“to suffer or die needlessly…”

Much has been written about pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si‘, which is about our relationship to the earth and the animals. While I think the catholic church, like any religion, has a tremendous amount of work to do, Francis is in my view a pope as good as popes come, and the document he wrote, while definitely not a vegan or animal rights manifesto, is a good start for a more responsible and sustainable stewardship of the earth.


I wanted to focus briefly on one sentence from the encyclical, which says: “It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly.” As a vegan, one would obviously say: well duh! When we kill animals for food, we do cause them to suffer and die needlessly, isn’t it?

Of course. In the simplest terms, one may explain the unfairness of consuming animal products like this: an animal has to lead a miserable life and is then killed, all for a short, human gustatory pleasure. I think no one ever put this better than Plutarch:

“But for the sake of some little mouthful of flesh we deprive a soul of the sun and light, and of that proportion of life and time it had been born into the world to enjoy.”

But for the sake of some little mouthful of flesh” sums it up quite well indeed….
I think most human beings are capable of understanding this. However, I’m a big fan of taking the other person’s viewpoint, and when we do so, we understand that people who still enjoy eating meat or fish or dairy are not yet seeing things the way Plutarch does. They, like the pope, are apparently not seeing how animals are “suffering and dying needlessly”. They are stuck in traditional views of humans and animals, where the former are so incredibly superior to the latter, that this short gustatory pleasure apparently justifies taking other sentient beings’ lives.

To make people see things differently, we can scream and shout and cry, we can use logical discourse and arguments, we can show them what happens to animals, we can try to lobby for laws and many other things… But the most important thing, in my view, is making it easier for people to think straight about animals and to compassion for them by making our society, and the individuals that form part of it, less dependent on animal products. We can do this by supporting the spread and growth of vegan products in stores and restaurants. We can found or support new businesses that develop alternatives.

When it’s about food, people think with their stomach. We can’t make people think the way we think, we can’t make them feel the way we feel. We can’t make them see animals like vegans see them, right away, right now. All we can hope to do is to open their hearts and minds. And I do believe we can do that. And that we will end up with compassionate people in the end. We just have to make it a little bit easier for them first, by taking away the barriers.

Vegan, vegetarian, or a small first step?

In a much shared article on latestvegannews.com 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.

The danger of big animal rights organisations

I think Mercy for Animals is one of the most impactful animal rights organisations in the US. In just a couple of years, they have grown out to be a group that very regularly gets big media coverage for its undercover investigations. Thus, it has exposed what happens in factory farms to millions of people in the US and beyond.


And yet, today I found this on Facebook:


I have a reallly hard time getting this. I do not like to question people’s motivations and intentions, but in this case it is really hard for me to see this as a sincere attempt to help animals. At the very least, given what MFA has done, this seems to me to be terribly and sadly misguided.

There are also other possible interpretations. One is that the author of this has had a personal bad experience with the group in question – they could be, for instance, an ex-employee. The second is that things like this are set up by the opposition: the meat industry itself.

I’m not a conspiracy theorist by a long shot, but think about it. What would be some efficient ways to fight against the success organisations like Mercy for Animals are having? The ag-gag laws, which in some US states have made it illegal to make photographs of factory farms are one thing. Another tactic could be to damage animal rights organisations from within the movement.

A good way to do that would be to try to diminish the credibility of organisations like MFA by accusing them of all kinds of things: saying they are corrupt (out to get money for themselves), inefficient, or not pure in their mission. Basically it’s a “divide and conquer” strategy.

More generally, I believe that trying to spread, within our movement, a very rigid, dogmatic, no-compromise strategy would be a great thing for the industry to do. I’m not saying that everyone who believes in no-compromise black-and white solutions and who dislikes any sort of pragmatism has been inspired by the opposition, obviously. But I do believe that the industry loves to see the increase of fundamentalism or radicalism (I’m using the words not in their derogatory but more in their philosophical sense). Fundamentalist ideologists are, I believe, by far not as dangerous as pragmatic, strategic thinking people. When individuals get together to build an organisation, and acquire money enough in order to get huge media attention and afford lobbyists, that is the moment they get really dangerous. And that is the moment they would need to be discredited by all means necessary.

Whether the industry is behind some of this or not, don’t fall into the trap of believing the big organisations are betraying the animals or wasting your money. They consist of committed individuals like you and me, doing the best they can for the animals every day. Support them.

Disclaimer: I founded and for 15 years led EVA, a Belgian veg organisation. It isn’t “big” (12 staff at most), but it is definitely above grassroots level.

