an innocuous piece of patriotic fluff, would actually dismantle a huge percentage of Britain’s slave trade.

Nevertheless, the other abolitionists hesitated. Along with the moral question of whether it was right to settle for a partial solution to an absolute evil, there was the strategic question of whether the bill, by eliminating competition, might actually wind up strengthening the remaining slave trade. And there was also the public relations question of whether the public might perceive the abolitionists as implicitly endorsing slavery conducted under Britain’s own flag.

Fortunately, they decided to follow Stephen’s plan. After some adroit political maneuvering – nicely dramatized in the 2006 movie Amazing Grace – the Foreign Slave Trade Act was passed. It was, from an abolitionist standpoint, an outstanding success. As anticipated, it immediately knocked out a huge part of Britain’s slave trade—and, contrary to abolitionist fears, actually destabilized the rest. And it reinvigorated support for abolition.

Small wonder that, a scant year later, the long-sought-after abolitionist bill was finally passed.

This wasn’t the only tough compromise the abolitionists made, by the way. They had made an even tougher one nearly twenty years earlier, when, at one of their very first meetings, they voted to work only on shutting down the slave trade and not on freeing Britain’s (and its colonies’) slaves. They didn’t make that decision lightly—they knew it meant leaving more than half a million people enslaved, most in horrific circumstances in the Caribbean sugar fields. But they considered that battle unwinnable at that time. (They did hope that eliminating the slave trade would lay the foundation for future emancipation—which it did!)

Steven Pinker, reducetarian.

The U.S. abolitionists made a similar compromise when, as depicted in the movie Lincoln, they agreed to give up their insistence on including language mandating full racial equality, so as not to jeopardize passage of the the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery.

And, about a hundred years later, Martin Luther King, Jr., similarly compromised when, despite his hatred for poll taxes, he agreed to support the removal of a contentious poll tax ban from the Voting Rights Act of 1965 so as not to compromise that bill’s passage.

More recently, we’ve seen progressives settle for the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a., “Obamacare”) as a stepping stone to single-payer health insurance, and LGBT activists accepting civil unions en route to winning full marriage equality.

Every social justice movement compromises.

Now it’s the vegan and animal rights activists’ (hereafter referred to as “vegans”) turn. A group of activists have announced a new “Reducetarian” campaign designed to get people to, as the name implies, reduce their consumption of meat, dairy, eggs, fish, and other animal products (hereafter all referred to as “meat”) for reasons including animal cruelty and environmental sustainability. Although some vegans have always embraced the “reducetarian” approach–if not the actual name–the creation of a formal Reducetarian movement takes things to a new level, especially as its supporters include such non-vegan notables as legendary human rights activist Noam Chomsky, environmentalist Bill McKibben, and scientists and best-selling authors Birute Mary Galdikas, Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins. These are all people with enormous credibility and influence who, even if they don’t yet share our goal of global veganism, could do a lot to help the vegan movement.

That’s why many vegans, including myself, welcome the Reducetarian campaign. But others are like the 1806 abolitionists: deeply uncomfortable with a “partial solution” that asks people to reduce their meat consumption rather than eliminate it. These vegans typically refer to themselves as “abolitionists,” and I will use that name for them in this article, although it is important to note that the vast majority of vegans, including many pro-reducetarian vegans, share the goal of abolishing animal exploitation. While I think the abolitionists are well intentioned, I would respectfully ask them to consider these four points:

1) Compromise is Fundamental to Societal Change. As the above examples illustrate, the idea that compromise is complicity is ahistorical. It’s also illogical, since all solutions, to all problems, are partial. Plus, as Saul Alinsky wrote in Rules for Radicals, “In the world as it is, the solution of each problem inevitably creates a new one.”

CompromiseAlinsky also writes: “Compromise is another word that carries shades of weakness, vacillation, betrayal of ideals, surrender of moral principles… But to the organizer, compromise is a key and beautiful word… A society devoid of compromise is totalitarian.”
So, yeah: as beef consumption declined – due to public health concerns, E. coli scares, vegan activism, and other factors – chicken consumption increased. And we’re also seeing the growth of the “humanely raised” meat industry, which (as the abolitionists fear) is almost certainly helping some consumers rationalize their meat eating. Undesirable as these developments are, why would we expect any different? Power doesn’t give up without a struggle. These developments are not signs of failure, as some of the abolitionists seem to think, but of success. We’re changing consumer behaviors, and forcing the meat industries to react.