On the Yulin dogs, hypocrisy and racism

Many people are outraged at what happens to dogs at the “Yulin dog meat festival“. I’m talking here about people who are not really concerned about raising and killing farmed animals and eat them every day. I’ve seen a lot of veg*ns calling it hypocritical and/or racist of westerners to cry out over what happens to those dogs in China, while having no problem eating cows, pigs or chickens at home.


I have some difficulty with this attitude, for several reasons.

For one thing, I’m glad there is at least some animal suffering people are shocked by. It happens now and then. To call these people hypocritical doesn’t exactly kindle the flame of the compassion they are showing. It is rather saying to them that that compassion is misplaced. That is unfortunate, and alienates these people further from vegans and animal rights activists.

Obviously, with some people there is quite some racism involved (many posts are clearly racist), and a general upheaval towards what happens at the Yulin festival could encourage even more racism. Yet, it’s too easy to say, and dangerous to say too quickly, that what is below a person’s outrage is racism when it is not expressed as such.

It may not be very rational, but it is very understandable that people cry out over the eating of animals they themselves consider to be companion animals. Irrational though the difference we make between pigs and dogs might be, it is a reality right now, and it would be silly not to take that even into account. Moreover, there is a difference between the way these dogs are slaughtered on the one hand, and the way cows are slaughtered on the other hand. Though it is admittedly a small difference, those who think stunning doesn’t make any difference at all may try to imagine what it would be like to be killed with or without stunning. I’m unwilling to deny or downplay that difference, just like I’m unwilling, as a 17 year long vegan and “abolitionist”, to deny the difference welfare reforms make.

All this is obviously not to say that western nations are “better” than the Chinese: indeed, people in the US or Western Europe generally still eat much more meat than the Chinese do. Moreover, animal activism is popping up in China too. There is compassion everywhere. It is hard to point the finger at other nations. Yet that shouldn’t mean omnivores’ compassion for the dogs in China is misplaced.

So what is a good way to address omnivores who are outraged over the Yulin festival in China? I think first of all we should give everyone the benefit of the doubt and recognize their outrage as a sign of compassion, not racism, not hypocrisy. That is a good basis to make a connection. We can show we appreciate that compassion, and say that the same compassion is the reason we don’t eat animals at all, as pigs and chickens and cows in the most relevant ways are equal to dogs and cats. We can try to point out the arbitrariness of our food choices.

We can then hope that some of these outraged people might want to put their beliefs about meat eating in line with their beliefs about dogs and cats. What happens in China is an excellent way to help people think about our consumption of animals in general. But it can be done encouragingly, not deterringly.

Is Ben and Jerry’s vegan icecream “veganwashing”?

Ben & Jerry’s recent announcement that they would soon be offering a vegan ice cream flavor has been cheered by many. Inevitably, however, they were the few dissident voices claiming that this was not a victory for the animals at all.


Ben & Jerry’s, so these people claim, made this move purely for profit. It’s a commercial decision, not a moral one. It has nothing to do with the ethics of animal rights, but is pure consumerism. It is even veganwashing.

Well duh. Of course profit is what drove the decision to offer vegan ice cream. Does it matter? Not so much.

I’m all in favor of erasing all the injustices of capitalism and creating a much fairer and more equal society (with or without capitalism). Yet I’m happy that today, for the first time in history, commercial interests finally can drive vegan product innovation. It means not just that there is a sizeable market, but it is also the way to get these companies on our side. It is the only way businesses invested in animal (ab)use will stop being an enemy to our cause: when they find out they can make money with the alternatives, and, as demand grows, replace more and more of the old with the new.

Does it matter that all of this is not ethically motivated? Hardly. I’m repeating it ad nauseam on this blog, but behavior (selling or buying vegan icecream) can precede attitude change (believing in animal rights etc).* It is extremely important to have vegan options out there: it’s important for businesses to sell them, and for people to buy them.

Is a vegan Ben & Jerry icecream flavor a reason to celebrate? Given the sometimes abundant negativity in our movement, I would say that we’d better celebrate too much than too little. Is it a reason to congratulate Ben & Jerry’s? Why not? Sure, they are still using the milk of thousands of cows, but the more we let them hear from us, the more they know we value what they’ve done. Not that Ben & Jerry should become complacent, but congratulations encourage, and create more goodwill than criticism.

So I’d say, go get a vegan Ben & Jerry icecream (if you’re somewhere where you can find it), and have a little faith in people. A vegan portion of Ben & Jerry’s may be just what they need to open their hearts and minds for the plight of animals.