2) Change, in Humans, is a Process. Alinsky says an activist’s primary duty is to, “see the world as it is.” Reducetarian supporter Peter Singer, in his activist primer Ethics into Action, gives similar advice: “Above all, keep in touch with reality.” Well, here’s the reality about humans: We often learn, and change, slowly. We find it difficult to break bad habits. We crave. We lapse. We’re egocentric. We are susceptible to social pressure and corporate propaganda. And we often choose short-term gratification over a greater benefit delivered over the long term.
These are just some of many behaviors that most of us wish we, and others, weren’t susceptible to. (And they all have reasonable explanations, by the way: the short-term gratification thing—which psychologists call myopic discounting—makes sense given that, for much of our species’ six-million-year history, we lived in such dangerous circumstances that if you delayed a gratification you might not live to experience it.) Is there even one abolitionist who hasn’t committed every one of these regrettable behaviors in one realm or other of her life?
Moreover, the barriers to veganism are substantial and include not just the pervasiveness of animal exploitation in our culture and economy, and the resilience of animal agriculture as a capitalist system, but the central and intimate role that food plays in our lives. A few years back when I attended foster parent training, for instance, the teachers stressed how one of the most welcoming and comforting things you could do for a new foster child was to feed him foods he was used to.
peter singer mixAbolitionists don’t want to hear any of that. Their mantra—“Go 100% vegan. Right now. It’s easy.”–reflects a stubborn unwillingness to accept the realities of human nature and the mechanisms of personal change. As Singer put it in his book: “Too many activists mix only with other activists and imagine that everyone else thinks as they do. They… lose their feel for what the average person in the street might think. They no longer know what is achievable and what is a fantasy that has grown out of their own intense conviction of the need for change.”
Some abolitionists, it’s true, do acknowledge the reality that many people change in stages; only they argue that vegans should never actively promote the incremental steps. However, not providing support for the most common method people will use to attain your goal is a weak strategy. Also – as I hope this article will demonstrate – it’s not difficult to both applaud someone for taking an incremental step while also helping him keep his eye on the prize.

3) Let’s Skip the Whole Pointless Discussion of People’s Motives. Yeah, research shows that ethical vegans lapse less. That’s one data point among many that are relevant to promoting veganism, and it pertains to some people and situations but not others. (For more on this, see Tobias Leenaert’s excellent talk on why “compassion costs too much” for many people.) In any case, if our goal is truly to reduce animal consumption as quickly as possible, then the solution is to create a mass market for our ideas, similar to the way Apple or Coke or Disney creates a mass market for its products. By definition, that means welcoming people with diverse motives.
rettig mass marketAlso, as Leenaert points out, ethics don’t just influence behavior, behavior can also influence ethics. We often see this when social justice-, public health-, and public safety-type laws are passed: people comply reluctantly at first, and then more willingly as their views change. Antidiscrimination laws and laws mandating seat belt use are two examples; and it’s also worth noting that the act of parenting itself is probably a universal application of this principle, since it often involves mandating behaviors with the hope that those behaviors will instill ethics.
Since behavior can influence ethics, we should be encouraging people to move toward veganism out of any and every possible motive. Which brings us to…

4) The Vegan Movement’s Immediate Goal Should Be To Create Billions of Reducetarians. A currently popular abolitionist-type graphic shows cows lined up waiting to be slaughtered, with the caption, “Baby steps are cool. We’ll just wait on this line until you embrace veganism.” The truth, however, is that reducetarianism actually offers the best hope of saving those cows. If everyone in the U.S. reduced their meat consumption by just the modest target of one meal per week—around 5%—that would save around 450 million cows and other animals each year in the U.S. alone. To achieve the same result, the abolitionists would have to convert approximately 4.5 million meat eaters to complete veganism (based on the oft-cited statistic that a vegan saves 100 animal lives/year). That number, incidentally, represents more than three times the current total of U.S. vegans.[1]
rettig convert 5%