* if you want to find out more, read this chapter from Meyers’ Psychology

On celebrity hate

I’m not really into celebrities, and sometimes I find myself quite disgusted at the worshipping of them. Especially when it’s about royalty or figures like Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton. Not that I want to necessarily call these people amoral, and I’m not one to judge people I know only from the media and not personally (see my article on Slow Opinion), but the worship seems so senseless. It seems to be a case, maybe, of “zeros as heroes“.


When, however, celebrities are being criticized when they are doing good things, as is the case in our movement when Ricky Gervais goes after hunters or when Beyonce advertises vegan eating or a vegan food business. The core of the allegations seems to be that these two people (and many others) are inconsistent in their behavior  (hypocrital) because they are not vegan. Beyonce, on top of that, still wears fur and has been called many unkind names for it.

I think accusing these people of hypocrisy for not being vegan is regrettable and unstrategic, and I think celebrities might do a lot of good also without being vegan, but I’ve written about that elsewhere (on Gervais and on Beyonce and also Being vegan doesn’t trump everything). Here I would just like to stop a brief moment to wonder if there’s anything more going on. That’s because I think inconsistency or even hypocrisy in and of itself doesn’t seem to warrant this much hate (if you think the word hate is an overstatement, just go visit some vegan/animal rights Facebook groups).

Apart from hate, what I seem to come across again and again is talk like “we don’t need celebrities” (“f*ck them”). DXE activist Wayne Hsiung, for instance, wrote an article on how celebrities are not as important as we think they are: Celebrity Vegans: what does the science say?

I’m not a doctor in psychology or something, but there does seem to be more going on here than a mere aversion to inconsistency or celebrities being useless to our cause (which I find extremely doubtful).

Clearly, many people don’t like celebrities in general, and Google turns up quite a lot of stuff when you enter the words celebrity and hate together. Again, sometimes the apparently disgusting behavior of celebrities makes it very easy to hate them: they can be overly concerned about their appearance, they may be greedy and extremely needy of attention, etcetera.

But this is nothing that “normal” humans don’t do. Probably many people, in case they would suddenly be propelled to celebrity status, might exhibit the same kinds of behavior. Still, we love to hate celebrities for their all too human flaws. Maybe we’re jealous? Maybe saying celebrities are evil or ridiculous is a way to deal with our frustration of not having what they have? Or maybe we, as activists, get jealous because while we have been working so hard to get attention for the cause, famous people only have to sneeze to create massive media coverage. It’s a bit irrational, as we should be happy with every attention our cause gets, but I guess it’s all too human too.

Or maybe what’s behind celebrity hatred (or irritation) is not jealousy but a desire for fairness. Maybe we just don’t like it that there are people out there earning so much more money than the average citizen, getting so much more attention, having, maybe, so much more power… Maybe we dislike celebrities because we want to live in a world where all people are equal, and celebrities are very much an illustration of how that is not the case.

I don’t know if there’s any truth in my guesses, but I think that when we judge or critize celebritities, it’s good to be aware of our motivations.  Knowing which role celebrities actually play in social change is definitely important, but we need to be careful not to get carried away by anti-celebrity bias when trying to establish that role.

While I can understand celebrity hate, I believe it’s good to remember that they are people too, with their frailties, sensibilities, desires and emotions. More importantly, I think that the moment when these famous people are actually something good (be it inconsistently) is, in my humble opinion, not the best time to express celebrity hate.

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”:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_7vf3-sMnJo&w=560&h=315]

“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

Thinking is vegan

Reading Facebook comments about Beyonce’s announcement about her food choices made me think that a big part of our movement has lost it. I read hundreds of vegans complaining about Beyonce and criticizing her. This great videoblog by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, in which she refutes the criticsm, makes you see the craziness with which some of us approach all things (non) vegan all the more clearly. I urge you to watch it. It’s a breath of fresh air.Thinking is vegan

I think some of us have stopped thinking. Having an ideology, even if it’s a nice one, can be damaging for one’s ability to think. Veganism seems pretty clear cut in many ways. It seems straightforward, there’s few real counterarguments one might bring in against it, it seems consistent, etcetera. So we’re tempted to think the thinking is done. That it has been done for us, already decades ago.

Maybe that’s the case. Maybe we have some sort of complete and clear definition of what is and what is not vegan, what is and what is not vegan, etcetera (even though I doubt it). But surely, we are not done thinking about the best way to bring veganism to the masses. The way we define veganism and the way we try to mainstream it are intertwined. We need to think about both. We need, above all, to be strategic and not dogmatic about being vegan and about communicating about veganism.