If I were one of those poor cows, I’d totally support reducetarianism.
To get from the carnist world we’ve got now to the vegan world we want, there will have to be many intermediate steps. Our immediate goal should be to create billions of partial / lapsed / struggling / uncommitted vegans, a.k.a. reducetarians, because that will not only eliminate the most animal suffering the most quickly; it will also lay a strong foundation for future progress.
Yes, we’ll probably have to coax those reducetarians along step by step, probably rebutting loads of misinformation—not to mention, rationalizations and equivocations—along the way.
And, yes, we’ll also have to cope with ever more devious ploys from an animal agriculture industry desperate to maintain its profitability. (Beef fat-fueled airplanes, anyone?)
And, unfortunately yes, we’ll probably have to make some more difficult, and probably even tragic, compromises.
But that is the path we’re going to have to follow, because, contrary to abolitionist fantasies, there simply is no other.

To the Abolitionists: Have Faith
In their ignorance of, or disdain for, history, strategy, and psychology, abolitionists pursue ineffective strategies, the “baby step” graphic’s coercive shaming being one example. Here are two others:

*Glib Theorizing. “One of the deep flaws of [reducetarianism],” wrote one abolitionist on Facebook, “is that it approaches the problem only as if it were a question of quantity while it is a qualitative difference between not being vegan and being vegan… And nobody will have any idea of what animal rights are if animal rights activists engage in this confused talk of meat reduction as if they were not actually talking about suffering individuals.” This comment sounds compelling, and it got the most “likes” of any abolitionist comment in the discussion, but, like many abolitionist statements, it makes no sense. Is a life saved via reducetarianism “qualitatively” different than one saved by veganism?
Beyond that, the statement is factually wrong: the Reducetarian website not only explicitly discusses animal suffering, it lists it as the very first reason to reduce one’s meat consumption.
Another comment in the same thread compared the idea of meat-eating animal-rights advocates (the subject of an article by Reducetarianism campaign co-founder Brian Kateman) to “slave-holding black-rights advocates,” and concluded, “Nope, sorry.” But why would we turn away any ally to our cause, especially if their activism, aside from being useful on its own merits, could actually (as discussed above) bring them closer to becoming vegan? And when, once in a while, someone embedded in an oppressive system actually does make a valuable contribution? masterofthemountainI’m guessing the commenter doesn’t know that British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson recruited active slave-ship doctors and crew members as informants to aid in his organizing, or that it was the slaveholder Thomas Jefferson who abolished the U.S. Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Also, where do we draw the line? If someone eats honey once in a while, does that invalidate their credentials as a vegan advocate? How about white sugar (often processed using bone char) or the beetle-derived red food dye cochineal?
Should a pescatarian be prohibited from speaking out on the plight of chickens?

*Making Things Up. One abolitionist recently claimed—again on Facebook—that increased meat prices (a goal of humane reforms) don’t reduce meat consumption: “People will buy it if they want it regardless of price. People who smoke will bitch and moan about the cost of cigarettes….Yet they still smoke.” Leaving aside this person’s trivializing of the realities of tobacco addiction, a two-minute Google search would have showed that he was wrong about both cigarettes and animal products.[2]
Another recently wrote, “The science of habit formation speaks stronger for going vegan and getting used to it rather than keeping reducing meat.” I’m currently writing a book on weight loss and have read more than fifty books and countless articles on that subject, and I can promise you that NO reputable expert would say that. Most, in fact, would say the opposite: that trying to change everything in your diet all at once is a recipe for failure. For example, in Thin for Life, her comprehensive survey of weight loss research and strategies, author Anne Fletcher notes, “Many people…feel overwhelmed when they try to make multiple changes all at once.” For that reason, her recommended diet plan, “has you take things one food group at a time.”
And societal change also happens gradually! Citing evidence from the civil rights and gay rights struggles, Charles Duhigg, in his best-selling book The Power of Habit, says that “small wins,” as he calls them, tend to synergize and wind up having, “an influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves.”

Although abolitionists are quick to accuse others of speciesism, in my view the willingness to dismiss—especially on such flimsy grounds—tactics that demonstrably save nonhuman lives smacks of human privilege. So does their dismissal of welfarist strategies, like the elimination of battery cages and gestation crates, that have the potential to greatly reduce nonhuman suffering. “Suffering matters,” as the late animal activist Norm Phelps said.

What these examples also demonstrate is how much the abolitionists fear and distrust not just non-vegans—which, besides being unfortunate on its own merits, will make it hard for them to influence anyone—but the process of activism itself.

I urge them to be more optimistic. Dr. King’s arc of history bends towards justice not just because most people’s hearts incline toward justice, but because the fight for justice has always attracted the best—smartest, wisest, most creative, most passionate, and most persevering—people. We also have the advantage of (as Harry Potter reminded his friends during the darkest hours of their fight) “something worth fighting for.”

Moreover, we’ve inherited, from prior generations of activists, a set of best practices—including compromise, inclusiveness, and eyes-on-the-prize pragmatism–that, if followed, will guarantee a win. It won’t be a “complete” win, because that never happens. (There is still human slavery even today.) And it won’t happen as quickly as we would like—it never does. But probably, especially if we all work together, it will happen faster and more thoroughly than now seems possible.

To the Reducetarians: Go Further

At the end of his monumental history of the decline of violence in human societies, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Reducetarian campaign supporter Steven Pinker writes, “To review the history of violence is to be repeatedly astounded by the cruelty and waste of it all, and at times to be overcome with anger, disgust, and immeasurable sadness….It would be terrible enough if these ordeals befell one person, or ten, or a hundred.”


So, to Pinker and all the other Reducetarian supporters, I say the following, with the greatest possible respect:

You have done a wonderful thing by publicly advocating for people to reduce their meat consumption.

However, now that you’re on record as understanding that animal agriculture is cruel and wrong, I urge you to go vegan as quickly as you can, and to encourage other reducetarians to do the same.

Some might argue that because life itself is a series of moral compromises—we’re culpable every time we drive, fly, pay taxes that fund warmongers, or buy any non-organic or non-fair-trade item—occasional meat-eating is acceptable. But it’s likely that eating animals is by far the cruelest and most destructive behavior you directly engage in.

Besides, for every bite of meat you give up, you’ll gain something infinitely more profound and satisfying: the knowledge that you’re not just listening to your better angels, but are, once more, on the right side of history.


[1] Per Asher, Green et al., vegans currently represent about .5% of the U.S.’s population of 320 million, or approximately 1.6 million persons. 
[2] “In most cases, egg production has decreased in European countries like Germany that have enacted stricter housing standards or banned cages altogether…Egg production in Germany declined by approximately 13% from 2000 to 2007.”

Tipping the system towards a vegan world

This is our challenge: we need to get all remaining non vegans (red) – about 99% of the population – to go vegan (green).

red men
One way to do this is by trying to convince them one by one. It has been and will be a very slow process.

red and a few green men
The one-by-one approach should be combined with a reducetarian approach: we can ask people to reduce. Many more people will respond positively to this ask.

many red and green
A combination of a small amount of vegans, together with a much bigger, critical mass of enough meat reducers, will tip the system much faster. Demand drives supply, society becomes much more accomodating, norms change, going vegan becomes a lot easier.

green men

Could a non-vegan achieve more than a vegan? An interview with Brian Kateman

People who follow this blog may have noticed how sometimes I take a somewhat unorthodox approach to veganism. Being a vegan myself, I don’t believe that veganism is the be all and end all of everything. I believe it is a means and not a goal. The goals and the principle underlying it are compassion and more happiness/less suffering. I think when we are consistent, we should be especially consistent with that goal or principle, rather than with the definition of veganism itself. If all this sounds “anti-vegan”, so be it.

If I take this idea further, it makes me wonder if sometimes… being vegan is not always the best thing one can do for the animals. More concretely, I wonder if there might be people even, who could do more as non-vegans than as vegans. And maybe I found an example of this in the figure of Brian Kateman, the prime mover behind the “reducetarian” idea. I decided to ask him a couple of questions…