How what you eat determines what you think

In my post Let Beyonce be I wrote about how we forget that not only may attitude influence behavior, but behavior may also influence attitude. What this means is that the way we behave regarding something, influences our beliefs about it. These beliefs can then be seen as rationalisations of the behavior.

Here is what I think is an example of that. I’d welcome your input if you think I’m mistaken. Look at the picture below: a toreador on the left, a slaughterhouse worker on the right. Basically, these people do the same thing: their profession is killing cows. If you present this picture to a general (omnivore) audience and ask: which of these people do you resent the most, then you know the answer is going to be the toreador. But why?

butcher and toreador

When I ask this question in presentations, I get different answers, maybe the main one being that while the toreador kills animals for entertainment, the butcher is at least concerned with something essential like food. This may very well be the way people look at it, although I’d venture to say that eating meat is obviously not less trivial than an age old “tradition”. Another reason people give is that bullfighting is more like torture, while the slaughterer’s task is to provide a killing that is as quick and painless as possible. These and other explanations are certainly valid, but I think there’s a more important reason for the fact that people judge these two cases very differently:

Most people are not participating in bullfights in any way, so it’s easy for them to disapprove of the bullfighter. Most people are eating meat, so disapproving of the butcher is a lot harder. So I think this is a case of people’s behavior influencing their beliefs.

What this means is that if we want people’s beliefs about eating animals to change, it is very important that we, as a society, become less dependent on animals for meat. The newest generation of meat substitutes (in the US: Gardein, Beyond Meat etc) are doing a great job at that, and also in vitro meat could obviously be of incredible significance.

By all means, keep informing people about the negative aspects of meat, as with some that will change their behavior. But consider also that the other way around is important too. Help make sure they have tasty vegan food experiences.

Let Beyonce be. About the biggest oversight in our movement

While many vegans applaud the fact that Beyonce is so outspoken about vegan eating, many others are critical of it. Among others, some folks from Direct Action Everywhere movement (which I’m still investigating but so far have been underwhelmed by) claims that “Beyonce going vegan is bad for the animals.” Let’s ignore for the moment the fact that Beyonce never said she was going vegan. We’ve heard it all before: Beyonce is not emphasising animal rights as the reason for her vegan efforts, but rather health. Many vegans demand that animals are always at the center of everything vegan. Health should have nothing to do with it. This is about morality, about ethics, about justice. Veganism can not be some fad or lifestyle thing. Right? Not really, I think. There is one thing that in my view is an enormous oversight in our movement, and its importance cannot be overstated. Here it comes: Behaviour change may precede attitude change. quote attitude behaviourRead it again, and try to let it sink in. We usually work like this: we give people all kinds of information, in the hope that attitude change (different beliefs about eating animals) will lead to behavior change (no longer eating animals). It surely can work like this, but we forget that it also works the other way round, and indeed, much research points to the fact that the other way round might be more effective. What does the other way round mean? It means that people may very well become open to animal rights arguments after changing their eating habbits. They might become “reducetarians” (or even vegans) for health reasons, for instance, or because it is a trendy thing to do. But the important thing is that once they are vegan, or partly vegan, it is much easier for them to listen to animal rights arguments. Why? Because they don’t need to be so defensive anymore. They already know they can eat tasty food, they know they don’t have so much to lose anymore, so their hearts and minds can be open. Attitude change follows behavior change, in this case. This means that in the end, we would all get in the same place, whether people start with animal rights, or not at all, like Beyonce does. It doesn’t matter all that much. A big part of the animal rights movement has  such an obsession with being vegan, and being vegan for the right reasons, that it blinds us to the fact that there are other ways to get where we want. Less direct ways perhaps, but therefore not less efficient ways. On the contrary, encouraging people to start out with whatever reasons they think are suitable, and encouraging them to moderate their consumption of animal products to whatever degree they think is doable, may be the fastest road forward. People might argue that those who become vegan for other than ethical reasons won’t stick to the diet. However, the reason why people don’t stick to the diet is mostly that it’s still not convenient enough (in several ways) to stick to it. As many more people eat more vegan meals (for whatever reason) sticking to it will become easier by the day. So bottom line: let Beyonce be. Let people have their own reasons for reducing or giving up animal products. They’ll be going along with animal rights arguments before you know it.

See also the follow post How what you eat determines what you think.

You might also be interested to check out Different approach, same results, with a sensible article, and also Colleen Patrick Goudreau’s videoblog on Beyonce.