Brian, why reducetarianism?
The problem with many present-day conversations around meat consumption is that they have been dominated by an all-or-nothing premise: you are either a meat eater or a vegetarian/vegan. As a result of this false dichotomy, many people feel immobilized to make any changes to their diet. This sense of hopelessness is unfortunate, because two people eating half as much meat spares as many animals from a lifetime of misery as one vegetarian. It’s great that we are seeing an increase in the number of vegans, but the majority of people in the world still consume meat. To be effective in saving animals, we cannot preach to the choir – we must find ways to engage meat eaters, even, and especially those who have no intentions of becoming a vegan or vegetarian at this point in time. Reducetarianism unites the growing community of individuals who are committed to eating less meat and ends what can sometimes feel like a tiresome battle among vegans, vegetarians, and all those reducing their consumption of meat. This new perspective provides everyone with a platform – not just vegans and vegetarians – to make small choices to eat less meat in their own lives and collectively make a significant difference in the world.

Brian Kateman
Brian Kateman

Another consideration is that, when it comes to meat consumption, gradual, incremental changes in behavior may be more sustainable over the long term. As summarized by Mercy for Animals: “Surveys have repeatedly found that those who reduce their meat consumption are much more likely to go vegetarian, and that those who go vegetarian are much more likely to go vegan. This is consistent with hundreds of studies from the field of social psychology that have found people are much more likely to be persuaded to make a moderate change than they are to make a major change, and that once people make the moderate change they become more open to the larger change.”  (Admittedly, though, the goal of reducetarianism is not to solely increase the number of vegans but to decrease the overall amount of meat that our society consumes.)

What motivations do you emphasize?
It’s important to note that reducetarianism is also inclusive of motivations: it doesn’t matter whether a person is eating less meat to save money or to lose weight or to combat climate change or to spare farm animals from cruelty. Motivations aren’t important, certainly not to our health or the planet. There are some legitimate concerns that people who encounter reducetariansim will switch from beef to chicken and ultimately harm more animals, but we take extra precautions by raising the ethical implications of eating meat, and emphasizing the added value in eating fewer chickens and pigs, those most commonly abused on factory farms.

Ultimately, my goal with reducetarianism, in the spirit of effective altruism, is to provide as many people as possible with an entry point into eating less meat. As a college student, I personally was motivated to eat less beef and more poultry due to environmental concerns, and likely killed more animals than I would have otherwise in that period as a result. Gradually, though, I learned more about meat production and its harmful effects, particularly the suffering of animals (thanks to a classmate who encouraged me to read The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter by my hero Peter Singer). I subsequently cut down on all forms of meat, and continue to spare farm animals from cruelty every day, usually three times per day, in fact.

What are your personal eating habits?
Today, my diet continues to evolve toward a more compassionate, healthy, and environmentally friendly one. I primarily eat fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains. I eat poultry in one meal every three weeks and beef in one meal per month (usual small portions of both). Approximately half of my meals are vegan. I’ve completely cut out pork and seafood. One day, I’ll likely cut out all animal products. It’s a process, for me, and for many others – we have a long-term relationship with food.

Do you think you might be achieving more because you’re a non-vegan?
There’s no question that when it comes to meat consumption omnivores relate more easily to me, a meat-eater, than to a vegan. When a vegan with a “go-vegan” message approaches a hard-core meat eater, there is undoubtedly resistance. It reminds me of proposing marriage to someone on a first date – not the most effective strategy for entering into a relationship. Still, this likely isn’t true of children and teenagers who are generally more open minded than adults. I’ve often thought that the “go-vegan” message is probably most effective on young people, where as the “be a reducetarian and eat less meat” message is probably most effective on older people who have established habits and routines. In other words, admittingly in the spirit of Malcolm Gladwell, we have been looking for the perfect message, when we should be looking for the perfect messages. However, when a meat-eater approaches a meat-eater, even if the meat consumption is to varying degrees, there is mutual understanding and compatibility, even unconsciously. So, yes, I’m probably more credible and thus saving more animals than I would be if I were a vegan spokesperson for a reducetarian campaign. With that said, this is a highly unusual situation; in most cases, and certainly on a personal level in terms of impact, the less meat, the better. One day, I’ll likely be in position to save more animals by completely eliminating animal-products from my diet.

I think a more important take away is that animal advocates – vegans and non-vegans, can often be most effective by being compassionate to humans too, not only animals. In the words of Rob Greenfield, “We live in a messed up time and it’s very challenging to make ethical decisions. It’s not easy… to do the right thing. So much of mainstream society stacks the odds against us… So campaign hard and lead by example but remember that all people have feelings too and have their own challenging circumstances.”

Read more:

Slavery free Mondays

I feel compelled to write once again on how campaigns like “Meatfree Mondays” are compared to “slavery-free Mondays” or “child abuse-free Wednesdays,” putting part-time vegans/vegetarians in the same camp as part-time slave holders or part-time child abusers.

This comparison may sound justified for just a fraction of a second, if you don’t think about it too much. At first sight, it seems quite in line with our antispeciesist stance, and it is something that might cause committed activists, especially young ones, to easily shout “Yeah! Right on!” The argument is that anything less than a demand to go vegan is speciesist, because we wouldn’t ask for anything less than total abolition of a crime with similar issues that involve humans.

But I think the comparison doesn’t hold water at all. More importantly, it’s ineffective.

First of all, as I wrote in “on comparing animal rights with other social justice issues“, public support for these different issues varies immensely – child abuse or slavery are things which the vast majority of people disapproves of (let’s conservatively say over 95 % of the western world, and somewhat less globally), while eating animals is actually celebrated by about the same proportion of the population. Issues with such dramatically different public support require different strategies, no matter what you think your truth might be.

Secondly, even those who make the “slavery free Mondays” argument do not act the same way when confronted with instances of animal abuse and instances of human abuse. Nobody does that. If we really believed that today, in this society, we should see eating meat in exactly the same light as beating a child or having slaves, the implications would be enormous. It would mean not going to any supermarket – because you wouldn’t support any store where slaves are sold or any establishment that owned slaves. It would mean actively boycotting your local, regional or national government – because you would oppose a pro-slavery government. It would mean trying to stop people from buying or eating animal products, always and everywhere, because that’s what you would do you if you saw someone buying a slave or beating a child today.*

truth vs result

Think also about the effect you are having on the average person when you tell them that eating meat only three days a week is like hitting your child only three days a week. If you think that’s credible or effective, I’d suggest you talk to some of the people you say this to, either in real life or on Facebook, and get their opinions on the matter. If you don’t care that people can’t take your truth and are turned off, then maybe it’s a good time to check what is most important to you: saying your truth, or actually changing things for animals? The two don’t necessarily coincide.

Finally, remember that the general downward trend in meat reduction in western countries and the increase in vegan options is mainly driven by… those “part time slavery supporters” and “part time child abusers” (read more on that here).

* For the sake of the argument, I’m making an abstraction of the fact that supermarkets and restaurants may carry or use products that are the modern day equivalent of slave trade products. Some chocolate is a case in point.

Vegan, vegetarian, or a small first step?

In a much shared article on on the decrease in meat consumption in the US, Paul Shapiro, vice president of Farm Animal Protection at HSUS, points out that it is mainly meat reducers driving both meat reduction and the vegan market. By their mere numbers, these people together are having a bigger impact on the number of animals being killed than the much, much smaller percentage of vegans. cow Still, a part of our movement believes that the only thing we can ask is for veganism, and that we should always make clear that veganism is the final goal. I always wonder why that is. If you know that many more people are more open to the message “go meatless on Monday” than to the “go vegan” message, and if you know that these “meatless mondivores” have a bigger impact altogether, why shouldn’t you do it? I have written before that I think it’s not very thoughtful to answer with things like: “because we don’t ask for a slavery free Friday or a childbeating free Tuesday either.” People who answer this, say that if something is wrong, we should not advise people to partially cut the bad behavior, we should ask them to eliminate it altogether. I think it’s not very thoughtful because we are in a completely different situation than with these human causes: there is way, way less public support for veganism than there is for not having slavery or violence against children. Another potential reason why some may refuse to ask for anything les than veganism, is because they fear that people would get complacent. These people might say, at some point, that they are doing their thing already, having reduced their meat consumption twenty percent. Maybe that’s the case, for some people. But the most important thing, in my view, is to get people across the threshold, to make them take the first step. When they see how tasty, affordable, doable… veg food can be, they can go further. And just as importantly, this creates a critical mass for more and more vegan products, which will make it easier and easier for these people to eat more and more vegan. At least, if we don’t discourage them by telling them they are not doing enough.